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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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Wednesday, 15 November 2006
Echoes of the Past
Topic: Making Use of History
Echoes of the Past
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, General John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to maintain - or possibly increase - current troop levels in Iraq because it has only "four to six months" left to stop sectarian violence from spiraling completely out of control.

For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course. There was support for the French (pretty much secret), then when they were gone, advisors, then a few troops, then a few more, then a few more. As the numbers got really large, the explanation was always the same - a jump in troop levels will settle this thing once and for all, and rather quickly, so trust us on that. We topped out at six hundred fifty thousand, and that Vietnam business didn't work out well. And they didn't even have oil reserves.

Here we go again. The twist this time is the timeline involved isn't ambiguous at all. We have six months. It's always six months.

Tim Grieve does the heavy lifting, with Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before. The "next six months" are always critical in Iraq. And it's getting a bit absurd - in that Samuel Beckett way. Those two fellows may be waiting, but Godot never shows up.

Grieve notes that Tony Blair told reporters in January 2004 that Iraq was about to enter "a very critical six months." (That's here.) Republican Senator Hagel said "the next six months will be very critical" in August 2005, and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Senator, said "the next six months are going to tell the story" in December 2005. Who are you going to believe? Our ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in July that "the next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war." (That's here.) Last month General Casey said that "the next six months will determine the future of Iraq." (That's here.)

And the left on the web, led by Duncan Black, has a great deal of fun with Thomas Freidman of the New York Times. Freidman has a record of, for years, saying "the next six months in Iraq are critical." It's all documented. Many now sarcastically talk about progress in Iraq in a new time unit - a Freidman. Abizaid is saying with have one Freidman or less to get this fixed. The intended effect of such a die warning gets blunted. Your eyes glaze over and you silently mutter, been there, done that.

You just can't keep saying that, twice a year, year after year. "No, no - really - this time it's true!" Whatever.

Tim Grieve suggests a reframing -
Maybe the next six months in Iraq really will be the critical ones. Maybe they won't be. But here's a modest proposal either way. Instead of talking about the future of Iraq in terms of months - hey, we'd all like a little more time! - let's quantify it a different way. At the current rate of things, six additional months in Iraq means that 416 more U.S. soldiers will die. Are we willing to bet their lives on the odds that the six monthers are finally right this time?
That may be the essential question. A Freidman is actually four hundred sixteen deal soldiers - our guys. In May tell us again this will only take another four hundred sixteen. Tell their families.

But the pressure is on for more troops. Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the Sunday, November 12, Financial Times, say Bush Must Call for Reinforcements in Iraq. They suggest fifty thousand more - minimum. Senator McCain, who badly wants to be the next president, has said he thinks twenty thousand more would fix things right up - "We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." We've only got one Freidman after all.

He's on the Senate Armed Services Committee and tried to get General Abizaid to admit the he, John McCain, was right after all. That didn't go so well -
MCCAIN: Did you note that General Zinny who opposed of the invasion now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that General Batise, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that we may need tens and thousands of additional troops. I don't understand General. When you have a part of Iraq that is not under our control and yet we still - as Al Anbar province is - I don't know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar province - but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military when the Iraqi army hasn't send the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American Troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
Abizaid might just as well have called him a fool. Or maybe he was just being realistic -
Abizaid added that, even if it were in Iraq's best interest to increase the presence of U.S. forces, it would be difficult for the Pentagon to find additional combat troops without increasing the size of the active-duty military.
We don't have the troops. But then McCain is positioning himself for a presidential run. Cut him some slack. If things are going the way they seem to be going, McCain needs to be able to say, in September 2007, somewhere in Ohio or Colorado, that he SAID we needed more troops, and look what happened. He'll seem very wise and patriotic.

Abizaid probably understood quite clearly what was going on. It's a civilian thing. And Abizaid was reasonably polite.

But McCain needn't work on his positioning. The convention wisdom is that the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in combination with Robert Gates taking Rumsfeld's job at the Pentagon, will save the day in Iraq. Baker and Gates are daddy's guys - sent in to save Junior. They'll fix things.

Apparently Junior isn't too happy. Robin Wright in the Washington Post broke the story that the administration has suddenly stared up its own study group, a parallel organization to offer better recommendations than daddy's guys. Or maybe not -
The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.

The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.
Right. See Stephen Colbert's take on that in this video clip - and Colbert aired that before anyone know about "the alternative" Iraq Study Group. It's not so funny a day later.

David Kurtz adds some realism by checking everyone's odd assumptions -
(1) That the ISG recommendations will be substantive, well-founded, and more than mere political cover for a change of strategy yet to be unveiled. Perhaps they will be prudent recommendations, but I don't know why anyone would assume that yet.

(2) That the Administration will first embrace and then effectively implement the ISG recommendations. This assumption seems wildly at odds with this Administration's track record in both respects….

(3) That Bob Gates is going to make a dramatic difference over the next two years. First, I remember the last time we were promised wisdom, experience, and a steady hand from a member of Bush 41's old team. That was Dick Cheney. Second, the options available to the U.S. for proceeding in the Middle East range from very bad to horrendous. Neither Gates nor anyone else is going to be able to clean up this mess in the next two years.

(4) That things can't get any worse. Things can always get worse. We could see Turkey and Iran militarily staking claims to parts of Iraqi territory. We could have terrorist brigades from Iraq running missions into Saudi Arabia and Jordan to destabilize the regimes there. Iran could assert itself militarily in the Gulf. The Middle East is Murphy's Law squared.

(5) That the sooner we start implementing the ISG recommendations, the sooner our troops come home and the more American lives will be saved. First, see (1) through (4) above. Second, I still have a hard time envisioning a Republican Administration bringing home all the troops in short order and leaving oil-rich Iraq in chaos in the midst of a vital oil-producing region. We may very well witness a spike in the number of American troop causalities in the process of trying to extricate ourselves or in the process of trying to prevent a larger regional conflict.
And the assumptions don't matter. Late in the evening there was breaking news. The president will preempt Senator McCain. The decision has been made. It's escalation -
President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.
Yeah, it will have a decisive impact - Baker's group will be left flat-footed. The president has decided. He's the decider.

So the word is - if you read this carefully - that Vice President Cheney has sat down with Baker and told him what's really going to happen. We're sending in twenty thousand more troops. Go tell the former president, daddy, to go hang around with his new buddy Bill Clinton and play golf or whatever he wants.

What we find out is that it now goes like this -
  • Increase US troop levels by up to 20,000 to secure Baghdad and allow redeployments elsewhere in Iraq
  • Focus on regional cooperation with international conference and/or direct diplomatic involvement of countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
  • Revive reconciliation process between Sunni, Shia and others
  • Increased resources from Congress to fund training and equipment of Iraqi security forces
No talks with Iran or Syria, only with the good guys, and it's time "to draw a line in the sand and defy Democratic pressure for a swift drawdown." No one tells this guy what to do.

And the president takes no crap from anyone -
To the certain dismay of US neo-cons, initial post-invasion ideas about imposing fully-fledged western democratic standards will be set aside. And the report is expected to warn that de facto tripartite partition within a loose federal system, as advocated by Democratic senator Joe Biden and others would lead not to peaceful power-sharing but a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
So no "democracy" talk any more, and no partitions - just brute force.

And there's the force of will -
"You've got to remember, whatever the Democrats say, it's Bush still calling the shots. He believes it's a matter of political will. That's what [Henry] Kissinger told him. And he's going to stick with it," a former senior administration official said. "He [Bush] is in a state of denial about Iraq. Nobody else is any more. But he is. But he knows he's got less than a year, maybe six months, to make it work. If it fails, I expect the withdrawal process to begin next fall."
So everyone is wrong, and their ideas evil, and Henry Kissinger is whispering in his ear. It's like old times. Maybe he'll bomb Cambodia while he's at it. Oliver Stone can make a film about it later. Can Anthony Hopkins play a Texan?

The official quoted in the item isn't happy -
Bush has said "no" to withdrawal, so what else do you have? The Baker report will be a set of ideas, more realistic than in the past, that can be used as political tools. What they're going to say is: lower the goals, forget about the democracy crap, put more resources in, do it.
Well, it is decisive. And it makes the Iraq Study group look like cowards and fools, or so the thinking goes. And whatever General Abizaid was saying - that more troops don't help, and in fact would just keep things from moving forward, and no general on the ground wants them for that reason - also looks foolish and cowardly.

Damn, the man has turned into Richard Nixon and it's late 1973 all over again. For those of us of a certain age this sounds awfully familiar. Iraq is not Vietnam, of course.

Posted by Alan at 21:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006 21:44 PST home

Saturday, 13 May 2006
The Social Contract: Will The Leviathan Survive All This?
Topic: Making Use of History

The Social Contract: Will The Leviathan Survive All This?

Elsewhere, in Tautology and Royalty, in comparing this administration's view of the powers of the executive branch, particularly the view that the president has certain plenary powers that permit him to disregard laws the legislative branch enacts and rulings on those laws from the judiciary at any level, a lot of British history was condensed into a paragraph or two on all that really didn't work out very well for the folks across the pond. Charles I actually lost his head over those kind of claims. And mixed up in that all was a brief mention of Thomas Hobbes and his startling book "The Leviathan" - people are nasty and the world awful and we really need a strong government as life is "nasty, mean, brutish and short."

As political theory goes, that's one end of the spectrum, superceding the ideas floating around before the glum Hobbes penned his famous treatise - all the stuff about how without government we'd all be fine, as people are naturally good (see "Candide" and the like). The middle ground may be what John Locke was pushing in 1798 or so, that we're neither naturally good nor naturally bad, just "blank slates" - the tabula rasa business.

Which of these basic views you take really does, of course, determine what you think the "social contract" should be. That's not just late night dorm room bull session stuff. Which you think is true has to do with everyday life, with what you expect from your government, from the local cop with his radar gun catching speeders all the way up to the federal government, with FEMA and the people at the airport telling you to take off your shoes and empty your pockets, to the folks who run up massive debt and start wars and say we should trust them. You may not actually vote, few do, but you live in the contract you imagine, paying your taxes and perhaps sending someone in the family off to Iraq or Afghanistan for a few tours, hoping he or she makes it back alive and whole.

The recent business with domestic spying may make you think about such things. First there was the executive order from the president, renewed again and again, ordering the NSA to monitor the communications of particular American citizens, in America, and to disregard the law requiring a warrant to do such thing, and the special FISA court set up to issue such warrants. The president and his attorneys argue that this is legal, as everyone had previously misunderstood the constitution and the roles of the three branches, and assume that the public will be fine with it, as life is "nasty, mean, brutish and short" - and there are lots of bad guys out to kill us. People buy the Hobbes view, or so they assume, or hope. Then USA Today reveals how the targets for that secret warrantless spying were selected - a previously secret NSA database of the call records of every telephone call in America placed since late 2001, except for the calls made by the customers of Quest, the telecommunications company that refused to participate. And to be clear, the records were sold to the NSA, for profit, and not provided as a public service or any such thing. Add that both programs were run for six years by General Michael Hayden, at the top of the NSA. The head of the CIA was abruptly shown the door and the president nominated Hayden to move over there and continue.

What do you make of this?

Some are more than wary. Others, maybe most Americans , as Bill Montgomery points out here, in a long discussion of Thomas Hobbes and "Leviathan," are fine with this, as we seem to have an accepted social contract "that owes a lot to Thomas Hobbes" -
In exchange for the economic security that corporations provide - a degree of shelter from an anarchic global market - we willingly, if grudgingly (at least in my case) give up a hefty share of our freedom and an even bigger chunk of our privacy. Having made that bargain, we're not really in a good position to object if the company proves more intrusive than we expected, for as Hobbes says, "he that complaineth of injury by his sovereign complaineth of that which he is the author and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself."

This also seems to be the intuitive position of many Americans when it comes to the new cyber-surveillance state. By giving up their privacy and - potentially - their civil liberties in exchange for a degree of protection (real or imaginary) from terrorism, they've sacrificed items that apparently are of only marginal value to them for something more important - their belief that the organization is looking out for them.

We can argue all we want that the deal is a sham, that any sense of security is an illusion, and that having gobbled up their privacy and some of their liberty, Leviathan will only come looking for more, because that's all it knows how to do. But an awfully large number of our fellow citizens have already decided, or have been conditioned to believe, that it's better to be subjects and let others make the hard decisions for them. After all, the organization must have its reasons.

Of course, this potentially sets the scene for the next loop in the downward spiral towards a full-fledged police state. If and when the next terrorist attack comes, the natural response of the national security bureaucracy (and its legal camp followers) will be to insist the tragedy never would have happened if it had been given access to all the data it wanted, all the money it needed, and all the investigative powers it demanded. It'll be the fighting-with-one-hand-tied-behind-our-back argument, re-imported from Iraq. And who's going to say no when another major American landmark is a smoldering ruin?

Leviathan, in other words, is almost free of any restraint, save the arbitrary limits - such as they may be - set by the Cheney administration or, perhaps more importantly, by custom and habit.
The creature doesn't know all the things it can do, but only because it hasn't tried to do them yet. But it's starting to figure this out, and it's going to take more than an election and a few corruption probes to make it back down. Having entrusted their security and their liberties to the beast, Leviathan's subjects will be lucky not to wind up like Jonah, lodged in its belly.
Montgomery fears the whale, which is more than the administration and any one or two corporations - it's a self-actualizing interrelated system of that and more. And most people are "instinctively" fine with it.

The first polling after the USA Today story seemed to bear that out. Thursday night the Washington Post conducted a flash poll (small sample and wide margin of error) and came up with this - "63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism."

But Frank Luntz, the man who polls everything political, and was let go by NBC after it became more than obvious that he stacked things toward the administration's view, and the was shown to make most of his money by being paid by the Republican Party, was saying things like this - "There is a very fine line between national security and personal oppression. The public is prepared to accept a degree of intelligence intervention but this may have crossed the line. I think a majority of Americans will be opposed to this."

We're not all Hobbes fans?

Then Newsweek did a careful poll - that had a meaningful sample size with a more acceptable margin of error. The results shifted -
A majority of Americans polled, 53 percent, believe that reports that the NSA has been secretly collecting the phone records of U.S. citizens since the 9/11 terrorist attacks to create a database of calls goes too far in invading people's privacy, according to the new Newsweek Poll, while 41 percent feel it is a necessary tool to combat terrorism. In light of this news and other actions by the Bush-Cheney administration, 57 percent of Americans say they have gone too far in expanding presidential power, while only 38 percent say they have not.

Only 35 percent of Americans approve of the way the president is handling his job-down one percentage point since the last Newsweek Poll. Seventy-one percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time, an all time high in the Newsweek Poll, while only 23 percent are satisfied. When asked how history will view George W. Bush, an overwhelming 50 percent of Americans polled said he will be viewed as a below average president. Since his re-election in 2004, 47 percent feel his performance has stayed the same, while 48 percent feel it has gotten worse.
What a difference a day makes, as does doubling the sample size to the statistical minimum for reasonable accuracy (1007 respondents this time) - and fifty-three percent think this "invades privacy" way too much, and fifty-seven percent think the White House has gone too far in expanding presidential power.

Montgomery needn't worry. We're not all Hobbes fans. Locke is cool. Voltaire and Rousseau will do.

As a subset of this, Jane Hamsher here details the views of Richard Morin, the guy who set up the Post flash poll. He doesn't ask questions that "make him mad" and may be a pro-Republican shill, or his last name should be spelled correctly.

But Montgomery, in another item, suggests he's not concerned with the polls, as he says this -
The whole point of having civil liberties is that they are not supposed to be subject to a majority veto. Hobbes may not have believed in natural rights, but our founders did. And their opponents, the anti-Federalists, were even more zealous about restraining the powers of the federal superstate, which is why they forced the Federalists to write the Bill of Rights directly into the Constitution.

It defeats the purpose of having a 4th Amendment if its validity is entirely dependent on breaking 50% in the latest poll. It would be nice to have "the people" on our side in this debate, and obviously a lot of them are, even if Doherty's plurality still prefers Leviathan's crushing embrace. But some things are wrong just because they're wrong - not because a temporary majority (or even a permanent one) thinks they're wrong.

... We can't do anything about how a corrupt, oligarchic system works (or rather, doesn't work) but we can at least stop accepting the other side's terms for the debate. What the government is doing is illegal and un-American, and that would still be true if the polls showed 99% support - in fact, it would be even more true.
Still, it is nice to know that what people see as the "social contract" - how they behave and how they expect others to behave, and what they expect of the government they fund - is not all that Hobbes-like, or not entirely so.

What will people make of things like this coming out after the news cycle closed down for the weekend -
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and his top legal adviser argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists, according to two senior intelligence officials.

But N.S.A. lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country, said the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the debate inside the Bush administration late in 2001.
And there's this little bit, referencing Richard Addington, now Cheney's chief-of-staff as his former chief-of-staff is under felony indictment and had to resign. One of the anonymous sources explains the talk going on at the time -
If people suspected of links to Al Qaeda made calls inside the United States, the vice president and Mr. Addington thought eavesdropping without warrants "could be done and should be done," one of them said. He added: "That's not what the N.S.A. lawyers think."
Hobbes lives, but others know the law and suggest it matters. They lost, but at least someone spoke up.

And as for speaking up, see this - New Jersey lawyers Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer filed suit Friday in Manhattan federal court against Verizon for contracting with the Government to provide it with customer phone records. They are "contemplating additional suits" against AT&T and Bell South. And it's nasty -
Orin Kerr, a former federal prosecutor and assistant professor at George Washington University, said his reading of the relevant statutes put the phone companies at risk for at least $1,000 per person whose records they disclosed without a court order.

"This is not a happy day for the general counsels" of the phone companies, he said. "If you have a class action involving 10 million Americans, that's 10 million times $1,000 - that's 10 billion."
Ouch. For the legal details, see this discussion of the relevant statutes and how this could be real trouble. But that's for lawyers. Short version? The leviathan has been harpooned. Shift from Hobbes to Melville - will the New Jersey "Ahabs" be pulled under by the Great White Whale that just cannot be conquered? (No, don't think of Cheney in a Speedo.)

But the other Great White Whale may have been harpooned and actually go under.

Friday this - "Within the last week, Karl Rove told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job."

That's from a real journalist, Jason Leopold, who has actual sources inside the White House. There are lots of details. The planning for a post-Rove administration is underway, as is a spin strategy to assert that the removal of Bush's Brain really makes no difference at all.

Saturday the same reporter has this, Patrick Fitzgerald met with Karl Rove's lawyers Friday -
During the course of that meeting, Fitzgerald served attorneys for former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove with an indictment charging the embattled White House official with perjury and lying to investigators related to his role in the CIA leak case, and instructed one of the attorneys to tell Rove that he has 24 hours to get his affairs in order, high level sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said Saturday morning.

... It was still unknown Saturday whether Fitzgerald charged Rove with a more serious obstruction of justice charge. Sources close to the case said Friday that it appeared very likely that an obstruction charge against Rove would be included with charges of perjury and lying to investigators.

An announcement by Fitzgerald is expected to come this week, sources close to the case said. However, the day and time is unknown.
There's a discussion of this by a prominent defense attorney here - given that the meeting lasted fifteen hours it must have been complex plea bargaining that probably failed. He will go under, or so it seems. (No, don't think of Karl Rove in a Speedo.)

As for Vice President Cheney, late Friday Fitzgerald filed a new pleading in the case. That's here with an analyses here, and this exhibit, and that's a copy of Joseph Wilson's now famous July 6, 2003 New York Times op-ed item with Cheney's handwritten scribbled notes in the column.

This is trouble, as Michael Isikoff explains in the upcoming Newsweek here -
It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for Cheney's own notes to be made public. The notes -apparently obtained as a result of a grand jury subpoena - would appear to make Cheney an even more central witness than had been previously thought in the criminal probe.

... Fitzgerald first alleged that Cheney had questioned whether Wilson's trip was a "junket" in a court filing last month. In that filing, Fitzgerald also asserted that the vice president, acting with the approval of President Bush, had authorized Libby to disclose portions of the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to rebut some of Wilson's claims.

... Fitzgerald in his court filing indicated he plans to introduce a copy of Cheney's annotated version of the Wilson column to show the vice president's interest in the circumstances surrounding Wilson's trip was an important matter to Libby that week and explains many of his actions.
The prime mover, the real Great White, may be the central planner in punishing the man who embarrassed him, and maybe inadvertently, or purposefully, blowing the guy's wife's CIA cover, which outraged the CIA and blinded us about what Iran was up to with their nuclear program. That's interesting.

Will the leviathan survive all this?

Posted by Alan at 19:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006 08:17 PDT home

Monday, 17 April 2006
Springtime for Hitler
Topic: Making Use of History

Springtime for Hitler

In Mel Brooks' The Producers, what the two odd producers are producing is "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden" - a musical about Adolf Hitler written by fictional Nazi Franz Liebkind. (Read all about it here.) So it's April, and it's Springtime for Hitler, again, but in an odd sort of way.

It is? There's an awful lot of German floating around, and an awful of thinking about Munich, in the late thirties, not 1972 and the Olympics and all that. (Stephen Spielberg made the wrong movie, even if he had the right title)

April 14 there was Bill Montgomery with Munich, explaining that just as the supporters of our upcoming preemptive war with Iran - the one that includes using nuclear weapons to mess up their sites deep underground where they may be in the first stages that would mean they too would have some sort of nuclear weapon - did a whole lot of chatting up Saddam Hussein as "the new Hitler" before the current was, so that odd fellow, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who now runs Iran next door, is now "the new Hitler." Get rid of one and, suddenly, for some reason, there's another.

Where did they all come from, one after another?

Montgomery -
Munich - the name, not the movie - has long been one of the neoconservative movement's most cherished political symbols, a kind of short-hand description for everything the neocons despise about liberals and their approach to foreign policy.

Munich equals appeasement - the worst sin in the neocon theology. It also stands for weakness, cowardness [sic], naivety and an amoral willingness to bargain with the devil, as well as the failure to recognize that the devil never keeps his word.

Munich is a '30s newsreel of a feeble old man standing on an airport tarmac, holding an umbrella in one hand and waving a meaningless scrap of paper in the other. Munich is the betrayal of the Czechs and the perfidy of the French and the sound of jackboots marching down cobblestone European streets. Munich is Winston Churchill declaiming, with righteous thunder: "You have chosen dishonor over war. You shall have both." Munich is the city you never ever want to visit if you're the leader of the free world.

Now history, as opposed to the historical stereotype, is hardly so cut and dried. There is considerable evidence that the British and the French knew full well Hitler couldn't be trusted, and never expected him to keep the peace - for long. They were playing for time to complete their own rearmament programs, and worried (with good reason) about Germany's diplomatic feelers to Uncle Joe Stalin.

Was it a bad call? Almost certainly. But more a Machiavellian miscalculation than the wishful thinking of fools and cowards. However it later became politically expedient to foist responsibility for the entire fiasco of the West's response to Hitler's aggression on to the narrow shoulders of Neville Chamberlain. Ever thus to losers.
Montgomery points to this, the previous day, Hugh Hewitt, saying Iran's announcement that they had managed to enrich a tiny amount of uranium, even at a useless low grade, was the equivalent of Hitler's march into the Rhineland. Right. (For a review of where Hugh Hewitt sits in the pantheon of "big thinkers" on the right, and a bit on his background, see this from several weeks back.)

Is Hugh Hewitt alone? Of course he's not. This is the drumbeat now.

See William "Bill" Kristol in his latest, the lead article in neoconservative Weekly Standard, the public face of the movement (providing explanations for why we have to do what we have to do, and why what we have done is what we just had to do). This particular article is the centerpiece of the April 24 issue, asking the question - "Is the America of 2006 more willing to thwart the unacceptable than the France of 1936?"

Basically, we must remember, we are not French! -
In the spring of 1936 - seventy years ago - Hitler's Germany occupied the Rhineland. France's Léon Blum denounced this as "unacceptable." But France did nothing. As did the British. And the United States.
Yeah, yeah. We need to do something. Blum was a fool and Chamberlain looked funny with his little mustache and those odd glasses, not to mention the umbrella. They weren't real men. So we should be doing "real and urgent operational planning for bombing strikes and for the consequences of such strikes." And nukes are fine. We just have to plan for the fallout, of all kinds. And we need to do the bombing soon, because we're the good guys, and it's morally right -
It is not "moral progress" to put off serious planning for military action to a later date, probably in less favorable circumstances, when the Iranian regime has been further emboldened, our friends in the region more disheartened, and allies more confused by years of fruitless diplomacy than they would be by greater clarity and resolution now.
So it's 1936 again, and this time we nip this Hitler in the bud, just like we did the first one next door. This is what good guys do, as it's morally right.

So this is the public voice of the Bush-Cheney administration. We're the good guys, and those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. That's the line now.

For the superficially scholarly, this will work, and for the masses, just play Edelweiss, sweet and sadly in the background, and remind people of how those mean people made Maria and those cute kids trudge through the cold mountains - heck, everyone has seen The Sound of Music, and that song always brings tears to the eye.

Montgomery covers the actual history of what happened in 1936, of course, and what's happening with Iraq now, and you might want to glance at that -
What Ahmadinejad is not, however, is the absolute dictator of an advanced industrial state with a first-rate military. To pretend that he currently poses the same kind of threat to the world (or even to the Jewish people) that Hitler did in 1938 - or that he will pose such a threat any time within the next decade - is ridiculous. It also discredits the very legitimate concerns that the world should have about Iran and the future of the Iranian revolution.

... In the neocon wisdom tale, Munich is always about Neville Chamberlain and that scrap of paper. But that's only half the story - or not even half. Hitler might never have risen to power in the first place if the allies had dealt justly with Germany and the other defeated powers at Versailles, or if the Western governments of the 1920s and early '30s had shown one tenth the willingness to compromise with the democratic governments of the Weimer Republic that they later did to appease the Nazi regime.

The source of much of Hitler's political appeal - and the topic of most of his stump speeches before coming to power - was the spinelessness of the Weimer politicians in kowtowing to the Versailles Treaty, and the need for a strong leader who would stand up to the allies. The British and French only understand force, the would-be Fuehrer shrieked. Germany must take what was rightfully hers, instead of going hat in hand to plead for concessions.

And of course, the allies proved Hitler right. They insisted on enforcing every humiliating clause of the terms dictated at Versailles. They surrounded Germany with an encircling alliance of smaller states. They forced the German economy deeper and deeper into debt to finance the insane war reparations they demanded. Weimar - and democracy - were discredited and disgraced in the eyes of millions of ordinary Germans long before they started flocking to Hitler's rallies. ...
You get the idea. The devil is in the details - and now we have this pipsqueak state, surrounded by it's own "encircling alliance" of hostile states (nuclear-armed Israel to the west and our new ally, nuclear-armed Pakistan to the east, and most the rest with our troops on the ground or reluctant allies), and we want to humiliate this pipsqueak state with economic sanctions, if we don't nuke them first. History repeating itself. As before, making our own problems, and not at all in the manner Kristol and Hewitt frame the tale.

And of course we will not talk to them, one on one, just as would not hold bilateral talks with North Korea. You don't reward bad behavior. And Neville Chamberlain's mother dressed him funny. So they make all sorts of diplomatic overtures over the years (see this and this), and we tell them to go pound sand.

It's recipe for disaster, of course.

But Montgomery sees a bright side -
The good news, such as it is, is that Ahmadinejad's end-times ideology doesn't seem to include any grand territorial ambitions: no "Greater Iran" (Iran is already a greater Iran), no lebensraum in the east. We also have time - time to see how things shake out, to see if the ayatollahs can hamstring their troublesome protégé, to see if the democracy movement can make a political comeback. Time for Ahmadinejad to lose some of his popular shine as Iran's internal problems worsen. Time for our own hardline warmongers to be booted out of power.

But unfortunately, our divinely ordained president may not be prepared to wait (and the last sentence of the preceding paragraph appears to be one of the reasons.) Which means at this point we probably should be worrying less about what happened in Munich in 1938, and more about what happened there in 1972, when the German police moved in and tried to disarm the terrorists.

Multiply that carnage by a thousand, or a million, and you've got more than a political slogan; you've got a war.
But people do worry about what happened in Munich in 1938, and those who question what we're doing and suggest alternatives eventually get morphed in to the sad and sorry Neville Chamberlain - and what about Maria and all those cute kids shivering in the Austrian Alps bravely and softly singing Edelweiss? What about the children? Will no one think of the children!

What about the actual details? Ah well.

You might also want to check out Glenn Greenwald in Fighting all the Hitlers -
To pro-Bush war supporters, the world is forever stuck in the 1930s. Every leader we don't like is Adolf Hitler, a crazed and irrational lunatic who wants to dominate the world. Every country opposed to our interests is Nazi Germany.

From this it follows that every warmonger is the glorious reincarnation of the brave and resolute Winston Churchill. And one who opposes or even questions any proposed war becomes the lowly and cowardly appeaser, Neville Chamberlain. For any and every conflict that arises, the U.S. is in the identical position of France and England in 1937 - faced with an aggressive and militaristic Nazi Germany, will we shrink from our grand fighting duties in appeasement and fear, or will we stand tall and strong and wage glorious war?

With that cartoonish framework in place, war is always the best option. It is the only option for those who are noble, strong, and fearless. Conversely, the sole reason for opposing a war is that one is a weak-minded and weak-willed appeaser who harbors dangerous fantasies of negotiating with madmen. Diplomacy and containment are simply elevated, PC terms for "appeasement." War is the only option that works.
That about sums it up. As in this -
Anyone who opposes this mindlessly militaristic approach simply seeks, of course, to "appease the mullahs."

This sort of cheap equivalence between Hitler and the tyrant de jour is rather disorienting. One minute, Hitler is a singular manifestation of unique and unparalleled evil to which nothing should ever be compared, lest the uniqueness of his atrocities be minimized. The next minute, though, there are nothing but Hitler spawns running around everywhere, and we need to constantly wage war against each of them in order to avoid suffering the fate of 1938 Czechoslovakia and Neville Chamberlain.
But it's an old trick, and Greenwald documents it.

The president's father here in 1990 -
The most significant aspect of Bush's personal demonization of Saddam Hussein was his comparison of the Iraqi leader to Adolph Hitler. Sometimes this comparison was implicit rather than explicit: "In World War II, the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who could have been stopped."

... On one occasion, he even implied that the Iraqi leader was worse than Hitler: "This morning, right now, over three hundred innocent Americans - civilians - are held against their will in Iraq. Many of them are reportedly staked out as human shields near possible military targets, something even Adolph Hitler didn't do."
Richard Perle in the run-up to our second war against Iraq here -
Appearing on the "Meet the Press" on February 23, Bush administration official Richard Perle compared the charade of visits by United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq with the infamous 1944 visit by Red Cross officials to the Nazis' Theresienstadt ghetto, where the performance of the prisoners' orchestra helped lull the visitors into believing that Nazi treatment of the Jews was not so terrible after all. Perle was referring to Saddam Hussein's systematic effort to hide Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

... Perle's remark was the latest in a series of statements by U.S. officials drawing analogies between current events and those of the Nazi era. President Bush, in his speech after the September 11 attacks, said that Muslim terrorists "follow in the path of Nazism." Other U.S. officials have compared European reluctance to confront Saddam with Europe's reluctance to confront Hitler in the 1930s.
Yeah, yeah. And now just transfer the Hitler label to the guy next door and hum a few bars of Edelweiss. Works every time.

Greenwald -
That, of course, is the central strategy, and it is best accomplished through the never tired Hitler imagery. But this sort of mindset is as simplistic as it is manipulative and, as intended, is a rock-solid recipe for eternal war. Not every dictator is irrational and suicidal. Most are not, including the most brutal. Throughout the 20th Century, the U.S. was able quite successfully to contain, negotiate with, and even form discrete common alliances with a whole array of dictators, thugs, murderous cretins and even militaristic madmen.

And the U.S. is not unique in that regard. No country is pure, and every country, driven by rational self-interest, finds ways to achieve co-existence even with the most amoral regimes. The notion that we have to wage war or even threaten war against every hostile, tyrannical government is itself sheer lunacy, and yet that is the premise driving this crusade for more war.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug who murdered and oppressed his citizens with virtually no limits, etc. etc., but the notion that he was ever in a league with Adolph Hitler in terms of the threats he posed, the capabilities he possessed, or even the ambitions he harbored, was always transparent myth. This equivalence is even more fictitious with regard to Iran, which - although saddled with a highly unpopular president who is clearly malignant and who uses nationalistic rhetoric to boost the morale of his base - is a country that is, in fact, ruled by a council of mullahs which has exhibited nothing but rationality and appears to be guided by nothing other than self-interest.

We were led into invading Iraq by a group of people who are as bloodthirsty as they are historically ignorant. They are stuck in a childish and stunted mental prison where every event, every conflict, every choice is to be seen exclusively through the prism of a single historical event, an event which - for a variety of reasons, some intellectual, some cultural, some psychological - is the only one that has any resonance for them. Even as we are still mired in their last failed war, they are attempting to impose these stunted historical distortions to lead us into a new one.
But it's what they know. And it sells - simplistic and manipulative works. Fictitious equivalences? A transparent myth? Myths have real power. And "The Sound of Music" made over one hundred and sixty-three million dollars (but "Titanic" - about a hopeless disaster - is still number one). Evil fictionalized Nazis sell.

And we're going to war.

How about a little more German?

Bill Montgomery in a second item explains we sort have to go to war, as it's the old flucht nach vorne - the "flight forward." This, he says, "refers to the tendency of both individuals and institutions to seek a way out of a crisis by becoming ever more daring and aggressive (or, as the White House propaganda department might put it: 'bold')."

Or, as he says, it's like the gambler in Vegas, who tries to get out of a hole by doubling down on each successive bet. And everyone in America is mad about poker. There's hours of it on television, what with the endless "World Poker Tour" and "Celebrity Poker" and all. Yes, it's about as exciting to watch as curling, but people do understand it now, and do understand wagering strategies, and bluffing, and far too much else.

As for this flucht nach vorne business, we're reminded of previous examples - "Napoleon's attempt to break the long stalemate with Britain by invading Russia, the decision of the Deep South slaveholding states to secede from the Union after Lincoln's election, and Milosevic's bid to create a 'greater Serbia' after Yugoslavia fell apart."

But real leaders do have to be bold -
The logic is understandable, if malevolent. Instead of creating a secular, pro-American client state in the heart of the Middle East, the invasion of Iraq has destroyed the front-line Arab regime opposing Tehran, installed a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and vastly increased Iranian influence, not only in Iraq, but throughout the Shi'a world. It's also moved the Revolutionary Guard one step closer to the Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields - the prize upon which the energy security of the West depends.

By the traditional standards of U.S. foreign policy, this is a fiasco of almost unbelievable proportions. More to the point, the neocons may believe that unless something dramatic is done to recoup those losses, they cannot safely withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq, since they are A.) the only remaining source of U.S. influence in the country and B.) the only shield against Iranian infiltration of both Iraq and the Shi'a majority regions of Saudia Arabia and the gulf emirates. Yet the military need for such a draw down becomes more critical with each passing day, as the all-volunteer Army is stretched towards its breaking point.

In other words, the administration, and the Pentagon, have gotten themselves into one hell of a jam - militarily, strategically and politically. As desperate and reckless as attempted regime change in Iran might seem to us, to the Cheneyites it may look like the only move left on the board.
So what the heck, double down. We could get lucky. And if we bomb a lot and use nukes, what's the problem? Yes, you can lose it all. But you might win big. You never know.

But we are told that all this talk of a new war with Iran and bombing the snot out of them, and using nukes for the first time since Nagasaki, is just wild speculation. We're going to fix this one with diplomacy. Of course we will not meet with them on any level at any time on any topic. Like the last time, we are urging the UN to do something, and if they prove themselves as hopeless, corrupt and dithering as our new UN ambassador has long said they are, well, what choice will we have? Someone's got to do the right thing.

It's the same old thing. See Gregory Djerejian at "The Belgravia Dispatch" with this. He's done all the legwork and compiled all the denials from the president and top military and civilian folks before the current Iraq war - there are no war plans, we seek a diplomatic solution and all the rest. He provides all the quotes, with links. And he also provides what we know now. The best is the president publicly saying he has no war plans on his desk, when he was deep in discussions of the details of the war plan he had requested. But he didn't lie, of course. It was on the coffee table by the sofa? "Fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice..." You know how that goes.

Greenwald - "...the array of unreliable and misleading statements made with regard to many matters prior to the invasion of Iraq have completely destroyed this government's credibility, making its word automatically subject to serious doubt by any rational person - including, most destructively, its own citizens, in a way that is almost certainly unprecedented in our nation's history."

Maybe so. But if they do that Hitler thing enough, and tap into our memories of Christopher Plummer singing Edelweiss, the doubts will fade. Maybe.

Yep, it's Springtime for Hitler, again.

Posted by Alan at 21:24 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006 06:22 PDT home

Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Edgy Times (kind of like the seventies)
Topic: Making Use of History

Edgy Times (kind of like the seventies)

Are there periods of relative calm in public life, and other times that are just edgy - when things seems to be spinning out of control? Or are all times edgy, and looking back from a safe distance of a few years takes the edge, or edges, or edginess, off some seemingly crucial events, while the actually crucial events only become obvious by contrast? Driving up the mountains above Asheville in western North Carolina and hearing the news, back in Watergate days, late October 1973, that Nixon had told the Justice Department to fire Archibald Cox and no one would do that, and Elliot Richardson resigned as he just wouldn't do it, then his second in command did the same, and finally Robert Bork did the deed - the Saturday Night Massacre as they called it - well, that seemed a big deal even as it happened, a sure sign things were spinning out of control. The world seemed odd at that time - Nixon had been to China the previous year and surprised everyone, and a two years earlier those students had been gunned down at Kent State. We lived in the world of big events, and 1973 was a pip - OPEC doubled the price of oil and we waited in line for hours to fill the tank, an October war in Israel (Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and got creamed), Allende assassinated in Chile, the Roe v Wade decision, Spiro Agnew resigning. Interesting times. The American Indian Movement (AIM) seized Wounded Knee in South Dakota. And the Sidney opera house opened, and they finished the Sears Tower in Chicago. Quite a year.

Then there was Ford, then Carter, then Reagan, the first Bush, then Clinton - and those years had their big events of course, the first Gulf War, but somehow those years seem, in retrospect, not quite as dramatic somehow. Carter fighting off the killer rabbit, Reagan claiming he ended the cold war all by himself, and his wacky Star Wars plan, and then the Bill and Monica scandal just don't cut it.

But we finally got someone to shake things up in the old Nixon style. We got someone in the White House, who, once again, seems to get a kick out of shaking things up - kicking things down, breaking all the rules or simply ignoring them, shaking up the world order just to see what will happen, maybe something good. You never know. We've waged our first elective war, justifying it with evidence no one in the world much believed and which turned out to be false, we occupy a foreign country the we cannot seem to reassemble to our liking, the economy is now run on loans from foreign countries and we care barely service the interest on the bonds, the rich get tax breaks and the poor and unlucky get reductions in aid, we lose a major city to a hurricane and nothing much is being rebuilt, and the president's legal team says he really don't have to follow the law - the courts now have no jurisdiction there and whatever laws the congress passes or checks it tries are, well, just plain unconstitutional. It's like old times.

Or maybe year or two from now this will all seem minor stuff, as the Brits say, small beer. But maybe not.

What probably started this "let's kick open the hornets' nest and see what happens" way of running the government was a "big concept" thing, when the president, after the events of September 2001 in New York and Washington, laid it all out. There was an "axis of evil" - and we were the center of good - godly, wronged, and angry. You were either with us or against us. And we, representing "the good" (it wasn't anyone else, except maybe the Brits - or maybe just Tony Blair - and most certainly not France), were here on earth to fight "evil" - and we'd do that by making selected counties into democracies with free-market unregulated economies, even if it took war to do that, and even if they ended up resisting us after we arrived. Things would change. The world would be transformed.

Most of the world was at best befuddled by all this, and many appalled, and those asked to declare whether they were evil or good, one or the other, right now, resentful if not angry. But we had a mission.

Watching the speech where this was laid out before us as our new national purpose was a 1973 moment. Something had shifted, big time. Bush will not go down in history as a caretaker president. He gets points for changing everything - if you get points for any big change, whether or not it's brilliant or boneheaded, as long as it's a change. Future historians can do that assessment.

But how is this all going? All we have are "spots in time" - not any long view.

The spot to consider is Wednesday, March 8, 2006.

We Fight the Axis Powers

As mentioned in these pages last week (here) the conservative commentator George Will finally, like William F. Buckley and Francis Fukuyama the same week, said the three countries in the president's axis of evil were cleary "more dangerous than they were when that phrase was coined in 2002." The backers of the "big concept" were abandoning the concept. It was a stupid idea, really. Oops.

And on the "spot in time" considered here the evidence is becoming clearer. Iran warned that it will cause the United States "harm and pain" if we succeed in winning sanctions against the country for its nuclear program. (Details here.) But what alternative do we have? Our whole military is a bit busy. Diplomacy is it. Of course Vice President Cheney is saying we really could blow up all their nuclear facilities, and just might, and might get rid of their government if they tick us off any more than they already have (details here) - but who believes him? Bluster. If we had the resources and the will to do that, which we don't, the diplomatic blowback would be messy and a regional war likely, and the majority of the folks stateside think the war to get the guy who was behind 9/11 and who had those WMD to set up a model Jeffersonian Wal-Mart democracy in Iraq was a really, really, really bad idea. Bu then the same day here we see even diplomacy, those Security Council sanctions, is a dead end - one of the permanent members of the Security Council, Russia, says no sanctions, no nothing. They'll veto any of that. This "spot in time" is a disaster, a stop-dead problem with no solution.

The same day North Korea test fired two short-range missiles - a test of its own nuclear program. We see here White House press secretary Scott McClellan saying these tests confirm that North Korea's missile program is "a concern that poses a threat to the region and the larger international community." So those six-country talks to stop the country's nuclear program that stalled out a long time ago need to start up again. We still won't talk to them one-on-one. That would reward bad behavior and all that. What else can we do? Right.

As for Iraq, Associated Press here has the summary for this spot in time. Our ambassador there says we've open a "Pandora's box" - we removed the repressive monster who held the place together through fear and murder, and now the Sunnis are fighting the Shiites openly, private armies are at each other and you've got your al Qaeda operatives blowing things up to make things even worse. And here William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Reagan, says Iraq may end up looking like Vietnam. But then, really, it's actually worse this time around - "Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on US power that Iraq is already having."

Ah, that's all general stuff. What about specifics of the day?

There's this in the Washington Post -
The bodies of 23 men who had been strangled or shot were found in two locations in Baghdad Wednesday morning, with 18 discovered aboard an abandoned bus in a predominantly Sunni area of the capital, police and the U.S. military said... The discovery of executed people - sometimes from an entire family, often with their hands bound, their mouths gagged and shot in the head - has become commonplace.
Commonplace? Could this be so? It depends on who you believe.

In the Post elsewhere the same day there's this -
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today presented an upbeat report of the conflict in Iraq and said he agrees with the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., that the news media has exaggerated the number of civilian casualties in the conflict.
It's not all that bad, you see.

And late in the day AP ran this -
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunmen wearing commando uniforms of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry on Wednesday stormed an Iraqi security company that relied heavily on Sunni ex-military men from the Saddam regime, spiriting away 50 hostages. The ministry denied involvement and called the operation a "terrorist act." ...
Just another day, or special "spot in time?" Who knows?

As for this new national purpose, our mission, the day too brought unwelcome ambiguity as, late in the evening, there was this - US To Hand Over Detainees Despite Torture Concerns (Reuters) -
Despite accusing countries such as Jordan and Egypt on Wednesday of torturing detainees, the United States said it will keep sending suspected militants to foreign prisons if governments pledge not to abuse them.

Human rights groups said the policy was illegal because the United States could have little faith in the governments' promises and knew there was a high risk of torture, especially after detailing widespread prisoner abuse in an annual report.

They also said U.S. credibility in criticizing human rights abuses was damaged because the report highlighted incommunicado detentions abroad without acknowledging Washington also uses the illegal practice in its war on terror.

In Jordan, detainees were beaten, deprived of sleep and left hanging in the air, and, in Egypt, there were many credible allegations of security forces abusing prisoners last year, the State Department said in a worldwide evaluation of rights abuses.

But Washington, which sometimes captures terrorism suspects abroad and sends them to prisons in their native countries, only does so after winning assurances they will not be abused, the report's main author, Assistant Secretary of State Barry Lowenkron, said.

"We do not send detainees to countries if we believe that they will be subjected to torture," he said. "If we get the guarantees that they will not be mistreated, they go home."
There are more details at the link, but you get the idea. We know these countries torture prisoners, but we'll send folks there, because they say, this time, they won't. What's the problem? Don't you trust them? Don't you trust us?

The trust thing has become more of a problem. They don't get it.

Diversions or Big Deals?

This new national purpose, our mission, may not be the big news. The congress has is busy on other things - blocking any hearings into the administration secretly spying on citizens here at home without warrants (here), and deciding if the folks from Dubai are harmless or not (here). Those may be big stories. They may be secondary. Looking back on the day several decades from now will make it possible to determine which it is. Hard to tell.

The president? Well, after the AP got hold of those videotapes where he was told New Orleans was going under when he later said no one told him, it was time to ignore the Axis of Evil and how all that was going and do a visit. So he did. AFP runs this - Bush Urges Congress To Act On New Orleans Aid. The headline is fine. He said that. Fox, CNN and MSNBC carried the New Orleans speech live. AFP doesn't capture the tone. He was saying none of this was his fault. Congress is letting everyone down, not him. Yep, nothing much is fixed and not much panned. But it's not his fault. He cares. You just can't trust the congress to care about the American people like he cares. He was really flogging that. It's a hard sell these days.

But he has a plan. He just issued an Executive Order, a shiny and glittering new one, directing the Department of Homeland Security to establish program to get Faith-Based church folks to do the planning and coordinating of disaster relief. It's pretty much saying that if no one trusts him or FEMA or Homeland Security when terrible things happen, and if, as he says, congress is useless, well then fine - the churches really should do what used to be expected of the government. You know countries run by clerics are more responsible and effective, and more caring, than those run by elected officials.

Supply your own sarcastic comment here, and mention Iran and the mullahs. Or read The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster Will Save You From Terrorist Attack.

Ah well, they are managing to keep the economy sputtering along, and some folks are doing well. It's sort of under control, except for this - "The Treasury Department has started drawing from the civil service pension fund to avoid hitting the $8.2 trillion national debt limit. The move to tap the pension fund follows last month's decision to suspend investments in a retirement savings plan held by government employees."

The future will take care of itself? Use the funds today? Maybe these folks won't live long enough to draw pensions or retirement. Think positive. The invisible hand will fix everything.

Actually, looking back on this one day from decades in the future, that may be the big story, as they then try to figure out how it came to breadlines and people starving in the streets and America as a third-world nation.

Or late in the day will this be the big story historians note as a turning point? Defying Bush, House Panel Votes to Block Port Deal - "The House Appropriations Committee defied President Bush this evening, voting overwhelmingly to scuttle a deal giving a Dubai company control of some major seaport operations without awaiting the outcome of a 45-day review of potential security risks."

The vote was sixty something to two. This is the day he lost his ability to govern? Could be. But it's too soon to tell. He may pull some rabbit out of his hat to make this work. On the other hand, Harriet Miers. He had to have her bow out.

Oh heck. It's just a blip. And second one, but he'll be fine. Historians will ignore it.

The day also gave us what could be a big story - the publication of the Vanity Fair piece on Jack Abramoff here (PDF format) a series of interviews with David Margolick. Abramoff says just who was on the take, accepting bribes for voting as instructed. And all those Republican who said the never met him, or hardly knew him? He covers that.
On President Bush: President Bush, who claims not to remember having his picture taken with Abramoff. According to Abramoff, at one time, the president joked with Abramoff about his weight lifting past: "What are you benching, buff guy?"

On former Rove deputy Ken Mehlman: According to documents obtained by Vanity Fair, Mehlman exchanged email with Abramoff, and did him political favors (such as preventing Clinton administration alumnus Allen Stayman from keeping a State Department job), had Sabbath dinner at Abramoff's house, and offered to pick up Abramoff's tab at Signatures, Abramoff's own restaurant.

Tom DeLay: Abramoff has "admired Tom DeLay and his family from the first meeting with him," he tells Margolick. "We would sit and talk about the Bible. We would sit and talk about opera. We would sit and talk about golf," Abramoff recalls. "I mean, we talked about philosophy and politics."

On Newt Gingrich: Newt Gingrich, whose spokesman Rick Tyler tells Margolick that "Before [Abramoff's] picture appeared on TV and in the newspapers, Newt wouldn't have known him if he fell across him. He hadn't seen him in 10 years." Abramoff says "I have more pictures of [Newt] than I have of my wife."
And so on and so forth - "You're really no one in this town unless you haven't met me."

Opera and the Bible? Curious.

Well, it's not the Pentagon Papers. It's not the damning Nixon tapes that forced Nixon from office. This decade's equivalent? We shall see.

But somehow it's like old times.

Posted by Alan at 23:12 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006 23:26 PST home

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Topic: Making Use of History

Nomenclature: We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA - and is the author of The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (Broadway Books, September 2004). There he takes us back to 1386, when two knights in full armor faced each other in a duel to the death at a monastery in Paris - the last time the French government authorized a duel to settle a legal dispute.

Ah, so long ago. Those were the days. But things have changed. Don't expect the short and feisty Nicolas Sarkozy and the tall, elegant and intellectual Dominique de Villepin to strap on the steel any time soon.

But have times changed? From the Michael Sandlin review of this book about "14th century France in all its disease-ridden, anarchic, litigious, bellicose glory," where land acquisition and foreign conquest drove the economy, Sandlin comments, "Much like the future of the United States under the rule of Neo-con warlords, one's vocational options in medieval France were few: you either inherited wealth and real estate, or joined the military to help your country acquire further real estate."

That seems to be about where we are now - you're born into the class of people who can, with some effort of course, make it in this world, or you join up, as Lyndie England did when there were no jobs at the local Wal-Mart, and help your country assert control over a key chunk of the Middle East. That's ridiculously oversimplified, of course, but in "cubicle world" - the corporations of America - you find those who can and will rise to some comfort, working for those who started out on third base, as they say. Then there is the underclass - they can join the military, or shuffle along however they can until it's over.

Jager seems to have decided to address that implication of his book, and a bit more, in this, a short column in the New Years Day edition of the Los Angeles Times.

There he argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"

Well, that actually makes sense.

He does mention Barbara Tuchman's bestselling book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1978), and wonders about that mirror thing in the title. This isn't the fourteenth century, but we do have our own "disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague." Yep, we've have AIDS for years and the avian flu on the way - the modern plagues - and too, "the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans" and "religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like 'crusade' and 'jihad.'"

This man may be onto something, and he notes one of his UCLA students recently wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages."

Just so. The same for us.

His main point -
We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good - in every sense - as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.
Yep, so it seems. Torture is now effectively legal, and we have our own Crusade - but this time not to take back Jerusalem, the birthplace of our Christ, from the infidels. This time we want these same infidels to stop this religious stuff entirely and form secular governments and play nice, economically. But there is a reason the president used the word "crusade" when all this started after the events of September 2001 - without meaning to he was channeling the "collective unconscious" of western history. He stopped using the word (he's not much of a scholar of history) when his people told him that word "caused issues" in the Middle East, but it was just natural.

As for, on the other side, "jihad" - this time around we want to keep the Muslim hoards out of Toledo, the one in Ohio, not the one in Spain.

And as for "rampant religious fanaticism" we now have dueling fatwa calls on each side - as our Osama, Pat Robertson, calls for the assassination of the elected leader of Venezuela and for God to abandon Dover, Pennsylvania. Sigh. The latter ties into our "fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science" - as the State of Kansas, unlike the ungodly in Dover, last year officially redefined science to include the supernatural, so what hasn't yet been figured out and tested by experiment can be taught in public schools as, logically, the obvious work of an "intelligent designer" (the Big Guy in the sky). So stop all that science stuff. Have faith.

A quick aside: Susan Jacoby, in this review of a new book on the Black Plague, mentions this incident -
The Muslims in Spain, whose knowledge of medicine was far more advanced than that of European Christians, could do little, because Islam had declared earlier theories of contagion heretical (since God alone supposedly had power over life and death). Ibn al-Khatib of Granada (1313-1374), one of the last great Muslim intellectuals of the Iberian convivencia, or coexistence, bravely declared that the role of contagion in spreading the plague was "firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact." Not surprisingly, he was eventually imprisoned for heresy, then dragged from his cell and murdered by a devout Muslim mob.
Why does that sound familiar? Well, these days, doing that Darwin and science thing, relying on "experience, research, mental perception," can get you in trouble. You do recall the University of Kansas professor, Paul Mirecki, who planned a course on creationism and intelligent design, then canceled it when the Christian conservatives raised a fuss, and then got a good roadside beating by a few of the anonymous God guys. That was December 6, 2005 - not the Iberian convivencia of the fourteenth century.

This is the New Middle Ages. So don't be ignorant. Use the right term.

Eric Jager, by the way, isn't an angry fellow. He's quite mellow, as you can hear here, where he's interviewed on National Public Radio about the "trial by combat in Medieval France" book.

He's just a careful academic type. He wants people to use the right terms.

Posted by Alan at 18:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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