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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, 3 January 2007
All the News - Minor and Major
Topic: Couldn't be so...

All the News - Minor and Major

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with all the news. Take Wednesday, January 3, when it seems lots of people were pointing to a fascinating article from Germaine Greer, with its Hollywood and Paris implications - Lauren Bacall was not at all like Catherine Deneuve. No kidding. What of it? Ah, there are the lessons to be learned -
The movie phenomenon known as Lauren Bacall took time to put together. The woman who began life as Betty Joan Perske studied dancing for 13 years, then acting, and became a stage actress and model called Betty Bacall. Her picture on the cover of Harper's Bazaar caught the eye of the wife of movie producer Howard Hawks, who cast her in To Have and Have Not (1944) and created the movie star Lauren Bacall. She was not a regular beauty; her face was too broad, her mouth too wide, her eyes too far apart, and her ears too big. She was also neither blonde nor dark, but sallow and mousy.

Catherine Deneuve is the opposite. Everything about her is perfect: eyes beautifully set in perfect oval face, mouth neat, skin transparently fair, a body that could serve as the template for the first blow-up doll. Only her name and her hair colour were fake. She was born Catherine Dorléac, daughter of stage and screen actor Maurice Dorléac and his actress wife, whose maiden name she eventually took. Deneuve got her first screen role when she was only 13, and she has been in movies non-stop for 50 years. She never thought of doing anything else, and at 63 she still doesn't. She says she never works more than half of any year, but what she does with the other half is unknown.

… Try as I might, I can't remember anything said by any character that Deneuve ever played, but the difference is as much one of era as of talent or personality. When Bacall came into the limelight the war was still on, and women were still self-sufficient, bouncing around in short skirts and chunky heels, talking loud and drawing a crowd. Before the Hays Code sanitized the movies in 1934, a series of remarkable actresses, including Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow, had created female characters who managed to be tough, funny and sexy all at once.

Catherine Deneuve … Her big breakthrough was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), a masterpiece of romantic French whimsy devised, written and directed by Jacques Demy, in which 20-year-old Deneuve played Geneviève, the 16-year-old daughter of the proprietress of a shop called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. She and her mechanic boyfriend are in love and want to get married but he is called up for military service in Algeria. They go to bed together, he leaves, she bids him farewell at Cherbourg railway station - et voilà, she is pregnant. In fact, Deneuve had just given birth to her son by Roger Vadim when she started work on the movie.

Geneviève was a role for a French Olivia Newton John, and Deneuve was probably the nearest thing they had, but without a voice. What she did have was hair, as much hair comparative to the rest of her as any Barbie doll, and bleached beyond an inch of its life. The mass of hair did all the acting and most of the dancing for her. Under the hair was the perfect face, virtually expressionless, endlessly caressed by the camera. Though the plot requires Geneviève to jump the gun and have premarital sex with her boyfriend, Deneuve conveys not one scintilla of sexual desire. She might as well be going to the dentist as going to lose her virginity. Bacall could signify sexual interest with a glance; Deneuve cannot project it at all. This is not so much a matter of personality as of changed priorities.

The Hawksian woman was an idea that flourished at a time of crisis, in the depression and during the war, when the full energies of women were needed if they were to survive. After the war she was supplanted by the female eunuch, weighed down with huge hair and false eyelashes, unequal to any challenge - all things to all men and nothing to herself.
That's the core of it, although there's a lot of movie history elided here. But this explains why the Frenchwoman who was on the last Air France flight out of Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese Army despises Catherine Deneuve. Ah well, Michel Legrand still wrote a wonderful score for that umbrellas movie.

Okay - minor stuff, perhaps. But closer to home, and of importance to more people, might be one more ominous Wal-Mart story, from the Wall Street Journal, of all places.

This is about shifting risk - Wal-Mart is moving forward with widespread implementation of new employee scheduling software. So what, you say? The software tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each of those periods. And there's a whole range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. No big deal.

Ezra Klein differs -
[P]ity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, "experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be "on call" to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule... That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next."

Brave new world. And one that can be used to push out older, more experienced, better-paid workers. "Some longtime workers," the Journal reports, "also say they believe managers use the system to pressure them to quit. After working 16 years at a Wal-Mart in Hastings, Minn., Karen Nelson says managers told her she had to be open to working nights and weekends. After she refused, her hours were trimmed, though they have been restored in recent months. 'The store manager said he could get two people for what he pays me,' says Ms. Nelson, who earns about $14.50 an hour." Take a highly-paid veteran and begin shaking up their shifts, demanding nights and weekends, and scheduling erratically, and soon you'll have a former highly-paid veteran.

This isn't, it should be said, an initiative unique to Wal-Mart. Other retailers, from Radioshack to Payless, have given the system a shot, though with varying degrees of ferocity. But Wal-Mart's adoption will make it standard. The whole enterprise underscores the dangers of the service economy, with its relentless focus on efficiency and terrifying absence of concern towards its workers.
Yeah, well, not to get too Marxist or anything, what did Ezra Klein expect? The corporation exists to make money for the shareholders, the owners - those who provide the capital, thus "the capitalists." The "workers" hardly matter, and if they are unhappy they can quit - there are plenty of people who need jobs of any sort at all. We live in boom times of lower and lower labor costs - or higher productivity, if you will. There's a reason the stock markets always spike upward on news of high unemployment numbers or the latest story of wages not keeping up with inflation - that increases the pool of eager workers who will accept low wages and no benefits, and with the subsequent decline in actual labor cost and rise in profit margins. As long as there's no great depression with no one is buying much of anything, that's good news. The trick in any capitalist economy is to come as close to a major recession as you can, but still have a reasonable number of folks here and there with some disposable income left to spend. That there's clever software to squeeze those currently working and get the troublemakers and "the expensive" to quit just makes it all high-tech. There's no news here, but for the ingenious software.

The same day the Wall Street Journal published something really unusual - an opinion column from President Bush - but most doubt he wrote it all by himself. It has the feel of committee work filtered through a staff of speechwriters, then massaged by Karen Hughes and approved by Karl Rove. It's all about bipartisan cooperation - the new Democratic House and Senate, we are told, had better be careful. If they pass things just to make some political point, "the public" will see through that and hate them, and Bush will veto it all. So the unusual situation, after six years of single party control there will be two years of "divided government," as the president warns here, had better be one where the Congress does nothing partisan and gives him legislation to sign that he wants to sign. Otherwise, the business of the nation will stop, and it will be the Democrats' fault, entirely. He threw down the gauntlet the day before the new congress convenes.

It was all pretty clear.

Tax increases? Forget it. "The elections have not reversed the laws of economics It is a fact that economies do best when you reward hard work by allowing people to keep more of what they have earned."

The war in Iraq? We're staying the course. "We now have the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war."

Some Democrats may have hoped it would be the president who is contrite after the election. Fat chance.

Senator Schumer of New York - "I think what the op-ed showed was the fundamental division within the White House and probably within the president's head whether to stick to the old issues and just talk bipartisanship versus really doing it." Yeah, maybe so.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto - "It's an appropriate time to say where we are on these things and to again reiterate the president's view that we can work together to find common ground. It also doesn't mean that a Democrat-controlled Congress passes whatever they want and we sign it - that's not bipartisanship. We'll have to see as we go forward over the next six months, in particular, if everyone has the same understanding of what bipartisanship means."

It means agreeing with the president or things stop cold. It's going to be interesting. And elsewhere we're told that the January 23rd State of the Union will "Knock Our Socks Off" - a major call for total energy independence. Didn't he do that already, last year - something about ending our addiction to oil? Maybe he's really, really serious this time.

The major address, really, will come before that, reportedly on Tuesday the 9th - the "no big surprise" speech that we're escalating the Iraq war, adding seventeen to twenty-thousand more troops. Robert Parry calls it Operation: Save Bush's Legacy -
Even top advocates for the "surge," such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and neoconservative activist Frederick W. Kagan, have argued that U.S. troop levels must be increased by at least 30,000 for 18 months or more to bring security to Baghdad, what they call a "precondition" for any successful outcome.

"Any other option is likely to fail," Keane and Kagan wrote in an Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2006.

So, the more modest escalation of up to 20,000 soldiers would appear to represent what might be called "Operation: Save Bush's Legacy," with the goal of postponing the inevitable until 2009 when American defeat can be palmed off on a new President.
That's a plan. The word is he will dump General Casey and any general who disagrees with him. As reported in the Times - "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave." Casey, who speculated our massive presence there was ham-handed and making things worse, is so gone.

But the word is the president will call for "sacrifice" on our part. The Democrats will no doubt be too timid to suggest restoring the previous tax rates for the wealthiest one percent of Americans would be a reasonable sacrifice by those folks to help pay for this all, but no matter.

This is not going down well. Fewer than twenty percent of the public likes the idea, and no politician does, save John McCain and Joe Lieberman. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group said do the opposite. But the president is determined. And that lead to what was called the most blistering indictment of a sitting President in the history of broadcast television - Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (video here or here).

Some of that -
This senseless, endless war.

But it has not been senseless in two ways.

It has succeeded, Mr. Bush, in enabling you to deaden the collective mind of this country to the pointlessness of endless war, against the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It has gotten many of us, used to the idea - the virtual "white noise" - of conflict far away, of the deaths of young Americans, of vague "sacrifice" for some fluid cause, too complicated to be interpreted except in terms of the very important sounding, but ultimately meaningless phrase, "the war on terror."

And the war's second accomplishment - your second accomplishment, sir - is to have taken money out of the pockets of every American, even out of the pockets of the dead soldiers on the battlefield, and their families, and to have given that money to the war profiteers.

Because if you sell the Army a thousand Humvees, you can't sell them any more, until the first thousand have been destroyed.

The service men and women are ancillary to the equation.

This is about the planned obsolescence of ordnance, isn't, Mr. Bush? And the building of detention centers? And the design of a 125-million dollar courtroom complex at Gitmo complete with restaurants.

At least the war profiteers have made their money, sir.

And we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
And do it goes. Is it time to take away the car keys? Things don't work that way. There is the argument that we now have Sociopath as President, but in spite of that man's book and some previous discussion of that, that's a bit over the top.

After all - as one administration office said, this surge thing is "more of a political decision than a military one." Call it fighting irrelevancy, or something. And anyway, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have and new article in Foreign Policy arguing that a variety of human cognitive biases all tilt the scales in arguments unduly in favor of hawkish, aggressive solutions and away from dovish, compromise oriented ones. So what did you expect?

And Fred Kaplan carefully explains that the president is an Iron Man and simply won't change his strategy -
In short, nothing has changed. The midterm elections - which amounted to a clear referendum on Bush's policies - never happened. The Baker-Hamilton report's critique is as dismissible as its prescriptions.

What's going on here? Does President Bush simply want to avoid admitting that he's been wrong? Or does he really think he's been - and still is - right?

Probably both. His unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, however profound or trivial, is legendary. Yet it's also the case, as a few former high-ranking officials have recently told me, that he genuinely believes he's on "the right side of history" when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, the freedom agenda - all of which he sees bundled into a single grand vision (as distinguished, and self-consciously so, from his father, who was famously and explicitly the opposite of a visionary).

… Bush is unpopular because, it becomes clearer by the day, he doesn't seem to have a strategy.

One thing Bush does have, however, is an ironclad commitment to his visions. This can be an admirable trait, or it can be the hallmark of a delusional; it depends on the vision. Another thing about Bush—something frequently forgotten until we're reminded of it - is that he tends to mean what he says (also a quality that's neither here nor there when it comes to gauging wisdom).

Bush has said countless times that Iraq is the central battleground in the war on terror and that winning the war on terror is vital for the future of civilization. He seems to believe this; several of his high-ranking officials confirm that he does believe this. Yes, it's odd that he hasn't done much in support of this belief - for instance, he hasn't done anything remotely like putting the country on a war footing - but much about this administration's war policies have been odd. (For instance, an argument might have been made, back in the spring of 2003, for mobilizing a small number of American troops or for disbanding the Iraqi army, but not for doing both, and yet this administration did just that.)

Everything that Bush has said, and everything that he has revealed about his character, adds up to this: He almost certainly is not going to budge from Iraq; he is likely to pour more American troops in - as many as the Army and Marines can manage (which isn't all that many more) - before he pulls any out. He's playing for History (most definitely with a capital H), which, he seems convinced, is on his side.
You may think that's noble, or dangerously delusional, or perhaps both. It doesn't matter. That's what we have. No one wants to go where he's going, but he sees things differently. A hundred years from now we'll all know better, or not.

Olbermann -
Mr. Bush, your judgment about Iraq - and now about 'sacrifice' - is at variance with your people's, to the point of delusion.

Your most respected generals see no value in a "surge" - they could not possibly see it in this madness of "sacrifice."

The Iraq Study Group told you it would be a mistake.

Perhaps dozens more have told you it would be a mistake.

And you threw their wisdom back, until you finally heard what you wanted to hear, like some child drawing straws and then saying "best two out of three . . . best three out of five . . . hundredth one counts."

Your citizens, the people for whom you work, have told you they do not want this, and moreover, they do not want you to do this.

Yet once again, sir, you have ignored all of us. …

First we sent Americans to their deaths for your lie, Mr. Bush.

Now we are sending them to their deaths for your ego.
Or for his "vision." What's the difference?

But no matter what, there are no good choices, really. Former war supporter Andrew Sullivan agonizes over that -
I cannot have been the only one to have spent the Christmas break wrestling with the central question we have to answer in 2007: what to do in Iraq. The more you ponder it, the harder a call it is. It seems to me we have to leave behind recriminations against the Bush administration. History will damn this president sufficiently. There is no need for us to pile on now. The question is simply: what is in the best interests, first, of the United States and second, of Iraq? And yes: the American priority is clear. A serious foreign policy places national interest first and foremost in its judgment.
So Choice One -
One option is to plow forward with this president, a new defense secretary and a "surge". By a surge, I mean a serious commitment of 50,000 combat troops to try and pacify a raging civil war - in Baghdad for starters. The point of such an operation is to do what should have been done almost four years ago: maintain the order necessary for any halfway peaceful transition to normalcy in Iraq. The drawback here is twofold. The first is that it really is too late. The civil war has gone well past the point of no return. Pacification of the entire country may well not render any of the parties more eager to sacrifice for a national democracy. American casualties could surge along with troop numbers, with domestic opinion already sharply hostile to continuing the war. The American political system could itself buckle under the strain - along with the military.

The second and graver problem is that any such surge would, at any moment, require the U.S. to side with one of the factions in Iraq and so embroil us in the Shia-Sunni civil war that is spreading throughout the region. That strikes me as a terrible risk. We are already targeted by terrorists simply for our freedom. To be targeted for being pro-Shi'a or pro-Sunni would add another layer of risk to the American public.
And behind the other door -
The alternative is withdrawal. Many will call this a defeat. In many ways, it is. The attempt to remake the Middle East on our terms and on our own schedule has been revealed in retrospect as pure folly. The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead. It seems clear to me that the deep trauma of the Saddam years - an unimaginable hell to those of us who have experienced nothing like it - needs time to resolve itself. It may even need a civil war to resolve itself.

The risks of withdrawal are also obvious: it would doubtless lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing on a hideously cruel scale. It may unleash a regional sectarian war with unknowable consequences. It is very difficult for any president to unleash such disorder on a global scale. Except, of course, this president has already unleashed such disorder as deliberate policy, and stood by as chaos spread.
So what are you going to do? Sullivan offers this -
… we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities. This will force Iraqi indigenous forces to come up with their own leader, a man who has real power and a capacity to restore order, however brutally. We may get another dictator. In fact, we may have witnessed his unofficial swearing-in at Saddam's execution: "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" So be it. The current chaos ties the U.S. down in a hideously tightening vise. We have to change the dynamic and actually do something we can accomplish. We cannot win this civil war for any side, and we shouldn't. We can, however, withdraw.

My own view is that withdrawal might even have some beneficial consequences. It will force Iran and the Sunni powers to intervene either to foment war or to stymie it. It could well unleash turmoil in Iran, and give Tehran a huge headache that will give it an incentive to deal with the world at large. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad will regard al-Sadr as a stable partner. Crucially, withdrawal could change the narrative of this war. So far, the narrative has been the one scripted by bin Laden: Islam versus the West. Thanks to Zarqawi, the narrative could soon become: Islam against itself. That is the real struggle here, masked by Western enmeshment. By getting out of Iraq now - decisively, swiftly, and candidly - we could actually gain in the long war. At some point, the chaos could force Iran to the negotiating table for fear of the massive instability on its doorstep. So Iraq could become the key to Iran after all.

The moral cost of withdrawal is huge. We should do all we can to provide amnesty for any Iraqis who have been loyal to us. (It does not surprise me that we shamefully haven't. This is the Bush administration.) But the moral cost of plowing on is also exponential. It may merely delay the day of reckoning. It risks sending young Americans to die in order for a president to save face, not in order to win.
So we have lost this battle, if not the war. And if we do not get out by June, things will be much worse. Many agree. It doesn't matter. Oh, and by the way, here and here you can see that "senior officers and defense executives" in so-called "Defense World" are said to have "confided" that "the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims." That would be the cadre of evangelical officers at the Pentagon. Great.

But a US military spokesman does say "we" would have hanged Saddam Hussein differently. But of course - the guys in the black leather jackets and black full-face ski-masks, taunting Saddam Hussein with chants about Sadr, was a bit over the top. We would have been more subtle, or more dignified, or something.

One of Josh Marshall's readers, looking on this "sorry spectacle of the Hussein execution" sees more in any triumphal crap from the right -
They don't really believe in democracy, they don't really believe in the rule of law, or in impartial justice. Every Bush effort, and every Republican effort, since the Iraq war got started has the same touches on it as this sorry spectacle, rush things to fit political time tables, ride over the rule of law, chaos, incompetence, and the country looking worse at the end of it. Some of your readers don't understand the problem, but it's the same problem as what's going on in Gitmo and god knows where else, it's all of a piece. Rule of law isn't some neat extra cool thing that democratic countries came up with because its nice and convenient, it's like oxygen, entirely necessary. It's what gives the entire process of justice something more than simple bloodletting. We see the consequences of a lack of respect for the rule of law in the savagery of Saddam's execution, do we imagine that these thugs are any less savage to anybody else they deem "guilty" but is actually simple an innocent from the wrong tribe? The longer this thing goes on, the more clear it becomes that the current Iraqi government is the child of its Republican fathers in every meaningful way. Are we supposed to imagine that a (Republican) government which is so clearly incompetent, dangerous, savage when it can get away with it, elevates political theatre above actual results, and plays hard to its base somehow created a government that does the same exact things in Iraq (where those tendencies have even worse results) by accident or coincidence? No. The Iraqi government is as much an import from the US as the US solders sustaining it are.
And this was supposed to be a good thing, and bring closure and all that. Oops.

Ah, this is all the American view. Here's an Iraqi view, as in "Saddam jailed me but his hanging was a crime - Iraq's misery is now far worse than under his rule," from the novelist Haifa Zangana -
At 3.30am last Saturday, I was abruptly woken by the phone ringing. My heart sank. By the time I reached the phone, I was already imagining bodies of relatives and friends, killed and mutilated.

It was 6.30am in Baghdad and I thought of the last time I spoke to my sister. She was on the roof of her house trying to get a better signal on her mobile phone, but had to end the call as an American helicopter started hovering above. Iraqis know it is within the US "rules of engagement" to shoot at them when using mobiles, and that US troops enjoy impunity whatever they do. But the call was from a Turkish TV station asking for comments on Saddam's execution. I drew a deep sigh of relief, not for the execution, but because I did not know personally anyone killed that day.
So you count your blessing when you can. And the core of this -
I am speaking as one who has been, from the start, a politically active opponent of the Ba'ath regime's ideology and Saddam Hussain's dictatorship. At times that was at the high personal cost of prison and torture. In 1984, during the Iran-Iraq war, my family had to pay for the bullets used to execute my cousin Fouad Al Azzawi before being allowed to collect his body. But I find myself agreeing with many Iraqis, that life now is not just the continuity of misery and death under new guises. It is much, much worse - even without the extra dimensions of pillage, corruption and the total ruin of the infrastructure.

Every day brings with it, due to the presence of occupation troops to protect US citizens' safety and security, less safety and security for Iraqis.

The timing and method of the execution of Saddam Hussein proves that the US administration is still criminally high on the cocktail of power, arrogance, and ignorance. But above all racism: what is good for us is not good for you. We are patriots but you are terrorists.

The US and their Iraqi puppets in the green zone chose to execute Saddam on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. This is the most joyous day in the Muslim calendar when more than 2 million pilgrims in Mecca start their ancient rituals, with hundreds of millions of others around the world focused on the events. They then further humiliated Muslims by releasing the official video of the execution, with the 69-year-old having a noose placed around his neck and being led to the drop. The unofficial recording shows Saddam looking calm and composed, and even managing a sarcastic smile, asking the thugs who taunted him "hiya hiy al marjala?" ("is this your manliness?"), a powerful phrase in Arabic popular culture connecting manliness to acts of courage, pride and chivalry. He also managed to repeatedly say the Muslim creed as he was dying, thus attaching himself in the last few seconds of his life to one billion Muslims. Saddam had literally the final say. From now on, no Eid will pass without people remembering his execution.
His conclusion? It's quite simple -
This was the climax of a colonial farce with the court proceedings' blatant sectarian overtones welcomed by Bush and the British government as a "fair trial". The occupation also welcomed the grotesque public execution as "justice being done". Contrast this with the end of our hopes, as Iraqis in opposition, of persuading our people of the humanity of democracy and how it would, unlike Saddam's brutality, put an end to all abuses of human rights, to execution in public, and to the death penalty.

It is no good the deputy prime minister John Prescott now condemning the manner of Saddam's execution as "deplorable" when, as a representative of one of the two main occupying powers, his government is both legally and morally responsible for what took place.

It is hell in Iraq by all standards, and there is no end in sight to the plight of Iraqi people. The resistance to occupation is a basic human right as well as a moral responsibility. That was the case during the Algerian war of independence, the Vietnamese war of independence, and it is the case in Iraq now.
Oh crap. If he's right, and we're escalating, let's all take crap jobs at Wal-Mart and watch Lauren Bacall movies in our down time.

Posted by Alan at 22:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007 06:51 PST home

Tuesday, 2 January 2007
Stopping the Madness
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Stopping the Madness

An idea whose time had come - "The world will come to understand that it stop this mad course towards the future and we demand the governments of the world and the United Nations declare a moratorium to stop, this December 31, the future."

Stop the future? You can read all about it here -
Taking the French love to say "non" to a new extreme, some 600 people gathered in the western city of Nantes not to ring in the New Year, but to protest its arrival on Monday.

Lashed by rain, the organizers joked even the weather was against 2007, as they milled about under banners reading "No to 2007!" and "Now is better!"
We are told too that "the tension mounted as the minutes ticked away." But midnight, and 2007, came anyway. Of course these folks had an answer - they immediately began to chant "No to 2008!" And they plan to hold the event for a third time on December 31, 2007 - on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Good for them - we all need an active and lively absurdist movement to laugh at this sorry world. Not all of us read the Absurdist Monthly Review, the magazine of the New Absurdist Movement.

And what happened in Nantes was so very French - it was Camus, after all, who introduced the idea of acceptance without resignation and asked if man can "live without appeal" - defining a "conscious revolt" against the absurdity of the world. Thus we have the "conscious revolt" of folks in Nantes. Absurd, yes, but why not? After all, in an absurd world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free, right? Camus held that it is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic - through appeal to some supernatural force - or an absurd hero - through a revolt against such hope. It's all about the heroic refusal to hope, and about living in the present with passion, and humor of course. You cannot do a thing about the damned new year, so see you all next New Years Eve on the Champs-Elysees, nor not.

Frequent contributor to these pages Phillip Raines could be there - "I know I'm French somewhere, somehow, because I so get this."

But there still are the mystics - appealing to some supernatural force or other. They're also in France, in Lourdes -
Piousness and partying came together for New Year's celebrations overnight as Christian pilgrims visiting France's famous miracle town of Lourdes got down and boogied in "God's disco."

Around 1,000 faithful kicked up their heels in the unusual nightclub as Exo, a Christian pop group created in 1991 by a couple of US missionaries, blasted out their tunes from an outdoors stage.
That's not absurd? God's Disco? So much for The Song of Bernadette (1943) - we get second-rate mid-seventies disco covers, with the lyrics no doubt sanitized, performed some evangelicals from Iowa. That may not be worth a pilgrimage to the town of miracles. Many of us would have made the pilgrimage to Nantes, not Lourdes.

It should be noted that there were, simultaneously, some serious things happing in France -
Homeless families and their supporters have taken over an upscale office building in Paris and set up a mock housing ministry in a bid to keep housing rights on politicians' agendas before spring presidential elections.

The plight of France's homeless and others living in poor conditions becomes a hot-button issue each winter. But with presidential elections on the horizon this year, it has taken on real political meaning and encouraged groups to take action.

A group calling itself the Children of Don Quixote recently set up tents for the homeless in the French capital - and invited Parisians to spend the night in them. Associations made a push to register the homeless for the April and May two-round vote before last week's deadline.

The enthusiasm on behalf of the homeless, and those housed in cheap hotels, appears to be spreading.
Chirac spoke out on the matter in his annual New Year's Eve address (video here) - he pledged to work to "make the right to housing a reality." On Tuesday, the government studied a first draft of a bill that would allow the homeless appeal to the courts. Two leading presidential candidates, "Bush-lite" Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and the winsome Socialist Segolene Royal (think Hillary Clinton, but with actual charm), each did what anyone would expect - Sarkozy designated a famous lawyer to follow the issue, and Royal spoke by telephone with the Children of Don Quixote. The Lyonnaise de Banque group, which owns the building in question, a vacant place across the street from the old Bourse, was not impressed.

There are sixty-three million people in France, and some 86,500 homeless people - about as many as we have here in Los Angeles. But we get this Children of Don Quixote thing - Don Quixote, the symbol of noble and somewhat absurd lost causes, and this mock housing ministry. The French know absurd when they see it. It's all about the symbols - the little camp tents that appeared during the holiday along the Canal Saint Martin and the Parisians who joined the homeless there in solidarity. Such things don't happen in Santa Monica.

And there seems to be a war of symbols, as Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, notes. He forwards a communication from the mayor's office (he seems to be on distribution). The mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is a bit unhappy with the action of some right-wing group to distribute free soup to the needy. Specifically the mayor objects to "pig soup" on the grounds that it of course will be unacceptable to Muslims and Jews. He says he is going to ask the Prefect of Police to take appropriate measures.

That goes like this -
02/01/2007 - Communiqué du maire relatif à la distribution de soupe au cochon

Par M. Bertrand DELANOË

Je prends acte, en la regrettant, de l'ordonnance du juge des référés au tribunal administratif de Paris, qui a autorisé le 22 décembre l'association d'extrême droite « Solidarité des Français » à reprendre sa distribution de « soupe au cochon ».

Cette décision est d'autant plus étonnante qu'elle reconnaît que cette action - je cite - « poursuit un but clairement discriminatoire ».

Je souhaite donc vivement que le Préfet de Police fasse appel de cette ordonnance, espérant que le Conseil d'Etat aura, comme d'autres tribunaux administratifs dans un passé récent, une interprétation différente des principes républicains.

Je rappelle que dès juin 2004, le Conseil de Paris avait voté un vœu demandant l'interdiction de cette distribution qui exclut sciemment les personnes de confession juive et musulmane.

Face à cette initiative aux relents xénophobes, je veux exprimer à nouveau la volonté de la municipalité de dénoncer et de combattre toute forme de discrimination, de racisme et d'antisémitisme.

En cette période hivernale où les besoins de solidarité sont toujours plus criants, je veux également rendre hommage aux milliers de Parisiens qui, sans « faire le tri » entre nos concitoyens dans le besoin, consacrent leur temps et leur énergie à les aider.

Ce faisant, ce sont aussi les valeurs et l'identité de notre ville qu'ils honorent.

Avant même que le Conseil d'Etat se soit prononcé, je demande bien entendu à Monsieur le Préfet de Police de tout mettre en œuvre afin que ces agissements indignes ne puissent provoquer de troubles à l'ordre public.
You hardly need much French to see what he's saying.

The parallel here is the Texas pig races -
A Texas man protested the proposed building of a mosque next to his property by holding pig races and selling sausages. About 100 people showed up to catch the races.

Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Craig Baker, 46, said he was defending his rights and his property.

Baker has been at odds with the Katy Islamic Association who plans to build a mosque, community center and school near his property.
Is this absurd? You can see what the people in Nantes were up to. This madness has to stop.

How mad has it been here in the United States? Dave Barry has an answer in his annual Year in Review. He knows absurd when he sees it - "It was a momentous year, a year of events that will echo in the annals of history the way a dropped plate of calamari echoes in an Italian restaurant with a tile floor."

He suggests that 2006 will be a year that we will not want to remember -
This was the year in which the members of the United States Congress, who do not bother to read the actual bills they pass, spent weeks poring over instant messages sent by a pervert. This was the year in which the vice president of the United States shot a lawyer, which turned out to be totally legal in Texas. This was the year in which there came to be essentially no difference between the treatment of maximum-security-prison inmates and the treatment of commercial-airline passengers.

This was the year in which - as clearly foretold in the Bible as a sign of the Apocalypse - Howie Mandel got a hit TV show.

Also there were many pesky problems left over from 2005 that refused to go away in 2006, including Iraq, immigration, high gas prices, terrorism, global warming, and avian flu, Iran, North Korea and Paris Hilton. Future generations are going to look back at this era and ask us how we could have allowed Paris Hilton to happen, and we are not going to have a good answer.
Then follows his month by month assessment.

… a month that dawns with petty partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., a place where many people view petty partisan bickering as honest, productive work, like making furniture. The immediate cause of the bickering is the Republican ethics scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both of whom you can tell, just by looking at them, are guilty of something. The Democrats charge that the Republicans have created a Culture of Corruption and should be thrown out of office so the Democrats can return to power and run the scandal-free style of government for which they are so famous. The Republicans respond that the Democrats are soft on terrorism soft on terrorism soft on terrorism softonterrorism. Both sides issue press releases far into the night.

The other big focus of the bickering is the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. As always, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings provide high-quality TV entertainment as the nation tunes in to see if Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be able to successfully remember the nominee's name. The bulk of the hearings are spent in the traditional manner, with Democrats trying to trick the nominee into revealing his views on abortion, and Republicans reminding the nominee that he does not have to reveal his views on abortion. The subsequent exchange of press releases is so intense that several government photocopiers burst into flames.

In the War on Terror, Osama bin Laden, who may or may not be dead, nevertheless releases another audio tape, for the first time making it downloadable from iTunes. Bin Laden also starts a blog, in which he calls upon his followers to destroy the corrupt infidels and also try to find out how a person, hypothetically, can get Chinese food delivered to a cave.

In the Middle East, Palestinian voters elect the militant Hamas party, which assumes control of government functions such as street repair, which Hamas decides to handle by firing rockets at potholes. Canada also holds elections, which are won by some Canadian, we assume.

In economic news, the big story is the retirement of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who, after 19 years as the person most responsible for guiding the American economy, steps down, taking with him the thanks of a grateful nation and a suitcase containing $11 billion.
In goes on in this manner. February brought the president's address on energy policy'' - the nation has an ''addiction'' to ''foreign oil'' and we should do something, one day or another. And there was the administration's decision to allow a company owned by the United Arab Emirates to operate six US seaports - absurdly defended, then abandoned. And that was the month Vice President Dick Cheney shot attorney Harry Whittington in the face. Oops. That had its own absurdity, followed immediately by the business with the cartoons published the previous year in a Danish newspaper, depicting the Prophet Mohammed. How do you explain all that? You didn't - you watched the Steelers win the Super Bowl or the Winter Olympics. They made more sense, or didn't.

March - gas hits two-fifty a gallon, and the Israeli government changes. Sharon is out with a massive stroke and Israeli voters give a parliamentary majority to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but it's a quiet month. But then there's April -
Tom DeLay decides not to seek re-election to Congress, making the announcement via audio tape from a cave somewhere in Pakistan. Republican leaders express relief over DeLay's decision and issue a statement pledging that there will be "no more Republican scandals, unless somebody finds out about Mark Foley.''

Meanwhile in the Middle East, tension mounts still higher when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has successfully produced enriched uranium, although he claims that his nation plans to use it only for peaceful purposes ''such as cooking.'' In Iraq, there is good news and bad news for the Bush administration: The good news is that rival Iraqi leaders have finally agreed on a new prime minister. The bad news is that it is Nancy Pelosi.

Domestically, the national debate over illegal immigration heats up as thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of major U.S. cities, thus causing a total shutdown of Paris. Meanwhile the Mexican government, in what is widely viewed as a deliberate provocation, convenes in Milwaukee. But the big story is the price of gasoline, which continues its relentless climb toward an unprecedented $3 a gallon. Responding quickly, Congress, in a rare display of decisive bipartisan action, takes a recess, with both sides promising to resume bickering the instant they get back.
Yeah, a little glib, but so what? That's approximately what happened.

May? The Bush administration comes under heavy criticism following press reports that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone records of millions of Americans. Responding to the outcry, President Bush assures the nation that ''the government is not collecting personal information on any individual citizen.'' And the president announces that he will use National Guard troops to stop illegal immigration. And there was Enron - "In Houston, former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are convicted of fraud by a federal jury, which apparently is not persuaded by the defense's claim that Skilling and Lay could not have been responsible for the collapse of the $100 billion corporation because they were, quote, 'both getting haircuts.''" That wasn't what they said, but it was close - after the verdict, Lay actually said, "We believe that God in fact is in control.'' Some worry about that - it could be true. And less than two months later, Lay dies of heart failure. Spooky.

June? That's easy -
In politics, the debate over Iraq continues to heat up, with President Bush insisting that ''we must stay the course, whatever it may or may not be,'' while the Democrats claim that they would bring the troops home ''immediately,'' or ''in about six months,'' or ''maybe not for a long time,'' depending on which particular Democrat is speaking and what time of day it is. On a more positive note, US troops kill Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who is identified by intelligence experts as ''a person with a really terrorist-sounding name.'' In another hopeful development in Iraq, the Sunnis and the Shiites agree to try to come up with a simple way for Americans to remember which one is which.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court rules that the Bush administration cannot try suspected terrorists in ad hoc military tribunals, after the court learns that the administration is interpreting ''ad hoc'' to mean "under water.''

Dan Rather, who stopped anchoring the evening news in 2005, announces his retirement from CBS after a career spanning 44 years and several galaxies. Explaining his decision, Rather cites a desire to ''explore other options'' and "not keep getting maced by the CBS security guard.''

On a happier note, the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System - an engineering marvel consisting of 47,000 miles of high-speed roads connecting 157,000 Waffle Houses. A formal ceremony is planned, but has to be canceled when Dad refuses to stop.
July, along with the Floyd Landis and the Tour de France win that wasn't, and the famous head-butt at the World Cup final, the Israel-Hezbollah war starts and North Korea tests a bunch of ballistic missiles on the four of July - "including two believed to be potentially capable of reaching US soil. World tension goes back down when the missiles, upon reaching an altitude of 200 feet, explode and spell HAPPY BIRTHDAY." No, they didn't

August brings the big terror scare, and more -
… commercial air travel turns into a total nightmare. No, wait, it was already a total nightmare. But it turns into an even worse total nightmare after Britain uncovers a terrorist plot targeting international flights, which results in a whole new set of security rules, including a total ban on all gels and liquids, including spit, urine, heavy perspirers and lactating women. After days of chaos at the airports, the TSA issues a new directive stating that ''passengers may carry small quantities of liquids on board, but only if they are inside clear, one-quart, sealable plastic bags.'' This leads to still more chaos, as many TSA employees interpret this to mean that the passengers must be inside the bags. Eventually the TSA issues a clarification stating that "if necessary, the bags can have air holes.''

… In crime news, a man in Thailand claims that he had something to do with the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey. It quickly becomes clear that the man is an unstable creep whose story is totally unbelievable, so the cable-TV shows drop it.

Ha ha! Just kidding! The cable-TV shows go into days of round-the-clock All-JonBenet-All-The-Time Wallow Mode. Battalions of legal experts are brought in, some of them so excited at the opportunity to revisit the JonBenet tragedy that additional janitors have to be brought into the studios to mop up puddles of expert weewee.
At this point you see what he's up to. Click on the link for comments on September - Steve ''Crocodile Hunter'' Irwin and Congressman Mark Foley of Florida and Pope Benedict XVI giving a speech suggesting that the Muslim religion has historically been linked to violence, and then apologizing. It's like shooting fish in a barrel - an absurd image in itself. October - North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test, Congress authorizes the construction of a seven hundred mile fence on the Mexican border, sort of, Cheney on the radio defends the interrogation technique known as ''water-boarding'' and John Kerry screws up a joke and the political world explodes.

November brings the elections -
As the campaign lumbers to the finish line, the Republicans desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they - once the party of small government - have turned into the party of war-bungling, corruption-tolerating, pork-spewing power-lusting toads, while the Democrats desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they are still, basically, the Democrats. The actual voters, of course, are paying no attention, having given up on politics months ago because every time they turn on the TV all they see are political ads accusing pretty much every candidate on either side of being, at minimum, a child molester.

Thus nobody really knows what will happen as the voters go to the polls. In Florida, nobody knows anything even after the voting is over, because - prepare to be shocked - many electronic balloting machines malfunction. Voters in one district report that their machines, instead of displaying the candidates for Congress, showed Star Wars Episode IV. (By an overwhelming margin, this district elects Jabba the Hutt.)

Nationwide, however, it eventually becomes clear that the Democrats have gained control of both houses of Congress. President Bush handles the defeat with surprisingly good humor, possibly because his staff has not told him about it. For their part, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issue a joint statement promising to ''make every effort to find common ground with the president,'' adding, ''we are clearly lying.'' Pelosi sets about the difficult task of trying to fill leadership posts with Democrats who have not been videotaped discussing bribes with federal undercover agents.

The first major casualty of the GOP defeat is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, the day after the election, is invited to go quail-hunting with the vice president. He is never seen again.
It's almost too easy. As is December's Iraq Study Group report -
In accordance with longstanding Washington tradition, the panel first formally leaks its report to The New York Times, then delivers it to the president, who turns it over to White House personnel specially trained in reading things.

In essence, the study group recommends a three-pronged approach, consisting of: (1) a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but not on a fixed timetable; (2) intensified training of Iraqi troops; and (3) the physical relocation of Iraq, including buildings, to Greenland. Republican and Democratic leaders, after considering the report for the better part of a nanosecond, commence what is expected to be a minimum of two more years of bickering.

… But despite the well-founded fear of terrorism, the seemingly unbreakable and escalating cycle of violence in the Middle East, the uncertain world economic future, the menace of global warming, the near-certainty that rogue states run by lunatics will soon have nuclear weapons, and the fact that America is confronting these dangers with a federal government sharply divided into two hostile parties unable to agree on anything except that the other side is scum, Americans face the new year with a remarkable lack of worry, and for a very good reason: They are busy drinking beer and watching football.
Heck, at least the folks in Nantes were doing something.

So we do need to stop the future, if it's anything like the past.

As for the new year we have, it's not starting well. Tuesday, January 2, 2007 - the New York Times details how 'Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06,' (here and here), while President Bush is said to be getting ready to escalate, and to expand the mission, in 2007 (see this, this and this). All they need to do is figure out what the mission of the new troops will be. They're working on that.

The hanging of Saddam Hussein is still an issue. After reporting that US officials were "privately incensed at the dead-of-night rush to the gallows," John Burns said that he "could hardly imagine an event more emblematic, of what America has accomplished or failed to accomplish here than the final chapter of Saddam Hussein." With Iraq's prime minister now reportedly ordering a probe into how the execution of a 'model prisoner' (see this) became "a televised spectacle," some people recalled that 'Saddam Was Right and Bush Was Wrong' about WMD (see here). Yeah, but who's dead?

The final word may be Christopher Hitchens on what he calls The Shameful Hanging -
The disgusting video of Saddam Hussein's last moments on the planet is more than a reminder of the inescapable barbarity of capital punishment and of the intelligible and conventional reasons why it should always be opposed. The zoolike scenes in that dank, filthy shed (it seems that those attending were not even asked to turn off their cell phones or forbidden to use them to record souvenir film) were more like a lynching than an execution. At one point, one of the attending magistrates can be heard appealing for decency and calm, but otherwise the fact must be faced: In spite of his mad invective against "the Persians" and other traitors, the only character with a rag of dignity in the whole scene is the father of all hangmen, Saddam Hussein himself.

How could it have come to this? Did U.S. officials know that the designated "executioners" would be the unwashed goons of Muqtada Sadr's "Mahdi Army" - the same sort of thugs who killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf just after the liberation and who indulge in extra-judicial murder of Iraqis every night and day? Did our envoys and representatives ask for any sort of assurances before turning over a prisoner who was being held under the Geneva Conventions? According to the New York Times, there do seem to have been a few insipid misgivings about the timing and the haste, but these appear to have been dissolved soon enough and replaced by a fatalistic passivity that amounts, in theory and practice, to acquiescence in a crude Shiite coup d'état. Thus, far from bringing anything like "closure," the hanging ensures that the poison of Saddamism will stay in the Iraqi bloodstream, mingling with other related infections such as confessional fanaticism and the sort of video sadism that has until now been the prerogative of al-Qaida's dehumanized ghouls. We have helped to officiate at a human sacrifice. For shame.

… Reporting from defeated Germany in 1945, and noticing some brutal treatment of captured SS men, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay called "Revenge Is Sour." I hadn't thought of it for a while but pulled it down from the shelf when I returned from Iraq. Here is the key passage:

"Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

"Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini's corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, 'Those are for my five sons!' It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse."

The shabby, tawdry scene of Muqtada Sadr's riffraff taunting their defenseless former tyrant evokes exactly this quality of hysterical falsity and bravado. While Saddam Hussein was alive, they cringed. Now, they find their lost courage, and meanwhile take the drill and the razor blade and the blowtorch to their fellow Iraqis. To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the US government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment.
Well, we gave Gerald Ford a great funeral.

On the other hand there's this -
In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in "mass killing" late in 2007.

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

Robertson said God also told him that the U.S. only feigns friendship with Israel and that U.S. policies are pushing Israel toward "national suicide."
Where to start? Ah, it's off to Nantes. Maybe we can stop this New Year yet.

Posted by Alan at 21:42 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 3 January 2007 07:11 PST home

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

Late Christmas Presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was to be a slow news week.


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

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

Tuesday, 12 December 2006
Something Is Up
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Something Is Up

Tuesday, December 12, 2006, was a day of very odd news and views. The epicenter seemed to be the Washington Post, perhaps attempting to prove newspapers, with their primary reporting and editorial clout, aren't dying dinosaurs at all.

Robin Wright was the reporter with the big scoop, with Saudi Ambassador Abruptly Resigns, Leaves Washington - "Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job." She had the story first.

What is this about? Wright speculates another key Saudi prince is ill, and there's some sort of internal realignment going on over there - but that's only speculation. This is a mystery, and a bit of a diplomatic earthquake.

Josh Marshall notes all sorts of officials are giving various unconvincing explanations, the best of which is that, in the words of an unnamed embassy official, "He wants to spend more time with his family." Right - or as Marshall comments - "Perhaps we can take that as a foreigners gently parodic homage to the American tradition of political white lies."

But what's the reason for the standard white lie in this case? He dismisses Wright's speculation about illness or some palace intrigue in the Saudi royal family. He suggests we look at the geopolitical context -
Saudi Arabia's neighbor Iraq is in some sort of slow motion civil war. The neighbor across the water, Iran, has been empowered tremendously and stands to gain even more power if their Shi'a coreligionists in Iraq take over the country and slaughter or dominate the Sunni Arab minority. And the White House is signaling that it might opt to take the side of the Shi'a in that cataclysm and, shall we say, go along for the slaughter.

That would cut at the heart of the seven decade US-Saudi alliance, though admittedly it's taken quite a few cuts already of late. The White House has also just been presented with the Baker-Hamilton report which has, I think fairly, been characterized as a bid to return to the earlier US policy of aligning its regional interests with those of the Sunni autocracies in the region. The White House has dismissed that out of hand.

I'm no expert on the finer points of US-Saudi relations. But I don't think you need to be to see that the underpinnings of the relationship are on the table right now. And just at this moment, the ambassador resigns and gets on the next plane home. To borrow a phrase from our judicial pals, I think any excuse that this is just some personal matter deserves the strictest scrutiny. Something must be up.
You think? The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in that recent leaked memo, the one about how totally useless Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki was, that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics." But then, the week before, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to counter Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out (previously discussed here). The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid. Actually, Prince Turki al-Faisal fired the guy - he was the prince's advisor.

But something was up with that. This thing is going regional, and the Saudis may be jumpy. The word is the administration is seriously considering siding with the Shi'a in all this, if something can be done about that Sadr fellow and we can keep them from being too friendly with Iran, and writing off the Sunnis, to get us out of the current mess - reportedly Cheney's position. And, as noted last week, things are getting serious - "Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash." That was discussed in the pages in Hope as Strategy. It seems we've got to do something, no matter how much it looks like assured genocide.

Marshall says his readers have written in to say that "there's just no way we're going to let ourselves take sides in what would likely be at least a borderline genocidal civil war between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shi'a majority." He notes that, and responds why not? -
Is there anything we've seen in the last six years that makes you think we wouldn't pull the trigger on a ridiculously foolish new plan? I don't just mean that as trash talk. I think it's the only sensible way to approach the case at hand.

The main mistakes I've made thinking about foreign policy over the last half decade were, I think, all cases where there were certain outcomes I just didn't find credible because they were just too stupid and dangerous for anybody in a position of power to try.
Marshall is an experienced political reporter who now has his widely-read blog empire, and decides to raise another point he is not sure is widely appreciated -
The folks who brought you the Iraq War have always been weak in the knees for a really whacked-out vision of a Shi'a-US alliance in the Middle East. I used to talk to a lot of these folks before I became persona non grata. So here's basically how the theory went and, I don't doubt, still goes ... We hate the Saudis and the Egyptians and all the rest of the standing Arab governments. But the Iraqi Shi'a were oppressed by Saddam. So they'll like us. So we'll set them up in control of Iraq. You might think that would empower the Iranians. But not really. The mullahs aren't very powerful. And once the Iraqi Shi'a have a good thing going with us, the Iranians are going to want to get in on that too. So you'll see a new government in Tehran. Plus, big parts of northern Saudi Arabia are Shi'a too. And that's where a lot of the oil is. So they'll probably want to break off and set up their own pro-US Shi'a state with tons of oil. So before you know it, we'll have Iraq, Iran, and a big chunk of Saudi Arabia that is friendly to the US and has a ton of oil. And once that happens we can tell the Saudis to f$#% themselves once and for all.

Now, you might think this involves a fair amount of wishful and delusional thinking. But this was the thinking of a lot of neocons going into the war. And I don't doubt it's still the thinking of quite a few of them. They still want to run the table. And even more now that it's double-down. I don't know what these guys are planning now. But there's plenty of reason to be worried.
Talk about hope as strategy! If Marshall heard them right, those directing the foreign policy of the United States have been smoking some good stuff. Perhaps Prince Turki al-Faisal, and his government, just gave up on the whole crew, and caught the next flight out to go home and help prepare for the regional war we seem to want. The Saudis had asked Cheney to drop by for a chat in late November. It seems they didn't like what they heard from him.

Stepping back, it is possible to see that this the abrupt departure of the Saudi ambassador, could mark the precise start of the major regional Middle East war - from the edge of the Mediterranean to the western border of India - to realign everything, and that may have been the plan all along. You thought we were looking to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? How quaint. Wheels within wheels were turning - big plans and a mad dream of how things could be. So this may be it - the big one. That or the prince really did want to spend more time with his family. That too is possible after all.

Then, late Tuesday, the news broke -
Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in a war against Iraqi Shiites if the United States withdraws from Iraq, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing American and Arab diplomats.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivered that message to Dick Cheney during the U.S. vice president's brief visit last month to Riyadh, the newspaper said, citing the officials it did not name.

... During the visit, King Abdullah expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which is largely Shi'ite, the Times said. The Saudi leader also pushed Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the newspaper reported, citing senior officials of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

The White House could not immediately be reached to comment on the report.
So things are lining up - until now the Saudis promised they would refrain from aiding Iraq's Sunni insurgency, but that pledge holds only as long as we remain in Iraq. We cut out or cut back, or side with the Shi'a, and they will act. They will not let Iraq's minority Sunni population be massacred, even if Cheney thinks that would be okay, given the fix we're in.

This was such a small news item, but something was up.

As for the other shake-up-everything item in the Post, that was a looking backward item. Fred Hiatt and his crew penned the lead editorial of the day, on the recent deaths of both Augusto Pinochet and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, sure to raise some hackles. They, we are told, were both fine folks and will be missed.

To review, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was the general who became the president of Chile - he led a military junta to power in 1973 through a coup d'état, deposing the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. Pinochet stepped down from power in 1990, after losing a national plebiscite in 1988. The story is familiar to those who follow such things. In 1970, Salvador Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, had been elected president - the first Marxist in the world to gain power in a free democratic election. The business folks hated him - what with his efforts to redistribute wealth and land, with wage increases of around forty percent and companies not allowed to increase prices, and then the copper industry was nationalized, and then the banks. Then he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, China and East Germany. Something had to be done. The CIA set up a task force to get rid of the guy, and Pinochet was our choice to replace him. Henry Kissinger admitted that in September, 1970, President Nixon ordered him to organize a coup against Allende's government. A CIA document written just after Allende was elected said - "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup" and "it is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (United States government) and American hand be well hidden." So Chile had its September 11 - in 1973. Allende was killed in his office that day, or committed suicide. And we deny everything. Kissinger is considered a wise elder statesman these days.

But Pinochet turned out to be one nasty piece of work. He was notorious for "disappearing" his enemies, and for all sorts of torture, the most dramatic taking people for airplane rides over the ocean and dropping them from high altitude, one by one, until someone not yet escorted to the door talked. Some of our guys in Vietnam found that useful too. These acts got Pinochet indicted in Spain, as some of the dead or tortured were Spanish citizens, and he was arrested in London. The rest is old news - he fought all the indictments, unsuccessfully, but died before anything could come of it all. He was an old man. The heart attack was inevitable.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Republican - a brilliant scholar and a rather mean lady, who Reagan sent to the UN as our ambassador there. Her big thing was that there was a real difference between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. The former were unpleasant, but the latter - they were all communist, as she said - were unacceptable. So Pinochet was just fine by her - he would evolve and the place would be fine. It was the same with Marcos in the Philippines and all the rest. The problem was the damned Marxists. Everyone knew no good would evolve from any Marxist regime. That was the "realism" of the day, in her day. She died the same week Pinochet died - of old age, pretty much.

Fred Hiatt and his crew decided to offer an assessment of these lives. And the opening is classic - "Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered. His legacy is Latin America's most successful country."

Now you would expect what follows would be a stirring defense of torture and murder - we may have done those very things in Iraq and elsewhere, but it is obvious and logical that torture and murder are good things. They lead to real success.

Fred Hiatt and his crew just aren't that dumb. They aren't going to endorse torture and murder as fine and dandy. They just want to point out some things -
It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired.
So he must have done something right. Sorry about the thousands of dead people, and those who just disappeared. Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. And anyway, the Post says, Augusto Pinochet wasn't Castro - and when Castro finally kicks the bucket the left will probably defend him, so in your face, lefties.

Matthew Yglesias, for one, differs -
Seriously? The justification of Pinochet's 1973 coup and subsequent seventeen-year dictatorship is Chile's strong economic growth record after Pinochet left office? Then we learn that Pinochet was a good guy because Fidel Castro is a bad guy, which I think is the moral philosophy of six year-olds. And then Kirkpatrick: "Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right."

I don't really see what's obvious about this. Communist regimes in Central Europe were replaced by liberal democracies, much as Pinochet's right-authoritarianism was replaced by liberal democracy in Chile. But Communist regimes elsewhere have often been replaced by non-Communist authoritarianisms. But then again, right-wing authoritarianism in, say, Venezuela doesn't seem to have paved the road for liberal democracy. And, of course, Communism arose in Russia in the wake of the Czar's right-wing authoritarianism and, indeed, Communism arose in Cuba as the aftermath of right-wing authoritarianism under Battista.

UPDATE: Sorry, Venezuela's a bad example; I thought the military was in charge there in the 80s. Consider, say, Haiti where the Duvaliers hardly seem to have paved the road for a smooth transition to liberalism.
So Jeanne Kirkpatrick was full of crap - arguing against historical fact - and the Post is too, arguing that what happened after the old man was gone from office proved what he did in office was fine and dandy.

It doesn't matter. What is in the air is obvious here. Supporting some awful people, and doing awful things ourselves, may be just fine. It's all how you look at it. It's setting up what we will be doing in the Middle East next, and what we have done already.

But Margaret Thatcher is reported to be sad about the old man's death - Pinochet, not Ronald Reagan (she's over that) - to which Christopher Hitchens adds some thoughts -
There were those who used to argue that, say what you like, Pinochet unfettered the Chilean economy and let the Friedmanite breezes blow. (This is why Mrs. Thatcher was forever encouraging him to take his holidays and shopping trips in London; a piece of advice that he may well have regretted taking.) Yet free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies. I read Isabel Allende not long ago saying freely that nobody would again try the statist "Popular Unity" program of her uncle. But Salvador Allende never ordered anybody's death or disappearance; he died bravely at his post, and that has made all the difference. Meanwhile, a large part of Pinochet's own attraction to "privatization" has been explained by the disclosures attendant on the collapse of the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which revealed large secret holdings in his name. This, combined with the cynical delaying tactics that he employed to delay or thwart prosecution, made his name stink even more in Chilean nostrils while he was still alive.

It is greatly to the credit of the Chileans that they have managed to restore and revive democratic institutions without any resort to violence, and that due process was scrupulously applied to Pinochet and to all his underlings. But there is a price to be paid for the slowness and care of these proceedings. We still do not know all that we might about the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, for instance. And many Chilean families do not know where their "disappeared" loved ones are buried or how they died. (Perhaps sometimes it is better not to know the last bit.) Not once, in the prolonged process of investigation and clarification, did Pinochet offer to provide any information or to express any conscience or remorse. Like Slobodan Milosevic (who also cheated justice by dying) and Saddam Hussein, he was arrogant and blustering to the very last. Chile and the world are well rid of him, but we can thank his long and brutish rear-guard action for helping us to establish at least some of the emerging benchmarks of universal jurisdiction for tyrants.
Hitchens is no Jeanne Kirkpatrick, whatever else he is.

But the Post was on the Pinochet bandwagon. Elsewhere, in a retrospective, Pamela Constable offers this - "Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was a man with a mission. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing, carrying out a grim duty in order to save his country from evil. In every speech and interview, the strongman of Santiago returned to the same theme: his sacred, patriotic calling to rid Chile of communism, whatever the cost."

It's hard to remember why everyone was so worked up about communism. Communism didn't work out, as it didn't actually work. And it collapsed under its own weight. There was no cost to be paid. You just had to wait. Pinochet didn't get it.

But then, as Yglesias notes, the costs weren't exactly his costs -
Pinochet believed it was his calling to rid Chile of Communism, whatever the cost to other people. He wasn't eager to pay a price personally, or to have members of his circle do so. Indeed, though Pinochet's corruption was hardly on a Mobutu-style scale, it's clear that he and his retainers profited personally from his dictatorship. And when he left office, he didn't throw himself on the mercy of the people, pleading justification but willing to accept whatever verdict - pay any price - they might render. Instead, he had himself made a senator for life to obtain immunity from prosecution. Once that stopped working, he adopted a number of other methods to try - successfully, in the end - to avoid bearing the cost of what he'd done.

This line of thought is, of course, entirely typical of the authoritarian mindset. You hear it in contemporary political disputes about torture and about the use of brutal force abroad. We must do what it takes to succeed whatever the cost. Always suppressed is the proviso - whatever the cost, to other people.
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, at least 3,200 people were killed for political reasons and another 1,197 disappeared. He himself was just fine.

And the Post editorial says we were right to support him, as he wasn't a damned communist like Castro -
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.
No, she was just deeply and vitally angered by, and deliciously frightened of, communism. She didn't know that system would fold like a house of cards, if left to do so, or if just ridiculed (that worked just fine for Havel and his folks in Czechoslovakia). On the other hand, she became famous and powerful with her anger and fear. That works well in the political marketplace. It did then, it does now.

It's just too bad that the rehabilitation of Augusto Pinochet as a hero and role model is underway. That says a lot about us.

On the other hand, again, this too may say a lot about us -
Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.

The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.
Oh, that makes it better. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said they have no plans to pull the game from any of their 3,800 stores.

Details -
In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."

Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.
As for the names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice - "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game. That is so obvious." Indeed.

And evil communists are fifties, aren't they?

And the reviews? There's this -
Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at, an online publication, said the game isn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.

"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."

But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior - and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
It will raise questions. We're told the company's ultimate goal in offering the game is "to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible." God help us all. Something is up.

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006 08:18 PST home

Sunday, 10 December 2006
Offered Without Comment
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Offered Without Comment

The events are arrayed below. Draw your own conclusions.

See Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday, December 10, 2006, Times of London with this -
Jose Padilla was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1970, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He was a troubled youth, joining a street gang when the family moved to Chicago, and was once jailed for aggravated assault.

After serving his sentence, he converted to Islam and professed non-violence. He went to the Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and worked for a charity suspected of Islamist terror ties. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Returning to Chicago on May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested and held under a warrant related to the 9/11 attacks. A month later, as a court was about to rule on whether there was any evidence to merit his detention, President George W Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant" and he was sent to a military brig in South Carolina. No charges were brought against him for 3½ years.

The basic principle of Anglo-American liberty for several hundred years has been habeas corpus - the notion that the government cannot detain a citizen without charging him with crimes that can be brought before a court and a jury of his peers. It is the keystone of any notion of a free society. For the first time in the history of the United States, it has been indefinitely suspended, and Padilla is the proof.

Padilla was not charged for three years, but he was accused. He was accused by government sources of being part of a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in an American city; he was accused by talk radio of being John Doe No 2 in the Oklahoma City bombing; and he was accused of plotting terrorist acts in the US.

After three years in solitary confinement, the Bush administration feared its detention of Padilla might be struck down by a court, and so it finally decided to charge him with a crime. The charges it brought in November 2005 included no mention of any dirty bomb, no link to Al-Qaeda, and no charge of conspiracy to commit acts of terror in America. A judge threw out other charges. None of the charges that remain involve actual terrorist activity, just of being connected to a group that may have financed such activity in Bosnia and Chechnya.

So Padilla, an American citizen, was detained without being charged for 3½ years. It was nearly two years before he had access to a lawyer.
Now his lawyer claims this -
Mr Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell.

Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr Padilla was denied even the smallest and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

… He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods.

He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios and documents to further disorientate him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake and otherwise assault Mr Padilla.
Now his legal team says he is mentally unfit to stand trial. Angela Hegarty MD, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, says now that "during questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel."

Sullivan -
To put it bluntly: he has been sent mad. Last week, new photographs surfaced of the way in which Padilla has been treated. He needed to be escorted from his cell to get root canal treatment. Padilla has never exhibited any violent behavior in detention of any kind, according to his jailers. Yet he was manacled head-to-toe, he was barefoot, and given blackout goggles so he could see no light and soundproof ear-muffs so he could hear nothing. He was escorted by three soldiers in full riot gear, visors and weapons. Suddenly, you get a glimpse of the sadism inflicted on him for three years of total isolation.

Could this still happen? Yes, it could. In fact, if another American citizen were today to be arrested by the president, and declared an enemy combatant, he would be barred from any recourse to the federal courts. The Military Commissions Act - passed in the last week of the outgoing Congress before the recent elections - stripped the courts of any jurisdiction over new military commissions set up to try and convict American citizens.
Is that troublesome? The statute - "Notwithstanding any other law (including section 2241 of title 28, United States Code, or any other habeas corpus provision), no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever, including any action pending on or filed after the date of enactment of this chapter, relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission convened under this section, including challenges to the lawfulness of the procedures of military commissions under this chapter."

So that's that. Sullivan notes that "the president can now detain any citizen he so designates, remove him from the judicial system and subject him to a military commission, with much weaker rules than a civilian court." Yes, torture is formally banned, but torture techniques such as waterboarding are still at the president's discretion. So two hundred years after the nation was formed, and almost eight centuries since the Magna Carta, Americans are "at the mercy of a new king, who can jail without charges and torture at will." So much for habeas corpus.

Is Sullivan wrong to be upset? The New York Times set him off with its December 4 item on this matter.

They note the solitary confinement -
One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.
Followed by the classic depersonalization -
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.
And they note the sensory deprivation -
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, "as part of an interrogation plan."
And although the Times is not saying the man was tortured, they do note "his interrogations… included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of 'truth serums.'"

And they quote Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, in her affidavit filed that Friday - "It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."

And note this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment or Treatment (United Nations, 1985) defines torture as: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Acts that would be considered torture under the above definition include a variety of methods: severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labor, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, hanging for prolonged periods, deprivation of basic biological needs (e.g., sleep, food, water), subjection to forced constant standing or crouching, and excessive continuous noise (e.g. McCoy, 2006; Walsh, 2006). Torture may also include actions inducing psychological suffering such as threats against the victim's family or loved ones (e.g., McCoy, 2006).

McCoy, A. W. (2006). A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

United Nations, Department of Public Information (1985). Outlawing an ancient evil: Torture. Convention against torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment. New York: Author.
So that's that. The argument we are given justifying all this is that we live in a new age of terror, and we face an existential threat unlike any we have ever faced before. What we face is a threat far more dire than the nuclear annihilation we faced in the pervious decades before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, far more serious than the threat posed by the combined Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo. This time we must play dirty and change the rules about how our government treats its own citizens. Whether that is so is a judgment call. But the idea is that, if you grant that premise, what has happen in this case presents no real issues. Even if this one citizen was a nobody - the charges were pretty much dropped, but for so minor issues - he might have been a major terrorist, and we needed to get information from him, by any means possible, even if the means were both illegal and massively counterproductive. The almost four years of what seems like torture that turned him into a useless basket case, while getting us nothing, might have gotten us something. It just didn't work out. Are you to fault the government for trying to protect us? Yes, what happened to this man could, theoretically, happen to any of us now, but the odds are against that, and you ought to trust the government. They're just trying to keep us all safe. They're not unhinged sadists, after all. That's the line. Buy it or don't.

Just note this - on December 8 the president met with a number of Democratic leaders to review the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, and discuss "the way forward in Iraq." But the president didn't want to talk about that at all -
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."
Make of that what you will. There's two more years of this in store for us all.

Posted by Alan at 21:07 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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