Monday, January 18, 2010
January 8, 2005
Two columns in The New York Times Friday summed up the state of the nation. Paul Krugman wrote a satire,1 laying out the plot of a "bad novel." The story line isn't believable enough for fiction, but, sadly, it is all too true: "conservatism" as we know it. In his bad novel, some "crusaders for moral values" will be hypocrites, others "will be driven by strange obsessions;" "the administration will use the slogan 'support the troops' to suppress criticism of its war policy" while blowing off complaints that the troops are sent out to risk their lives without sufficient armor; the President, "who portrays himself as the defender of good against evil, will preside over the widespread use of torture."
On the opposite side of the page was a column by Bob Herbert.2 Like the Krugman story, it's a commentary on what passes for morality in this supposedly values-driven administration. "If the United States were to look into a mirror right now, it wouldn't recognize itself. The administration that thumbed its nose at the Geneva Conventions seems equally dismissive of such grand American values as honor, justice, integrity, due process and the truth." The occasion for this analysis was, of course, the nomination of Alberto Gonzales, "enabler in chief of the pro-torture lobby." How could someone so obviously disqualified be put forth as the nation's premier law-enforcement official? "This is an administration that believes it can do and say whatever it wants, and that attitude is changing the very nature of the United States." It is indeed. Herbert identifies one of the causes, the spinelessness of the Congressional Democrats; the media and the people also must take their share of the blame. Ultimately, the Bush administration does what it wants because no one cares enough to protest. Herbert's take on the situation is on target: "There are few things more dangerous than a mixture of power, arrogance and incompetence." One might add that the arrogance is not merely inflated self-confidence, but the product of ideology, a crusader mentality which deludes its practitioners into believing that they deserve absolute power.
1. "Worse than Fiction," www.nytimes.com/2005/01/07/opinion/07krugman.html?th
2. "Promoting Torture's Promoter," www.nytimes.com/2005/01/07/opinion/07herbert.html?oref=login&th
January 14, 2005
I've gone through the usual stages of Democratic response to the election: shock, dismay, anger, disgust and bafflement. A few days afterward, I wrote the following two paragraphs:
The sun has shone since the election, but only literally; no thinking person can see these as anything but dark days for the United States. I thought two years ago that the result of the midterm elections, putting both houses of Congress in the control of the Republicans, was "a decision to hand complete power to an accidental president who aims for an imperial plutocracy." It was, unfortunately, only a step along the way. We went much further yesterday, legitimizing Mr. Bush's possession of the office, giving him a mandate for radical change.
I have voted, unsuccessfully, against a succession of Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon (twice), Reagan (twice), Bush I and now Bush II twice. Several of the earlier outcomes I regarded with equanimity; I thought that a few were serious mistakes, but never before have I had the feeling that the choice was disastrous. Perhaps the most agonizing, certainly the most baffling, aspect of this election is how the voters could be so blind. That has left me in a mood similar to Mark Twain's:
I have been reading the morning paper. I do it every morning - well knowing that I shall find in it the usual depravities and basenesses and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization, and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race.1
It is difficult not to agree with London's Daily Mirror, "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" However, eventually concentrating on the last, more rational, stage prompted me to download numerous columns offering opinions on why Bush won (or Kerry lost, or whatever your favorite formulation of the disaster might be). At the end of the year, I printed them out and reread the entire collection, about 175 pages. Opinions differ considerably, but they fall within remarkably few general categories. Much of the material is part of a debate over the significance of, and appropriate response to, an exit poll showing "moral values" to have been a significant factor. Although that poll now has been discounted, the message, that Democrats are out of touch with mainstream voters, still was taken seriously by most.
The statistics, both in terms of actual votes and polls, were read in different ways; let's look first at the interpretations which favored Mr. Bush. He is the first incumbent Republican president to win a presidential race and majorities in the House and Senate since 1924, and the first president of either party since 1936 to be re-elected while gaining seats in both houses. He is the first presidential candidate to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1988, and he received a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democratic candidate since 1964. 2 In 45 states, including New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, he won a larger percentage of popular votes than he did in 2000.3 Republicans now have a lock on the South and a firm grip, at least for presidential purposes, on all of the country outside the West Coast, the Northeast and the upper Midwest. Bush won every state "across the giant L that runs from the mountain states and Great Plains through the South. If you stayed south of Illinois, you could drive from California to Pennsylvania without crossing a state, and conceivably a county, that Kerry carried."4
The contrary spin was based on soothing numbers showing that Mr Bush barely won, by historical standards. His margin in the popular vote, 2.9%, is the smallest for a reelected president since 1828.5 Since 1900, all but two of the winners had a larger electoral vote margin; of the two that were smaller, one was Bush's in 2000. Only three states changed sides between 2000 and 2004, the smallest since 1900, and only two moved to Bush.6
I also reread a little book from 1966, The Ripon Society's From Disaster to Distinction, the disaster being the nomination and crushing defeat of Senator Goldwater in 1964, the distinction a hope of renewal. It's interesting in a number of ways; the one relevant here is that the Republicans found themselves in a wilderness seemingly more vast than the one the Democrats now inhabit. Goldwater lost the popular vote 61% to 38%, the electoral college 486 to 52. The new year saw only 32 Republicans in the Senate and 140 in the House (losses of 1 and 36, respectively). "In 1964, the Republican party lost an election, forfeited the accumulated gains of years, and risked its very future as a viable force in American politics."7 Two years after that dire assessment, the Republicans recaptured the White House.
Presidential elections following a reelection have not gone well for the incumbent's party. Since 1952, the candidate from that party has won an average of 207 fewer electoral college votes and 8.4 fewer percentage points in the popular vote than his predecessor. Even if the Republican candidate in 2008 matched the smallest electoral college drop in that period, 99 votes, he would not succeed Mr. Bush.8
That hopeful scenario is reinforced by an argument that cultural trends favor liberals. In this view, the present dominance of conservative opinion is doomed to fade; younger voters do not agree with the current consensus, and as older folks leave the scene, so will their conservatism: "in time this election may be seen not as the wave of the future but as the last gasp of the cultural past."9 The fact that the only age group Kerry won was 18-2910 could be seen as a sign of this.
One could argue that the vaunted conservative dominance over the Republican Party - and therefore over the rest of us - is, even now, at least partly illusory; while the party stands for conservative values, many of its leaders hold dissenting views. As Frank Rich put it, the abandonment of those values began at the convention.
. . . Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator who champions the religious right, was locked away in an off-camera rally across town from Madison Square Garden. Prime time was bestowed upon the three biggest stars in post-Bush Republican politics: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All are supporters of gay rights and opponents of the same-sex marriage constitutional amendment. Only Mr. McCain calls himself pro-life, and he's never made abortion a cause. None of the three support the Bush administration position on stem-cell research. . .Whether the implied automatic reversal of fortune really will occur is far from certain and the Democrats would be foolish - even more so than usual- to count on it. What, then, was the key to this election and, by extension, the way to reverse the result?
If the Republican party's next round of leaders are all cool with blue culture, why should Democrats run after the red? . . .11
One possible, and seemingly obvious, explanation is that voters approved Mr. Bush's policies; that was David Brooks' theory: "He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror."12 The comments about terrorism are significant, but the notion that voters generally approve Mr. Bush's performance seems unrealistic. The salient fact about the polls for some time has been the low level of support for most Bush policies and how far his approval ratings have fallen. Seven polls taken in December or January showed an average approval rating of 49.1%,1 which has to be unusual for a newly re-elected president.
The basis for Mr. Bush's victory is much less specific and intellectual than Mr. Brooks suggests. Thomas Friedman captured the mood:
. . . It seemed as if people were not voting on his performance. It seemed as if they were voting for what team they were on.Several commentators pointed out that issues which might have helped Mr. Kerry were not emphasized, that voters were not offered a chance to base their decision on the economy or tax cuts or health care. Do we conclude that Kerry lost because he ran a bad campaign? He made mistakes, among them not emphasizing those domestic issues. His supposed invulnerability on national security - his military record and his vote for the Iraq war - collapsed. Being for the Iraq war never could be a winning position for him, and he missed his chance to take the opposite side by refusing repudiate his vote for the war resolution, even when circumstances made that plausible and defensible. Conversely, his vote against the Iraq funding bill was a tactical error, made worse by his foolish explanation that he voted for it before he voted against it. I thought at the time that the high-road strategy at the convention was wise, but in retrospect it looks passive and futile. More importantly, Senator Kerry never defined himself, allowing the Republicans to do that. "His campaign was notable for lacking signature themes and proposals that typical voters could easily grasp and identify with. . . . How many voters knew the one or two thematic phrases (if they existed) that summarized what John Kerry stood for?"15 However, I doubt that any of this mattered; the outcome of the election probably was decided on September 11, 2001.
This was not an election. This was station identification. I'd bet anything that if the election ballots hadn't had the names Bush and Kerry on them but simply asked instead, "Do you watch Fox TV or read The New York Times?" the Electoral College would have broken the exact same way.14
The assault on September 11 has to be understood in the context of the images of the parties. If 9-11 had happened on Clinton's watch, it would have hurt him; there would have been cries for impeachment. Unlike the Democrats, who rallied around, the first instinct for Republicans would have been political vengeance. The media would not have been so forgiving. And the people, even unaided, would have reacted negatively, simply because Democrats are assumed to be weak, and therefore must have been at fault.
For Bush, 9-11 was a blessing. There is a strong tendency to identify nationalism, patriotism and security with the conservative party; 9-11 brought those factors to the fore. We had been attacked; there was a danger of further attacks and we wanted revenge: the tough party was needed. Never mind whether, by any rational standard, that party really is tough; never mind whether it protected us on 9-11; certainly never mind whether its policies were likely to lead to greater security. Image is all, so talk matters and deeds are of secondary importance. Karl Rove, whose reputed political genius often is invisible to me, did have this concept firmly in mind shortly after 9-11: "Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe. We can . . . go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
Mr. Friedman had a further comment: "We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is." This takes us back to the values question, because it is part of the same image problem which includes the national-security issue; Democrats lose because voters don't identify with them, because they are perceived to be not quite genuine Americans. Whatever the merit of the exit poll, Bush won in part because voters declared themselves in favor of "values," the domestic aspect of real-Americanism.
The cultural gap is reflected in Democrats' problems with white working-class voters. Clinton managed to carry that group (barely), but Gore and Kerry lost decisively, as did Democratic Congressional candidates in 2002.
Democrats' difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters' sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic party and its relatively cosmopolitan values concerning religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices. Even the war on terror has increasingly become more a cultural issue linked to patriotism than a true foreign policy issue for many of these voters.16That alienation from the Democratic Party, in one writer's view, is based on the party's perceived indifference to issues of "vulnerability." While liberals focus on such large issues as tax policy and the environment, "many working-class Americans - once the core Democratic constituency - feel vulnerable on matters closer to home: family stability and integrity, marriage, children and fatherhood, pornography and cultural permissiveness."17
On the surface, it is puzzling that people of ordinary means vote for candidates who say the right things about value issues and talk tough about national security, but rarely do anything useful, and whose economic programs not only favor the rich but sometimes directly harm those voters. As Thomas Frank put it,
. . . Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.18Why don't they vote their economic interests instead? Frank, and others, explain that people behave like this in part because they don't believe that Democrats will actually do anything for them. Democrats may or may not have become the cultural elitists of popular myth, but they have become pro-business, soft-money-chasing "centrists" whose concern for the economic circumstances of working people sometimes is difficult to discern. Why bother voting for them?
One suggestion, not surprisingly, was for Democrats to return to economic populism, to abandon the program of the DLC, to attack Republicans head-on as economic elitists. This is right, and important not just for reasons of political advantage. However, some would emphasize this to the exclusion of cultural issues. That would be shortsighted; there is more to being a citizen than arranging for a safety net. The only pre-election comment I included in my survey included this prescient observation:
[Voters'] practical interests have been betrayed so consistently, for so long, by so many politicians, that they have no reason to believe in the promise of middle-class comfort and security Kerry offers.However false Bush's vision of American greatness may be, it's loftier than "middle-class comfort." Richard Cohen, noting that Democrats profess not to understand why working people vote values rather than economic interests, reminded them that they count on just that decision from others.
Besides, the American dream seems a rather paltry and selfish ideal when stripped from its larger context of national greatness. Kerry asks us all to step into the booth on Election Day as individuals, trying to make the best possible life for ourselves and our families. Bush asks us to step into that booth as citizens of God's chosen nation, with a mission to let freedom ring.19
Sometimes a voter may actually decide to vote against his or her economic self-interest. In an Oct. 26 column I cited Jewish voters as an example. As a definable group, they are among the wealthiest in the country, and yet time and again they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In the 2004 election, Bush got only about 20 percent of the Jewish vote. . . .Several commentators recommended casting liberal programs in the language of values; isn't decent health care for all a value? This is dangerous unless the connection is real; otherwise it will be seen as mere opportunism. An example of such a connection which seems to work is found in Wealth and Our Commonwealth; in a section entitled "American Values: the Roots of the Estate Tax," the taxation of inherited wealth is portrayed as an extension of American republicanism.21
Most Jews are not voting Democratic out of mere habit. They are making a conscious decision to forgo an economic benefit for something that matters more - a cultural imperative for social justice. They believe in social welfare programs. They believe in redistributing wealth (some of it, anyway), and they believe firmly in civil rights and civil liberties. . .
It behooves Democrats to understand that Christian conservatives can make the same, hard choices. . . .20
It was suggested that people don't know what Democrats stand for. "Democrats have a collection of policy positions that are sensible and right. . . . What we don't have, and what we sorely need, is . . . a worldview that makes a thematic argument about where America is headed and where we want to take it."22 This is partly right; some voters don't know what the party stands for, not surprisingly, as the party doesn't know either. However, the greater problem is that many voters think that they do know what Democrats stand for, and they don't like it.
Some critics put this in explicitly religious terms. Steven Waldman described the variations on this theme.23 First, "many believe that God put [George Bush] in office;" I doubt that Democrats will make any headway with that group. Many Christians "feel misunderstood and persecuted" and believe that professions of faith are "mocked by elites." If people thought the last of Senator Kerry, clearly they weren't paying attention, but in general this complaint has some validity. Christians "believe in Mr. Bush because he rejects moral relativism. His willingness to call terrorists evil resonated with them because they believe that mainstream media and culture have lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong." This is an ironic point of view given the abundant examples of moral error in this administration. It also places some of the blame for cultural decline in the wrong place; capitalism has as much to with that as liberalism. This is not any easy one to deal with, but somehow Democrats must shed the image of the party of relativist morals. "Finally, the 'values voters' . . .believe that God needs to be more present in public life. The Ten Commandments in the courtroom, prayer in school, 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance - these are all critical issues to many religious conservatives. They believe that we've kicked out God from our lives." The last, general, comment needs to be addressed; the specifics are another matter.
A similar analysis, from a different perspective, was offered by Michael Tomasky; it's a serious and open-minded attempt to bridge the gap, and worth quoting at length.24 First he distinguishes the religious right from other voters who are religious. "The former are not persuadable; they want to extinguish modernity, they privilege mystical belief over physical evidence, and they will never vote Democratic. . . ." That more or less corresponds to Mr. Waldman's first category. Mr. Tomasky then describes other "deeply religious" voters:
. . . They can have qualms about gay marriage without wanting to go back to Victorian morality. They can find themselves disturbed by the way Democratic politicians talk about abortion without wanting all women to be housewives. (Indeed, they can be disturbed by the rhetoric while still supporting the notion that abortion should remain an option.) . . .The last sentence is the key: respect, not necessarily full agreement. However, Mr. Tomasky wants to go further. His liberal parents taught him that religion and politics didn't mix.
. . . They're not interested in building a Christian nation and in fact are likely to be quite against that idea. But they go to church (maybe temple, but usually church), and faith is important to them, so they need some signal from the Democratic Party that it has respect for that aspect of their lives.
. . . Back then, they didn't, and they didn't because modernity and liberalism had taught people that they didn't, and the consensus held firm for the most part from the Scopes trial until the age of Reagan.The last two sentences have a weird correspondence to an argument by the Republican candidate for governor in Washington in 1996, Ellen Craswell: "A lot of people say religion and politics don't mix. Well, they better start mixing." Mrs. Craswell was a candidate of the religious right who argued that "Christians should be outraged at the secularization of government" and proposed to run the state on Biblical principles. Mr. Tomasky certainly didn't have that sort of thing in mind: "This does not mean that Democrats and liberalism should placate the Christian right or willingly succumb to Christian Nation. They should not." His point is that "Democrats and liberals should work much harder to understand and win over the voters of the religious center." I agree, but putting the adjustment in terms of mixing religion and politics confuses the issue and misstates the relationship, which must be one of respectful, non-hostile separation.
The age of skepticism has won a few and lost a few since Reagan's time. But let's face it: That age is now, in this country, dead. Today, religion and politics do mix. And they will keep mixing for the foreseeable future. . . .
As long as I'm quibbling over formulations, let me record my disagreement that the "age of skepticism," is or should be dead; we might as well say that the age of reason, the enlightenment, are done. Do we now teach that the world was created in 4004 B.C.? Mr. Tomasky didn't intend that either, but he concluded with a proposal for a dialogue that seems to imply that specifically religious beliefs should affect policy.
The Democratic Party should invest money in talking to - not polling or focus-grouping; talking to - these voters, learning the true extent to which they feel alienated from the party, finding out how they think about their religious and political selves, how they weigh their own interpretations of the Scriptures with regard to gay rights on the one hand and helping people in poverty on the other. . . .Maybe I'm searching for a resting place between secularism and religious involvement in politics that doesn't exist or can't be maintained, but again I think he's taken one step too many. He certainly can't be faulted for hiding behind tired liberal attitudes.
The religious right has opened up a new battlefield, and, like it or not, we have to play on it. . . .
In their quest for the connection to middle America, with attention to the question of religion, Democrats could do worse than consult Garrison Keillor's new book. Mr. Keillor, at this point in his life, does not exactly qualify as Joe Sixpack; he is university educated, is a writer and entertainer, has lived in New York and Copenhagen, and even now lives in a blue state. In addition, his affiliation with the Democratic Party has been absorbed as much as chosen. Still, he describes and still to some degree represents mainstream America.
I am a Democrat, which was nothing I decided for myself but simply the way I was brought up, starting with the idea of Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the basis of the simple social compact by which we live and also You are not so different from other people so don't give yourself airs, which was drummed into us children back in the old days when everyone went to public schools. . . . The democracy of the gospel. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All we like sheep have gone astray. These articles of faith, plus our common tongue and a fondness for jokes and the American landscape, bind us together in a union of souls, each one free, each one devoted to the union.25This is a long way from the image of the Chardonnay-and-Brie elite, the amoral secular relativists. Not everyone would agree that the natural home of people of Mr. Keillor's background is the Democratic Party, but he refutes the current notion that they are destined to be Republicans.
One feature of liberalism which frequently is part of the values debate is its emphasis on individual rights. On a philosophical level, the complaint is that this leaves liberalism with no basis for moral judgments. As one of our panel put it, "A 'rights'-obsessed liberalism that prattles on about respecting all 'differences' and suspending moral judgments ends up having to rely on virtues and beliefs that liberalism itself cannot nourish, much less impose. . . ."26 This is an old theme: liberalism has survived only by borrowing virtue from the very traditions that it challenges. "[L]iberalism has lived on the capital left by illiberal ages. It has stood for greater flexibility, for individual variation, but always in relation to a larger tradition, an older orthodoxy, in the background." 27 Liberalism needs to decide that it is part of, and reconcile with, the traditional, religious value structure or come up with some persuasive, compatible alternative; it can't successfully operate from a moral vacuum.
A more practical criticism is that the liberal emphasis on individual rights ignores community interests. This needn't be, and liberals must reexamine their inventory of rights and decide which really are basic and how they fit into a functioning community.
While the Democratic Party and liberals must engage is some sort of rapprochement with and accommodation to the cultural mainstream, they need not be shy about exposing the inconsistencies and hypocrisies inherent in the philosophy of the cultural-religious-political right. They must announce that they are Democrats and liberals by opposing the unenlightened, reactionary, inhumane, dangerous policies of the Bush administration and what laughably is called conservatism. If the early response to the nomination of Alberto Gonzales is an indication, they are off to a bad start.
1. Quoted in Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, vol. 3, p. 89.
2. Todd Purdum, "Electoral Affirmation of Shared Values Provides Bush a Majority," The New York Times, 11/4/04. Mr. Purdum used "re-elected" strictly; Truman and Johnson were returned to office with gains in both Houses.
3. David Brooks, "The Values-Vote Myth," The New York Times, 11/6/04. Actually, Mr. Bush increased his percentage in 46 states.
4. Ronald Brownstein, "Washington Outlook," The Los Angeles Times, 11/8/04. See the county map on www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/
5. Ronald Brownstein, "GOP's Margin Of Victory And Its Precedents In U.S. History,"
6. Eric Black, "2004 Election Was a Squeaker, in Historical Sense," 12/13/04; http://startribune.com.stories/587/5133487.html . Bush's share of electoral votes, 53%, is the third smallest share since 1804, again including his from 2000.
7. From Disaster to Distinction: the Rebirth of the Republican Party, pp. 12, 121.
8. Ronald Brownstein,"GOP's Margin Of Victory And Its Precedents In U.S. History," supra. Here "reelected" is used in the broader sense, so the analysis includes the elections following Truman's in 1948 and Johnson's in 1964.
9. Leonard Steinhorn, "Why the Democrats Don't Have to Worry About the Voters Who Are Obsessed with Old-Fashioned Morality," 11-08-04; http://hnn.us/articles/8436.html
10. Robert Borosage & Katrina Vanden Heuvel, "Progressives: Get Ready to Fight," 11/29/04; www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041129&s=borosagekvh
11. Frank Rich, "On 'Moral Values,' It's Blue in a Landslide," The New York Times, 11/14/04.
12. "The Values-Vote Myth," supra.
13. The range was 48 to 52%; www.pollingreport.com/BushJob.htm
14. "Two Nations Under God," The New York Times, 11/4/04.
15. "Two Nations Under God," The New York Times, 11/4/04.
16. Ruy Teixeira, "Kerry the Cultural Alien," supra.
17. Anthony Robinson, "Making Sense of Moral Surprise during the 2004 Election," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11/14/04.
18. What's the Matter with Kansas? p. 7.
19. Ira Chernus, "Presidential Fiction: The Story Behind the Debate," 9/30/04;
20. "Dupes and Dopes of Campaign '04, The Washington Post, 11/9/04.
21. Gates and Collins, Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes, p. 27.
22. Andrei Cherny, "Why We Lost," The New York Times, 11/5/04.
23. "On a Word and a Prayer," The New York Times, 11/6/04. Mr. Waldman is editor of Beliefnet.com.
24. "The Gettables," 11/8/04; www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=8842 . Mr. Tomasky is Executive Editor of The American Prospect.
25. Homegrown Democrat, pp. 1-2.
26. Jim Sleeper. "Identity Cleft," 11.04.04;
27. Charles Frankel, The Pleasures of Philosophy, p. 139 (1972). The quote is from a comment on three essays by Santayana, one of which is "The Irony of Liberalism," published in 1922.
Charles Graner was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for his part in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is possible that his superiors may be charged, but no one is betting that the blame will travel far up the ranks. It is even less likely that the civilians who created the culture which led to the practices at Abu Ghraib, at Guantánamo and elsewhere will pay any price. This administration's class-based attitude is straight out of the conservative manual: responsibility, like paying taxes, is for little people.
In this case, avoiding responsibility is given a democratic spin. As George W. Bush, political philosopher, put it, "we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election." He has given himself a free pass, and his counselor a promotion. Most likely Congress, the media and the people will go along, thus validating his self-serving theory and reenforcing his arrogance.
In Mr. Bush's view, the election demonstrated approval of his handling of Iraq, presumably including the misrepresentations which got us there. Therefore, he is pursuing Social Security "reform" in the same manner. The voters said truth doesn't matter.
Mr. Bush acknowledged that he might have been too quick with a quip during the first term, so we shouldn't expect anything as blunt (other adjectives come to mind) as "bring 'em on!" or "dead or alive." His resolve didn't last long. Why haven't we brought Osama bin Laden back dead or alive? "Because he's hiding." Brilliant. I'm reassured about the next four years.
January 22, 2005
If one were to rely on the editorial opinions in yesterday's New York Times, he might be tempted to think that the President said something meaningful in his inaugural address. William Safire, easily impressed by anything unilateral, rated it "among the top 5 of the 20 second-inaugurals in our history," below Lincoln's but above Jefferson's.1 The speech pleased people of Mr. Safire's persuasion, "formerly known as hardliners, now called Wilsonian idealists," who "put freedom first, recalling that the U.S. has often had to go to war to gain and preserve it." I suppose that "Wilsonian idealist" is more comforting than "gullible militarist."
The inaugural address did sound an echo of Wilson: we must make the world safe for freedom. Bush and Wilson also share a strong element of self-righteousness. However, Wilson, for all his tendency to try to dictate terms, wanted us to be part of an international organization, not exactly a Bush priority. In addition, any comparison assumes that Bush really is concerned about spreading freedom, not merely making the world safe for American corporations.
The house editorial, usually more critical of Mr. Bush, offered this complacent appraisal: "The president is expected to deliver an address that emphasizes the basic principles that unite the country. On that count, George W. Bush did his job." Unless our uniting principles are found in deceitful banalities, I would beg to differ.
Let's look at what he said.2 "At this second gathering, our duties are defined not by the words I use, but by the history we have seen together." That was suitably modest but hardly sincere, as he went on to define those duties with emphasis and redundancy.
"For a half century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders." Here is an attempt to tie the occupation of Iraq to the policies of the Cold War: we must defend ourselves from a forward position. However, Iraq was not mentioned by name. The entire speech was abstract and poetic; 9-11 became "a day of fire."
That day exposed our vulnerability, which will remain so long as "whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny - prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder. . . ." Our borders no longer protect us. "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom." Here things get a little muddled. "The pretensions of tyrants" suggests that rulers are our nemesis, but the reference to regions simmering in resentment and tyranny seems to indicate that the problem is the anger of the downtrodden. This is not a new muddle; it is found in the mutating excuses for invading Iraq.
Mr. Bush neglected to mention any resentment created by our policies, and he said little about democracy. "Freedom" was used 27 times, "free" 7 times and "liberty" 15. "Democracy," appeared once, "democratic" twice. The trend of events in that unnamed Middle Eastern country may have influenced the choice of words. Iraq is "free" in the sense that it no longer has a dictator, but democracy may be a long time coming in any meaningful, stable form. Defining the goal in terms of "freedom" would facilitate declaring victory.
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." This serves to justify both the sacrifice of life in Iraq and any future adventures. The former is the most infuriating of the administrations' lies, telling troops and their families that those killed or maimed Iraq were defending our freedom as well as liberating the Iraqis. It is, however, in a grand tradition; national leaders always have sent their youth off to die under some such cover. Mr. Bush, who really has no shame, laid it on with a trowel:
This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law. . . . America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.Where have we helped others to attain their freedom? In Saudi Arabia? In Pakistan? Is this done by the example of the United States, whose capital looked like a police state on Inauguration Day? We imposed not merely our style of government on Iraq, but our rule. We attempted to imbed privatization and supply-side economics in the new structure. We planned and may still plan on building permanent military bases there. The sincerity of his commitment to the rule of law has been established by the nomination of Alberto Gonzales.
"America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains. . . ." Perhaps not, but the Bush administration is content with jailing alleged "enemy combatants," even if citizens, forever. "Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty. . . ." The only one I recall having done that is Mr. Bush, in his inane formula that terrorists hate freedom.
Mr. Bush issued a challenge to young people: "Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself - and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character." This from an administration which not only is ethically challenged but unapologetic when caught.
He then presented the domestic version of liberty: the ownership society.
We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance - preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.As Mr. Bush's tax policy makes clear, his ownership society is one in which a few own everything. Putting every citizen in charge of his destiny is Bushspeak for "you're on your own." Justice and equality have nothing to do with it.
The Times' editorial concluded that the speech "suited the day." It did not suit any day that I can bring to mind.3
1. Mr. Safire's 20 "second-inaugurals" include presidents who succeeded on death and then were elected; only 16 presidents have been elected twice.
3. Bob Herbert's column yesterday put the inaugural festivities in realistic perspective.
On Sunday, The New York Times carried a long review by Andrew Sullivan of two books which publish the major documents in the scandal for which Abu Ghraib has become the symbol.
Mr. Sullivan sets forth a number of sound conclusions: The release of the torture documentation is good news and bad for our self-conception: "only a country that is still free would allow such airing of blood-soaked laundry," but "the crimes committed strike . . . deeply at the core of what a free country is supposed to mean." The path to torture began at the Oval Office: "The critical enabling decision was the president's insistence" that captives "be deemed 'unlawful combatants' rather than prisoners of war." Although most of the documents show the President receiving only the advice he wanted, there was a warning, from Secretary Powell, of the implications of ignoring the Geneva Conventions, a memo Sullivan describes as "prescient and sane." Torture probably is ineffective in obtaining useful information and is counterproductive in an operation which depends on winning hearts and minds. The President should accept some of the blame, but he has done the opposite: "His first instinct was to minimize the issue; later, his main references to it were a couple of sentences claiming that the abuses were the work of a handful of miscreants, rather than a consequence of his own decisions."
Mr. Sullivan accurately describes some the memoranda which led to the use of torture, but in discussing the President's responsibility, he softens their effect, referring to "a strangely nuanced signal," a "mixed message," vast loopholes . . . in the White House torture memos," "winks and nods from Washington" and "ambiguous directions." While those terms describe aspects of the process, they minimize the impact; the effect is to suggest that torture was an unintended consequence, that the President and his advisors are guilty only of negligence. The truth is more unpleasant. Torture was the direct and hardly accidental result of the memos which constructed elaborate legal excuses for it.
Mr. Sullivan is harder on himself. He asks whether his support for the war is a source of the problem.
Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? . . .He acknowledges that the answer is yes. He goes a step further: "those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences." That's admirable, especially in contrast to those in charge.
However, we part company here. Mr. Sullivan's reason for this brutally frank examination is that "getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war." He's certainly right that "when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods." But it is more important than that. This cancer is attacking the American social and political body, not just the war effort. The cancer is not merely the torture, but the bending of the law to justify it, the theory of untrammeled presidential power of which that is an extension, and the amoral atmosphere in which they all have emerged. That cancer will destroy us, at least as the principled democracy our President claims to lead.
Mr. Sullivan apparently still believes that the occupation of Iraq has something to do with "the war on terror." He tells us that the war is both military and political and that the "president's great contribution has been to recognize that a solution is impossible without political reform in the Middle East." Assuming that his formula is accurate, it has no application to Iraq. We are not engaged in bringing political reform, unless overthrowing a government so qualifies. If Mr. Sullivan is serious about reform, let's have his ideas about Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes, and his solutions other than shock and awe.
January 27 2005
The inaugural address, we were told shortly after its delivery, was statement not of policy but of aspiration. It would be more accurate to call it a mantra. "Freedom," used 27 times in the address, turned up 16 times in Wednesday's press conference. 1
What would be a credible turnout in the Iraq election? "It's a -- it is a grand moment for those who believe in freedom."
Should we interpret the inaugural address as stating a more aggressive policy toward Iran? "The spread of freedom is important for future generations of Americans."
During the debate over the Rice appointment, Democrats accused the administration of lying in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Some Republicans conceded that mistakes were made. Are you willing to concede that any mistakes were made? "We look forward to spreading freedom around the world."
The low point of the session came in response to the news of 37 military deaths in Iraq yesterday. First, the President was asked what he knew about the cause of the helicopter crash, and his reaction to it. He said that the cause was under investigation, and "obviously, any time we lose life it is a sad moment." The reporter did not press for anything more, and the next question moved to the financial cost of the war and the deficit. Later, Mr. Bush was asked how he would respond to people who say the situation in Iraq is not what we were led to believe would happen. He referred to the casualties in a manner which perfectly captures his inane callousness:
And listen, the story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people. I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. And -- but it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom. Otherwise, the Middle East will be -- will continue to be a cauldron of resentment and hate, a recruiting ground for those who have this vision of the world that is the exact opposite of ours.See, I've shown compassion. Let's move on.
Carl, welcome to the beat. Is everybody thrilled Carl is here?
Q Yes. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, very much.
THE PRESIDENT: Please express a little more enthusiasm for him. (Laughter.)
February 18, 2005
The Los Angeles Times reported on February 13 that white supremacist groups are running ads aimed at recruiting new members and gaining mainstream support. The article carried a reaction by a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center: "We are completely in favor of the 1st Amendment. [But] they poison the public discourse with ideas like 'Jews are behind it all and need killing.' " The founder of one of the groups, The National Alliance, is widely quoted as saying, as to 9-11, "anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is alright [sic] by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude." 1
There is a bizarre parallel on the left. Ward Churchill's First Amendment rights also are being defended, the defense made necessary by his comments about 9-11. In an essay written shortly after the event, he said this as to those killed in the World Trade Center,
Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire - the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved - and they did so both willingly and knowingly. . . . If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.There are, however, differences in these reprehensible reactions. The former was a formulaic expression of ethnic and religious hatred, applied with equal ease to any situation. The latter was an incoherent, hysterical distortion of a legitimate point of view, that our policies increase the likelihood of attacks upon us. Churchill made that point elsewhere in his essay, although ineptly. He later offered a defensive restatement: "I have never said that people 'should' engage in armed attacks on the United States, but that such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy."2 Whether they are unavoidable, let alone "natural," is debatable, but we do need to consider the consequences of our policies, which only became worse after 9-11. However, instead of focusing attention on that issue, Churchill, in addition to traducing the victims, drew attention away from it by engaging in a violent form of the blame-America-first argument.
There is another way in which the reactions differ: violence, at least of the rhetorical variety, stands at a shorter remove from the mainstream on the right than on the left. A few days ago, I received an advertisement which illustrates that greater proximity.
Something called "American Compass," a right-wing Book-of-the-Month Club, wanted me to subscribe. It describes itself as "The Conservative Alternative" and offers "books you can believe in." Many of them were respectable, if not tempting, but one, featured on the cover, makes the point. That is Ann Coulter's latest effusion, How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), from which this quote is presented: "I am often asked if I still think that we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. The answer is: Now more than ever." The barbarism about which she allegedly is asked - by her psychiatrist? - also was a reaction to 9-11. Despite Ms. Coulter's antisocial tendencies, she is listed with pride by this book club, is carried by Townhall. com, appears on TV and speaks to conservative groups. She produced the following gem at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002:
In contemplating college liberals, you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors. . . . 3Was CPAC embarrassed by this exercise in bloodlust? Hardly; Annie will be back for this year's conference, sharing the podium with Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and five Senators.4
1. See, e.g., www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/w_revolution.asp?print=true
2. The essay, the restatement, and comments are at www.politicalgateway.com/news/read.html?id=2739
3. Among other sources: http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=1626
February 26, 2005
Columnists are advising us that the debate over Social Security is misdirected, that we're being misinformed. Some of the columns actually clarify the facts, and demonstrate that the supposed crisis is exaggerated and that privatization (or its current euphemism) will add to the general-account deficit while contributing nothing to solving the shortfall in the Social Security fund. Some of the opinions, however, lend support to Bush's arguments, intentionally or otherwise. The influential Washington Post is a major contributor to this category.
Let's start with a column on February 21 by Charles Krauthammer. He advises us that the President understated the problem when, in the State of the Union address, "he warned that the system would go bankrupt in 2042." That's meaningless, Krauthammer says: "2042 is the fictional date for the fictional bankruptcy of a fictional trust fund." The trust fund is "fictional" because it has been invested, as the law requires, in government bonds, which, in his view, have no value; therefore the Social Security system "has no trust fund."
The money [collected each year] goes to support that year's Social Security recipients. What's left over is "loaned" to the federal Treasury. And gets entirely spent. It vanishes. In return, a piece of paper gets deposited in a vault in West Virginia saying that the left hand of the government owes money to the right hand of the government.Since the obligations of the government are worthless, the system will collapse, not in 2042 but in 2018, when it begins to pay out more than it takes in. That is one way to look at it. If the United States government defaults on its obligations; if it tells the Social Security trust fund that, although it will pay off bonds owed to the Chinese government, it will stiff American retirees; if, despite its pretensions to high standards, it has the ethics of a criminal; if we allow it to ignore the fact that regressive payroll taxes were increased twenty years ago precisely to help solve the problem we are discussing, by creating that trust fund; if the trustees fail to sue the government to enforce its obligations; then yes: the "pieces of paper" will be worthless.
These pieces of paper might be useful for rolling cigars. They will not fund your retirement. . . .
The bonds and certificates issued to the trust fund are redeemed routinely, paid in full with interest. Because the fund constantly receives tax revenue and pays benefits, it buys and redeems certificates and bonds several times per month. 1 To be sure, redemption now
is essentially painless, as the value of securities purchased exceeds, annually, the value of those redeemed. When the trust fund requires net inflows, the strain on the general fund will be severe if nothing is done to repair the tax system between now and then. However, payment probably will be made; the government cannot afford to default. If it did, the U.S. never would sell another bond; that is not an option.
Dr. Krauthammer complains that, by pushing the fatal date too far in the future, Mr. Bush is understating the problem, but downplaying the "crisis" is the last thing one could find him guilty of. It may be that Krauthammer is trying to make the point that action should be taken now to cure the shortfall, which is sound, but he also talks of reforming the system, which is Bushspeak for undermining it, and refers to Mr. Bush as the "chief reformer." If he is concerned about repayment to the trust fund, he should be calling for the demise of the tax cuts, but there is no mention of that. To assume, virtually to approve, a default on a solemn, legally binding obligation reflects a peculiarly amoral theory of governance.
Finally, it is difficult to see where Krauthammer is going with his argument. He criticizes the Democrats for ignoring the problem, which is fair comment. He acknowledges that private accounts will not solve it. He seems to say that the options are to raise taxes or cut benefits. True enough, but if we raise taxes now, the money will go into the trust fund and part of it will be invested, as it is now. Unless there is buried in all this an unstated desire to invest the surplus in the stock market, we've come full circle.
Another conservative theme is that we face a crisis in funding of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare and Medicaid face more serious shortfalls than Social Security, so it is helpful to those who wish to undermine Social Security to lump it with the other programs. Whether that is Robert Samuelson's intent I do not know, but he offers support for it.
His column of February 23 is entitled "Journalistic Malpractice." By this he means the inability or unwillingness of reporters to "measure politicians' promises against underlying realities, as represented by numbers." Reporters are, certainly, too shy about challenging administration claims, numerically or otherwise. Mr. Samuelson thinks that the media were negligent in failing to challenge the costs of the Bush drug plan; I agree. He thinks that "they're committing a similar blunder with President Bush's Social Security plan." However, he contends that the problem is "the coming spending explosion in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, driven by aging baby boomers and rising health spending." Directing reporters' attention toward Medicare and Medicaid is not going to increase their understanding of the issues concerning Social Security.
In the current New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman analyzes this approach (without reference to Samuelson). As he puts it, "there is no program called Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid: these are separate programs with separate problems." Mr. Samuelson points out that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the combined costs, which were about 8% of GDP last year, will rise to 14 percent of GDP in 2030. "Once you've done this math, you recognize that benefit cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are inevitable." However, Krugman shows that Social Security outlays will rise from 4.2% to 6% of GDP over that period, and then "stabilize," while the others continue to increase.2 Samuelson says that the increases in the three programs are due to aging and "rising health spending." Krugman shows that, as to Medicare and Medicaid, the latter is a major factor. Social Security, the program most affected by demographics, has the most modest increase. It is illogical and misleading to conflate it with the other programs, when it does not share their problems and - Krauthammer's opinion to the contrary notwithstanding - it has its own dedicated funding. Tying it to more troubled programs serves the administration's need to create a crisis.
A third Post columnist added support for Mr. Bush's proposal, intentionally, along with some comic relief. In 1983, George Will wrote a book entitled Statecraft as Soulcraft, in which he presented a theory that "involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens." "Soulcraft," even in that limited form, disappeared during Mr. Will's turn to a more aggressive form of anti-statism in the early 90s, perhaps because Soulcraft had recorded his "belief in strong government, including the essentials of the welfare state." On January 30, soulcraft reappeared, less welfare, to be placed at the service of the ownership society:
It cannot be said of Bush, as was famously said of Martin Van Buren, that he rows toward his goals "with muffled oars." Bush has said, "I don't do nuance," and his "ownership society" agenda -- from Social Security personal accounts to health savings accounts to tax cuts -- is explicitly explained as soulcraft. Its purpose is to combat the learned incompetence of those who become comfortable with excessive dependence on and supervision by government. His agenda's aim is to continue, in the language of his inaugural address, "preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society."Assuming that this is not offered tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Bush's oars are sufficiently muffled to deceive Mr. Will as to the direction in which the boat is moving: toward the destruction of Social Security, not citizenship training.
That is the crux of modern conservatism: government taking strong measures to foster in the citizenry the attitudes and aptitudes necessary for increased individual independence. . . .
Lest I leave the impression that The Post never gets it right, I'll quote Richard Cohen, who has better hearing:
I do not want to belabor the analogy to WMD, but really it is almost impossible to do so. The same exaggerations, false claims of crisis and ideological fantasies . . . are being seen once again. A president who wanted war with Iraq no matter what now wants to overhaul the Social Security system no matter what. Last time, I raised my hand and enlisted. This time, it's staying on my wallet. 3
Congress needs to do two things. First, decide on a method of covering the relatively modest projected shortfall in the Social Security fund. Second, restore sanity to the general budget, i.e., stop running massive deficits. The former may require benefit reductions, but certainly will require tax increases. The latter, realistically, is almost entirely dependent on increasing revenue. Much of that could come from cancelling the temporary tax cuts Mr. Bush irrationally wants to make permanent. If Republicans want to call that a tax increase, so be it. It is time to face facts; let small minds prattle about labels.
2. The Social Security/GDP ratio does continue to rise, albeit slowly; CBO data show it at 5.64% in 2025, 6.37% in 2050 and 6.65% in 2075. www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=6064&sequence=0
3. December 21, 2004. Also, The Post ran an article today presenting an impartial, if not altogether accurate, summary of aspects of the Social Security debate.
March 2, 2005
On Monday, the Padilla case began its journey back to the Supreme Court with a victory for Padilla and for civil liberties.
After being told by the Supreme Court on June 28, 2004 that he had filed his petition in the wrong jurisdiction, Padilla wasted no time, refiling it in South Carolina on July 2. He moved for summary judgment on October 20, and the motion was argued on January 5. The government relied on Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 1 In re Quirin2 and the Joint Resolution for Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), 3 the petitioner on Ex parte Milligan 4 and the Non-Detention Act.5 The District Court for the District of South Carolina conditionally granted a writ of habeas corpus, ordering Padilla's release within 45 days, but with this footnote: "Of course, if appropriate, the Government can bring criminal charges against Petitioner or it can hold him as a material witness."6 The latter option would have been better left unstated, given the government's willingness to misuse that device.
The government argued that Hamdi and Quirin "reaffirm the military's long-settled authority - independent of and distinct from the criminal process - to detain enemy combatants for the duration of a given armed conflict, including the current conflict against al Qaeda." The District Court held that, although the plurality opinion in Hamdi allowed the indefinite detention of an enemy combatant, it adopted a limited definition of that term for purposes of its decision: one who "was part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners in Afghanistan and who engaged in an armed conflict against the United States there" or one who "was carrying a weapon against American troops on a foreign battlefield . . . ." The government apparently argued for a more general interpretation of Hamdi, but without success. The District Court cited numerous comments in the plurality opinion which stressed foreign-battlefield capture or recited that the decision was limited to "the narrow circumstances" of the case.
The District Court also noted that one of the judges of the Fourth Circuit had emphasized the dissimilarity of the two cases: "To compare this battlefield capture [of Hamdi] to the domestic arrest in Padilla v. Bush is to compare apples and oranges."7 It will be interesting to see whether the distinction is as clear to the Court of Appeals when this case arrives there.
The Court distinguished Quirin on the ground that there was an authorizing statute in that case, but none here; as the opinion puts it, quoting Quirin, "Congress had 'explicitly provided, so far as it may constitutionally do so, that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenders or offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases.' . . . Therefore, since no such Congressional authorization is present here, Respondent's argument as to the application of Quirin must fail." Strictly speaking, that is beside the point. Padilla isn't challenging trial for espionage before a military tribunal, as the petitioners did in Quirin; he is challenging indefinite detention without charge. The Court noted that, but only in a footnote, no doubt because the Supreme Court in Hamdi endorsed the notion that Quirin authorizes such detention upon the application of the label "enemy combatant." Distinguishing Quirin based on statutory authority is plausible, and the Court cited the decision of the Second Circuit, in Padilla v. Rumsfeld, on the point: "As the Second Circuit has already noted, 'the Quirin Court's decision to uphold military jurisdiction rested on the express congressional authorization of the use of military tribunals to try combatants who violated the law.' "8
The Court held, hesitantly, that Ex parte Milligan assists Padilla's case, weakly. "While not directly on point, and limited by Quirin, Milligan's greatest import to the case at bar is the same as that found in Quirin: the detention of a United States citizen by the military is disallowed without explicit Congressional authorization." The issue in Milligan, as in Quirin, was whether the defendant could be tried by a military commission. That isn't the issue for Padilla, at least not yet.
The Court also held that the Non-Detention Act applies. The Act states, "No citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress." If there is no statutory authorization for Padilla's imprisonment, he must be released; here we have something substantial. The government's response was that AUMF, passed by Congress after 9-11, impliedly authorizes detention of enemy combatants. However, AUMF mentions nether enemy combatants nor detention. It has one operative paragraph:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.9The government's argument depends on a broad interpretation of "all necessary and appropriate force."
In holding that AUMF did not override or satisfy the Non-Detention Act, the Court quoted the Second Circuit's opinion in Padilla v. Rumsfeld:
While it may be possible to infer a power of detention from the Joint Resolution in the battlefield context where detentions are necessary to carry out the war, there is no reason to suspect from the language of the Joint Resolution that Congress believed it would be authorizing the detention of an American citizen already held in a federal correctional institution and not arrayed against our troops in the field of battle."Already" is ambiguous, as Padilla was arrested after AUMF was passed, but otherwise that is a persuasive interpretation. Another is found in Justice Souter's dissenting opinion in Hamdi:
[AUMF] never so much as uses the word detention, and there is no reason to think Congress might have perceived any need to augment Executive power to deal with dangerous citizens within the United States, given the well-stocked statutory arsenal of defined criminal offenses covering the gamut of actions that a citizen sympathetic to terrorists might commit.However, the Supreme Court's plurality opinion in Hamdi holds otherwise:
. . . we conclude that the AUMF is explicit congressional authorization for the detention of individuals in the narrow category we describe . . . and that the AUMF satisfied §4001(a)'s requirement that a detention be "pursuant to an Act of Congress" . . . .Apparently the District Court felt free to ignore the plurality opinion because Padilla doesn't fit into the "narrow category."
Another limitation of AUMF, which the District Court did not discuss, is that it deals only with "those . . . persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons . . . ." On June 1, 2004, Deputy Attorney General James Comey made a statement setting out the allegations against Padilla. He appeared anxious not to overlook any possible offense, but did not bring Padilla within the Resolution.10
The government also made its favorite argument, inherent powers. The Court put an odd spin on its rejection of that argument:
For the Court to find for Respondent would also be to engage in judicial activism. This Court sits to interpret the law as it is and not as the Court might wish it to be. Pursuant to its interpretation, the Court finds that the President has no power, neither express nor implied, neither constitutional nor statutory, to hold Petitioner as an enemy combatant.Is the Court saying that it wishes it could find such powers? If so, I wouldn't know whether to be appalled at such a view or encouraged that the Court made the right decision despite it. In either case, the comment about judicial activism is ironic.
Although the Court did not so state, the dissenting opinions in Hamdi are the basis for this decision. The opinion of Justice Souter, joined by Justice Ginsberg, argued that the Non-Detention Act required Hamdi's release; that is the core of the District Court's opinion. Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Stevens, argued that the government had only two choices: charge a crime or release. The District Court did not expressly rely on that opinion, but it held that the case before it "is a law enforcement matter, not a military matter," which leads to the same conclusion. It further held that "this country's laws amply provide for the investigation, detention and prosecution of citizen and non-citizen terrorists alike" and noted that Justice Scalia had listed a number of them. Finally, this decision, apart from the reference to material witness detention, adopted the Scalia formula.
1. 124 S.Ct. 2633 (2004)
2. 317 U.S. 1 (1942)
3. P.L. 107-40
4. 71 U.S. (4 Wall) 2 (1866)
5. 18 U.S.C. § 4001(a)
6. http://news.findlaw.com/wp/docs/padilla/padhnft22805opn.pdf Memorandum Opinion and Order, 2/28/05
7. Judge Wilkinson, concurring in the denial of rehearing, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 337 F.3d 335, 344 (4th Cir. 2003). He had written the panel opinion, and noted there that the Court had "no occasion . . . to address the designation as an enemy combatant of an American citizen captured on American soil. . . ."
8. Citing 352 F.3d 695, 715-16. The District Court inadvertently referred to the Court of Appeals decision as "Hamdi".
March 3, 2005
Several District Courts, emboldened by the Supreme Court's show of independence, have treated the administration's enemy-combatant theories with the disrespect they deserve. Most recently, it was the D.C. for the District of South Carolina, in Padilla v. Hanft, which not only held against the administration, but threw one of its clichés back at it.
The administration is fond of arguing that "separation of powers" means that the judiciary must refrain from questioning the executive's assertion of power. In arguing that the Joint Resolution for Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), justified Padilla's detention, the government made this typically arrogant claim: "Even if there were any doubt about whether the AUMF encompasses combatants seized within the United States, such doubt would be resolved in favor of the President's determination that Congress did in fact authorize petitioner's detention." In other words, the President has claimed this authority; step aside. The Court was not persuaded:
Certainly Respondent does not intend to argue here that, just because the President states that Petitioner's detention is "consistent with the laws of the United States, including the Authorization for Use of Military Force" that makes it so. Not only is such a statement in direct contravention to the well settled separation of powers doctrine, it is simply not the law. Moreover, such a statement is deeply troubling. If such a position were ever adopted by the courts, it would totally eviscerate the limits placed on Presidential authority to protect the citizenry's individual liberties.(Of course, that is exactly what Respondent - the government - intended to argue).
Using separation of powers to cut the administration down to size was the perfect response. However, like the Court's ruling, that bit of rhetoric may not play well in the Court of Appeals, which swallowed the administration's version whole in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld: "Separation of powers principles must, moreover, shape the standard for reviewing the government's designation of Hamdi as an enemy combatant. Any standard of inquiry must not present a risk of saddling military decision-making with the panoply of encumbrances associated with civil litigation."1
Another declaration of judicial independence may have gone for naught. Ahmed Abu Ali suddenly is famous via his indictment in the Eastern District of Virginia on terrorism charges. Until just before release of the indictment, Abu Ali had been held in a Saudi prison. The indictment, and his return to the U.S., appear to have been forced by a petition for habeas corpus earlier filed by his parents in the District Court for the District of Columbia.
In response to the petition, the government adopted its usual above-the-law position, arguing that "a federal court lacks jurisdiction to issue a writ of habeas corpus where the prisoner is currently being held by a foreign custodian, no matter what role the United States allegedly has played in his detention." The Court recognized the implications:
The position advanced by the United States is sweeping. The authority sought would permit the executive, at his discretion, to deliver a United States citizen to a foreign country to avoid constitutional scrutiny, or, as is alleged and to some degree substantiated here, work through the intermediary of a foreign country to detain a United States citizen abroad.Among its arguments, the government included its favorite, separation of powers, here claiming that assumption of jurisdiction would interfere with the executive's exclusive control of foreign policy. The Court was suitably unimpressed: "There is simply no authority or precedent, however, for respondents' suggestion that the executive's prerogative over foreign affairs can overwhelm to the point of extinction the basic constitutional rights of citizens of the United States to freedom from unlawful detention by the executive." At another point, the Court offered a variation on its response, one which should be handed to Mr. Bush the next time that he waxes eloquent about freedom: "There is no principle more sacred to the jurisprudence of our country or more essential to the liberty of its citizens than the right to be free from arbitrary and indefinite detention at the whim of the executive."
The Court concludes that a citizen cannot be so easily separated from his constitutional rights. . . .
Indictment of Abu Ali may have rendered the proceedings in this court moot. Had the case gone forward, reception at the next level might not have been any warmer than for Padilla v. Hanft; one panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has expressed a view of separation of powers similar to the Fourth Circuit's. In Center for National Security Studies v. U.S.,2 the Court allowed the government to withhold information regarding people it detained following 9-11, citing the "deference [to the executive] mandated by the separation of powers"
1. This is from the panel opinion, 316 F.3d 450 (2003). The full Court refused rehearing, 337 F.3d 335(2003). None of those who wrote opinions on rehearing had any problem with the administration's version of separation of powers.
2. 331 F.3d 918 (D.C. Cir. 2003)
March 6, 2005
In his paean to freedom on Inauguration Day, President Bush slipped in one reference to self-interest: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush was more specific: "Our men and women in uniform are fighting terrorists in Iraq, so we do not have to face them here at home." The two speeches presented two powerful myths: that our armed forces are fighting nobly for the spread of freedom and unavoidably for the defense of the homeland. The former helps to justify the war, but the latter is crucial to retaining support, or at least heading off meaningful calls for withdrawal.
The author of a letter published in The Seattle Times today dutifully spread the word: liberals "[s]cream about the troops getting killed 'in far-away places,' but forget that the war has to be fought somewhere. Would the liberals prefer to fight it in our streets?"
The U.S military death toll in Iraq passed another milestone, and now stands at 1,510, although the Pentagon continues to show the official total below 1,500. The White House just changes the subject; on the main page of its web site, a link under "Issues" which formerly was "Iraq" now is "Iraqi elections."
Someone tried to spin the continuing losses by pointing out that February had the lowest death count since last summer. True, but it was worse than May, June, July, August, September, October and December, 2003 and January, February, March, June and July, 2004. On a per-day basis, it also was worse than October, 2004. It was nearly triple the number for February, 2004, more than triple the daily rate. This does not sound like progress.
2. Today's total is 1,495; www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf
March 17, 2005
A poll reported in The Washington Post this week showed that only 35% "approved of the way Bush is handling Social Security, down three points since January and the lowest level of support for Bush on this issue ever recorded in Post-ABC polls." In addition, 58% were more inclined to oppose his plan as they learned more about it.
Another recent poll provided further evidence of the level of public disagreement with the Bush agenda. PIPA-Knowledge Networks released a report on March 7 entitled "The Federal Budget: The Public's Priorities."1 Participants were offered the opportunity to reallocate budget items.
When presented most of the major items in the discretionary federal budget and given the opportunity to modify it, Americans make some dramatic changes. The largest cut by far is to defense spending, which is reduced by nearly one-third, followed by spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, transportation and justice. The largest increases are to reductions in the deficit, various forms of social spending and spending on the environment.The ranking in that statement is by dollars; here are the results by percentage:
- Cuts: defense by 31%, Iraq-Afghanistan 35%, transportation 18%, justice 21%, space and science 5%. (The analysts admitted that the cut in the administration of justice baffled them).
- Increases: homeland security by 38%, education 39%, energy conservation and development of renewable sources, 1,090%; job training and employment-related services 263%, medical research 53%, veteran's benefits 40%. However, the big winner was deficit reduction. As there is nothing in the President's budget for that, the increase was infinite in percentage terms. In dollar terms, it was more than one-third larger than the second-greatest increase, education.
The results were skewed by very large changes proposed by some participants. For example, homeland security received a significant increase in the cumulative results, but only 41% of the participants proposed any increase. On the other hand, deficit reduction was supported by 61%; 57% supported increases for education, 67% for job training, 63% for veterans benefits, and 57% for medical research. Cuts in defense spending were supported by 65% of the participants, and the same percentage favored cuts in the Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental request.
Party affiliation affected amounts but, in 16 of 18 budget categories, changes proposed by Republicans and Democrats went in the same direction.
Accompanying the Post article was a graph of Mr. Bush's approval ratings.2 It shows that the periodic increases in his popularity are war- or security-related, and have not been sustained. Other polls reveal the same pattern.
Early this year, I looked at the CBS-New York Times, Gallup-CNN-USA Today, and Post-ABC polls.3 In each of them, Mr. Bush began his first term with relatively high ratings, peaking in the low 60s in March or April. The numbers tended downward, dropping an average of 10 points by late August or early September, 2001. Following 9-11, they jumped dramatically, an average increase of 39 points, reaching the low 90s in late September or early October. They started down again, eventually dropping more than 30 points, finding their interim lows early in 2003. As war with Iraq approached, the ratings started upward, then jumped when the war began on March 19 and again when Baghdad fell and Saddam's statue was demolished on April 9. The highest levels reached in this period ranged from 71 to 77 in the three polls. The numbers fell again, dropping an average of 23 points, finding lows averaging 51 on various dates between mid-September and early December, 2003. After a jump averaging 10 points following Saddam's capture on December 13, the slide continued, and the approval ratings reached their first-term lows in the Spring of 2004, falling as low as 41 in the CBS-NYT poll.4 They rose during the campaign, but still hovered around 50% at election time.
With the exception of the increase in early 2001, all of the significant gains are related to war or national security. This confirms more general indications that those issues were critical to Mr. Bush's standing and to his reelection.
2. Washington'>http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/daily/graphics/bushApproval_031305.html">Washington Post-ABC News poll, 3/10-13/05
4. May 20, 2004. CNN-USA Today had the low at 46 on May 7. The ABC-Post poll put it at 47, reaching that level on May 20, and again in June and July.
March 29, 2005
On March 1, the Supreme Court decided, in Roper v. Simmons, that the Constitution prohibits the execution of anyone for a crime committed when he was less than 18 years of age. The holding seems intuitively right, but the majority's reasoning hardly is compelling and it leaves Eighth-Amendment jurisprudence in a muddle. The dissents strained to preserve the least defensible category of an uncivilized practice.
The Court had reached the opposite conclusion in 1989, in Stanford v. Kentucky. Each case was decided 5-4. In Stanford, Justices Rehnquist, White, O'Connor, Scalia and Kennedy voted to uphold executions, with Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens dissenting. In Roper, Stevens again voted to ban execution, joined by three Justices added in the interim, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer. They became the majority in Roper with the defection of Justice Kennedy, who wrote the Court's opinion. Justice Scalia dissented in an opinion joined by Rehnquist and Thomas; Justice O'Connor wrote a separate dissent. The opinions illustrate the illogic of the "emerging consensus" variant of the "evolving standards of decency" rule.
Emerging-consensus decisions typically have consisted of looking for a majority position in state legislation. This leads to the peculiar result that a state statute may be unconstitutional because a majority of legislatures have come to an opposite conclusion. The Court's role then is not to adjudicate, but merely to announce the results of a poll.
Do most states reject executing those who committed capital offenses as juveniles? It depends on how the question is framed. The majority reasoned that there are 30 such states, because 12 states have no death penalty and, of the 38 that do, 18 prohibit executing juvenile offenders. Justice Scalia demurred:
. . . 18 States - or 47% of States that permit capital punishment - now have legislation prohibiting the execution of offenders under 18 . . . .But this really is sophistry. If a state prohibits all executions, necessarily it disapproves of executing juvenile offenders.
Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50% of death penalty States can constitute a national consensus. . . ."
. . . That 12 States favor no executions says something about consensus against the death penalty, but nothing--absolutely nothing--about consensus that offenders under 18 deserve special immunity from such a penalty. In repealing the death penalty, those 12 States considered none of the factors that the Court puts forth as determinative of the issue before us today--lower culpability of the young, inherent recklessness, lack of capacity for considered judgment, etc. . . .
Another indicator of an emerging consensus is a trend away from the practice in question; the majority relied on that as well. "Five States that allowed the juvenile death penalty at the time of Stanford have abandoned it in the intervening 15 years. . . ." Acknowledging that the number of changes was not impressive, the majority fell back on arguing that all of the changes had been in the same direction, i.e., no state had lowered the minimum age. It found this to be significant "in light of the general popularity of anticrime legislation . . . ." However, Justice Scalia reduced the majority's list of five states to four, arguing that, as Washington abandoned the juvenile death penalty by the decision of our supreme court, not by legislation, the change "did not purport to reflect popular sentiment" and "is irrelevant to the question of changed national consensus." He also claimed that, in the interim, four states which previously had no minimum age established 16 as the minimum, certainly not showing a trend toward age 18.1
The majority, possibly because of the weakness of the national consensus, also relied on its independent judgment to determine that standards of decency have evolved to the point that execution of juvenile murderers no longer is acceptable. Independent judgment had been rejected by a Scalia-led plurality in Stanford. The majority here argued that they were following an older tradition, reestablished three years ago in Atkins v. Virginia, a decision which barred execution of the mentally retarded:
. . . The Atkins Court neither repeated nor relied upon the statement in Stanford that the Court's independent judgment has no bearing on the acceptability of a particular punishment under the Eighth Amendment.Even more provocatively, the majority rested its independent judgment in part on international opinion. It noted that only seven nations - and not a group to emulate - had executed juvenile offenders since 1990, and that even those have disavowed the practice. "In sum, it is fair to say that the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty."
Instead we returned to the rule, established in decisions predating Stanford, that " 'the Constitution contemplates that in the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.' ". . .
Justice Scalia was having none of that: "Because I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners, I dissent." Denouncing the subjective views of a bare majority is priceless coming from a member of the Bush v. Gore gang of five.
It seems to me that overwhelming world opinion is relevant in determining standards of decency. However, rejecting foreign or international standards has become a conservative cause. Another example is the misguided and mislabeled Constitution Restoration Act introduced last year, which includes this provision:
In interpreting and applying the Constitution of the United States, a court of the United States may not rely upon any constitution, law, administrative rule, Executive order, directive, policy, judicial decision, or any other action of any foreign state or international organization or agency, other than the constitutional law and English common law.2Justice O'Connor agreed with many of the principles cited by the majority, including evolving standards, the Court's independent judgment, the lesser maturity and culpability - as a class - of those under 18, and the legitimacy of reference to foreign law in measuring standards of decency. However, she argued that, although juveniles are, as a class, less responsible, this may not be true of all of them and the decision to impose the death penalty, absent legislation, is for the jury. She expressed confidence that juries would take youth into account as a mitigating factor but, in order to reach that conclusion, she had to dismiss the fact that exactly the opposite probably happened in this case: "Although the prosecutor's apparent attempt to use respondent's youth as an aggravating circumstance in this case is troubling, that conduct was never challenged with specificity in the lower courts and is not directly at issue here." That procedural dodge hardly eliminates the inconsistency.
Justice O'Connor did not think that a persuasive case had been made for a change in consensus: "I would demand a clearer showing that our society truly has set its face against this practice before reading the Eighth Amendment categorically to forbid it." That is a plausible view, but offering it seems little more than a delaying action. Quoting herself in Stanford, Justice O'Connor observed, "While noting that '[t]he day may come when there is such general legislative rejection of the execution of 16- or 17-year-old capital murderers that a clear national consensus can be said to have developed,' I concluded that that day had not yet arrived." In other words, executing juvenile offenders is suspect, and it may well be outlawed before long, but the Court should wash its hands of the matter until the count passes the 50% mark - or whatever the measure is - at which point such executions suddenly will have become too retrograde a practice to allow the remaining states to exercise their discretion. This epitomizes the intellectual and moral emptiness of adjudication by referendum.
1. Two of the changes were by statute; Justice O'Connor also referred to them, making the same point. Two were by initiative; based on Justice Scalia's description of the initiatives in a footnote, it isn't clear that they support his argument.
2. H.R. 3799, § 201.
April 5, 2005
I've just read a book entitled Conspiracy of Fools, which one might suppose is a history of the Bush administration. It is in fact an account of the Enron debacle. Although it contains a huge amount of detail, it's poorly written - one review aptly suggested that it is less a book than a set of notes for a book - so drawing conclusions from it may be risky, but it appears to describe a company in which no one had even the most basic grasp of financial principles, including the need for revenue and the danger of massive debt. That does sound like Bush & Co.
April 7, 2005
President Bush's campaign to undermine Social Security hit a new low this week. Apparently desperate because of the lack of positive response to his privatization scheme, he resorted to the claim that Social Security has no trust fund, but only "IOUs." He posed in front of a file cabinet allegedly containing those allegedly worthless pieces of paper, thus managing to combine a silly graphic with a deceitful argument.
The Seattle Times ran a report from Knight-Ridder, quoting part of Mr. Bush's comments: "There is no trust fund, just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay . . . . Imagine - the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet." The article offered an accurate appraisal of the performance: "Using a government filing cabinet as a prop, President Bush yesterday played to fears that the Social Security Trust Fund is little more than a stack of worthless IOUs." It noted that the Social Security Administration takes a different view:
"Far from being 'worthless IOUs,' the investments held by the trust funds are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. The government has always repaid Social Security, with interest," the agency says. "The special-issue securities are, therefore, just as safe as U.S. savings bonds or other financial instruments of the federal government."1The New York Times was more willing to swallow the administration line, a disturbing tendency in the news pages of that paper. Its report offered this comment: "Although there is literally a trust fund that can be found in the federal budget, Mr. Bush was on solid ground when he said it was basically 'just I.O.U.'s.' " The ground is about as solid as that under the WMD claims.
The Washington Post, in Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing" column, accurately described the scam:
The goal was clear: To increase the public's doubt about the program's future. "There is no 'trust fund,' just IOUs," Bush said in making his case that Social Security is headed for some serious financial problems.The New York Times' editorial page writers, less easily snowed than its reporters, put the tableau in perspective:
And indeed, the trust fund is a pile of paper, not a pile of gold. But those papers -- just like other government securities -- represent promises backed by the "full faith and credit" of the United States.
So was Bush really suggesting that those promises might not be kept? That American workers have somehow been defrauded?
Imagine this: On his next trip to Japan, President Bush visits the vault at the Bank of Japan, where that country's $712 billion in United States government bonds is stored. There, as the cameras roll, he announces that the bonds, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, are, in fact, worthless i.o.u.'s. He does the same thing when he visits China and so on around the world, until he has personally repudiated the entire $2 trillion of United States debt held by foreigners.Japan and China may not need on-site demonstrations to get the message. Mr. Bush may have undermined the credit of the United States for the sake of a cheap bit of theater driven by reactionary ideology. To run that risk was incredibly foolish.
Mr. Bush rehearsed just that act on Tuesday . . . .2
As to the domestic audience, Mr. Bush's stunt was an attempt to sell people a bill of goods. Perhaps they have learned by now that he is not to be trusted when he tells them that they are in danger and he has a plan to protect them.
1. Quoting www.ssa.gov/OACT/ProgData/fundFAQ.html#n2
2. Quoting www.ssa.gov/OACT/ProgData/fundFAQ.html#n2
April 11, 2005
If the government falters in its global war on terrorism, it will not be for lack of strategy documents. We have a National Security Strategy, a National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, a National Strategy for Homeland Security, and a Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication. I've just become aware of a National Defense Strategy1 and a National Military Strategy;2 there may be others.
The National Defense Strategy begins with a foreword by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It reveals the uses of a war mentality: "The war on terrorism has exposed new challenges, but also unprecedented strategic opportunities to work at home and with allies and partners abroad to create conditions favorable to a secure international order." One of those strategic opportunities was the invasion of Iraq. The "Executive Summary," which follows, states the underlying premise not only of the security-related documents but of the Bush presidency: "America is a nation at war." That, unfortunately, justifies anything.
Under "America's Role in the World," lip service is paid to national sovereignty, with an out in case it proves inconvenient:
. . . In cooperation with our international partners, we can build a more peaceful and secure international order in which the sovereignty of nations is respected.In justifying the application of the exception rather than the rule to Iraq, a rationale is offered which is strange, given the sponsor of this document: "In Iraq, an American-led effort toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein - a tyrant who used WMD, supported terrorists, terrorized his population, and threatened his neighbors." Over the past two years, the core accusation against Iraq, that it was a threat because of weapons of mass destruction, has fallen back from actual possession to the intent and capability to develop them, and now, in this document, to having used them in the past. It's an ironic indictment. Hussein did use WMD (chemical weapons). He used them against Iran beginning in the early 80s, after not merely threatening a neighbor, but invading it. Donald Rumsfeld knew of Iraq's use of chemical weapons when he met with Hussein as President Reagan's envoy in 1983 and 1984, in an effort to normalize relations between the governments. (Iraq had broken diplomatic relations in 1967). Despite the aggression and the chemical attacks, The U.S. supported Iraq against Iran. Hussein also used chemical weapons in the late 80s against the Iraqi Kurds, but we continued to do business with him. Now we are invited to believe that the administration started a war over these issues in 2003.
The United States and its allies and partners have a strong interest in protecting the sovereignty of nation states. . . . Nevertheless, they must exercise their sovereignty responsibly, . . .
It is unacceptable for regimes to use the principle of sovereignty as a shield behind which they claim to be free to engage in activities that pose enormous threats to their citizens, neighbors, or the rest of the international community.
Another section of the document lists U.S. strengths, vulnerabilities, opportunities and challenges. The first category consists of these four items:
We will retain a resilient network of alliances and partnerships.Can anyone think that this accurately describes the situation? Our network of alliances appears to be falling apart. We may be the strongest nation militarily, but Iraq has demonstrated just how limited our military power is. Our economic and technical strength is ebbing. U.S. policy has resulted in our withdrawal from matters of common international concern and in diminishing our influence.
We will have no global peer competitor and will remain unmatched in traditional military capability.
We will maintain important advantages in other elements of national power - e.g., political, economic, technological, and cultural.
We will continue to play leading roles on issues of common international concern and will retain influence worldwide.
Another indication of detachment from reality comes in a statement of techniques to undermine terrorism. Among them:
Support models of moderation in the Muslim world by: . . .Certainly our actions have not and our policies will not accomplish that.
Helping change Muslim misperceptions of the United States and the West;
and Reinforcing the message that the Global War on Terrorism is not a war against Islam, . . . .
An item under "vulnerabilities" reveals an attitude of paranoid isolation: "Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism." According to this, the International Criminal Court is a threat on a par with terrorism.
Part of the document consists of generalities wrapped in jargon. "Preventive actions," we are told, "include . . . international cooperation to interdict illicit WMD transiting the commons." Apparently the last phrase means traveling on the high seas or in the airspace above. (The "commons" also includes cyberspace, which the authors seem to regard as a place, but presumably WMD can't travel through it). There are references to "anti-access environments," "austere locations," "global sourcing and surge," a "network-centric force," and "flexible operational constructs."
Star Wars is mentioned at several points, but its function is described obscurely: "Our missile defense program aims to dissuade adversaries by imposing operational and economic costs on those who would employ missiles to threaten the United States, its forces, its interests, or its partners." Apparently we've given up on actually shooting something down.
The National Military Strategy opens with a cover letter by General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He tells us that "The attacks of 11 September 2001 demonstrated that our liberties are vulnerable." The administration's response has put our liberties at risk, but General Myers probably didn't have that in mind. The relevant point for a document on military strategy would be that our defenses were inadequate. In the body of the document, under the heading "Chairman's Intent," that subject is addressed, but oddly: "We cannot afford to let our recent successes cause us to lose focus or lull us into satisfaction with our current capabilities." It isn't clear what successes he had in mind, especially if the reference is terrorism.
"Weapons of mass destruction" already is a potentially misleading term, combining weapons of significantly different type and impact. The Military Strategy expands the category still further, referring to "weapons of mass destruction or effect (WMD/E)."
The term WMD/E relates to a broad range of adversary capabilities that pose potentially devastating impacts. WMD/E includes chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and enhanced high explosive weapons as well as other, more asymmetrical "weapons". They may rely more on disruptive impact than destructive kinetic effects. For example, cyber attacks on US commercial information systems or attacks against transportation networks may have a greater economic or psychological effect than a relatively small release of a lethal agent.This renders the concept virtually meaningless.
Like The National Defense Strategy, The National Military Strategy frequently descends into jargon. The use of "asymmetrical" in the preceding quote is an example. "Asymmetric" is used another seven times, but never defined. On three occasions, it is juxtaposed to "conventional" or "traditional," but that doesn't reveal much. However, the term fits well into the style of the document. "Adversaries increasingly seek asymmetric capabilities and will use them in innovative ways. They will avoid US strengths like precision strike and seek to counter US power projection capabilities by creating anti-access environments." "The non-linear nature of the current security environment requires multi-layered active and passive measures to counter numerous diverse conventional and asymmetric threats."
Much of the document has a detached, abstract quality; it could have been written by a group of graduate students in sociology. "Applying force requires power projection assets to move capabilities rapidly, employ them precisely and sustain them even when adversaries employ anti-access and counter power projection strategies." "Persistent surveillance, ISR management, collaborative analysis and on-demand dissemination facilitate battlespace awareness." Referring to something called a Joint Interagency Coordination Group (JIACG), it says this: "In the near term the Armed Forces will facilitate information sharing and common situational awareness between elements of the JIACG with the DOD standard collaboration toolset that enables virtual collaboration." We'll all sleep better knowing that.
1. The National Defense Strategy of The United States of America (March 2005); www.defenselink.mil/news/Mar2005/d20050318nds2.pdf
2. The National Military Strategy of the United States of America: A Strategy for Today; A Vision for Tomorrow (2004); www.defenselink.mil/news/Mar2005/d20050318nms.pdf
April 16, 2005
President Bush spoke to another safe audience on Tuesday, this one at Fort Hood, Texas, offering the latest restatement of the reason for the war. The Washington Post, reporting the speech, was suitably unimpressed:
. . . Bush delivered what has become a fairly standard speech about what the military is accomplishing in Iraq and why, he says, the effort will go down in history as a turning point in the twin campaigns to preemptively fight terrorism and spread democracy in the Middle East. . . .Mr. Bush, who has doubts about biological evolution, embraces the rhetorical variety.
What started more than two years ago as a campaign to overthrow Hussein has morphed into what the president now describes as one battle in a much larger global effort to plant democracy and freedom where dictators and oppression rule. Bush's accusation that Hussein harbored stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, which has been discredited, was discarded from his Iraq speeches long ago."1
In The Post's "White House Briefing" column, Dan Froomkin also noted the lack of any reference to WMD, and offered this pithy appraisal of the evolution: "President Bush ratcheted up the rhetoric of his revisionist justification for war yesterday . . . . Bush has labored hard to recast his decision to go to war in Iraq as the centerpiece of his post hoc agenda to fight terrorism by spreading democracy throughout the world."2
In contrast, The New York Times ran a story which quoted Mr. Bush's self-serving rationale without adverse comment; even this bit of self-glorification evoked no response: "The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad will be recorded, alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one of the great moments in the history of liberty." The Times reported that Mr. Bush's speech "pulled together many themes he has set out over the past several years,"3 which hardly is accurate, as most of them are part of the restatement. However, the current rationale, at least in its Fort Hood version, does include one old claim:
The men and women of the Phantom Corps know why we are in Iraq. As one First Team soldier, Lieutenant Mike Erwin, put it: "If we can start to change the most powerful country in the Middle East, the others will follow, and Americans 20 years down the road won't have to deal with a day like September the 11th, 2001."4Mr. Bush simply can't resist implying that Iraq was involved in 9-11. He's never been bold enough to say so; in fact the one time that he addressed the issue directly he admitted that we have no evidence. But he and Cheney trot it out every so often, to ensure that those who believe stay convinced.
Mr. Bush then repeated the prevention argument, minus the reference to 9-11: "we are defeating them there where they live, so we do not have to face them where we live." Froomkin was skeptical: "There is much debate over whether the war in Iraq has increased or decreased the threat of terrorist strikes like those of Sept. 11."
Thomas Friedman has no such doubt; in his Times column on Tuesday he used that notion to present his latest war rationale.
. . . I've always believed that one of the most important reasons there has been no new terrorist attack in America has to do with the U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not only that the Bush administration has taken the fight to the enemy, but that the enemy has welcomed that fight.It's nonsense to say that we took the fight to the enemy by invading Iraq, a secular regime which had no involvement in 9-11. Stripped of ideological fantasy, this theory is that, by occupying a Muslim country, we have outraged jihadists, drawing them into a conflict which has distracted them from other plans or consumed their resources. Even assuming that to be so, it says nothing about Iraq; we might as well have invaded Saudi Arabia. In addition, under the Friedman theory, we can't safely hope to win:
To the extent that the Baathists and Jihadists have a coordinated strategy, their first priority, I think, is to defeat American forces in the heart of their world. Because if they can defeat America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, it will have so much more resonance than setting off a car bomb in Las Vegas . . . .
. . . The Jihadists have always understood that Iraq is the ballgame. Iraq is the big one. Winning there is what really advances their agendas.5
I fear that when and if the Jihadists conclude that they have been defeated in the heart of their world, they will be sorely tempted to . . . launch a spectacular, headline-grabbing act of terrorism in America that tries to mask, and compensate for, just how defeated they have become at home.Starting the war there was a great bit of strategy, but winning it would be a really bad idea. Actually, Friedman draws a different conclusion: "So let's stay the course in Iraq, but stay extra-vigilant at home." Being forced to a resolution that lame should prompt him to reconsider his support for this misbegotten war.
In short, the more the Jihadists lose in Iraq, the more likely they are to use their rump forces to try something really crazy in America to make up for it. . . .
1. Jim VandeHei; www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46581-2005Apr12.html
3. Richard W. Stevenson; www.nytimes.com/2005/04/13/international/13prexy.html?th&emc=th
April 20, 2005
When I listed several of the government's security-policy documents last week, I cautiously added that "there may be others." Well, yes. To begin with, I omitted one which I had read (there are so many things to remember), the National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism.1 It was published with a letter from the President,2 which I hadn't seen until now, which identifies three more. His letter states that the Terrorism Strategy complements the National Security Strategy, the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, the National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructure and Key Assets, and the National Drug Control Strategy. "Together these efforts establish critical goals for strengthening America's security against the threats of the 21st century." The existence of the last three was news to me.
I was reminded of the Terrorism Strategy by a column in Tomdispatch.com, 3 which criticized its failure to define victory in the global war against terrorism. Apparently that was my reaction too; when I read the Strategy some time ago, I scribbled "no definition" on the table of contents, next to "Victory in the War Against Terror." Actually, there is a definition; it just isn't what we were looking for.
The term is used in the President's cover letter: "Victory . . . will be measured through the steady, patient work of dismantling terror networks and bringing terrorists to justice, oftentimes one by one." However, that's a description of progress or a statement of strategy, not a definition of victory. The principal reference is the "Victory in the War Against Terror" section; here it is in its entirety:
Victory against terrorism will not occur as a single, defining moment. It will not be marked by the likes of the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri that ended World War II. However, through the sustained effort to compress the scope and capability of terrorist organizations, isolate them regionally, and destroy them within state borders, the United States and its friends and allies will secure a world in which our children can live free from fear and where the threat of terrorist attacks does not define our daily lives.That is a little vague, which is probably why I dismissed it. The first paragraph jumps from process (sustained efforts) to benefits (a world in which our children. . .) without ever reaching a result. The second paragraph merely says that vigilance will be required to maintain whatever that result might turn out to be.
Victory, therefore, will be secured only as long as the United States and the international community maintain their vigilance and work tirelessly to prevent terrorists from inflicting horrors like those of September 11, 2001."
Clues to interpretation are found elsewhere. The Introduction of the Terrorism Strategy initially stresses a result: "continuous action against terrorist groups . . . will . . . ultimately destroy the terrorist organizations." However, the Conclusion warns us that "we cannot expect [a] . . . definitive end to the conflict." Another passage in the Conclusion stresses effects: "we must persevere until the United States, together with its friends and allies, eliminates terrorism as a threat to our way of life," as does one in the Introduction: the "goal will be reached when Americans and other civilized people can lead their lives free of fear from terrorist attacks." This leads us back to the goal expressed under "Victory:" a world in which the threat of terrorist attacks does not define our daily lives. In other words, the risk will be reduced to a tolerable level. Vague or not, that is the message: the result and the benefit are the same; victory will be a state, not an event.
Another approach to roughly the same point is to shift the paradigm from war to law enforcement. The Terrorism Strategy contains a series of rather simplistic graphs showing how "operationalizing the strategy" will lead to the "desired endstate." At the bottom of the last graph is this note: "Return Terrorism to the 'Criminal Domain'," which suggests that the "war" is designed to reduce the threat to a level which can be dealt with as a law-enforcement matter. That concept also is presented, offhandedly, in the Introduction, where the authors describe the process illustrated on the graphs:
By striking constantly and ensuring that terrorists have no place to hide, we will compress their scope and reduce the capability of these organizations. By adapting old alliances and creating new partnerships, we will facilitate regional solutions that further isolate the spread of terrorism. Concurrently, as the scope of terrorism becomes more localized, unorganized and relegated to the criminal domain, we will rely upon and assist other states to eradicate terrorism at its root.Reducing terrorism to a law-enforcement issue is a way of lowering the risk to manageable proportions. This isn't very satisfying, but it's a realistic assessment; like other forms of violent crime, terrorism isn't going to disappear.
However, the government has made acceptance of that analysis more difficult by defining the effort as a war on terror or on terrorism.4 Calling it a war encourages the expectation that there will be a victory in the usual sense, not merely a reduction in anxiety. Calling it a war on terrorism ensures that there will be no such point; the use of terror - terrorism - is a method, not an entity, and victory over it is logical nonsense.
Of course, the war paradigm appeals to the administration. It helps in gaining public support, especially when it is cast in apocalyptic terms, as it is here: "The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 . . . were acts of war against the United States of America and its allies, and against the very idea of civilized society. . . The world must respond and fight this evil that is intent on threatening and destroying our basic freedoms and our way of life." The notion of being at war justifies military action, even against targets of dubious relevance. It validates the security strategy of which this document is a part, which embraces imperialism and preemptive attack.
3. "The Quest for Desired Endstate" by Steven Bodzin; www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2323
4. The Terrorism Strategy uses "war on terrorism" except, oddly, in the title "Victory in the War Against Terror," under which it discusses the war on terrorism. The president's letter introduces the National Strategy to Combat Terrorism, but refers to the "global war on terror;" it speaks of "combatting terrorism" and "fight[ing] terror." Take your pick.
April 25, 2005
Several articles in the business section of the April 3 New York Times provided critiques of the dominant pro-business culture. The first addressed the effect of taxes on economic growth. The conclusion, that tax rates do not determine economic growth rates, isn't news to any but obsessive supply-siders, but it is significant and useful to see it stated in plain terms.
The other subject, addressed in three articles and related tables, is executive compensation, including retirement benefits. It is no secret that compensation is absurdly high, but some of the details were new, to me at least. One of the tables, entitled "Hauls of Fame," listed the 25 largest annual compensation amounts over the last 25 years. All of those making the list were from the period 1993 through 2001; they ranged from 128.3 million to 706.1 million. A nice touch was a graphic showing which of the 21 executives on the list (some made it more than once) have been forced out or indicted (3 of the latter, 9 of the former, including those indicted).
Another table listed the 20 best retirement packages for CEOs; the amounts, which are projections, range from 2.2 million to 6.5 million annually. Most of the recipients have been with their companies for many years, but 3 have been there for 5 years or less. Some have been CEO for many years but half have held that post for 4 years or less. A third table showed 2004 compensation, including the value of stock options, for 200 CEOs. Eleven of those on the retirement list also appeared there. The 11 averaged $16,634,022 last year, so it's difficult to see the retirement pay as deferred compensation. In addition, according to the third table, they hold equity in their companies averaging $71,266,051, so it isn't as if they otherwise would be dependant on Social Security.
Books, articles and web sites contain various figures as to average executive compensation, average workers' wages and the ratios between them. However, regardless of the source, and even allowing for a brief decline in executive pay after the stock market bubble burst, the pattern is the same: there is a huge gap; over the past three decades, executive pay has soared and the pay of ordinary employees has been virtually flat. This is part of a larger problem of misallocation of income and wealth, which has concentrated both in the upper percentiles, to a large degree in the highest one per cent. The government's response has been to enact legislation designed to aggravate the problem by further cutting income taxes and to perpetuate its effect by repealing the estate tax.
The President and Congress follow their chosen path, even though it also leads to fiscal disaster, because it suits their class, or the class of their patrons. Why is that tolerated? It is not for lack of pointed criticism; take three examples:
There is much talk these days about our income tax as a socialist redistribution scheme. That is indeed what it has become. But the scheme is not to take from the rich and give to the poor, deserving or not, as the courtesans of wealth in Washington would have us believe . . . .
Rather, as Orwell taught us, ours is like all systems in which some animals are more equal than others it is the pigs who grow economically fat off the tax system.1
. . . Who shoved estate tax repeal onto our nation's already crowded political agenda? Not the American public. . . . Estate tax repeal is on the agenda only because the estate tax offends the sensibilities of some very wealthy individuals and hefty campaign contributors.
We need an estate tax precisely for the reason that estate tax repeal has become a political issue in the first place. In a self-governing democracy, we should be alarmed when the power of concentrated wealth attempts to shape the terms of policy debate and dictate the rules of our society.2
. . . "There is absolutely nothing to be said," Theodore Roosevelt observed, "for government by a plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with 'a money touch,' but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers."3So why do people not protest? Why do other offenses, such as the Iraq war and the destruction of the planet, not result in public outcry? Part of the problem lies with the news media which, when not actually complicit, rarely go behind the administration's spin. (Interestingly, as the reports described above illustrate, the New York Times business section often has a more liberal attitude than the general news pages). The usually feckless Democratic Party is another problem. But even allowing for those and other factors, it's difficult to understand.
1. David Cay Johnson, Perfectly Legal, p. 306. His reference to Animal Farm calls to mind another critique: Arianna Huffington's Pigs at the Trough.
2. William H. Gates, Sr. and Chuck Collins, Wealth and Our Commonwealth, p. 5.
3. Quoted in Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy, p. 420.
May 2, 2005
Last month, the State Department announced that it would publish its annual report on terrorism without the usual appendix, Chronology of Significant Terrorist Incidents. The ostensible reason was that the incident-reporting methodology had changed, and therefore comparisons between years would be misleading. Of course, another reason could be that the number of incidents is inconsistent with the administration's claim that it is making progress in combatting terrorism. Oddly, the name of the report was changed from Patterns of Global Terrorism to Country Reports on Terrorism, which seems to imply more detail.
The evasion didn't play well, and now the Chronology1 has been released, although by a different agency, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), with a renewed claim that comparisons should not be made. Of course they have been made; for example The Washington Post noted "a sharp surge in significant terrorist acts from 175 incidents that killed 625 in 2003 to 651 such attacks that killed 1,907 in 2004. 2 Despite the government's disclaimers, the comparisons are fair as a general indication of trends; changes in criteria can explain only so much. As Representative Waxman put it, the increases "can't be explained away as a mere methodological artifact."
The most revealing reports are those for Iraq. The Chronology lists these significant international terrorist events in Iraq:3
Another source of data on terrorist attacks is the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), a non-profit organization funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The MIPT reports do not distinguish between "significant international terrorist incidents" and other terrorist attacks, as the State Department reports have done, and as the NCTC still does for 2004. As a result, the MIPT numbers are higher; they are as follows for Iraq:4
2000.............4 terrorist incidents, 0 fatalitiesBoth reports show that we have created conditions which have led to an explosion of terrorism in Iraq.
1. The name of the appendix has varied somewhat. In 2003, it was Chronology of Significant International Terrorist Incidents, and for 2004 A Chronology of Significant International Terrorism.
2. 4/28/05. Actually, the number of incidents reported for 2003 was 208.
3. These numbers are my tallies; the reports give no totals by country. Reports to 2003 are at http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/ and the Chronology for 2004 is at http://www.tkb.org/documents/Downloads/NCTC_Report.pdf
En route to its goal of merging religion and politics, the right is trying to persuade us that we are a Christian nation. Judge Roy Moore, upset that he cannot display a massive depiction of the Ten Commandments, now is pushing the Constitution Restoration Act, which seeks to restore to the Constitution something it never had: a religious base. Inconveniently, the Constitution doesn't mention God (except to date itself "in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven"), so supporters are forced to find religious references elsewhere, for example in statements by the Founding Fathers, which then are read into the document.
A page found at various sites on the web under the heading "Did You Know?" is typical of the effort. It offers several quotes, the most potent of which is attributed to Madison:
James Madison, the fourth president, known as "The Father of Our Constitution" made the following statement: "We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."1One of the difficulties with this sort of argument is that, for every quote from a Founding Father that seems to indicate deep religious faith, one can be found - often by the same man - which is skeptical or worse. In addition, this Madison quote apparently is spurious.2
"Did You Know?" also includes a statement attributed to John Jay: "Americans should select and prefer Christians as their rulers." This one may be legitimate, 3 but even if so, it isn't much of a guide to interpreting the Constitution. Jay wrote a few numbers of the Federalist Papers, but he was not a member of the convention. More important, Article VI of the Constitution repudiates his supposed point of view: ". . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Other arguments depend on documents; a favorite ploy is to note the somewhat vague references to God in the Declaration of Independence and claim that they somehow carry forward into the Constitution. Two years ago, in reaction to the decision of the Ninth Circuit disapproving "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, a bill was introduced in the Washington legislature to make the connection. It would have required public and private schools to teach "how the Declaration of Independence provided the outline for . . . the United States Constitution . . . ." 4 (It offered no support for that notion). Monte Benham, who has been prominent locally through his sponsorship of tax-cutting initiatives, was one of the proponents. In an op-ed column, he explained the aim of the bill:
Schools teach the mechanics but not the foundation of government. They teach human rights but they do not teach that "our rights are free gifts from God and the purpose of government is to protect individual rights" as stated in the Declaration of Independence. . . .Where his quote comes from is anyone's guess; it isn't in the Declaration.
Washington can be the first state to rekindle the American dream by teaching children why we are one nation, under God.5
The legislation also would have required instruction regarding the "educational intent of the founding fathers as presented in Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance." The Ordinance was adopted by Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, in 1787. Article 3 makes passing reference to religion in an almost equally brief reference to education: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Although this seems an awfully weak reed, it has become a standard reference for those arguing for a larger role for religion in government.
While the campaign to reinterpret the Constitution as a religious document might, if successful, still leave some room for differences of political opinion, other moves by the right betray no such timidity; there is a single sanctified set of political beliefs and deviation will be punished. An example is the threat by some Catholic bishops to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights and to those who vote for them. A letter6 from Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) supported the former and, under some circumstances, the latter. (It's ironic that conservative Protestants opposed Kennedy's election because of the danger of orders from the Vatican; now such orders are welcomed). Another example was provided last week: a Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C. has expelled nine members "who didn't support President Bush." A former member of the church said that the minister had told members that "anyone who planned to vote for Democratic Sen. John Kerry should either leave the church or repent."7
Jim Wallis' recent book, God's Politics, joins the debate about religion in politics. The subtitle, Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, suggests that the right misuses religion and the left tries to ignore its existence. If that argument had been limited to methods, practices and general attitudes, it might have been legitimate and helpful. However, Mr. Wallis goes well beyond that and describes a religiously correct substantive politics. Apart from a few issues, such as abortion, this is a generally liberal politics, so in effect he endorses the right's claim that there is a correct Christian political philosophy, but asserts that the left practices it, more or less. This is reminiscent of Steven Carter's argument that "what was wrong with the 1992 Republican convention was not the effort to link the name of God to secular political ends. What was wrong was the choice of secular ends to which the name of God was linked."8 It still doesn't wash.
Most of Wallis' political positions are, I think, sound. He argues that they conform to Christian belief more closely than those of the religious right; I begin to part company with him here. It's entirely appropriate to point out the size of the gap between religious-right political views and the New Testament; that's merely the exposure of error, inconsistency, insincerity or hypocrisy. However, the next step, that a different set of political beliefs conforms to true Christian faith, that such a set represents "God's politics," is bad politics and bad religion.
1. One source is http://right-mind.us/archive/2004/10/23/459.aspx . "Did You Know?" still is circulating via e-mail. It also points out, although with considerable exaggeration, that Moses and the Ten Commandments are included in the decorations of the Supreme Court building.
3. This is a shortened version of a quote which appears on numerous sites, sometimes dated 1797, sometimes 1816.
4. House Bill 1194.
5. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5/3/03. True to his usual political role, he closed the last paragraph, " This can be done without a tax increase."
7. WashingtonPost.com, 5/6-5/8/05, from Associated Press; ABC news 5/8/05.
8. The Culture of Disbelief (1993).
May 13, 2005
American military fatalities in Iraq stand at 1,617. The financial cost of the "war on terrorism" has passed $300 billion; the largest part of that has been spent in Iraq. Two years have passed since the mission was declared accomplished. Virtually nothing that the administration has said about Iraq has been true. However, the American media have shown remarkably little interest in exposing how we got into this mess.
On May 1, The Sunday Times (London) disclosed the minutes of a discussion among British officials, including the Prime Minister, on July 23, 2002, almost eight months before the invasion of Iraq.1 The minutes include a report of meetings with American officials which strongly supports three basic charges against the Bush administration: the U.S. already had decided to invade, intelligence was being manipulated to support that decision, and no thought had been given to the occupation. The minutes refer to the head of MI-6 as "C":
C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.That is about as clear as it will get, short of a confession by a Bush insider.
The minutes add this comment, apparently by the Foreign Secretary, on the weakness of the case against Iraq:
It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.Finally, the legal justification for an invasion was considered:
The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. . . .However, the Prime Minister was as anxious to go to war as the President, so all of this analysis and advice went to waste.
The story was prominent in Britain - the minutes were posted on the Sunday Times web site - but the media here have paid little attention. The notable exception was an article by Knight-Ridder, which sought comment, with mixed success:
A former senior US official called it "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired" during the senior British intelligence officer's visit to Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity.The Los Angeles Times and CNN.com reported yesterday that, on or before May 6, eighty-nine House Democrats had sent a letter to the White House asking for an explanation of the claims in the British minutes. Today, the Washington Post carried an article on page A18 quoting from the minutes, which it described as being disclosed "last week." These are not exactly prompt or aggressive responses.
A White House official said the administration wouldn't comment on leaked British documents.2
In January, 2003, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the State of the Union address under a huge front-page headline "We Seek Peace." It would be nice to see some paper display a similar banner announcing what Mr. Bush's intentions really were, and when.
2. http://www.thestate.com/mld/thestate/news/nation/11574258.htm . This is from The State (Columbia, S.C), 5/6/05. It is unfortunate that Knight-Ridder does not have a paper in New York or Washington.
May 20, 2005
In a speech on Sunday, Bill Moyers delivered a blistering indictment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, accusing it of becoming another arm of the administration-corporate media syndicate.1 Its actions seem to justify the criticism.
In the course of his speech, Mr. Moyers offered some comments on the state of news reporting and the effect of "the conventional rules of Beltway journalism."
These "rules of the game" permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin[,] invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.He was too kind; any opposing viewpoint often is presented in a dismissive way or ignored altogether. As he noted, reporters like Judith Miller of The New York Times act as stenographers for the administration.
Moyers referred to an article by Jonathan Mermin in World Policy Journal, 2 which also argued that journalists are failing to fill their proper role. "A fundamental tenet of our First Amendment tradition is that journalists do not simply recount what government officials say, but function instead as the people's 'watchdog' over their government, subjecting its words and deeds to independent critical scrutiny." It isn't working that way, and I won't count on seeing any changes soon, especially at The Times.
Mermin quoted Judith Miller in an unrepentant and unenlightened state: "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal." No, that was Ari Fleischer's job. A journalist's attitude toward any government pronouncement should be one of skepticism, mild if the administration is generally honest, and severe if, as in this case, it lies routinely.
The Times responded to criticism of its Iraq reporting in a column "from the editors" on May 26, 2004. It offered a restrained admission of error, but it did not explicitly confront a major underlying problem, that The Times simply has become too friendly toward the administration. Its reporting has continued to show that orientation.
On April 26 of this year, a committee of Times reporters and editors ("The Credibility Group") submitted to the Executive Editor a report entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust."3 Most of it will do little to reach that goal. As one critic noted, the authors managed to discuss the paper's credibility problems for fifteen pages without mentioning its coverage of Iraq.4 The reason for its lack of focus is that the report is not the outgrowth of the May, 2004 column but is part of an ongoing reappraisal of the paper's culture triggered by the Jason Blair scandal in 2003.5 As a result, it is largely a review of internal procedures combined with platitudes about connecting with readers. One of its concluding comments suggests that The Times isn't likely to be more skeptical. The authors noted the liberal slant of the house editorials and vowed to prevent its infecting the news pages: "In part because the Times's editorial page is clearly liberal, the news pages do need to make more effort not to seem monolithic." Heaven forfend that The New York Times appear to be a liberal monolith.
2. Vol XXI, No. 3 (Fall 2004); www.worldpolicy.org/journal/articles/wpj04-3/mermin.htm
4. Media Matters for America, "An Open Letter to The New York Times," 5/16/05; http://mediamatters.org/items/200505160002 . The criticism also included Elisabeth Bumiller's puff pieces on Mr. Bush, "each installment more sycophantic than the last."
5. An earlier report was submitted July 28, 2003; www.nytco.com/committeereport.pdf
June 2, 2005
I've looked at only a few of the many articles about the disclosure of Mark Felt as Bob Woodward's Watergate source. Those that I have read, along with reports on TV news, have seemed to reach for reasons to condemn Felt for inappropriate behavior. Where has that attitude come from? I don't recall hearing any contention until now that disclosing Nixon's misdeeds was in any sense dishonorable. Perhaps it's the temper of the times - we mustn't oppose the emperor - or perhaps the stories have been written by people too young to remember the events of the Seventies and to appreciate their significance. When Richard Nixon died in 1994, this chronological detachment was evident in some of the articles about him, including one which observed that "only the old or the middle-aged" would remember what all the fuss was about. Eleven years later, it's only the very old, apparently.
June 4, 2005
Amnesty International recently issued its annual report, in which it asserted that the U.S. had a terrible human rights record in 2004. The administration has reacted with something approaching panic. This passage from the Foreword by Secretary General Irene Khan was the principal cause of the administration's distress:
In 1973 AI published its first report on torture. It found that: "torture thrives on secrecy and impunity. Torture rears its head when the legal barriers against it are barred. Torture feeds on discrimination and fear. Torture gains ground when official condemnation of it is less than absolute." The pictures of detainees in US custody in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, show that what was true 30 years ago remains true today.Then came the line which struck a nerve: "The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law. . . . "1
Despite the near-universal outrage generated by the photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib, and the evidence suggesting that such practices are being applied to other prisoners held by the USA in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and elsewhere, neither the US administration nor the US Congress has called for a full and independent investigation.
Instead, the US government has gone to great lengths to restrict the application of the Geneva Conventions and to "re-define" torture. It has sought to justify the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the practice of holding "ghost detainees" (people in unacknowledged incommunicado detention) and the "rendering" or handing over of prisoners to third countries known to practise torture. . . .
The administration was offended by the substance but especially by the word "gulag." The editorial page of The Washington Post joined in denouncing the use of that term; it argued that AI lost credibility by comparing Guantánamo to Soviet labor camps, which might be true. However, I suspect that the verbal overkill may have served primarily to give the report more publicity than it would have had otherwise. In any case, this isn't the first time "gulag" has been used in this context, although the earlier examples used it more inclusively, referring not only to Guantánamo but to the system of prisons and hiding places created as part of the "war on terror." 2
Apart from objecting to terminology, the administration's orchestrated response followed several paths. First, change the subject. Bush: "It's an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that is - promotes freedom around the world." 3 Rumsfeld: "[N]o force in the world has done more to liberate people that they have never met than the men and women of the United States military. Indeed, that's why the recent allegation that the U.S. military is running a gulag at Guantanamo Bay is so reprehensible."4 Rumsfeld also tried to change the subject to Saddam Hussein and how much worse his abuses were, thereby walking into this counterpunch by William Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA: twenty years ago, "Amnesty International was criticizing Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses at the same time Donald Rumsfeld was courting him."5
Next, assert that we have done no wrong. Cheney: detainees at Guantanamo "have been well treated, treated humanely and decently."6 Myers: "We struggle with how to handle them, but we've always handled them humanely and with the dignity that they should be accorded."7
Next, point out that the complaints are coming from people not to be believed. Bush: "It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of - and the allegations - by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble - that means not tell the truth." (Mr. Bush should stick to words he understands). Cheney: "Occasionally there are allegations of mistreatment, but if you trace those back, in nearly every case, it turns out to come from somebody who had been inside and released to their home country and now are peddling lies about how they were treated." Rumsfeld: "It's also important to remember that the people being detained at Guantanamo are, with good reasons, suspected terrorists. Many, if not most, have been systematically trained to lie and to claim torture."
Finally, claim that we have diligently investigated all reports of abuse. Bush: "When there's accusations made about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way."
This debate is not new. Human rights advocates, journalists and others have accused the administration of mistreating prisoners - and the complaints have been dismissed - since the invasion of Afghanistan.
I've downloaded a number of articles, interviews and editorials about the mistreatment issue, mostly since the Abu Ghraib revelations. I read through them after the Amnesty International controversy erupted, and was amazed to find just how much coverage there has been; I had saved 228 items, selected from a fairly narrow range of sources. This is not an issue we can accuse the media of ignoring; the lack of appropriate response must be laid at the doors of Congress and the people. I wonder if William Bennett is concerned about this manifestation of the death of outrage.
The absence of outrage is troubling because this is an issue of overriding importance on two levels. The first is obvious: people's lives, health, dignity and freedom are involved; even the "war" should not make us indifferent to that. In addition, the detention policies adopted, including the endorsement of torture, show us the sort of government we have. It is not one that we should desire.
2. Andrew Buncombe and Kim Sengupta, New Zealand Herald 5/15/04; Jason Burke, The Observer 6/13/04; Robert Scheer, The Los Angeles Times 6/15/04; Tom Engelhardt, tomdispatch.com 1/5/05.
3. All Bush comments from his press conference 5/31/05; www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/05/20050531.html
4. All Rumsfeld comments from his press conference 6/1/05; www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2005/tr20050601-secdef2981.html
5. The Washington Post 6/1/05.
6. All Cheney comments from The Washington Post (Associated Press) 5/31/05.
7. The Washington Post (Associated Press) 5/30/05.
June 9, 2005
Was the prison at Guantánamo established as a venue for interrogation of terrorists? Was it a place to hold Taliban fighters for the duration? Were prisoners sent there simply to demonstrate the get-tough attitude which the administration substituted for a plan? Whatever the original motivation, the prison is there now, I suspect, primarily for the same reason that we are in Iraq; it's a mistake the administration doesn't know how to correct.
Thomas Friedman wants to close it because it tarnishes our image, which is counterproductive in dealing with terrorism; "Guantánamo Bay is becoming the anti-Statue of Liberty."1 Senator Joseph Biden has come to more or less the same conclusion: it "has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world."2 Unlike Friedman, who simply said "shut it down and then plow it under," the Senator suggested appointing a commission to make recommendations about the fate of the prison. "But the end result is, I think we should end up shutting it down . . . " The Carter Center went a step further. "To demonstrate clearly our nation's historic commitment to protect human rights, our government needs to: Close down Guantánamo and the two dozen secret detention facilities run by the United States as soon as practicable. . . ."3 It also spoke of appointing a commission; how that would relate to closing down all of the detention system isn't clear.
Yesterday The Associated Press reported that "President Bush. . . left open the possibility that the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be shut down."4 That's a liberal reading of his comment. Asked whether it should be closed, he said this:
Well, you know, we're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America. What we don't want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us. And so we're looking at all alternatives and have been.5He then wandered off onto a discussion of how the prisoners are fairly treated and how absurd it is to use the term "gulag." If the Guantánamo prison is closed, it will be because the administration has decided to cut its losses, not because Mr. Bush is open to all reasonable suggestions.
Yesterday, Secretary Rumsfeld said, apparently before hearing of the President's remarks, that he was unaware that anyone in the administration was considering closing the Guantánamo prison. Today's online news reported further comments by him on the subject, initially suggesting that he had got the hint. An Associated Press story carried by The Washington Post was captioned "U.S. Wants Gitmo Prisoners Held at Home," home in this case meaning the prisoners' native countries. 6 The same story on USA Today was "U.S. Would Prefer Others Hold Gitmo Prisoners, Rumsfeld says,"7 and on CBS News, "We Don't Want Gitmo Men."8 But a little later, The Post9 and ABC News10 carried a Reuters story captioned "Rumsfeld Plays Down Idea of Closing Guantanamo." Take your pick. Presumably all of these conclusions are interpretations of the same remarks, delivered in Brussels.11 Here are the quotes that could support any of the headlines:
"Our desire is not to have these people. ... Our goal is to have them in the hands of the countries of origin, for the most part." (AP)All of this may be only a modification of the rhetoric, but there's no doubt that the Amnesty report and other criticism has made the problem more difficult to ignore.
"A whole lot of questions come to mind. If you closed it, where would you go." (Reuters)
Rumsfeld, asked about Bush's remarks, did not contradict his boss, but said he understood that what "the president said is that we're always looking at ways to improve our operations." (Reuters)
The Pentagon has turned over suspects to their countries of origin "when we have been able to negotiate with the country an agreement that they would handle them in a way that was humane and appropriate," he said. It would like to release many more to Iraqi and Afghan governments but both lack appropriate prison and criminal justice systems. The aim is to have these suspects "off the street, but in the hands of the countries of origin for the most part," he added. (Reuters)
Mr. Rumsfeld pointed out one of the obvious questions: if one or more of the camps were closed suddenly, what would happen to the prisoners? The Carter statement didn't address that. Mr. Friedman faced the issue as to those at Guantánamo:
If we have a case to be made against any of the 500 or so inmates still in Guantánamo, then it is high time we put them on trial, convict as many possible (which will not be easy because of bungled interrogations) and then simply let the rest go home or to a third country. Sure, a few may come back to haunt us. But at least they won't be able to take advantage of Guantánamo as an engine of recruitment to enlist thousands more. I would rather have a few more bad guys roaming the world than a whole new generation.Senator Biden offered a somewhat more casual solution: "Those that we have reason to keep, keep. And those we don't, let go."
"Keeping" some of the prisoners raises the question of their status, an issue the administration has tried, with considerable success, to finesse. It has claimed that it has the right to hold "enemy combatants." However, enemy combatants are, or should be, divided into two classes, lawful and unlawful. The latter may be tried for war crimes, but the former must be treated as prisoners of war. The administration has refused to make the distinction, and in effect has claimed that it can hold anyone indefinitely, without charges but without granting POW status, by applying the enemy-combatant label. It has suffered some setbacks in the Supreme Court's decisions in Hamdi and Rasul and in subsequent lower-court rulings, but the game continues.
A few days ago Tom Engelhardt noted that, in a departure from the party line, administration spokesmen on two occasions have referred to those at Guantánamo as "prisoners of war."12 Secretary Rumsfeld did so six months ago, responding to criticism by the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch:
[T]hey've decided on their own that it is tantamount to quote, torture. . . to keep somebody without telling them what, how long they're going to stay in jail. Well, every war, prisoners of war were kept in, without charges, without lawyers, until the war was over.13The other reference was by Vice President Cheney, in his response to the Amnesty International report:
Remember who's down there. These are people that were picked up off the battlefield in Afghanistan and other places in the global war on terror. . . . In a sense, when you're at war, you keep prisoners of war until the war is over with. 14Probably these were slips of the tongue. However, the status question and the related issue of how long non-criminal prisoners may be held add to the pressure to resolve this mess in some definitive way. One possible result is that Guantánamo and perhaps other visible prisons will be shut down, but the clandestine camps preserved.
1. The New York Times, 5/27/05.
2. ABC News This Week, 6/5/05; http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/print?id=821293
4. On washingtonpost.com 6/8/05.
5. Interview by Neil Cavuto, 6/8/05; www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,158960,00.html
11. The DoD site does not have either a transcript or a report, so it isn't possible to be sure that there was only one event.
12. 6/3/05; www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=3077 .
13. Interview by Bill O'Reilly 12/3/04; the transcript is at www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2004/tr20041202-secdef1742.html
14. Interview by Larry King 5/30/05; The transcript is at http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0505/30/lkl.01.html
June 14, 2005>
If the July 23, 2002 Downing Street minutes, or any other revelation about the path to the invasion of Iraq, had received the play of the Michael Jackson trial, impeachment proceedings might be under way. Since yesterday the verdict has dominated the news; somehow it is more important than war and peace, lives, billions of dollars - all that stuff we leave to the administration.
The New York Times, it is true, has not ignored the revelations from London, at least not entirely. It ran an article about the July 23 minutes on May 2, but discussed only their significance to the Blair re-election campaign. Yesterday it attempted to persuade us that the recently uncovered July 21 memo shows that Mr. Bush hasn't lied about his intentions. The article is entitled "Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made," meaning that the President had not, contrary to what now seems obvious, decided by July, 2002 to start a war. The argument is based on this statement in the memo: "Although no political decisions have been taken, US military planners have drafted options for the US Government to undertake an invasion of Iraq." Apparently The Times thinks, or wants us to believe, that an executive decision is the same as a political one, that deciding to go to war is identical to creating a saleable political argument for that action.
It is clear that the memo refers to the latter process. It speaks of setting "military plans within a realistic political strategy, which includes. . .creating the conditions necessary to justify government military action. . . ." It complains that "little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action . . . . " It recommends encouraging the US "to place its military planning within a political framework. . . ." It notes that an "international coalition is. . .desirable for political purposes."
However, to The Times, the memo has an entirely different meaning, one which somehow cancels the July 23 minutes, which it calls the Downing Street Memo: "The publication of the [July 21] memorandum is significant because a previously leaked document, now known as the Downing Street Memo, appeared to suggest that a decision to go to war may have been made that summer." Yes, it did appear to suggest that: "Military action was now seen [in Washington] as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." Even accepting The Times' dubious interpretation of the July 21 memo, it's a little difficult to see how it eradicates those statements of what Bush was up to.
However, the article offers a clincher: "In Washington last week, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair denied that they made any decision in 2002, and suggested that the [July 23] memorandum was being misinterpreted." Bush and Blair denied it; what more could one ask?
The Times also has a fallback argument for its theory of nonsignificance: it was known in mid-2002 that invasion plans were being made, so the minutes are no big deal. "While the latest memorandum appears to have been written by a British intelligence official after a visit to Washington, the central fact reported - that the American military was in the midst of advanced planning for an invasion of Iraq - was no secret. The New York Times published details of that plan two weeks before the memorandum was written." Here's the composite argument: everyone knew that military plans were well along, but Mr. Bush hadn't decided by July to use them. Perhaps we'll learn next week that the decision hadn't been made in August.
The Times continued its argument in today's edition. The memos, we are told, have caused a stir, leading some to conclude that Bush and Blair "misled their countries into war." Well, yes. "But the documents are not quite so shocking." They "are not the Dead Sea Scrolls."
The so-called Downing Street memo, a summary of a prime minister's meeting on July 23, 2002, does not put forward specific proof that Mr. Bush had taken any particular action, only a general sense that "it seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." It describes the impression of Britain's chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," but does not elaborate.This is a remarkable exercise in providing cover - for the administration's dissembling about its decision to go to war, and for The Times' failure to grasp the significance of the July 23 minutes. Its excuse for both is this: "Three years ago, the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Mr. Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary." But that ignores the fact that the administration denied any such plan and pretended until the eve of invasion that it was attempting to avoid war. The July 23 minutes show that to be false.
Accompanying today's article is a table which contrasts one statement from the minutes with those of the administration before the war. It carries this heading: "Although the Downing Street memo calls military action in Iraq 'inevitable,' public statements by the Bush administration described war as a last resort." That, of course, is the point, and I can't tell whether The Times is too dense to see it, or whether the table and its heading, like the comment in yesterday's article, argue that a denial by the administration is enough. In any case, here, from the table, are the Downing Street statement and a few of the administration's:
Jul 23, 2002: "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided." Downing Street MemoOthers could be added.
Aug. 26, 2002: "I am confident that [President Bush] will, as he has said he would, consult widely with the Congress and with our friends and allies before deciding upon a course of action." Vice President Cheney
Nov. 12: "But the president continues to seek a peaceful resolution. War is a last resort." Press Secretary Scott McClellan
Mar. 6, 2003: "I've not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully." President Bush
The Times' articles are evasive nonsense. The administration decided, long before it admits having done so, to invade Iraq and it made that decision on grounds other than those which it asserted. In short, it has told the truth neither about the timing of nor the motivation for the decision to go to war. Confirmation of that by an inside source is important news.
June 15, 2005
The Downing Street memos may yet become well known, if only through the campaign by newspapers to convince people to ignore them.
Today The P-I carried a story from Cox News Service downplaying their significance and quoting someone from The Heritage Foundation that they are "irrelevant."
Also today, The Washington Post editorial page noted that "debate on Iraq in Washington is picking up again." It found that to be "a needed and welcome development," but complained that it has the wrong focus, on the memos, which "add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002." This is an argument which becomes no more convincing with repetition.
The Post thinks that we should be concentrating on damage control. "Debate over whether the war should have been fought is appropriate and no doubt will continue for many years. But it ought not distract from what should be an urgent discussion of the present situation in Iraq." Whether we should be facing "the present situation," whether we have a government that cannot be trusted, are not questions of present importance; they can be reserved for future academic study.
It's understandable that The Posts's editorial writers would like to shift attention from how we got there to how bad things are. They were strong advocates of the war and probably don't like being shown to have been gullible or complicit. Instead, let's concentrate on what a mess the administration has made of the war; no one told them to be incompetent.
June 20, 2005
In his column in The New York Times on June 15, Thomas Friedman complained that although Iraq "has been descending deeper and deeper into violence . . . no one in Washington wants to talk about it." That may be changing; there even has been pressure for an exit plan. However, that isn't the sort of attention Mr. Friedman wants. He believes that "this is no time to give up - this is still winnable - but it is time to ask: What is our strategy?" His assertion that "this" is winnable, and his question about strategy both presuppose an aim. "Winning" and devising a plan to accomplish that aren't possible if the goal hasn't been defined. What is it?
Mr. Friedman's answer is that the goal is to "build a unified, democratizing Iraq." Presumably this is a continuation of his claim, in 2002, that a democratic Iraq would be a model for Muslim youth which would draw them away from despair and jihad. He thought that overthrowing Saddam Hussein - which required an unprovoked war against a Muslim country - was the way to accomplish this.
The administration told us that the war that it wanted was necessary because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists, and that it was a threat to the United States. Involvement in 9-11 was hinted. In his radio address on Saturday, Mr. Bush repeated the 9-11 hint and the claim of a threat to us, but turned the terrorist connection on its head and added the Friedman theory:
. . . We went to war because we were attacked, and we are at war today because there are still people out there who want to harm our country and hurt our citizens. Some may disagree with my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but all of us can agree that the world's terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror. These foreign terrorists violently oppose the rise of a free and democratic Iraq, because they know that when we replace despair and hatred with liberty and hope, they lose their recruiting grounds for terror. Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home. . . .1Mr. Friedman proposes to deal with the violence by sending more American troops, which might be counterproductive and, in any case, is unrealistic. The administration apparently has no plan other than waiting for the Iraqis to hand us a "victory:"
. . . I am confident that Iraqis will continue to defy the skeptics as they build a new Iraq that represents the diversity of their nation and assumes greater responsibility for their own security. And when they do, our troops can come home with the honor they have earned.Mr. Friedman's theory was morally indefensible and strategically bizarre; the administration's was morally indefensible and tactically inept. Neither seems to have learned anything.
This mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight. . . . By making their stand in Iraq, the terrorists have made Iraq a vital test for the future security of our country and the free world. We will settle for nothing less than victory.
June 27, 2005
On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Myers testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rumsfeld also was interviewed on Sunday. Their remarks did little to clarify the goal of our efforts in Iraq.
Mr. Rumsfeld disputed assertions that the U.S. is "losing" in Iraq: "any who say we've lost this war or that we're losing this war are wrong. We are not." 1 Perhaps by way of justifying that claim, he "insisted that success in Iraq 'cannot be defined by domestic tranquility.' "2 The Secretary is articulate, so his evasions have an elegance denied those of his leader, but what he said, in simpler terms, is that restoring law and order isn't a test of success in an urban war, which is rather strange. However, he also was reported to have said that "[s]ections of the country are relatively peaceful and essentially under the control of Iraqi security forces at the present time." 3 That suggests that restoration of domestic tranquility - or, stripped of its eccentric Constitutional reference, bringing the insurgency under control - is the, or a, measure of success.
On Sunday, he denied that "winning" is a part of American military strategy. In the course of dismissing a complaint that there are not enough troops in Iraq, he said this:
Second, the implication of the question was that we don't have enough to win against the insurgency. We're not going to win against the insurgency. The Iraqi people are going to win against the insurgency. That insurgency could go on for any number of years. Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years. Coalition forces, foreign forces are not going to repress that insurgency. We're going to create an environment that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces can win against that insurgency.4A Marine colonel interviewed in Iraq a day or so earlier put the matter more directly. "Colonel Davis says the terms 'winning' and 'losing' do not apply in this insurgency war. His mission, he says, is to keep pressure on the insurgents in his area. Declaring victory is more a political decision than any final military maneuver."5
That leads to the report that Americans have met with leaders of some branches of the insurgency. On Sunday, Rumsfeld brushed this off as a routine contact, but the story he responded to makes it looks otherwise:
After weeks of delicate negotiation involving a former Iraqi minister and senior tribal leaders, a small group of insurgent commanders apparently came face to face with four American officials seeking to establish a dialogue with the men they regard as their enemies.6According to "reliable Iraqi sources," the American team included "senior military and intelligence officers, a civilian staffer from Congress and a representative of the US embassy in Baghdad." The insurgent negotiators included a representative of a group that "carried out numerous suicide bombings and killed 22 people in the dining hall of an American base at Mosul last Christmas." The American strategy is thought to be to separate the "home- grown Iraqi opposition" from "foreign Islamic militants." A spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry commented, "The Americans want to expedite this matter of talks with the insurgents. "They initially thought they could win it through military operations and now they have come to realize that the military option will not provide them with the solution, so they are going for the political option as well."
In his Senate testimony, General Myers offered a foreign-policy analysis: " 'Leaving before the task is complete would be catastrophic,' he told the committee, 'not only for Iraq but also for the struggle against violent extremism.' " 7 Presumably the first part means that we must continue to protect the Iraqis until they can protect themselves, which raises the question of whether we are in fact improving their lot by staying. The second part seems to claim that the battles in Iraq somehow will diminish the incidence of terrorism, or in his phrase, "violent extremism." However, the opposite conclusion is possible: the longer the battle goes on, the greater the danger may be of future terrorism. This is underscored by a recent CIA report, the substance of which has been leaked.
The assessment, completed last month and circulated among government agencies, was described in recent days by several Congressional and intelligence officials. The officials said it made clear that the war was likely to produce a dangerous legacy by dispersing to other countries Iraqi and foreign combatants more adept and better organized than they were before the conflict.8The report is said to conclude that "Iraq, since the American invasion of 2003, had in many ways assumed the role played by Afghanistan during the rise of Al Qaeda during the 1980's and 1990's, as a magnet and a proving ground for Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries." Worse, "Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat."
This is not a new message; it was contained in a December, 2004 study by the CIA's National Intelligence Council:
Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats....The administration's newest PR campaign includes a speech scheduled for tomorrow in which Mr. Bush will describe his plan; perhaps he will make clear what the goal is, how we reach it, and why it is worth the cost in lives and money. However, his comments during the meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister and Karl Rove's recent performance don't suggest that any reassessment or even any increase in candor is to be expected.
Low's comments came during a rare public briefing by the NIC on its report of significant global trends looking out as far as 2020. But within the 119-page report is a startling frank evaluation of Iraq's place as a breeding ground for the new generation of Islamic terrorists, an evaluation that represents a consensus among terrorist experts throughout the world.9
Mr. Rove had this to say last Wednesday: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."10 Democrats have reacted with outrage. Senators Schumer and Clinton indignantly accused Rove of playing politics with 9-11. There have been calls for Rove's resignation. Perhaps he, like Senator Durbin, will be forced to apologize, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Besides, it seems to me that the offended Democrats are missing the point.
Rove's statement was part of a prepared script. Therefore it represents the considered thoughts of the administration's chief political strategist. The punch line was so silly that it indicates either that he is vastly overrated or that things are getting very uncomfortable at the White House. I wouldn't entirely rule out the former explanation, but even if we assume that Rove is only an average political operative, resorting to a comment that would be too dumb for Rush Limbaugh indicates desperation.
1. The New York Times 6/24/05; washingtonpost.com 6/24/05.
2. washingtonpost.com 6/23/05.
3. The New York Times 6/23/05.
4. "Fox News Sunday," 6/26/05; www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,160716,00.html
5. The New York Times 6/26/05.
6. The Sunday Times (London) 6/26/05; www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-1669601,00.html
7. washingtonpost.com 6/23/05.
8. The New York Times 6/22/05.
9. The Washington Post 1/14/05; see www.cia.gov/nic/NIC_globaltrend2020_s4.html
10. The New York Times 6/23/05.
June 29, 2005
Of all of the excuses for invading and occupying Iraq, the claim or implication that Iraq was involved in or somehow connected to the attacks on 9-11 always has been the weakest logically and the strongest emotionally. Having almost run out of other arguments, last night President Bush returned to 9-11 as the reason for our presence in Iraq.
The attempt to link the two began about thirty seconds into his speech at Ft. Bragg:
The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us -- and the terrorists we face -- murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression -- by toppling governments, by driving us out of the region, and by exporting terror.1The speech dealt with several topics, but throughout the theme remained the same: justify the war by stirring up memories of 9-11 and implying a connection.
. . . After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.The repeated resort to this false, tired and hypocritical argument reveals the weakness of the administration's position.
Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. . . .
. . .The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September the 11th, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi, and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like Bin Laden. . . .
. . . We're fighting against men with blind hatred . . . . They are trying to shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001. . . .
One justification for staying the course - that fighting terrorists in Iraq prevents terrorist attacks in the U.S. - has been made repeatedly, going back at least to August, 2003.2 Apparently the administration has decided that this argument isn't persuasive standing alone, so it has been linked to 9-11:
Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home. . . .Mr. Bush has been accused of being too optimistic about Iraq. Last night he tried to paint a hopeful picture of the situation while acknowledging the problems. In the latter vein, he claimed, again waiving the 9-11 flag, that he had warned everyone that this would be a difficult war: "After September the 11th, 2001, I told the American people that the road ahead would be difficult, and that we would prevail. Well, it has been difficult -- and we are prevailing. . . ." However, as to Iraq such warnings came only after things did not go as planned. Prior to the war various members of the administration told us how short and painless it would be. On May 1, 2003, six weeks after the invasion, Mr. Bush declared that the hard part was over: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."3
The war has dragged on; the lack of any positive change, in the light of the early assurances, is the major cause of his low poll numbers on Iraq. The more important issue, that the invasion was wrong, would be of little consequence to public opinion if things had gone well. Mr. Bush is falling in the polls not because his policies are immoral or dangerous but because they have been executed incompetently. However, his speech had the opposite emphasis: it attempted to justify the war but offered little reason to think that it will be conducted any differently.