“Honest Loyalty” to President Trump in Short Supply
(June 8, 2017)
James Comey’s much anticipated testimony today before the Senate intelligence committee was a good deal more dramatic than his more exculpatory prepared remarks (which he declined to read for a national television audience) released the afternoon before would have led one to believe.
Behaving more like a “woman scorned” than a calm, deliberate civil servant, Mr. Comey called the president a liar in almost his first sentence to the committee, and revealed his habit of writing memos about virtually all of his meetings he had with the president as a matter of self defense knowing, as he stated under oath, that he expected Donald Trump to lie about them. On such a basis of mutual trust and respect began the relationship between FBI director James Comey and president Donald Trump.
During the transition Mr. Comey met with president-elect Donald Trump and was asked, inappropriately according to the denizens of the legal deep, whether he would be loyal to the president. Mr. Comey was taken aback by this question, which would seem entirely normal to a businessman conducting a job interview, and said he would be honest with the president. Mr. Trump, according to director Comey, again asked his question and the two men apparently settled on a formulation satisfactory to them both that Mr. Comey would accord the president “honest loyalty.” As today’s hearing made clear, the FBI director failed miserably in keeping that pledge.
From their first meeting, it was obvious from today’s testimony that Mr. Comey viewed himself as being in an adversarial relationship with his president (and his Article II boss). Having bought in entirely to the media’s characterization of Mr. Trump as a congenital liar, he nevertheless desperately wanted to stay on as his FBI director, and determined that the best way to approach that tenuous situation was to be a secret note keeper.
The first major incident in which that talent became useful was when the director met with Mr. Trump on the day after he had remorsefully fired Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, for being far from candid about his conversations during the transition with the Russian ambassador about the possibility of lifting sanctions. There was nothing illegal or wrong about his discussing those matters with the ambassador, but due to the unmasking of his name by intelligence officials and the subsequent leaking of those conversations to the press, it became apparent that he had not been honest with the vice president (and presumably with the president, himself) and accordingly had to go.
The first blockbuster moment of today’s hearing concerned the president telling Mr. Comey, in view of Mr. Flynn’s firing and humiliation, that “I hope you can see yourself clear to letting this (the investigation into Flynn’s possibly untruthful statements to the FBI) go.” The Democrats and their allies in the media have been salivating over this conversation as proof of presidential obstruction of justice. This is ludicrous on several different levels.
First, the president asked, out of sympathy for Mr. Flynn whom he thought had suffered enough, if Mr. Comey could exercise his prosecutorial discretion not to charge Flynn. He did not order Comey to discontinue the Flynn investigation, as was his right as president to manage the executive branch of government pursuant to his constitutional powers under Article II. Had he done so, it would have been a legitimate exercise (though imprudent and ill-advised) of his powers as president, something constitutional scholars as diverse as Alan Dershowitz of Harvard and Jonathon Turley of George Washington University are agreed upon. Neither thinks doing so would have raised issues of obstruction of justice.
But, second, as Senator Risch (R-ID) forcefully pointed out in today’s hearing, the president did not order Mr. Comey to discontinue his investigation of Mr. Flynn. He merely expressed his hope that the investigation might be dropped. The senator praised Comey for his precise recording of the president’s wording , “I hope you can see yourself clear to letting this go,” and then asked the former FBI director if he could ever recall anyone being prosecuted for obstruction of justice for “hoping for a particular outcome.”
Mr. Comey said he could not, but maintained that he construed Mr. Trump’s words, contrary to their clear precatory meaning, to be a direct order to discontinue the Flynn investigation, an order which he chose to ignore. He refused to opine whether or not that would constitute obstruction of justice, leaving that up to the decision of the special counsel, Mr. Mueller. He did say, however, that he found his conversation deeply troubling.
Third, Mr. Comey’s concern about that conversation is in itself quite puzzling because on May 3, 2017, while testifying under oath before the House intelligence committee, he was asked if any person had tried to influence or impede his investigations and he was emphatic that no such attempt had been made, and stated that it would have been a very serious matter had there been such an effort. In a little more than a month between May 3rd and June 8th, both testimonies under oath, his story changed 180 degrees. The only difference was that he was the FBI director in May and he was the former FBI director in June.
Fourth, in view of how upset Mr. Comey says he was by the president’s inappropriate request (“very disturbing, very concerning”), he never reported it to his superiors in the Justice Department, or threatened to resign as he had in the episode at attorney general John Ashcroft’s bedside during the George W. Bush administration for which he became famous. No memo then, just a bold threat of action.
But what of Mr. Comey’s pledge of “honest loyalty?” Donald Trump’s plea on behalf of the disgraced Michael Flynn was a natural human response to the situation of an associate in trouble, but Mr. Trump as a businessman and non-lawyer did not appreciate how completely inappropriate his request was in a legal matter under investigation. As both Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked, why didn’t director Comey explain to the president how out of bounds his question had been, and point out that it was not proper for them to be having that conversation?
Mr. Comey replied that he was so stunned by Mr. Trump’s request that all he could think of was how he could break off the conversation and he decided that the best approach was to agree with the president that “Michael Flynn was a good guy,” without committing to anything further.
But why, Senator Rubio pressed, didn’t he place a call to the White House counsel in the days that followed, simply to alert him to the problem so he could take it up with the president? Mr. Comey had no answer – it just seemed more useful, apparently, to write up the incident in a memo and retain it for use later. He was still, at that time, the director of the FBI, but his instinct for self-preservation was a far cry from the helpful counseling which “honest loyalty” would have suggested.
Despite hearing himself described as a serial liar by the Beltway’s self-appointed Czar of Virtue, Thursday, June 8th was actually a pretty good day for President Trump. First, after months of requests by Mr. Trump, Mr. Comey finally revealed publicly what he had thrice told the president, and confirmed to Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Feinstein (D-CA) of the judiciary committee, that Mr. Trump had never been a subject of a criminal investigation in connection with the Russian matter, finally lifting the cloud which the latter justifiably thought was hanging over his administration. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) waggishly suggested that this might have been the only information connected with the Russian investigation which was never leaked to the press. Perhaps there was no market for it in the media.
Equally important, Mr. Comey confirmed that Mr. Trump had never tried to quash the investigation of the larger counter-intelligence inquiry looking into whether anyone associated with his campaign had colluded with the Russians, but on the contrary had encouraged it saying “if some of my satellites did something wrong, it’d be good to find that out.”
Thus in a single day, most of the breathless reporting filled with innuendo and half truths involving the president’s supposed connection with Russian collusion was dissipated. But Mr. Comey’s testimony was to provide something even dearer to the president’s heart – the revelation that most of the anonymously sourced reporting relying on leaked classified information in the Russian probe really was “Fake News!”
Prodded by a question from Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) as to whether a much cited article appearing February 14, 2017 in The New York Times entitled “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence” was untrue, Mr. Comey replied that “in the main that story was untrue.” The former director went on to explain that most of the stories relying on unsourced leaks of classified intelligence information were “just dead wrong,” noting that the intelligence agencies couldn’t refute them for the record without giving away sources and methods. He did observe, however, that it should come as no surprise that the reporting was so erroneous because:
“most of the people talking to the press don’t know what’s going on, and those of us who know what’s going on aren’t talking about it.”
As if to prove the former FBI director’s point, both CNN and ABC News ran with stories from anonymous sources the day before Mr. Comey’s testimony saying that he would refute Mr. Trump’s claim that he was not the subject of FBI investigation. As soon as Mr. Comey’s prepared remarks to the intelligence committee were released on the afternoon before his scheduled appearance, CNN had to print a retraction. The story had been online for only a matter of hours before it was revealed to be false.
Not all leaks are from unreliable sources, however, Mr. Comey explained. For instance, the leak of his memo about his discussion with the president concerning General Flynn was accurate, Mr. Comey implied. After he was fired by the president, and there were hints about possible tape recordings of the Flynn conversation, the former FBI director made the judgment that he should get his memo out into “the public square” as soon as possible:
“. . . so I asked a friend of mine (Columbia law professor and former FBI hand, Daniel C. Richman) to share the contents of the memo with a reporter (I didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons) but I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
Think, for a moment, about that admission which is extraordinary on so many different levels. Mr. Comey conceded that he had not been “Captain Courageous” in failing to advise the new president that his request concerning Michael Flynn was wholly inappropriate, something that an honest and loyal subordinate should have done.
But, leaving aside his failure to be helpful in that respect, he had a duty to keep his private conversations with the president confidential so that the president, not Mr. Comey, could determine whether they should be subject to executive privilege. That decision Mr. Comey abrogated to himself by leaking to the press, exactly as he improperly abrogated to himself (rather than the professionals in the Department of Justice) the decision whether to prosecute Secretary Clinton for mishandling classified information by calling his extraordinary July press conference.
James Comey suffers from the delusion that he is the most virtuous man in Washington, and believes, because of what he perceives to be the moral failings of others (former attorney general Loretta Lynch, president Donald Trump), that it is appropriate for him to make decisions which constitutionally are beyond his authority. His ego and self-esteem in that respect are boundless, and those traits were never more on display than when he took it on himself to engineer a leak intended to “prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
And, so it did. The memo, which was read to The Times but not delivered to it, was published unseen by The New York Times on May 16, 2017, in an article entitled “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation,” reporting in pertinent part the president’s alleged request (“I took it as a direction”):
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
On this flimsy basis, of a memo hastily recorded in a car immediately after fleeing the president’s presence, the six foot eight tower of rectitude that is Mr. Comey contends that he was ordered to discontinue the Flynn investigation (despite the contrary plain meaning of the quoted words) and was so cowed by being in the president’s presence that he dared not suggest that this was not an appropriate request on Mr. Trump’s part.
That, of course, is not how Mr. Comey remembered the incident on May 3, 2017 when he testified under oath before the House intelligence committee that no one had ever tried to influence or impede his investigation, but that occurred before he was fired as FBI director. Perhaps the shock of his dismissal clarified the matter in his mind.
Honest loyalty? Better to say nothing and scribble down a contemporaneous note. You never can tell when a leaked memo might come in handy, particularly if your goal is to bring down a president.
The Media Pursues its Unicorn Through the Political Landscape
(May 21, 2017)
About the time that it finally began to dawn on the national media that Donald Trump’s pursuit of the Republican nomination was not a joke, or a publicity stunt, but a serious effort that might actually succeed, a fundamental change began to take place in the way they (The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CBS News, ABC News, CNN and MSNBC) had traditionally reported the news. They stopped reporting it and dedicated themselves to what they regarded as a greater societal good – making sure that Donald Trump would never be president.
Rather than reporting objectively on what they observed on the ground, they became, in effect, the public relations arm of the Democratic Party, and in all honesty performed that function a great deal more effectively than did the Democratic National Committee or Hillary Clinton’s own campaign. I had read The New York Times regularly since I was a student at Williams College and the University of Virginia’s law school in the 1960s. I had been a daily subscriber since it first became available on the internet. In reading The Times, and in viewing MSNBC, however, I noticed a distinct change in tone as Mr. Trump’s campaign progressed.
When he first came down the escalator at Trump Tower Mr. Trump was portrayed as a clown and outrageous buffoon who would never be taken seriously by the American electorate. But as he won primary after primary and the calendar advanced toward late spring of 2016, ridicule turned to fear and loathing and more desperate measures were required.
The Times began to run two or three negative front page articles per day on Mr. Trump or his campaign, and they were always laced with pejorative adjectives. His proposals were always reckless, or racist, or fascist. The old journalistic canon of never comparing anyone to Hitler was abandoned and references to Nazi Germany became commonplace.
At MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell, who is often in error but never in doubt, assured his viewers that they had nothing to be concerned about from Mr. Trump’s candidacy. It was just a publicity stunt to drum up ratings for his television show; he would never submit his financial forms to the Federal Elections Commission. When he did, he would be swamped by mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christy. When they were dispatched, last minute deals between establishment “Never –Trumpers” like John Kasich and right-winger Ted Cruz would deny front-runner Donald Trump the nomination, except they didn’t.
Once the nomination was procured, Mr. O’Donnell was sure it would be wrested away from him and he would be replaced on the ticket by Mike Pence after Mr. Trump engaged in a public dispute with the Gold Star Khan family, but Mr. Trump remained on the ticket and headed, we were assured, toward one of the worst drubbings in American electoral history. When the Access Hollywood tape was released by NBC in which Mr. Trump bragged of his sexual appeal to women, a landslide victory of unprecedented proportions for Hillary Clinton was all but assured.
Certain of her victory guaranteed by huge leads among blacks, Hispanics, and college educated white women, Mrs. Clinton eschewed campaigning in traditional Democratic strongholds in the Middle Western “Rust Belt,” (see “Putin and the FBI Ate Hillary’s Homework” on the Bad Thoughts page) and headed to the South and Southwest to inflict a humiliating defeat on her distasteful opponent.
Then, on the evening of November 8, 2016, the votes started coming in. Early on, it became obvious that the South by Southwest humiliation strategy hadn’t panned out. Georgia, Texas and Arizona were as red as always. But what of Trump’s “narrow (some had said nonexistent) path” to victory? Florida, North Carolina and Ohio were all “must haves” for Trump and Hillary was leading in a couple of them. As it turned out, Mr. Trump had them all and not by small margins. It was beginning to be nervous time around the decision desks of the major networks. Hillary’s coronation was now dependent on holding the “Blue Wall” of Rust Belt states which she had taken for granted and in which she had barely bothered to campaign.
By the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, it was the Democrats and their handmaidens in the national media who were desperately hoping for a narrow path to a Hillary Clinton victory. At MSNBC, the mood was grim as Trump was leading in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, neither of which had been called by their decision desk. As they counted the outstanding electoral votes still in issue, Steve Kornacki reported that Wisconsin alone could put Mr. Trump over the top and at that exact moment came the news that their decision desk had just called Wisconsin for Donald Trump. “Jesus, oh Jesus,” Chris Matthews could be heard saying under his breath. Lawrence O’Donnell observed that there would be weeping all over America, “real tears.”
Indeed, he was right, and not just at the large glass ceilinged ballroom which Hillary Clinton had reserved for her victory celebration or at Wellesley College where alumna from all over the world had gathered to celebrate the election of the first woman president. Martha Raddatz of ABC News actually teared up on national television!
To say that the national news media was unprepared for Donald Trump’s victory would be one of the great understatements of political history. They had openly laughed on national television at the prospect of him gaining the nomination, and yet they continued totally to dismiss his chances in the general election. The New York Times’ Upshot column put the likelihood of Hillary’s election at over 90% at 9:00 p.m. on election night.
As I explained in my email cancelling my NYT subscription, they missed the story about the presidential election for the same reason they missed the other big story of 2016 (the British people's decision to leave the European Union) because they were reporting on their own agenda rather than on clearly discernible trends on the ground. Immediately after the election, one stunned reporter tweeted that he didn’t know a single person who had voted for Trump. Could that uniformity of opinion in the media be part of the problem?
The presidential election of 2016 was the Democratic Party’s for the taking. The only way they could have lost it was the way they chose to – by nominating one of the worst campaigners in political history, and one of the least appealing candidates in modern political history, because according to their concept of identity politics “it was her turn.” The arrogance of that decision, on the part of the Democratic National Committee and President Obama, both of whom put their thumbs on the scale to benefit Hillary, is simply mind blowing. Does any serious person think Donald Trump could have defeated Joe Biden?
Accordingly, on the morning of November 9, 2016, the Democratic Party, in the words of Desi Arnaz on the iconic “I Love Lucy” show, had some “splaining” to do. And it was on that morning that the excuse that the Russians had stolen the election by colluding with the Trump campaign was born.
The thing about unicorns is that, while they are a wonderfully comforting and whimsical concept to those who would like to believe in them, they do not exist. They simply are not true. Neither is the Democrats’ claim, refuted in March of 2017 by both James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael S. Rodgers, the current head of the National Security Agency, who found no evidence whatever in support of the contention that the Russians affected the result of the 2016 presidential election or colluded with the Trump campaign in an attempt to do so.
Nevertheless, there are two congressional intelligence committees, one in the House and one in the Senate, investigating this matter and this week a special counsel, former FBI director, Robert Mueller, was appointed to do the same. All of this, of course, delights the news media which is much more comfortable reporting on anonymously sourced rumors than talking with people for attribution in connection with real events which requires tiresome journalistic investigation and fact checking.
In the past week ending Friday, May 19th, The Washington Post and The New York Times have adopted the technique of lobbing a journalistic hand grenade, in the form of an anonymously sourced story, into the Oval Office at precisely 6:00 p.m. EDT so that it can lead the network news broadcasts and dominate cable news shows for the evening. Among the stories, all of which have been refuted by people with actual knowledge of the facts, are:
The WP’s story that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had threatened to resign over the firing of James Comey as FBI director. This was denied by Mr. Rosenstein the next day, and later in a secret briefing to all senators later in the week.
The WP’s story that Mr. Comey had requested additional funds for the Russian investigation. This was denied the next day, under oath, by acting FBI director Andrew McCabe who told the Senate intelligence committee that neither he nor anyone else in the Justice Department was aware of any such request and that the FBI had more than enough funding to pursue the Russian investigation.
The WP’s story that, during Mr. Trump’s meeting with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador in the Oval Office, he disclosed critical classified information about threats by ISIS to commercial aviation. This was immediately and publicly denied by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security advisor H. R. McMaster, and his deputy Dina Powell, all of whom were present at the meeting and stated nothing of the sort occurred.
Finally, on Thursday, the NYT reported a story based on an unnamed acquaintance of former FBI director James Comey, who is alleged to have read a portion of a memorandum over the phone to The Times implying that Mr. Comey felt President Trump had attempted to obstruct his investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. The Times has not seen a copy of the alleged memorandum, but nevertheless felt no qualms about reporting the story. The president, of course, denies this, but no one in the press is inclined to believe him.
What is interesting, however, is the day before Mr. Comey was fired, he met with members of the Senate intelligence committee and failed to mention anything about this (although he was very detailed in discussing other matters) and, moreover, he had been very explicit while testifying under oath before Congress that no one had tried to obstruct or impede his investigation, and that it would have been a very serious matter had anyone attempted to do so.
The above is just a brief sampling of the news stories published by the media which were, and were intended to be, very damaging to the president based entirely on anonymous sources which were contradicted on the record by people who were present and in a position to have first hand knowledge of the facts.
So, who are you going to believe, the unnamed sources whose credibility and motives you cannot evaluate, or the denials, many under oath, from people known to have a reputation for integrity and public service? For the Trump-haters in the media, it is an easy choice.
The Incredible, Shrinking ‘Big Tent’ of the G.O.P.
(Posted on Election Day, November 6, 2012)
The party of Lincoln has morphed into the party of Ayn Rand, and, as a tactic of political survival, into the party of Jim Crow. What an extraordinary and distressing metamorphosis! Born out of an idealistic and altruistic desire to free the slaves, the Republican Party has adopted an ideology of individualistic selfishness. Its patron saint is no longer the sad, pragmatic and tolerant figure of Abraham Lincoln, but the strident and ideological muse of Miss Rand whose hero, John Galt, exemplified the much desired “radiant selfishness of the soul.”
Just a few decades ago, America’s black citizens voted Republican almost exclusively, in the states where they were permitted to vote, out of gratitude to the political party which had freed them from bondage and about a century later provided the votes necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But, by the election cycle of 1968, the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon had caused their Dixiecrat tormentors to switch to the G.O.P., and the solid Democratic South had been transformed, almost overnight, into the solid Republican South. Only the party labels (not the racist attitudes) had changed. Today, on the eve of the presidential election of 2012, blacks favor the Democratic nominee 96% to 0%.
Just eight years ago, Republican president-elect George W. Bush of Texas was building bridges to the Hispanic community and actually received approximately 40% of the Latino vote in the 2004 presidential election. Today, after the G.O.P.’s nominee, Mitt Romney, has pledged to veto the Dream Act, and his party throughout the South and Southwest has passed the most stringent anti-immigrant laws in the nation’s history, the Republican Party is committed to self-deportation to solve the decades-long problem of illegal immigration. Recent polls indicate Latinos favor President Obama over his Republican counterpart by a whopping 73% to 24%. -- not exactly an encouraging trend for the G.O.P. with respect to the nation’s fastest growing demographic group.
The gays of the Log Cabin Republicans used to be a small, but respected, part of the Republican Party establishment. But the evangelical wing of the G.O.P. has been so strident in its opposition to allowing gays to marry or to serve in the military that gays now vote almost exclusively Democratic. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has pledged to sign an executive order reversing Obama’s policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military on his first day in office.
The Republican Party’s intolerant attitude toward racial minorities and toward gays and lesbians has increasingly turned off young voters for years, but recently they have been enthralled by Republican maverick Ron Paul’s anti-war, civil liberties, small government, and sound currency messages. First, in the presidential primaries of 2008, and then in the primaries of 2012, tremendous numbers of young voters flocked to Dr. Paul’s candidacy and helped him accumulate the second largest group of Republican delegates in the 2012 election cycle. What was the response of the Mitt Romney supporters at the Republican convention? Why, to change the rules of the game mid-cycle, to strip Ron Paul of many of his delegates won at the state conventions and to deny him the chance to have his name placed in nomination in the G.O.P. national convention! Representative Paul (R-TX) hadn’t a chance of becoming the nominee, but the high-handed actions of Mr. Romney’s convention organizers certainly didn’t endear the party to his young supporters. The chance to win back the most enthusiastic group of young, potential Republicans is gone.
Well, the new, ideologically driven Republican Party has driven the blacks, the Latinos, the gays and lesbians, and the young out of their ‘Big Tent,” are there any other groups they might like to purge? Why, yes, now that you mention it, they are pretty disgusted with the poor, the middle class, and the elderly who comprise the 47 percent of Americans whom Mitt Romney denigrated as society’s “victims” who only want to “take” from the benefits (like social security pensions, Medicare, veteran’s programs, unemployment insurance, and child welfare programs) provided by the social safety net. Why don’t the undeserving poor and the unemployed pull themselves up by their bootstraps like Ayn Rand’s heroes do and get off the dole? The social safety net and the “welfare state” are making it difficult to give further tax cuts to wealthy “job creators” or to further increase expenditures on our military.
Another group the G.O.P. can do very well without are the educated elites who think we have something to learn from other cultures, who believe all this half-baked “science” about climate change, and who disregard the teachings of the Bible as the literal word of God. Generally, the new Republican Party can do without anything or any group of people which or whom the viewers of Public Television might find appealing.
Anybody else need to be shown the exit flap on the Big Tent? Well, yes, all those promiscuous career women who are forever carping about “equal pay for equal work” and getting themselves knocked up. No less than thirteen Republican candidates for the United States Senate support criminalizing abortion without any exceptions. The G.O.P. party platform calls for banning all abortions, without exceptions for rape, incest, or even the life of the mother, and supports the “personhood” amendment which was rejected as too unworkable and extreme by the voters of Mississippi, but has been endorsed by Mitt Romney and was sponsored on the federal level by his running mate Paul Ryan.
Mr. Romney has pledged to nominate justices to the Supreme Court who would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade. Both Romney and Ryan have also supported the Blunt amendment which would permit employers’ health insurance policies to deny contraceptive coverage to their women employees based on the employers’ “moral beliefs” and support the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control. If Roe v. Wade goes, can Griswold v. Connecticut be far behind?
Presidential nominee Romney also supports Republican efforts to completely defund all federal aid to Planned Parenthood (which is a major supplier of pap smears, breast cancer screenings and other gynecological health services to poor women). In addition to his opposition to Planned Parenthood, Romney has also pledged to work for repeal of “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act, which provides free preventative health care screenings under all health insurance policies, so gynecological care for poor women will be extraordinarily hard to come by if he and Mr. Ryan are elected.
War on Women? No, the G.O.P. is just opposed to contraception, abortion, and any federal support for the child once he or she is born. Just good old Republican family values – once you’ve made it through the birth canal, you’re on your own.
Having gone out of their way to alienate blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, the young, the elderly, the educated, the 47 percent, and most working women of child bearing age, a question arose in the minds of some Republican operatives and political strategists concerning the best way to win elections relying only on the people still remaining in their no longer very crowded “Big Tent.” Those who remained -- the wealthy, stay-at-home mothers and housewives, non-college educated white men, and evangelical Christians and a sprinkling of other religious nuts --were certainly congenial companions (just the sorts, for instance, who would not notice, or, at any rate, comment upon, the Arctic ice cap melting, or who would not dispute widely held beliefs about rape victims’ bodies shutting down to prevent pregnancies), but there just weren’t all that many of them.
Something had to be done if the G.O.P. was going to continue winning elections with such a reduced group of adherents and fortunately the boys at the America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC for short) had just the idea of what to do. It was remarkably simple – if you don’t have enough supporters to win elections, keep everyone else from voting! It had worked like a charm in the Deep South in the Jim Crow days of poll taxes and literacy tests between Reconstruction and that annoying Voting Rights Act of 1965. Jim Crow just had to be modernized and born again (the Evangelicals would like that) as fraud fighting Voter ID laws. The fact that in-person voter impersonation was virtually nonexistent was not an obstacle to combating it, and after the Republicans swept most of the state legislatures in the 2010 off-year elections, the same or similar voter ID laws were passed in over 39 states.
The new Voter ID laws worked precisely as they were intended to. Hundreds of thousands of legal voters, people who had voted for decades, would be unable to vote in the 2012 election cycle because they didn’t have a state issued driver’s license, passport, or some other form of government identification such as their birth certificate. As expected the newly disenfranchised were predominantly the poor and the elderly –people who did not have the money or the ability to travel to another county to obtain a driver’s license substitute bearing their picture, or women who had neither the money nor the time to obtain out of state birth certificates and marriage licenses to match their current married name to their name at birth. The poll tax, just in an updated form, was back.
In states subject to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (basically the states of the old Confederacy and Arizona) these laws were relatively easy to strike down because they were not pre-cleared by the Justice Department. The laws passed in South Carolina and Texas, for instance, quickly fell to court challenges. But, in the rest of the nation, these laws could not automatically be struck down simply because they had a disproportionate effect on minorities, the elderly and the poor.
In the challenge brought against the law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for instance, (the one which a leading Republican legislator bragged on camera “would deliver Pennsylvania to Romney”) the law was upheld despite evidence produced at trial that it would disenfranchise between 750,000 and 1,250,000 legal voters and despite the Commonwealth’s admission that it could not point to a single case of in person voter fraud occurring during the past twelve years. The law was upheld on appeal, but its effectiveness was stayed for the current election cycle because of the demonstrated impossibility of obtaining the necessary voter documentation in time for today’s 2012 election.
The temporary setbacks in the effectiveness of the ALEC drafted Voter ID laws to depress voter turnout, however, have not discouraged Republican governors and secretaries of state from taking other very effective measures to hold down the vote among traditional Democratic constituencies. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in his unsuccessful attempt to reduce the days for early voting in Democratic areas. When he failed in that attempt, he reduced voting hours for early voting (used predominantly by working class people who cannot leave their jobs to vote on Election Day) requiring people to wait in line for ten and twelve hours to vote. Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) has used the same tactic to great effect in Florida.
Jane Meyer has detailed countless other voter suppression tactics in her comprehensive article “The Voter-Fraud Myth” published in the current issue of The New Yorker (Oct. 29 & Nov. 5, 2012). In a particularly poignant example, she recounts the experience of Teresa Sharp, a 53 year old Democrat who has voted in every presidential election since she was 18. On September 4, 2012, Ms. Sharp received a letter from the Hamilton County, Ohio Board of Elections informing her that “you are hereby notified that your right to vote has been challenged by a qualified elector,” and setting a hearing date six days later on September 10, 2012, to determine her eligibility to vote. The challenge had been filed by a Republican operative named Marlene Kocher, with the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, one of the many True the Vote organizations funded by Karl Rove’s super-pacs. The woman bringing the challenge claimed Ms. Sharp’s address was a vacant lot, and had decided to challenge Ms. Sharp because there were multiple voters listed at the same address, an indicia of Democratic voting patterns.
As matters turned out, of course, Ms. Sharp lived in her house (not a vacant lot) with several family members who were also registered to vote. The Republican operative had not even visited the location before filing her challenge. On that morning there were 94 voter challenges before the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Only Ms. Sharp chose to show up and contest her disenfranchisement. The other 93 people no longer have the right to vote in Ohio. As of the time Jane Meyer’s excellent article went to press, Ms. Sharp didn’t know whether or not she still does.
Mary Siegel, the woman in charge of the Ohio Voter Integrity Project and a member of a local Tea Party group, admitted to Jane Meyer that “we made a mistake.” There is no reason to think the “mistake” involving Teresa Sharp was an isolated incident, or that the other 93 people should have been struck from the roles. Ms. Siegel justified her organizations quest to combat phantom voter fraud in the following terms:
“We’re just here to protect the voter. We have no idea when we look at the registrations what color or creed or party you are. We just look at where your property is and how many people are living there.” Right.
As for Teresa Sharp, here’s her take on the situation: “I think they want to stop as many black people as they can from voting. I won’t even know until Election Day if I got the right to vote. But if they tell me I can’t vote – it’s over. They are going to have to call the police. I am going to jail.”
It’s going to be a long election night in Ohio and in the other tossup states because Teresa Sharp’s experience is being replicated all over the country as part of an orchestrated campaign by the Republican Party to keep people opposed to their programs from voting. It may work for one more election cycle, but a demographic tidal wave is coming which will wash the cynical and selfish G.O.P. into the dust bin of history. Lindsey Graham, no fan of his party’s current electoral strategy, put it well about a month ago:
“There just aren’t going to be enough angry white men around to sustain the Republican Party in the future.” This may well be the last national election determined by the white male vote, the group courted almost exclusively by the G.O.P.
And there is a very good chance that strategy won’t work in this election cycle either. Speaking with Politico on November 5, 2012, Senator Graham seemed prepared for the failure of his party’s cynical pursuit of economic self-interest backed by its ruthless policy of voter suppression:
“If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough, I’m going to go nuts. We’re not losing 95% of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-assed enough!”
See you at the polls.
“They’re Rioting in Africa, There’s Strife in Iran,”
Those lyrics, written by Sheldon Harnick as part of the closing couplet of The Merry Minuet and performed by both satirist Tom Lehrer and the Kingston Trio in the 1960s, are as true today (even truer, unfortunately) as they were when the comical song was written. But fifty years later, no one is laughing in the foreign policy sector of the United States’ government as sixty-five years of feckless meddling in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations has produced a firestorm of pent up rage which threatens to consume and incinerate our interests in the region.
In his second inaugural address (probably the most immature and naïve one ever delivered by a United States president) given on January 20, 2005, George W. Bush hailed his democracy initiative not only in the Middle East, but around the world, and pledged that we would spread “the untamed fire of freedom … to the darkest corners of the world.”
Today, January 28, 2011, six years later, it has quite literally spread to Egypt where buildings and police vehicles are ablaze in Cairo and the party headquarters of our ally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, has been burned to the ground. Rioting crowds are converting Mr. Bush’s fiery rhetoric into political action, and the results are not pretty to watch. We have seen this scenario play out before – about thirty years ago in Iran – and the story rarely ends with anything remotely resembling Jeffersonian democracy. For a nation so dependent on international stability, our leaders certainly like to shake things up. The headline of the lead story in this morning’s New York Times pretty well sums up the situation: “Waves of unrest spread to Yemen, shaking a region. Calls to oust old order, from Tunisia to Egypt, as Mubarak foe joins fray.”
To use a phrase made famous by our current president’s former pastor, “the chickens have come home to roost.” Six years ago in “Delusions of Grandeur – Fanning the All-Consuming Flame of Freedom,” writing on the morning after Mr. Bush’s intemperate speech, I observed:
“The unique aspect of the Bush administration which never fails to astound, if not amuse and entertain, is the amazing extent to which the constraints of reality are never allowed to impinge on its blustery rhetoric. Here is the president of a nation which is unable to control and pacify even the four mile stretch of highway leading from downtown Baghdad to its airport, whose Army Reserves and National Guard forces are stretched to the breaking point attempting to quell an insurgency in Iraq, who proclaims to the oppressed peoples across the world:
‘Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:
‘All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.’
“Talk about ‘W’ in Wonderland! Someone should explain to our delusional 43rd president that the bumper sticker ‘Bush/Cheney ’04: Making the world a better place, one country at a time!’ was a joke, not a statement of foreign policy.”
And yet, no joke, that is precisely what Mr. Bush’s administration set out to do, one country at a time, within little more than a year after his inaugural address. Against the advice of wiser and more experienced foreign policy hands, Mr. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, bullied and cajoled governments in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority to hold democratic elections. The results should not have been surprising (though, amazingly enough, they apparently were to Secretary Rice who observed “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.”). Those unanticipated results were an unmitigated disaster: Hezbollah won in Lebanon; Shiite religious parties won in Iraq over secular parties favored by the United States; the Muslim Brotherhood (the spiritual forbearers of Al Qaeda) made huge gains in Egypt; and Hamas won in Gaza. Who knew?
Well, just about everybody who was paying attention in 2006 (the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority begged us not to push for elections in the P.A.) or who had been paying attention in the sixty years since the end of the Second World War. The United States is well liked by the western educated monarchs and strongmen who govern most of the countries in the Mideast. After all, they are connected to us by economic ties and, to a certain extent, by some shared western values. Their populations, however, are not – and they absolutely hate us.
The “Arab Street’s” antipathy toward the United States is hardly a mystery. After all, we have been on the wrong side of history ever since we helped establish the State of Israel at the eastern end of the Mediterranean after World War II. At a time when western colonialism was dying out on the Indian subcontinent, in Africa, and in the Pacific, we helped Great Britain establish a European country in the heart of the Arabic, Muslim Middle East. Winston Churchill was probably the most admired man of the 20th Century, but his championing of the Israeli state has bequeathed to us the most perplexing problem of the 21st. Arab people who had lived in Palestine for over two thousand years were pushed off their lands and relocated to camps in Gaza and Lebanon where they remain today – they are the last “D.P.s” (displaced persons) of the Second World War.
Since that time, only Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter have served as honest brokers in mediating the disputes between Israelis and the displaced and later conquered Arabs of Palestine. In 1956, when France, Great Britain and Israel invaded Egypt in an attempt to seize the Suez Canal, Ike yanked on their leashes so hard they landed back in their respective countries so quickly they didn’t know how they got there. Jimmy Carter negotiated the landmark peace treaty between Israel and Egypt which ended their 1973 war. Except for those two examples of American diplomacy, the United States has been unstinting in its support for Israel (both in financial aid and military equipment), no matter what the circumstances, for its entire history.
President Lyndon Johnson was such a fervent supporter of Israel that he didn’t even protest when that country sunk our unarmed ship the USS Liberty at the start of its 1967 war, strafing and killing our sailors in their lifeboats. During George W. Bush’s presidency, the United States gave Israel an unprecedented amount of financial and military aid, and stood by without protest as Israel used our military equipment to demolish every public building in the Palestinian Authority, used our F-16 jets and cluster bombs to destroy every port, road and bridge in Lebanon, and in the last days of his administration killed thousands of Gazans with a combined tank and air attack on that defenseless city-state. It is hardly surprising that their citizens were not eager to vote according to our and the Israelis’ wishes.
It goes without saying, of course, that the United States did not endear itself to Muslim hearts and minds with its invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the torture and humiliation of their young men (and old) at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, and Guantanamo. Nor do the crushing demographics and economic factors across the Arab world engender much love for America, with over two-thirds of Muslim populations under 30 years old and a huge percentage of them unemployed or unable to earn a decent living. But the wound which never heals, the grievance which always gives rise to rancor, is the mistreatment of the Palestinians and the never-ending military attacks on them by the Israelis, enabled by American aid and military assistance.
Coincidentally, on the front page of the same January 28, 2011 edition of The New York Times which detailed stories of the conflagration spreading across the Arab world there also appeared an article by Ethan Bronner, written from Jerusalem, which reported just how close former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had been to concluding a peace treaty in late 2008. They had agreed that the new Palestinian state would have no armed forces; that American, not Israeli, forces would be placed on the Jordanian border; that Jerusalem would be shared between the two countries and its holiest sites administered by a multinational committee; that a limited number of Palestinians would be allowed to return to what is now Israel and the rest would be generously compensated; and even had agreed that Israel would be allowed to retain some of the land that the settlements had been built on during the occupation (but there was disagreement as to exactly which and how much).
News of the near agreement came out in excerpts of Mr. Olmert’s memoirs to be published by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and in an interview with Mr. Olmert by Bernard Avishai who will be writing an article for The New York Times Magazine, and was confirmed in a separate interview by him with Mr. Abbas. Snags developed over exactly how much land Israel would be permitted to retain and Mr. Abbas’ confusion over the maps involved. Both men stated that they had hoped that American suggestions might settle the differences, but none were forthcoming.
Just last week speaking in Amman, Jordan, Mr. Abbas said “We need the Americans to bridge the gaps in a fair way.” But now the gaps are much larger. In early 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister and any hope of a shared Jerusalem is off the table, as is the removal of Israeli troops from the Jordanian border. On that subject Mr. Avishai quoted Mr. Abbas as saying:
“What does he [Mr. Netanyahu] mean by security? That Israeli troops should remain in the Jordan Valley for 40 years. This is his concept. I answered him that the occupation for me is better than your solution.”
The Bush administration missed a huge opportunity by not exerting some leverage on the parties in 2008. Netanyahu has no interest in reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. Perhaps an opening will present itself again sometime in the next forty years. I wonder if the United States will have any influence in the Mideast by then? We just lost over five thousand American lives in Iraq, and spent over a trillion dollars “liberating” that country, only to find that the nation which we “built” has awarded their oil concessions to the Chinese. That wasn’t exactly the way Paul Wolfowitz envisioned things when he told us the Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war.
But enough of the Sunni rioting in Africa, what about the rest of the line in Sheldon Harnick’s lyric written about fifty years ago – what about the Shiite strife in Iran? Our meddling in that country back then certainly produced some interesting “blowback” to use the term mentioned by Ron Paul in the 2008 Republican presidential debates which almost caused Rudi Giuliani to lift off the dais.
As you may recall, Dr. Paul suggested that the United States might have been partially responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to our problems with Iran because in the 1950s our CIA concocted a plot which deposed the democratically elected government of that country because it was considering ending the concessions granted to British Petroleum. With the CIA’s help we put the Shah back on the Peacock throne. A generation later a popular uprising not dissimilar to the ones going on now in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen led to the ouster of the Shah, the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, and the establishment of the fundamentalist Shiite regime of Iranian clerics which continues to plague us thirty years later.
Blowback, the unintended and often undesirable consequences of actions taken by major powers, is a concept quite familiar to the intelligence community but not apparently to Mr. Giuliani, at least not in connection with his favorite subject, 9/11. Joe Biden once remarked that every sentence “America’s Mayor” utters contains a subject, a verb, and 9/11, and it was quite clear to him which element Mr. Giuliani considered most important. When, then, Dr. Paul suggested during the presidential debates that America’s role in arming the Islamic insurgents, and aiding them in their successful fight to eject the Russians from Afghanistan during the Cold War, had the unintended consequence of making Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda major players on the international scene he had come perilously close to suggesting that the United States had done something which in some small way might have contributed to the 9/11 attack.
“Take it back! Take it back!” shouted America’s Mayor in what was clearly the most memorable moment in the entire Republican nominating process. Dr. Paul refused to budge from his assertion that the CIA’s actions in arming the Afghan insurgents had contributed to the rise of Al Qaeda, and thus potentially to the 9/11 attack on New York City, and Mr. Giuliani became so exercised that Dr. Paul finally had to ask his enraged fellow candidate if he had ever heard of the concept of blowback. The former New York mayor was so apoplectic he had no reply.
They’re rioting in Africa. There’s strife in Iran. And Ron Paul and I think that is due, in no small measure, to our interventionist foreign policy and our incessant habit of meddling in everyone else’s business. If we wish to be better regarded on the international stage, it is a habit which we should try to break.
It is possible to trade with other nations quite successfully without invading them or trying to run their internal affairs. If you don’t believe it, just consider China which is in the process of eclipsing us in commercial influence in Africa and in the Mideast. It’s a lot less expensive too.
Crisis Management by Committee in the Gulf
As usual, the media has missed the big story. For almost two months, the talking heads on television and most of the print media have been complaining that President Obama hasn’t shown enough emotion or been tough enough with British Petroleum over the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That is hardly the problem, and it is totally irrelevant to dealing with the crisis.
I don’t want Mr. Obama to emote like Jimmy Swaggart or demagogue like Huey Long. I want him to deal with the spill and keep the oil from reaching our shores. Unfortunately, his lack of any managerial experience and his tendency, as a lifelong legislator, to seek consensus and govern by committee is really showing. As the “unified command” is now structured, any one of the numerous government agencies involved can veto an action.
What is needed is bold, decisive action, not angry rhetoric. We need an executive, not an orator. Unfortunately, the White House and most of the top Cabinet positions have been filled with legislators and lawyers, not with people who have experience managing large organizations. Barack Obama was elected because the country wanted a change from George W. Bush’s decision making “from the gut,” and hoped for some rational thinking and competence for a change. Well, I can tell you, in the management (non-management, really) of this crisis, I haven’t seen a lot of change I can believe in. I am hugely disappointed.
I believe that “W” was fully responsible for allowing the 9/11 attacks to occur because he ignored Richard Clarke’s repeated warnings about Al Qaeda from the time of the transition right up to the day of the attack on September 11, 2001, a period of some ten or eleven months. Similarly, for sixteen months Barack Obama was aware of what a regulatory disaster the Department of the Interior’s Mineral Management Service was (he even campaigned on the issue) but did absolutely nothing about reforming that agency which Dick Cheney had staffed with his cronies from Halliburton. Managerial incompetence, obviously, is not the exclusive province of either Republican or Democratic administrations.
Far from trying to reform it and make MMS more responsible, he appointed former senator Ken Salazar, a friend of Big Oil, as secretary of the Interior and promptly forgot about the situation. Mr. Salazar made a bravado appearance at the Colorado offices of MMS dressed in cowboy boots, Stetson hat and bolo tie, declaring a new sheriff was in town, but made no personnel changes despite a damning inspector general’s report revealing the agency was rife with cronyism, gifts, and sexual liaisons with and from oil company lobbyists and officials. His department then approved more oil leases for off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico even than Mr. Bush’s (sorry, Mr. Cheney’s) administration had on an annual basis.
This past weekend Ian Urbina, with the help of reporting from Robbie Brown and Tom Zeller, wrote a magnificently comprehensive account of the corporate shortcuts and regulatory failures which led to the catastrophic blowout on, and the sinking of, the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It was entitled “In Gulf, It was Unclear Who Was in Charge of Rig,” and should be required reading for anyone who wishes to know how this environmental disaster came about and how and why it will continue to grow increasingly worse for many months to come. It was published in the June 5, 2010 internet edition of The New York Times and provides the factual reporting of most of the matters referred to in this piece.
One item of news which could not be reported by Mr. Urbina’s excellent article, but was certainly foreshadowed by it was the report on tonight’s Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC that the oil spill came on shore today, June 10, at Orange Beach, Alabama, and was allowed to seep into the pass which leads to Perdito Bay where mother porpoises and their young calves are sheltering.
I say allowed to seep into the pass because the oil spill occurred over 50 days ago. While stopping the flow from the damaged well almost a mile beneath the Gulf involves extraordinarily complex technology which has rarely been attempted, there is nothing high-tech about putting up boom and skimming oil off the water’s surface. The mayor of Orange Beach has been asking BP and the Coast Guard for help laying boom and for skimming vessels for over a month and no help has been forthcoming. Now, the porpoises and other wildlife in Perdito Bay will meet the same fate as the Brown Pelicans and other fish and birds in Louisiana’s wetlands.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf is the largest environmental disaster ever to afflict this country. The fact that it was a man-made disaster does not detract from its gravity. It is no answer for President Obama to say that BP was responsible for this “accident” (if the inevitable consequences of such remarkable recklessness can properly be called an accident) and will be made to pay for it. The oil spilling into the Gulf and heading for our shores represents a crisis of unprecedented proportions (it dwarfs the Exxon Valdez spill in its scope) and yet there has been no sense of urgency on the part of the federal government and no marshalling of assets to combat this extraordinary threat. As the mayor of Orange Beach noted tonight, he has seen no large numbers of cleanup workers, no one laying boom, no boats skimming oil off the surface. This oil did not suddenly turn up on our shores – it has been coming for more than fifty days.
As Mr. Urbina reported, it took Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, more than a week to declare the Deepwater Horizon blowout a “spill of national significance,” a legal requirement so that federal assistance could be authorized. As the oil crept toward the Louisiana wetlands, Gov. Bobby Jindal of that state asked the federal government for permission to build sand barriers or “berms” to keep the oil out of the inlets and estuaries on which the whole ecosystem of the Gulf depends. For three weeks, officials from the White House, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency debated whether construction of the berms would be effective! Finally, they approved the construction of a single berm, to be paid for by BP.
Gov. Jindal said the federal government’s slow, deliberative response was like “telling a drowning man to wait.” If one berm had been deemed safe, he wondered, why had the other 29 he had requested not been approved? In the interim, the fatal oil seeped into the wetlands.
No one faults President Obama, the federal government, or even BP for not knowing how to stop the spill once the rig had collapsed onto the pipes on the sea floor, but surely it was the worst sort of bureaucratic delay and incompetence not to move with a greater sense of urgency and attempt any number of creative solutions to keep the oil from reaching shore.
If the inability to cap the flowing well months from now turns out to be Mr. Obama’s version of the Iran hostage crisis (an interminable situation which was beyond President Carter’s ability to control), the president’s failure to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and galvanize all of the assets of the federal government and the private sector to fight the oil spill on the surface is proving to be his Katrina. Such managerial incompetence, and an attitude of standing aloof from the crisis and demanding that it be dealt with by BP, will not soon be forgotten or forgiven.
Neither will be the lax regulatory climate at the Mineral Mining Service which permitted the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon to occur in the first place. As Mr. Urbina’s excellent article recounts, only the explosion was sudden – the disaster was a long time in the making. In keeping with the agency’s cultural assumption that the oil industry should largely be self-regulating, when MMS granted BP a permit to drill in Mississippi Canyon Block 252 early in 2009, it also granted BP’s request for a waiver exempting the project from federal requirements for a rigorous environmental review.
Although BP estimated that in a “worst case” scenario a blowout of the well could result in a spillage of 250,000 barrels of oil a day, it concluded that the chances of such a blowout were virtually impossible, and thus the environmental impact on the Gulf from the drilling of the well was “zero.” They did, however, submit an environmental impact statement (obviously unread by MMS) used in connection with an earlier arctic application stating that the well would not pose any dangers for walruses or sea lions. That much, at least, was true.
In a hearing conducted by the Coast Guard last month inquiring into the causes of the explosion, Michael Saucier of the MMS testified that his agency “highly encouraged” drillers to employ backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. The Coast Guard captain conducting the inquiry found the phrase “highly encouraged” to be somewhat puzzling and asked “How does that translate to enforcement?” He was told by the MMS official that “There is no enforcement.” Such blowout preventers which can be set off from a remote location away from the rig are mandatory in many countries and used as standard practice in almost all drilling platforms outside of American waters. They cost approximately $500,000, about the same expense as one day’s rig rental.
Almost from the outset, cost cutting was a major factor for BP. As Mr. Urbina reported, as early as June of 2009, BP’s engineers warned that the well casings specified for the project did not meet the company’s safety and design guidelines, but the decision was made to use them anyway.
By March of 2010, BP’s well being drilled by Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig was behind schedule and over budget and beset with mechanical problems. On several occasions bursts of gas called “kicks” had rattled up the pipes from beneath the ocean floor, a pipe had become stuck in the well, and even more ominously the rig’s blowout preventer which was supposed to seal the well in case of an emergency had leaked fluids on at least three different occasions. Despite these troubling developments, the work continued to go forward and safety tests which were supposed to be conducted and passed were delayed with the permission of MMS.
Particularly worrying were the tests on the blowout preventer which had been leaking fluids. When it failed a test at the standard industry prescribed pressure, MMS permitted it to be tested at lower pressures and deemed the test successful. That was not uncommon, but in such cases it is customary to test again at the higher industry standard but this apparently was never done. Other warning signs which were disregarded involved the cementing of the casings at the ocean floor. Halliburton employees were aboard the rig to handle the cementing, but they were unable to get BP to go along with their recommendations on the best manner of proceeding.
On April 1, 2010 Marvin Volek, a Halliburton employee noted in a job log that BP’s use of cement “was against our best practices,” and an internal memorandum dated April 18 indicated that Halliburton had again warned BP that if its casings were not centered more carefully a “severe” gas problem could develop. About the same time, according to Ian Urbina’s reporting, internal BP documents revealed that “company officials chose a type of casing with a greater risk of collapsing.”
The divisions of authority on the rig were a major source of the problems. The great majority of people on the Deepwater Horizon were employees of Transocean which owned the rig. A few of the people on board were Halliburton employees to which BP had contracted out the cementing which is one of the final steps to be undertaken before the well could be sealed to await actual production. Only eight employees of BP were on board the rig at the time of the blowout, explosion and fire on April 20, 2010, but BP owned the well, had hired Transocean and Halliburton to drill it, was paying the money, and ultimately called the shots.
On the day of the blowout of BP’s well which was being drilled in Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, the project was already 43 days behind schedule and, at a rig rental rate of $500,000 per day, was $21 million over budget. The Deepwater Horizon was supposed to be through drilling this well and on its way to another BP site. In these circumstances, BP chose to let financial pressures override safety concerns. Against the strenuous objections of the Transocean employees on the rig, BP chose to inject sea water, rather than the safer and more traditional (but more time consuming) drillers’ “mud” down the pipes to seal the well. Mr. Urbina’s excellent article reports what happened next:
“Tests shortly before the well blew out found a buildup of pressure that was an ‘indicator of a very large abnormality,’ BP concluded and disclosed to Congress in a preliminary report last month. Yet, the rig team was satisfied after another test was deemed successful, and it proceeded.
“About 10 hours before the explosion, the challenges of trying to keep the pressure in the well under control led to an argument among the workers about how best to finish the well and move the rig to the next site.
“Douglas Brown, a Transocean mechanic on the rig, told investigators that an unnamed BP official whom he called ‘the company man’ had instructed rig workers to execute a new plan for removing the riser and sealing the well. Mr. Brown testified that workers thought the plan was too risky. But he could not hear details of the argument that ensued.
“The company man was basically saying, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be,’ ” Mr. Brown told investigators at a hearing on May 26 near New Orleans, adding that the Transocean rig workers “reluctantly agreed.”
Another Transocean employee who overheard parts of the argument reportedly said, “Well, I guess we’ll find out how well the pinchers (the blowout preventers) work.” He didn’t have to wait long to find out. The explosion occurred at 9:50 p.m. on April 20. Eleven men, all employees of Transocean, were blown off the rig and were killed instantly. According to the testimony of Transocean chief engineer, Steve Bertone, pandemonium broke out all over the rig, including on the bridge where the captain was screaming at another employee because she had pressed the distress button without authorization.
Most of the people on the rig made it to the lifeboats and were safely lowered to the surface, but some were left behind on the burning rig. The CBS television program, 60 Minutes, featured a dramatic interview of one Transocean employee who jumped off the burning rig, plunging several stories into the inky waters of the Gulf below, only to realize he had jumped into a pool of oil which could catch fire at any time. He managed to swim through the stinging oil away from the rig and was plucked from the sea some time later. All told, it was miraculous that only the eleven unfortunate men who were in the immediate vicinity of the explosion were killed that night. We should be thankful, I suppose, that the death toll was not much greater.
But, after giving thanks that the loss of human life on the Deepwater Horizon was not much greater, we are still left with the greatest environmental disaster ever to be inflicted on this country and with the unsettling knowledge that to a large extent we did it to ourselves. This spill was not only a man-made disaster, but one which so easily could have been averted. There is no question that BP’s cost cutting and departures from sound industry practices were the immediate cause of the explosion and spill, but the United States of America is one of the few places on earth where regulation is so lax that BP would have been allowed to proceed in such a reckless fashion. The British government certainly would not have permitted BP to drill in the North Sea without a remote blowout preventer or to disregard all of the warning signs that were shrugged off on the Deepwater Horizon.
We have a prejudice in the United States against regulation of, and restraints on, large business enterprises which borders on hubris in the classical Greek sense of the word. It is without a doubt our fatal flaw. Ronald Reagan made believers of us all that “Government isn’t the solution – it’s the problem.” We take real pleasure in sneering at Canada and its penchant for moderation and regulation. Well, consider this: how many Canadian banks failed in the recent financial crisis or had to be bailed out by Canadian taxpayers? None, because the Canadian character wouldn’t countenance such wild gambling in derivatives with other people’s money, and even if some reckless banker might have wanted to, Canadian regulators wouldn’t have allowed it.
If the financial crisis of 2008 and the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 don’t convince us of the need for some responsible regulation of corporate conduct, I don’t suppose anything ever will. Barack Obama was elected in November of 2008 in the hope, and with the promise, of bringing an end to the “anything goes” form of cowboy capitalism which had characterized the eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration, but I don’t think his heart was really in it. He really didn’t want to rock the boats of the health insurers, of the Wall Street bankers, or even of Big Oil.
Well, now he is presiding over the greatest environmental disaster in the history of this country, and it is time for him to do something about it. Tens of thousands of barrels of oil are pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day and apparently the only way it can be stopped is by drilling relief wells which won’t be completed for several months, if then.
It is not going to do any good to get mad at, or talk tough to, BP at this point. It makes absolutely no sense to start bashing BP and demanding that they suspend their dividend, with all the attendant harm that such a purely symbolic gesture would have for retirees in Great Britain and, incidentally, in the United States. BP has one of the strongest balance sheets in the world and has plenty of cash to pay the fines it will incur, the costs of the cleanup, and the economic damages which its reckless conduct has caused. But certainly BP should not be billed for the costs of the administration’s proposed (and ill-advised and economically destructive) moratorium on off shore drilling -- that is a direct result of MMS’s regulatory failures.
The president should leave all of the bickering, and the blaming, and the back biting to Congress and the media, who are good for nothing else, and start acting like the chief executive of the United States of America which is, after all, the position to which he was elected. If he starts treating this oil spill like the existential crisis that it is and actually starts marshalling the combined assets of the federal government and the private sector to prevent the oil on the surface from fouling the shores of every beach and inlet on the Gulf from Galveston to Key West, he will have accomplished something. If he doesn’t, he is unlikely to have a second term.
Winston Churchill didn’t blame his generals and bemoan his bad luck when his army was trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. He got every boat which could sail headed to the French coast and rescued his men. Let’s get the boom and the skimmers and the tankers out on the Gulf, Mr. President. We don’t have any more time to waste.
The Year of Living Timidly
The last time Barack Obama took any action (or even said anything) which could be described as “bold, bloody and resolute” was in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night he was elected president. Since that time, with the largest majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives since the days of FDR, he and his handlers in the White House have been holed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue trying to ingratiate themselves with a Republican minority who have said on numerous occasions that they want him to fail and (as Senator Jim DeMint [R-SC] so artfully put it) are looking forward to his “Waterloo.” Never in the history of the Republic has an opposition party acted so irresponsibly – GOP leader Mitch McConnell [R-KY] has filibustered even the most innocuous legislative proposals (some that eventually were enacted on final passage by votes of 80 or 90 to10) in order to slow the business of the Senate to a crawl.
And what has been the response of the bold candidate of “Hope and Change” to this extraordinary abuse of the legislative process? Why, to redouble his efforts to woo “moderate” Republican senators in the hope of finding just one or two who might break with the iron discipline of the GOP Senate caucus and take a serious look at some of his legislative proposals. This approach netted him one (count her) Republican vote for his stimulus plan intended to ameliorate the worst economic downturn in most of our lifetimes, and exactly none for healthcare reform.
During the months that the healthcare negotiations dragged on, Olympia Snowe [R-ME] and Chuck Grassley [R-IA] spent more time in the White House than most cabinet members, and what was the bountiful harvest of planting and nurturing all those seeds of bi-partisanship? Miss Snowe voted to release the pro-insurance version of healthcare reform from the Senate finance committee while pledging to vote against it on the floor of the Senate, and Mr. Grassley returned to his constituents in Iowa and repeated Sarah Palin’s ridiculous charges that the president wanted “to pull the plug on Grandma.”
Actually, it was difficult to determine exactly what President Obama wanted to do to or for Grandma, the millions of unemployed, the victims of predatory credit card and home mortgage lending, small business, the people bankrupted by healthcare expenses, or anyone else because he never really said. He gave wonderful, nuanced speeches of every shade of gray, reflecting his appreciation of the complexity of all those issues, but he never said he demanded this and would veto any bill which didn’t contain that.
For instance, with respect to healthcare reform, he stated that he supported the public option because it would bend the cost curve down, but when Max Baucus [D-MT], the chairman of the Senate finance committee who coincidentally received over half of his campaign funds from health insurance lobbyists, produced the only one of five committee mark-ups which didn’t contain the public option, he had nothing but praise for the chairman’s long delayed work.
Rather than tell his legislative leaders, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid [D-NV] precisely what form he wanted his legislative agenda to take, he described its broad outlines and left the details up to them. Accordingly, Mrs. Pelosi pushed a very progressive and traditionally liberal agenda through the House of Representatives with its large Democratic majorities and procedures of majority rule, while everything piled up in the Senate as minority leader Mitch McConnell filibustered virtually every proposal and procedural vote, requiring a super-majority of 60 votes to invoke cloture.
While traditionally filibusters were very rare and used only in the most critical of circumstances, Mr. McConnell employed them as a matter of routine, and the president rather than using his “bully pulpit” to go on television and call the Republicans on this incredible abuse of Senate procedures, maintained an Olympian reserve at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue pursuing the illusory goal of bi-partisanship. With Teddy Kennedy [D-MA] suffering from terminal brain cancer and Al Franken’s [D-MN] election being contested in the courts by the Republicans, Harry Reid was always about two or three votes short of being able to break the incessant filibusters and President Obama let him twist in the wind and fend for himself.
Then, about half way through 2009, the longest election contest in Minnesota history came to an end, Senator Franken was seated, and majority leader Reid finally had his sixtieth vote, at least on the days when Senator Kennedy’s health permitted him to make it down to Washington. Mr. McConnell could use the Senate rules to delay, but he could no longer absolutely block, the president’s agenda. It turned out, however, that the arrival of the 60th vote was not an unmixed blessing. On any important measure, Mr. McConnell could count on his “party of no” for 40 negative votes, but as Will Rogers had observed several decades earlier “I’m not a member of any organized political party – I’m a Democrat,” and Harry Reid knew exactly what the home-spun humorist had meant. There was no margin of error – Mr. Reid had to get 60 Democratic votes on any issue, and party unity and discipline were not exactly Democratic traits.
On controversial issues such as healthcare that 60th vote turned many Democratic senators into crafty rug merchants, if not outright extortionists. Mary Landrieu [D-LA] was very coy about her support, finally hitting Reid up for a package of state aid so exorbitant it was dubbed the “Louisiana Purchase.” Ben Nelson [D-NE], a former insurance executive and state insurance commissioner managed to get Nebraska exempted in perpetuity for his state’s share of Medicaid contributions and even then almost queered the deal over abortion concerns. Even principled Bernie Sanders [I-VT], who felt the bill didn’t go far enough because it omitted the public option, held Reid up for some special benefits for Vermont.
Joe Lieberman [I-CN] representing Connecticut where most of the health insurers were headquartered, didn’t ask for any special benefits – he was just determined to give Reid and the president trouble, even declaring on Face the Nation that a proposal to allow 55 year-olds to join Medicare, a proposal which he had campaigned on and had again supported just thirty days earlier was a “deal breaker.” According to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, Reid had talked with Lieberman only two days earlier, but learned of this double cross only by watching Bob Schieffer’s Sunday show on television. Alone in his office on a snowy December morning, he was so discouraged he thought he might “just let the bill go down,” but within 45 minutes White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was there, cup of coffee in hand, encouraging him to redouble his efforts to save the signature item on the president’s domestic agenda. Within minutes, the old legislative work horse was back in harness, attending to his thankless task of cajoling votes and herding cats in the United States Senate.
It wasn’t pretty. It was no longer popular, but on December 24, 2009, Harry Reid held his fractious Democratic caucus together and passed the Senate’s version of healthcare reform. One of Washington’s least charismatic figures had delivered one of the most masterful legislative victories of this or any other era. He had done so with virtually no help from the White House, which had stood aloof from the fray and the “sausage making,” and at considerable cost to his own popularity and reelection prospects. Proving his skill as a legislative leader he had even bested the iron discipline of Mitch McConnell. The final vote had been 60 to 39. Retiring Republican senator Jim Bunning [R-KY] had abstained, apparently deciding that he didn’t want to spend the remainder of his life being known as the man who had voted against healthcare.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the man whom Harry Reid had summoned to his office in 2006 (telling him that he was wasting his talents in the Senate and should run for president) proclaimed that for the first time a goal which had eluded Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton stood on the cusp of achievement. The United States would join all of the other industrialized nations of the world in providing healthcare for all of its citizens. All that was necessary was to reconcile the House and Senate bills in conference.
I first became aware of Martha Coakley, the real author of the “Massachusetts’ Miracle,” in 1997 when, as a politically ambitious assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, she handled the persecution of 19 year old English au pair girl Louise Woodward in the alleged shaking death of an eight month old boy entrusted to her care. There was very respectable scientific evidence that the boy’s death was the result of a congenital condition and only the most speculative evidence from which the jury could conclude that the child had been subjected to violent shaking, but Ms. Coakley pressed for a second degree murder charge and, with the help of massive pre-trial publicity and virulent anti-English sentiment in Irish-American Boston, Ms. Coakley managed to obtain a conviction and a 15 year prison sentence.
The result shocked consciences on both sides of the Atlantic, and even as the weeping defendant was led from the courtroom the courageous trial judge said he would entertain motions to set the verdict aside as being against the great weight of the evidence. In a riveting hearing a couple of days later (carried live on Court TV, as the entire trial had been), the judge found that there was no evidence which could support a second degree murder conviction and forced the Commonwealth to accept a plea deal of “time served” for the months Miss Woodward had languished in jail awaiting her trial. She was back in England among celebrating friends and loved ones within 24 hours of the judge’s decision, but Ms. Coakley’s political career had been launched and thirteen years later it would intersect in a bizarre way with Barack Obama’s.
Senator Ted Kennedy [D-MA], the liberal lion of the Senate, died before he could see his lifelong dream of healthcare reform enacted into law, and his longtime aide and political ally, Paul Kirk, was appointed to fill his seat on a temporary basis pending a special election. While many Kennedy friends and political allies held back to see if any member of the extended Kennedy clan wished to seek the seat, Martha Coakley, exhibiting the same ambition and lack of empathy which she displayed in her prosecution of Louise Woodward years earlier, was the first to announce for the seat. In the interim she had served several years as the district attorney of Middlesex County, and in 2007 she had been elected Massachusetts’ attorney general. None of the really prominent members of the Commonwealth’s House delegation chose to run for the Senate seat, but she beat a full field of Democratic contenders in the primary, and in a state where Democratic registration tops Republicans by a three to one margin her election in the special election was very much assumed by the political pundits and apparently by Ms. Coakley herself.
But someone forgot to tell Scott Brown. The gregarious state senator traveled the length and breadth of Massachusetts in his red pick-up truck shaking hands with the voters and listening to their concerns. Ms. Coakley found this type of retail politics uncomfortable, inefficient and completely unnecessary. When Mr. Brown could be seen outside Fenway Park in freezing weather shaking hands with a few passersby, she knew reaching tens of thousands more people through mass media made much more sense. Mr. Brown’s person to person electioneering style only seemed to make his campaign more quixotic and unlikely to succeed. She was up by huge margins in the polls and took time out from her campaign (such as it was) to take a Caribbean vacation from December 19th through January 5th. The special election was scheduled for January19, 2010, just two weeks away.
When she returned from her Caribbean holiday, Ms. Coakley was disconcerted to find that her poll numbers were falling fast. She hit the airwaves with a barrage of negative ads and saw her numbers plummet even more. Apparently Mr. Brown and his pick-up truck had travelled under the radar, and the Democratic senatorial campaign committee was slow to pick up on the danger. When the debate was held, Mr. Brown came across as comfortable and natural. Ms. Coakley came across as brittle and legalistic.
Surrogates from both national parties flocked to the Commonwealth, and this may have finally led to Ms. Coakley’s undoing. Both former president Clinton and President Obama stumped for the Democratic candidate, while Rudolph Giuliani stumped for the Republican Brown. Attempting a joke with some local reporters, Ms. Coakley said “you know, Giuliani is a Yankee fan.” When one of the reporters countered with the information that Curt Schilling was supporting Brown, she said “well, he’s a Yankee fan, too.” The reporters were dumbfounded. They said “you really think Curt Schilling is a Yankee fan?” And she could only stare like a deer in the headlights and ask “He’s not?”
If you needed proof positive that someone lacked the common touch and was out of sync with the people of Massachusetts, you need only conjure up the image of Curt Schilling on the mound, injured and bleeding bright red blood through his sock, pitching the Red Sox to their first World Series championship since 1918. Game over.
Scott Brown won the special election on January 19, 2010 by a margin of 52% to 47%. It was the first time that particular seat had been in Republican hands since Jack Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952. And, in the 2010 Senate the score was now Democratic caucus 59, Republican caucus 41. The filibuster-proof majority was gone, and even more significantly the Democrats were running scared.
The Senate version of healthcare, which Harry Reid risked his political career to pass isn’t dead. It’s just on life support. The House could pass the Senate bill, but they won’t – even with the understanding that they could come behind it with a revenue bill (which could be passed through the Senate by a simple majority under Reconciliation) which could strip out the offensive excise taxes on individual health policies deemed “Cadillac plans.” They passed their bill in the heady days of Barack Obama’s popularity, before the insurance companies and the lobbyists had organized the “Astroturf” grass roots movements which became the August “tea parties,” and they don’t like the fact that the cost cutting public option was stripped out of the Senate bill. Curiously enough, neither apparently did the people of Massachusetts. A large number of Brown supporters thought the Senate bill should have contained the public option and didn’t go far enough. Democrats in other states may be misreading the Massachusetts election results, but they’re too much in panic mode now for reflection.
And the president is still too much the statesman to try and rush his signature domestic bill through to enactment before Brown’s election win can be certified. Unfazed by the Republicans’ conduct in delaying the seating of Al Franken for over half a year, he still wants to play by the Queensbury Rules. And so do a lot of timid Democrats in the House and particularly in the Senate. The balloons were still dropping at Scott Brown’s election headquarters when Senator Jim Webb [D-VA] warned his fellow Dems not to try and take any tactical advantage prior to the seating of the new senator who signs his name Scott Brown 41. Still timid after all these years. The Democrats might have been able to get a good healthcare bill enacted if they had had 80 votes in the Senate.
Now, in further evidence of Democratic panic, it appears that Ben Bernanke’s reappointment as chairman of the Federal Reserve System may be in jeopardy. Mitch McConnell is threatening to filibuster the reappointment of his fellow Republican, and some Democrats fearing a populist tide are running from the man who almost single handedly (with some actions authorized; some possibly not) saved us from a second Great Depression in September of 2008. We’ve washed our soiled linens since then and have now forgotten how terrified everybody was. People who actually appreciated the complexities of the situation in the fall of 2008 (and that does not include any politicians) will tell you that he was (and still is) without question the best man for the job, but his reappointment would violate the cosmic rule that no good deed goes unpunished.
Three or four days ago, some blossom on CNBC (I think it was Becky Quick rather than her more strident cohort Maria Bartiromo) was interviewing Warren Buffett and asked him with obvious disapproval what he thought of the job Mr. Bernanke had done as Fed chairman. The world’s foremost investor told her that he thought the Chairman had done an absolutely fantastic job, and she countered that a lot of people thought his reappointment was in trouble. Mr. Buffett said that he doubted that was the case, but added “if you do learn that he’s not going to be reappointed, please give me a couple days of advance notice, because I’m going to want to sell a lot of stocks.”
Scott Brown’s improbable election triumph was just one day short of a year from Barack Obama’s inauguration. What a lot of valuable political capital has been wasted since then! With their election victories in 2006 and 2008, the Democrats had seemed to banish the GOP to political purgatory. Then, with one horribly run senatorial campaign, they seem to have lost their nerve. The president needs to begin campaigning for his legislative agenda like he campaigned for his office. Every Democrat from the president and his advisors in the White House, to the Senators, to the lowest back bencher in the House of Representatives seems to be in dire need of a spine transplant. If only the insurance companies headquartered in Hartford, Connecticut would approve the operations.
This Isn’t About Healthcare
It finally became so obvious that even Maureen Dowd noticed. In her op-ed piece entitled “Boy, Oh, Boy,” published in the New York Times on Sunday, September 13, 2009, she noted that Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), surrounded by white Republicans in the House chamber during the president’s address Wednesday evening to a joint session of Congress, had shouted “You Lie!” as Mr. Obama tried to make his case for healthcare reform, but what she heard (and assuredly what the Gentleman from South Carolina had intended) was “You lie, boy!” Really, Maureen, you think there might be a racial undertone to Mr. Wilson’s rude interruption? You ought to get out of Washington more.
Even before Barack Obama was nominated, primary crowds in Pennsylvania and West Virginia had warmed to Hillary Clinton’s message about “hard working, white Americans.” As soon as he was elected, sales of guns and ammunition went through the roof. On the morning after Mr. Obama’s election, a woman at my wife’s place of employment wondered “whether there’ll ever be another white Miss America?” People who never even paused to consider whether John McCain’s birth in the Panama Canal Zone might be a constitutional impediment to his election (it wouldn’t have been) jumped at the suggestion that Mr. Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate was a forgery and that he had really been born in Kenya. During a town hall meeting (supposedly on healthcare reform) held in Arkansas last month, a woman began weeping hysterically saying she didn’t know what had become of her country and her way of life. I don’t think she was really that concerned about the “public option” – she just couldn’t believe that a black man was actually president of the United States.
And, so it has been, these first eight months of Barack Obama’s administration. Wacko “tea baggers” who had never uttered a word of alarm as Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his unfunded prescription drug benefit added three trillion dollars to the national debt suddenly became fiscal conservatives opposed to emergency expenditures necessary to save our financial system from collapse. People who thought it was kind of charming that President Bush was reading “My Pet Goat” to kindergarteners as Osama bin Laden’s terrorists were flying planes into the World Trade Towers became apoplectic when President Obama wanted to address the nation’s school children to urge them to study hard and stay in school. The governor of Texas suggested that his state might need to exercise the right to secede which the Republic of Texas had reserved for itself when it joined the union. What do these disparate crazies have in common? They’re all Republicans; they’re all white; and they all hate blacks – and they all share an unspoken assumption that somehow, despite his landslide election, Barack Obama isn’t a legitimate president of the United States.
This past weekend, Glen Beck, who stated on Fox News that Barack Obama was “a racist who has a deep seated hatred against all white people” (including, presumably, his own mother and grandparents who raised him), organized a march on Washington attended by about 75,000 malcontents with the intention of returning America to the halcyon days of September 12, 2001. To demonstrate their solidarity with the “all for one and one for all” spirit which prevailed on the day after 9/11, the all-white crowd carried signs comparing their president to Lenin, Hitler, and the devil and other placards bearing warnings and witticisms that “the Muslims are taking over our country;” “undocumented worker [beneath the president’s photograph];” “we didn’t come armed [this time];” and “Washington’s zoo has an African lion, and the White House has a lying African.” Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) addressed the assembled group without a word of criticism of those and other tasteless demonstrations of contempt for Mr. Obama and his office. Senator DeMint proudly repeated his claim that a defeat of healthcare reform could be Mr. Obama’s “Waterloo” and could bring down his whole presidency.
Perhaps it was this disgraceful spectacle that finally convinced Miss Dowd that racial animus might be fueling the implacable hatred toward Barack Obama and his policies. Better late than never, I suppose. She’s come to that realization ahead of the politically correct George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week,” who opined on Don Imus’ radio show this morning (Monday, September 14th) that he really didn’t believe racist attitudes had anything to do with the opposition to the president’s policies. How could they, in enlightened 21st century America?
Just Go, ‘W,’ and Goodbye
About a year ago, I began imagining how I would write this piece. I decided I would list, one by one, the outrages of the last eight years against our constitution and common decency, and after each, like a Greek chorus or a religious ritual, I would write (or chant) “ ‘W,’ be gone and be damned.” Now, however, after the entire country has finally recognized the destruction of our ideals, our reputation, our system of laws, our economy and our national character which the entire administration of George W. Bush has involved, I really don’t have the heart to kick this deluded and delusional president while he is down. Don’t go and be damned, ‘W,’ just go, and let us get back to being the Americans that our forefathers envisioned, and that our fathers and grandfathers personified during the truly dangerous times of the 20th Century.
We should remember, however, that people who forget the lessons (or mistakes) of history are doomed to repeat them, and so some listing of the errors or omissions of the administration of George W. Bush would seem to be appropriate:
Even before his administration began, he chose to ignore the wisdom of the drafters of our constitution (and with a deviousness too clever by half) chose to have both the candidates for president and vice president be inhabitants of the same state. Because of the arrogance of this position (and the contempt for the constitution which it revealed) he permitted the fiction that Dick Cheney was a citizen of Wyoming despite the fact that he had not lived in, voted in, paid taxes in, or had a driver’s license in that state for over a decade. During all of that time, Mr. Cheney had been the CEO of Halliburton in Houston, Texas and since both he and Mr. Bush were inhabitants of the State of Texas, the constitution decreed that the electoral votes of the State of Texas could not be cast for them. Hence, the fiction that Mr. Cheney was an inhabitant of Wyoming. Had proper respect for our founding fathers’ constitution been shown, the whole Florida election controversy would have been irrelevant, because the Bush/Cheney ticket could not have constitutionally received the votes of the Texas electors. Don’t believe me? Check Amendment XII out:
“The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves;”
George Bush, Richard Cheney and the Texas electors were all inhabitants of the same state, the State of Texas, and hence the votes of the Texas electors for George Bush and Richard Cheney should not have been allowed or counted. We were all too gentlemanly to make an issue of it, however, like so many other constitutional violations which were to come.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
During the first meeting of his national security council on January 30, 2001, President Bush announced that the United States would abandon its role as honest broker in the Middle East and disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process giving Ariel Sharon and his powerful Israeli Defense Forces a free hand in the region. When Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out that the consequences of such a policy “could be dire, especially for the Palestinians,” the new president merely shrugged and observed “Maybe that’s the best way to get things back in balance. Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things.” Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, Simon & Schuster, 2004, at page 72.
Prime Minister Sharon took the ball and ran with it. He sent his tanks and bulldozers into every city in the West Bank demolishing all the public buildings which had been built with U.S. funds during the heyday of the Oslo Accords and stepped up construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian land. In 2006, his successor, Ehud Olmert, attacked the fledging democracy of Lebanon (in a mission approved by the Pentagon as a dry run for the possible air attack on Iran) with U.S. supplied F-16 jets and cluster bombs demolishing every critical road, bridge and airport in the country and killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians, but inflicting next to no damage on their supposed target Hezbollah. Finally, in the last days of the Bush administration, Israeli jets appeared over the teeming and sealed off city state of Gaza (this time with the objective of destroying Hamas) bombing mosques, UN schools and warehouses filled with foodstuffs and other humanitarian aid, and the usual residential areas thought to be home to members of Hamas. Israeli tanks were sent in to complete the destruction described by Israeli officials as a fight to the finish. All told, well over one thousand residents of Gaza (men, women and children) were killed, some of whom (but by no means a majority) were members of Hamas, and characteristically, as the outrage of the civilized world reached a crescendo, Israel declared a cease fire and began withdrawing its forces on Mr. Bush’s last day in office. And we wonder why Israel, and its enabler, the United States, are so hated in the Muslim world.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
Even before the members of the Bush administration took office, Richard Clarke and other people associated with Clinton’s national security apparatus had been warning the transition team that their foremost security challenge would be Al Qaeda. Richard Clarke who had been held over from the previous administration tried for nine months to get a meeting scheduled with the secretaries of state, defense and the national security council, only to be told that Iraq and Saddam Hussein represented a greater threat to the United States, finally succeeded in getting that meeting called in the early days of September, 2001. In July and August of 2001, there were such indications of an impending terrorist attack that all vacations and leaves were cancelled in national security sections and a Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was presented to the president on August 6, 2001. While the president vacationed in Crawford, Texas during August, two members of the FBI were so alarmed about the threat that they personally appeared at the president’s ranch in Crawford to stress the gravity of the situation. Mr. Bush’s response to their visit was: “O.K., you’ve covered your asses – now you can go back to Washington.” On September 11, 2001, two planes hijacked by Al Qaeda crashed into the World Trade Towers.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
From the first meeting of the national security council in January of 2001, the discussion was all about Iraq, and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, even before it had been established who was responsible, Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, urged a retaliatory attack on Iraq. To his credit, Mr. Bush rejected that advice and insisted that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Afghanistan (where the attack had been planned) should be dealt with first. But Iraq and Saddam Hussein were never far from the president’s mind, and after Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora (“I don’t think about him [bin Laden] that much,” the president was quoted as saying), the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) was formed by White House chief of staff, Andy Card, in August of 2002 to begin selling the idea of invading Iraq to the American public.
Among the members of WHIG who met weekly in the White House situation room were Karl Rove, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley, Karen Hughes, Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, Mary Matalin, and legislative liaison Nick Calio, among others. The fruits of their labors first came to the public’s attention on September 6, 2002, because, as Andy Card explained in an interview with The New York Times, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
And what a product introduction it was! Not since the days of Nazi Germany was a campaign of misinformation and propaganda so skillfully handled. It began with Secretary Rumsfeld’s testimony to Congress [see “Black Holes, Cosmic and Domestic,” posted in September of 2002 on the News Views page] and continued unabated until the invasion was announced in March of 2003. Hysteria was hawked on every Sunday show from administration officials as august as Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condi Rice, and (in public statements) even the president himself. “We don’t want the first sign of the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” they all intoned, and, if that wasn’t terrifying enough, posited the possibility of biological agents being sprayed upon unsuspecting Americans from balsa wood drones. By stressing the nonexistent link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in every public pronouncement, they even managed to convince the gullible American public that those two mortal enemies had somehow colluded in the 9/11 attacks. By the time of our invasion of Iraq, a majority of Americans thought the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis. All of this was marketing designed to make us afraid, very afraid. Thanks for the honesty and candor, ‘W.’
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
The salesmanship of fear notwithstanding, the invasion of Iraq was one of the dumbest strategic decisions in our nation’s history. Our enemy in the Middle East was Iran, which regarded us as “the great Satan.” Our invasion of Iraq threw over twenty years of foreign policy conducted by the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It was no accident that we had given Saddam Hussein $1.5 billion in military aid during those years. Iraq was the bulwark against, and counterbalance to, Iran during those years. That was the reason brilliant strategists such as James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and the president’s father himself, had declined to march on Baghdad after the first Gulf war. Iraq was too vitally important as a buffer against Iranian expansion and influence. George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors threw such prudent considerations to the winds in pursuit of abstract ideology. They wished to bring democracy to the Arab street, rather than deal with the compromised leadership class of more moderate, more educated monarchs and dictators. Stupid call, because the Arab street hated us because of our unstinting support of Israel, no matter how outrageous its actions were.
But even with that stupid strategic decision which was to increase Iranian influence from the borders of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, there was no need to execute that decision so ineptly. Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, and the Army’s chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, testified before Congress prior to the invasion that it would take a minimum of two to three hundred thousand men to successfully invade and occupy Iraq. That was most definitely not what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconservative deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, wanted to hear. Richard Pearl, a leading neo-con and chairman of the Defense Policy Board, had testified before Congress in September of 2000 that it would take only 40,000 American soldiers to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Secretary Rumsfeld had thought that it might require as many as 75,000 men, but 200,000 to 300,000?
He thought the testimony of his leading civilian and military leaders of the Army was ridiculous. He fired Mr. White immediately, and humiliated and marginalized General Shinseki. When Secretary Rumsfeld had too few troops on the ground to secure the ammunition dumps all over Iraq, and to prevent widespread looting after the fall of Baghdad, the insurgency was born and the operational disaster that the Iraq war became was inevitable. Almost six years later, over four thousand American servicemen are dead, over one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians are dead, over two million Iraqis have been driven from their country, the nation of Iraq has been turned into hell on earth, American taxpayers have incurred over $1 trillion in debt, and the end to this debacle is nowhere in sight.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
Despite their nonchalant attitude towards the threat posed by Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, after its occurrence the Bush administration had nothing to offer this country but fear itself. Our safety and security demanded that we surrender the constitutional and civil liberties for which our forefathers fought the Revolutionary War. Like something out of Orwellian fiction, the misnamed Patriot Act was passed without any committee hearings. People of Arabic or Muslim descent were routinely rounded up and cast into prisons without charges, hearings or notice to their families or friends. American citizens, such as Jose Padilla, were designated enemy combatants and thrown into military prisons and tortured for years without charges or access to counsel.
The Geneva Conventions were said not to apply to men who we picked up on the battle fields of Afghanistan, because we labeled them enemy combatants, and we flew them half-way across the world to Guantanamo, Cuba (supposedly beyond the reach of federal courts) where they would be tortured and held indefinitely without charges or anything resembling a fair trial. Supposed enemies, both real and imagined, were picked up and by a process known as “extraordinary rendition” flown by the CIA to countries such as Egypt and Syria for torture more exquisite than we felt ourselves capable of. Later, we held those same unfortunate individuals at secret CIA prisons located around the world.
Back at home, the telephone calls, e-mails and other communications of American citizens were routinely intercepted and listened to and read by the NSA and other government agencies without court warrants or other constitutional safeguards guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. All this was done to us, and in our name, by our government in furtherance of our safety and security. The Bush administration had forgotten, or was incapable of understanding, the wisdom of our founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said; “Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither and lose both.”
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
Although the preceding paragraphs have made reference to torture practiced by the United States government, in our name and on our behalf, they do not do justice to the debate waged by the Bush administration in defense of their departures from the norms of civilized behavior. Preposterous legal opinions (since withdrawn) drafted by Cheney legal advisor David Addington, and signed off on by the Justice Department’s office of general counsel, sought to redefine and justify torture, and violation of treaties and statutory provisions, based on the president’s powers as commander-in-chief [see “A Lawless Administration Reaps What It Has Sown,” posted in June of 2004 on the News Views page]. Administration officials, such as President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and the CIA, have said that they relied on these now discredited legal opinions in authorizing torture.
Most of the discussions of torture have centered around the practice of “water boarding,” a procedure in which the prisoner is bound to a board and subjected to water being poured over his face in a manner to simulate drowning. This technique was used in the Spanish inquisition, was utilized by the Japanese in World War II and its practitioners were prosecuted by our government as war criminals and punished by hanging, and we prosecuted our own soldiers for water boarding prisoners captured in Vietnam, but that was then and this is now. Eric Holder, President-elect Obama’s nominee to be attorney general is unequivocal that water boarding constitutes torture, but President Bush’s last two attorneys general have been unwilling to express a definitive opinion. We are apparently the only civilized nation in the world which is in doubt on this question.
Unfortunately, our government under the Bush administration has not stopped with water boarding in its quest to keep us safe and secure. We have hung an innocent Afghan taxi driver from his wrists in the Bagram air base and beaten him to death; we have zipped an Iraqi major general into a sleeping bag (conduct not sanctioned by the Geneva Conventions which even the Bush administration concedes applied in that instance) and beaten him to death like a piñata; we have doused an elderly sheik with water and thrown him out in the prison yard to freeze to death; we have stripped prisoners naked at Abu Ghraib and threatened them with snarling dogs; the list goes on and on. We are like the Keystone Cops of torture. At least the Japanese and Nazis had the sense to torture the right people.
There are still many third world nations which practice torture, but thanks to the actions of the Bush administration we are the only “enlightened,” western nation which has that reputation.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
Under President Bush, the Justice Department became the most unprofessional and politicized legal department in our history. It is a little known, but very significant, fact that over one hundred of the top political appointments in his Justice Department were graduates of a single law school. And it was not Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Virginia, Michigan or any of the other law schools celebrated for their contributions to legal scholarship and training, but the law school of Regent University, a fundamentalist Christian institution located in Virginia Beach, Virginia founded by evangelist Pat Robertson which had only recently achieved accreditation. Its graduates were chosen not because of their legal accomplishments, but because they were ideologues and true believers.
Under Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, the blindfold was removed from Lady Justice’s eyes and moved to cover her breasts. Extraordinary and illegal activities by the government were countenanced in the days after 9/11 as thousands of citizens and resident aliens of Muslim descent were rounded up and held incommunicado for months without charges, access to counsel or trial. Preposterous and wrong-headed opinions issued forth out of the DOJ’s office of general counsel, such as the torture memo referred to earlier, letting the government do just about anything it wished. But, in fairness to Mr. Ashcroft, he was the best and most principled attorney general (none of whom were distinguished lawyers) who served Mr. Bush. He was replaced in 2004 precisely because on his hospital bed (despite a pressuring visit from then White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales) he would not overrule his deputy who had refused to sign off on the administration’s illegal program of warrantless wiretapping. After Mr. Gonzales succeeded him as attorney general there were no longer any such legal qualms.
Under Alberto Gonzales, civil service appointments in the Justice Department (some as mundane as immigration judges and some as important as positions in the criminal and civil rights divisions) were filled not on the basis of qualifications or legal abilities, but on the basis of party affiliation. Political operatives and well connected Republican legislators requested and were granted criminal prosecutions of their political enemies, and when conscientious U.S. attorneys refused to seek indictments in cases where the evidence did not warrant prosecution they were summarily fired by inexperienced political appointees such as Monica Goodling, one of the many graduates of Regent University law school. She, like her boss Mr. Gonzales, subsequently disgraced herself with episodes of selective amnesia about those firings when called to testify about them under oath before Congress.
After Mr. Gonzales resigned in disgrace, his successor Michael Mukasey brought some semblance of legal ethics back to the Department of Justice, but no real changes in its attitudes toward tolerance of torture or the all consuming powers of the unitary executive. More than any other department, the DOJ is in need of a thorough going cleansing. It is long overdue.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
When President Bush came into office in January of 2001, he inherited a budget surplus of almost half a trillion dollars. He leaves his successor an annual budget deficit twice the size of the surplus he received. During his eight years in office he almost doubled the national debt which had accumulated during the terms of his predecessors from George Washington to Bill Clinton. Amazingly, this turn of fiscal fortune happened for the most part during good economic times. It didn’t help, of course, that he cut taxes dramatically during a period when he chose to fight two wars – the first time in history that we cut taxes during wartime, and the first time in our history, at least, that we fought a war (two wars, actually) entirely on credit. Nor did it help that while his Republican Party controlled Congress and went on a spending spree totally at variance with its previous reputation as the party of fiscal conservatives, Mr. Bush didn’t veto a single spending bill.
Profligate spending and ideological tax policy combined to weaken our fiscal position even as we borrowed money from all over the world to finance our unbridled consumerist way of life which created a burgeoning trade deficit in our balance of payments. These two “twin deficits” were never addressed during the “good times,’ and now leave us in a weakened financial position when we need to run deficits to pull the economy out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Mr. Bush came into office as an ideological supply-side tax cutter with a pronounced hostility toward economic regulation and a Reaganesque faith in free markets. He believed as fervently in the mantra that “government isn’t the solution – it’s the problem” as did President Reagan. Unfortunately, that innocent faith in free markets and hostility toward all regulation was unsuited to financial and securities markets as complicated as those which have evolved since the days of our 40th president. Mr. Bush’s appointment of Chris Cox as chairman of the S.E.C. was particularly unfortunate given the opportunities afforded unscrupulous traders by the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing credit crunch.
Mr. Cox was so hostile to securities regulation (which is to say hostile to performing the function for which he was appointed) that he refused to enforce the laws and regulations which were on the books. He relaxed the prohibition on “naked shorting” which had been in force since Joseph Kennedy had been the first chairman of the S.E.C. As a result, the shorts did not need to find shares to borrow before they could short stocks they chose to target. Equally damaging, he discontinued enforcement of the “up-tick” rule which required that a stock must trade up on the previous transaction before another short position could be established. As a result, the shorts could “hit the bid” time and time again, driving the price of a stock down with each trade so that (in a market without a lot of buyers) they could wipe out almost the entire stockholder equity of a company in a single trading session.
Once the shorts sensed a particular stock had problems, they pounced on it like wolves pursuing the weakest member of a herd. Because Mr. Cox had also relaxed the leverage restrictions applicable to investment houses and banks (the hedge funds were totally unregulated) from twelve to thirty-five or forty, they could short thirty or forty dollars worth of a stock for a single dollar, and they didn’t even have to find the shares to borrow (naked shorting) before they started to short them. Lehman Brothers was one of the most rapacious practitioners of this form of shorting, and ironically when it got in trouble with the mortgage mess and the credit default swaps, it was wiped out by the shorts and driven into bankruptcy in a couple of days.
Lehman Brothers was one of the first financial stocks to be wiped out or nearly wiped out by this form of shorting on steroids (Bear Stearnes had been the first) but it was hardly the last – AIG, Merrill Lynch, and Washington Mutual, followed in quick succession during one week in September of 2008, and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs would have shortly followed suit had treasury secretary Henry Paulson not announced his TARP program. Wachovia would have failed had not a shotgun marriage, first with Citigroup, and finally with Wells Fargo, been hastily arranged. Citigroup and more recently Bank of America each of which originally received $25 billion of TARP money have both had to come back to ask for billions more. If the money American taxpayers have spent bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac is taken into account, well over three-quarters of a trillion dollars has been spent so far to keep these and other financial institutions afloat. A tremendous amount, perhaps a majority, of that expense could have been avoided if the S.E.C. had been willing to enforce the regulatory powers they already had to prevent bear raids and unscrupulous shorting. That’s a high price to pay for hostility to regulation and a laissez faire ideology.
Just go, ‘W,’ and good bye.
Finally, George W. Bush campaigned as an advocate of a humble foreign policy and as someone who would seek to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Once in office, however, he chose to pursue a unilateral foreign policy, going it alone without consulting our traditional allies, and soon adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude not only towards Democrats but also toward congressional members of his own party. He was “Dead Certain” (the title of a very revealing biography by Robert Draper published by Free Press in 2007) that he was right about so many things that he stopped asking questions and listening to other points of view. It was this strange combination of dogmatic arrogance and lack of intellectual curiosity which got him in much of his trouble.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, he refused to listen to any advice from his father or Bush 41’s able secretary of state, James Baker, or national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, saying he sought his counsel from a “higher Father.” When, on a family vacation, the president’s father sought to pass him a memorandum written for him by General Scowcroft, George W. Bush took one look at its cover page and shouted he never wanted to read or hear anything from Scowcroft again, and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. It was just such a streak of immaturity and bad temper that caused the president’s subordinates to slip a DVD of television news reports about Katrina under his door rather than tell him the news about the tragic events in New Orleans directly.
The president’s sense of moral certitude and corresponding lack of intellectual curiosity led him to make his administration one of the most hostile to science in generations. Almost to the end of his term, he resisted all evidence pointing to global warming and climate change. His first veto was to reject a bi-partisan measure with broad popular, medical and scientific support to foster stem cell research. Despite the wonderful work his administration did in fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa (one of his finest achievements), his administration was opposed to condom distribution and pushed abstinence only sex education programs, not only abroad but in the Center for Disease Control here at home. About this and so many things, President Bush was “dead certain,” indeed.
Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye.
As these concluding thoughts are being written, George W. Bush is no longer president but has been flown to Midland, Texas for a barbeque with old Texas friends. Of the two men who rode up Pennsylvania Avenue today from the White House to the inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol, I am reasonably sure that Mr. Bush is probably happier to be leaving office than Barack Obama is to be assuming it. Whatever one may have thought about the now former president’s policies (and I haven’t approved of many since late 2001), he can be a gracious and charming man on a personal basis. I was sincere in December of 2001 when I had the chance to shake his hand at the White House and tell him he was doing a great job. I think he ended his presidency well in granting clemency to the two persecuted (and certainly over prosecuted) Border Patrol agents.
Things started to go off the rails for him (and for all of us) when he decided to invade Iraq, but I have no doubt he did what he thought was in the best interests of the country. He leaves office with the lowest approval ratings on record, and I doubt history will treat him very favorably, but despite an infuriating last seven years I am happier with the revised title of this piece than the one I had first contemplated. ‘W’ be gone and be damned seems unnecessarily churlish and harsh. Just go, ‘W,’ and goodbye seems much more appropriate, and while I’m at it, good luck.
The Business of America Is Finance
With apologies to former president Calvin Coolidge, the business of America is no longer business, but finance. Nothing could make that point more emphatically than the niggardly response which Congress and the Treasury Department have given to the death throes of the American automobile industry. While Hank Paulson, lately of Goldman Sachs, and now Secretary of the Treasury forced well over $250 billion on big banks and former investment houses (some of which professed not even to want or need it), he has bowed his back like a stubborn mule (just as he did with Lehman Brothers, sending it into bankruptcy and triggering the current financial crisis) and said not a penny of his $700 billion TARP bailout fund would be made available to General Motors, Chrysler or Ford.
The man who said he “hoped” that the big banks would use some of his largess to make loans to their customers and thus start to thaw the credit freeze which has brought commerce almost to a standstill and threatens to plunge the country into another Great Depression, the Sequel, but who placed absolutely no conditions on their acceptance of the money, even when they set aside $20.5 billion of taxpayer funds to pay executive bonuses, was adamant that his Troubled Asset Relief Program (which he declined to use to purchase troubled assets) was intended to comfort the financial community, not to save the last vestiges of America’s manufacturing capacity. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford actually make things that people can use – they are dull and dirty compared to the investment houses and banks who cleverly thought up the credit default swaps, CDO’s and other financial derivatives which constitute today’s weapons of mass (economic) destruction.
The banks and investment houses which bought and sold financial instruments of such complexity that even they could not understand them (but which were often graded AAA by the avaricious and unprincipled rating agencies) are so chastened by having to mark those unmarketable “securities” to market (with the attendant black holes in their capital structures) that they have just about ceased engaging in the normal banking activities for which they were chartered. They have assumed a fetal position and are refusing to lend to their normal commercial and manufacturing customers. One week before receiving their slice of Secretary Paulson’s TARP, for instance, Alabama’s Regions Financial Corp. said their banks would no longer make loans to automobile dealers nor make car loans to their customers. So what did they intend to do with the $1.53 billion they received from their generous Uncle Sam? Why, to use it to make acquisitions, of course, -- certainly not to make loans.
Which brings us, full circle, to the second round of hearings conducted on Capitol Hill this week intended to inquire into the health (or, more accurately, into the imminent demise) of the domestic automobile industry. Having been transported back through time to the disco era of the groovy ‘70’s, our senators and representatives sought to out-do each other in decrying the bad management practices of the Detroit Big Three who made a practice of building cars which nobody wanted to buy, conveniently forgetting that about thirty years had elapsed since that criticism had much validity, and that as recently as the 1st quarter of 2008 Americans were snapping up their cars, SUVs and trucks like hot cakes. As almost anyone can attest who has timidly tried to back out of a parking place into oncoming traffic, America had become a land of little women (typically talking on cell phones) driving big trucks. Suddenly, a surge in oil prices to $147 per barrel (they are now back in the $40s), and a historic credit crunch caused by bankers’ remorse stemming from years of irresponsible mortgage lending, converged to bring car sales to a screeching halt. It was the improbable combination of those two economic events, not decades of bad management, which created the liquidity crisis that has brought the Big Three to the edge of the abyss.
Both of my senators, Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), however, are convinced that there simply is no point in throwing good money after bad management practices, and oppose providing a $25 to $34 billion bridge loan to help General Motors and Chrysler make it to the new year and a more accommodating Obama administration. The Big Three have a failed business model, they thundered, and should just go into bankruptcy ( if Chapter 11 comes, can Chapter 7 be far behind?) – just look at their car sales for November: Ford down 31%, GM and Chrysler down around 40%! It was a mere coincidence, of course, that they represented a state which had little connection to the Big Three, but (thanks to generous local tax incentives and abatements) was host to Mercedes, Hyundai, and Honda, whose November sales for vehicles produced in Alabama incidentally also happened to be down – an average of 50%!
It should be obvious to even the most parochial legislators that no one can sell cars when lenders refuse to lend and credit is unavailable, and that is why imported cars from foreign manufacturers (presumably with good business models, who make vehicles people want to buy) are piling up, unsold on our docks. Before conceding the conventional wisdom encompassed in the preceding parentheses, however, it should be noted that the Chevy Malibu won Car of the Year and that the Cadillac CTS (both GM products) won Popular Mechanics’ automotive excellence award in the luxury category, while Ford had five of the nine safest vehicles, so American manufacturers must be doing something right. The quality of American made vehicles has been comparing quite favorably with the imports for well over a decade.
None of which, however, cuts any ice with our treasury secretary, and very little with our congressmen and senators. Late this afternoon (December 8, 2008) Rep. Barney Franks (D-MA), chairman of the House Banking committee, with the concurrence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), announced that there was a possibility that $15 billion could be made available to the Big Three (Ford currently doesn’t need it) from funds already appropriated for technological research. There is, of course, no guarantee that President Bush would sign even this limited relief measure, and Senator Shelby is contemplating a filibuster. Without this bridge loan, it is virtually certain that General Motors would have to seek bankruptcy protection before the end of the year, probably taking down many of the industry’s parts suppliers with it, and putting another million and a half Americans in the unemployment lines.
If such a relief measure does pass, it will certainly provide for a governmental “Car Czar” to meddle in the auto makers’ affairs, and may require the resignation of GM’s CEO, Rick Wagoner, who has done such a fine job of establishing his company’s preeminent position in the expanding Chinese market. Even his pledge to work for a dollar a year may be insufficient. A sacrificial lamb for the political gods may be needed.
And it goes without saying that Congress will want to oversee the restructuring of the automobile industry. Appearing on the Today show, Speaker Pelosi said the auto executives had done a bad job of adapting to changing conditions and couldn’t be “left to their own devices.” Never have so many onerous terms been required as a condition for making an inadequate loan which is essential to save not just the auto makers, but our entire economy. Meanwhile, as the congressmen were ringing out concession after concession for their advance of $15 billion to keep the automobile business afloat, Citigroup asked treasury secretary Paulson for another $20 billion from his TARP. They got it promptly, no questions (or concessions) asked.
Oh, well. I’m sure that Congress will do a fine job of supervising and restructuring the automobile industry just as it did in overseeing the banks, investment houses and other financial institutions which got us into this mess in the first place. Al Qaeda wishes it could have caused us just a tenth as much harm.
There’s Something About Sarah
CBS newsman Jeff Greenfield was being interviewed September 5th on Imus in the Morning, and he was positively giddy with excitement about Sarah Palin. Governor Palin, he exclaimed, was a pop culture amalgam of Nine to Five, The Solid Gold Cadillac, and Northern Exposure! She was the down to earth, Norma Rae type girl who would teach all those “Chablis swilling (his words, not mine) politicians in pin stripe suits” a lesson and vanquish them. She represented the best, he gushed, of the libertarian (more of that a bit later) spirit of the self-reliant frontier. “Very few of us,” he observed, “on the upper west side of Manhattan field dress a moose on Sunday.”
Point taken. Very few members of the national security council field dress a moose even on Saturday, nor is that skill considered essential to their analysis of geopolitical threats, anymore than is wolf hunting from airplanes, but you never know when it might come in handy. As for foreign policy expertise, putative vice president Sarah Palin can always fall back on her experience as commander of the Alaska National Guard. For a presidential campaign which was running almost exclusively on its national security experience, while at the same time denigrating the experience of the Democratic ticket comprised of two members (and one chairman) of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, John McCain’s selection of the little known Alaska governor as his vice presidential nominee seems a bit puzzling. She’s currently hiding from the press and working “nine to five” to burnish her national security credentials.
But Sarah brought other assets to the Republican ticket. First, the former runner-up in the Miss Alaska beauty pageant is not bad looking at all, and that put a certain spring in the step of the formerly lethargic head of the ticket, and second she charged up more than the GOP nominee. She electrified the party’s base. Here was a woman who not only talked Pro-Life but lived it, giving birth to a Down-syndrome baby in her mid-forties. Here was a woman who not only opposed sex education in the schools in favor of the GOP ideal of abstinence only, but had a pregnant 17 year-old daughter as proof that she wasn’t sneaking contraceptives to family members on the side. She had a record of opposing state provided health care for Alaska’s residents. It would be hard to find a woman who was a better poster girl for Republican family values which, distilled down to their essence, mean once you’ve made it through the birth canal, you’re on your own.
But it’s not only the family values crowd who are wild about Sarah, she’s got the whole GOP package of Guns, God and Oil going for her. She’s an avid hunter and member of the NRA. She not only supports the war in Iraq, she told ministry students at the Assemblies of God that the war there was “a task that is from God.” She wasn’t speaking in tongues (an aspect of religious observance favored by the Pentecostals) when she told the ministry students and fellow church members that it was “God’s will” that a $30 billion gas pipeline be built in Alaska, and urged them to pray for it – “God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that.” And, of course, she’s dubious about that half-baked scientific theory of evolution and wants Creationism taught in the public schools.
While all that was simply grand for the GOP base, the truth is that a little bit of religion goes a long way with John McCain, a former Episcopalian turned mega-church Baptist. What enthralled him about Sarah was that she, like he himself, was a maverick and crusader against government waste, “earmarks,” and pork of the bureaucratic variety. When it finally became clear to the nominee that the party faithful just wouldn’t stand for his first choice of Joe Lieberman (I-CT) as his running mate, he found another soul mate in the good looking and feisty governor of Alaska. He “Googled” her (this apparently was the extent of the vetting) and found that she had opposed Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) pet project of the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Not only that, but she had sold the state’s expensive private jet (alas, not on E-Bay despite her best efforts, and at a pretty hefty loss).
Perhaps, like Paul Harvey, he should have dug a bit deeper for the rest of the story. It turns out that both as mayor of the town of Wasilla, Alaska (population about 5,500 during her tenure in office) and later as governor she was one of the most enthusiastic feeders at the public trough. While mayor, she hired a lawyer to lobby both Senator Stevens and Congressman Don Young (R-AK) for earmarks and succeeded so spectacularly that her tiny town received $27 million in federal funds. Not withstanding that largesse, she left it millions of dollars in debt when she moved on to become governor. As to the Bridge to Nowhere, she was strongly for it as governor before it became too hot an issue, and even then accepted the funds but simply declined to build the bridge. If it takes one to know one, McCain should put her in charge of eliminating government earmarks and pork, just as FDR appointed stock market shark and manipulator Joseph Kennedy to be the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Governor Palin’s chief benefit to the Republican ticket (if not to the nation) is her proven ability as a beautiful and vicious campaigner. She can vivisect an opponent with a charming smile as easily as she can gut a moose, as she did in her acceptance speech at the convention in denigrating Barack Obama’s service as a community organizer (it was like being mayor, she said, only without the responsibility). It is not an accident that she has long been referred to as “Sarah Barracuda” in her home state. Another strength is that she is absolutely uninhibited by the truth. She has repeatedly touted her role in opposing the government waste inherent in her supposed opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere even though she was one of its principal supporters. Apparently she is not susceptible to embarrassment, and counts on a media enthralled with her fresh celebrity and cowed by charges of “sexism” not to examine her claims too closely.
While considering her love fest with the media, let’s return for a moment to Jeff Greenfield’s assessment of her as a libertarian heroine of a self-reliant frontier society. She appears rather too authoritarian to make a very good libertarian. She doesn’t just want to have her Down-syndrome baby – she wants to outlaw all abortions, excluding exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother and child. I’m moderately Pro-Life and have always been so, but I don’t see the “liberty” in that strict ideological position. She wants to have her baby and make sure that you have yours too. The same goes for her opposition to stem-cell research (not much pragmatism concerning the frozen embryos which may be thrown into the trash, but must be unavailable to researchers trying to cure diseases afflicting real people living more than hypothetical lives). How about the free expression of, and exposure to, ideas? I wonder what books on the Wasilla library shelves so offended Mayor Palin that she fired the local librarian? I really don’t think Sarah is part of the libertarian tradition.
Ok, scratch libertarian and substitute authoritarian, but she sure does come from a self-reliant frontier state, right? Remember that field dressed moose, not to mention all those dead wolves littering the ground along her airplane’s flight path? Alaska certainly is self-reliant. Most definitely, so long as you don’t stop to consider that it’s on the take for more federal money, per capita, than any other state. And Governor Sarah Palin is just the gal to hunt it down and haul it home. Of course, you won’t hear much about that in the coming campaign.
Thus far, despite refusing to take questions from the media or from the public on campaign appearances, she continues to receive the type of adulation usually reserved for rock stars from teenaged fans. It doesn’t appear as though newsmen will step up to the plate and start asking probing questions anytime soon, but my wife, who is usually a good deal more perceptive than most of the members of the media, had an interesting comment at the breakfast table yesterday morning -- “She doesn’t seem to have a sense of what she doesn’t know.”
That can sometimes be a helpful trait in a vigorous campaigner (a “pit bull with lipstick”), but it rarely is a good quality in someone who may be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Still Dodging the Bullets
Winston Churchill, reflecting on his time in the Boer War, once said that there was nothing more exhilarating than having been shot at and missed. Having made it thus far through the presidential primary season, that is pretty much how I feel. More than a year ago, when this whole electoral mess started, I was resigned to having either Hillary Clinton or Rudolph Giuliani as my next president. After suffering through two terms of George W. Bush, that seemed like more psychological punishment than I could bear. Hillary, the media said, was “inevitable” and Rudy had a commanding lead in the national polls.
I started checking the residency requirements for Canada. I was disconsolate. I shouldn’t have been, of course – I should have remembered that the same group of political pundits conferred the Democratic presidential nomination on Howard Dean in 2004 before the first caucus or primary was held. After they were, we never heard of Mr. Dean again until he resurfaced, not as a candidate, but as head of the Democratic National Committee. But when the prospect of something as horrible as Rudy or Hillary leading our country rears its ugly head a little paranoia is understandable.
I have been around only since 1941, but during that limited period of time it is indisputable that “W” has been our worst president – his combination of arrogance, incompetence, dishonesty, indifference and brutality is simply too rich a mixture to admit of any comparison. He surrounded himself with neoconservatives like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice, Pearl and Frum (author of the “Axis of Evil” speech) who led us into an entirely unnecessary war in Iraq, alienated us from all of our traditional allies, sullied our reputation and national character with acts of torture from Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, and engaged in such shameless fear-mongering that Americans meekly acquiesced in the surrender of their constitutionally protected civil liberties. After seven years of “W,” it is hard to recognize ourselves as the descendants of men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights, and who lived by the credo of “live free or die.” And yet, having said all that, Rudy would have been worse.
As Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) dryly noted, every sentence Rudy uttered during the primary campaign contained a noun, a verb, and 9/11, and everything he knew about foreign policy (which certainly wasn’t much) was somehow derived from 9/11 and the attack on the World Trade Towers while he was mayor of New York. He knew that he didn’t like the Muslims who had attacked his city (he was fond of calling them “Islamofascists”) and he knew that his Jewish constituents who made up the most influential ethnic group there were fervently supportive of the State of Israel. Given his pugnacious personality honed as the mob-busting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and the rather narrow prism of his New York City experience through which he viewed the outside world, it was only natural that he would turn to the combative philosophy of neoconservatism as the pole star of his foreign policy.
That comparatively recent mutation of conservative political thought owes as much to the hawkish Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party (and some would say to the Trotskyite wing of the Communist Party) as to anything traditionally conservative and Republican, and has as its guiding principles the assumption that the interests of Israel and the United States are completely coextensive and that the best way of advancing those joint interests is through the aggressive use of military force. In choosing his foreign policy advisors, however, Rudy did not confine himself to the hands-on, governmental, practitioners of neoconservatism, such as Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Pearl (who might have been somewhat chastened by the disastrous results of their experiment in Iraq) – rather, he sought to “mainline” the philosophy in all of its original, abstract purity by going to the guru of the movement itself, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of its bible, Commentary.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to discuss the ramifications of the neoconservative movement, even as confined to its views on foreign policy, but anyone wishing to further explore the subject would do well to read “Declaring Forever War,” by Michael C. Desch, the occupant of the Robert M. Gates Chair in the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, published in the January 14, 2008 edition of The American Conservative. Suffice it to say that Mr. Desch was extremely alarmed by the direction Rudy Giuliani’s foreign policy seemed to be heading, envisioning a series of wars against Islamic regimes in the Middle East, and the theme of his article was that “Giuliani has surrounded himself with advisors who think the Bush Doctrine didn’t go nearly far enough.” His concluding paragraph certainly conveys that sense of alarm:
Giuliani’s tendency to conflate all terrorist groups – whether Islamist or not and whether they attack the United States or just allies like Israel – led Fred Kaplan of Slate to dub him the “anti-statesman.” Sending him and his team to the White House might actually ignite World War IV.
Certainly, of all the presidential aspirants of either party, Rudy would have been the only one who would have reduced the standing of the United States on the international stage to a level even lower than it occupies today. While John McCain shares many of Rudy’s and “W’s” hawkish tendencies (it’s hard to forget his sing-song jingle to a Beach Boys’ tune of “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”), he at least recoils, with a military man’s code of God, honor and country, from their denigration of the Geneva Conventions and their enthusiastic embrace of torture.
It isn’t just the Muslim citizens of the Middle East who dodged a bullet when Rudy decided to adopt his unorthodox “Florida only” approach to the Republican primary season, but we Americans caught a break as well. One aspect of his fear-mongering campaign urging us to be afraid, be very afraid, of a repetition of 9/11 is that it fits so well with his authoritarian tendencies. Quite obviously, he thinks that in a post-9/11 world Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither and lose both,” is just as quaint and outdated as are the Geneva Conventions. In Rudy’s 9/11 land the citizenry must be prepared to accept curtailment of their civil liberties and cede much of their freedoms to the government in order to be safe.
As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in “Authoritarian Temptation,” published in the January 14th issue of The American Conservative, America’s mayor had already begun to exhibit an appetite for suppressing dissent or anything else that annoyed him as early as the mid-1990s. His concept of “freedom” discussed in one of his speeches from 1994 could not be more “Orwellian”:
What we don’t see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.
There is Rudy’s concept of “freedom” in his own words. No wonder he and Ron Paul were not bosom buddies on the campaign trail. Long before 9/11 transformed New York’s mayor into a national hero, the people of his city had already had a belly full of him. His approval ratings had dropped into the 30s; he tried unsuccessfully to amend the city’s charter so he could continue to serve indefinitely; and he lost a total of 35 First Amendment cases in court! We have all dodged a bullet indeed.
But why beat a dead horse (or, more accurately, a brain dead ex-candidate)? “Hill,” the Wellesley warrior, may be wounded but she is still very dangerous, particularly with “Slick Willie” sniping from the sidelines. We are all supposed to believe (and apparently a majority of women who never went to college still do) that she is very bright and very “experienced”. It just makes sense, doesn’t it, that being married to a president means you’re qualified to be president? Just as much sense, my wife (herself a Wellesley graduate) recently observed, as believing that because she has been married to a lawyer for forty years, she is qualified to be one.
But wait – that sensible observation misses a very salient point, Hillary’s enthusiastic backers would say. Remember, when we elected the Clintons we got two for the price of one. She wasn’t just a first spouse (do I get brownie points for being P.C. and using gender neutral terminology?) – she was a “Co-president”! That’s right, because this non-cookie-baker and brilliant lawyer (I can’t imagine how she managed to flunk the D.C. bar exam, one of the easiest in the country, but she was smart enough to keep it very quiet) exacted from her philandering husband (as the price for “standing by her man” in the 1992 election) a promise that she would have absolute control over the selection of the attorney general and over the administration’s health care policy. Well, let’s see how she did (as an unelected co-president) in handling these two areas under her exclusive control.
Hillary was determined that the Clinton administration would have a woman as its attorney general, and that she would be the person choosing her. She exercised such good judgment in her selections that the first two nominees (corporate lawyer, Zoe Baird, and federal judge, Kimba Wood) had to be withdrawn, but the third time was the charm and we got Janet Reno. Until Alberto Gonzales came along, Ms. Reno was generally regarded as the worst attorney general in memory. But, as former White House press secretary, Dee Dee Meyers, explained to Sally Bedell Smith, author of “Hillary’s Hidden Hand” in the December 31, 2007 issue of Newsweek, “I don’t think Clinton believed he had a choice. He had painted himself into a corner, and he had to appoint a woman.” Before leaving the subject of Hillary’s legal judgment, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that it was she who would not hear of settling the Paula Jones sexual harassment case which ultimately led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Hillary Clinton’s principal legacy as “co-president,” however, was her highly secretive and spectacularly unsuccessful health care plan. She excluded doctors, hospital administrators, insurers, and anyone else who actually knew anything about health care from the deliberations, and when she came up with her plan made it quite clear to the Congress that she would tolerate no amendments to it whatever. She threatened one very senior Democratic senator with “ruin” for having the temerity to suggest that some of her proposals simply were not practical, and David Brooks recently reported in an op-ed column in The New York Times (“The Cooper Concerns,” published February 5, 2008 ) that she still has icy relations, fifteen years later, with Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) for sponsoring another competing health care plan in 1992. Mr. Cooper’s plan had wide bipartisan support in the House, and was co-sponsored in the Senate by John Breaux (D-LA) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), but when she met with Mr. Cooper on June 15, 1993, to discuss differences in the two plans she was “ice cold” toward the congressman. When he suggested that her plan had been pulled too far to the left, and could not get through congress, she replied “We’ll crush you. You’ll wish you never mentioned this to me.”
Hillary was not any more cordial toward her husband when he tried to make her health care plan a little more flexible in the hope of getting it passed. In the Newsweek article mentioned above, Sally Smith reports that Mrs. Clinton regarded the health care establishment as “the enemy” and was determined to take an all or nothing approach. When President Clinton was meeting with a group of governors in Boston in July of 1994 and said he would be willing to accept 95 percent of the plan in order to secure its passage, Hillary immediately called him and screamed “What the f--- are you doing up there? I want to see you as soon as you get back.” The next morning the president recanted his statement and even apologized. Hillary got her way, and her wish. She wanted all or nothing, and she got nothing, and as a result many good features such as portability of health coverage from employer to employer died with the whole plan.
Hillary claims that she learned from that experience and is now more mature and better prepared to lead. If that is so, it is curious that she still has icy relations with Congressman Jim Cooper and has never forgiven him for putting forth a more pragmatic plan in 1992, and that today, sixteen years later, she is still insisting on mandating universal coverage, one of the prime factors dooming her plan in the early 1990s.
Obviously, there are some aspects of character which never change. Hillary, like the current president, could never abide dissent. For both of them it is “my way or the highway,” and they surround themselves with “yes men” and “yes women” to insure they will not be exposed to ideas at variance with their own. Neither is at all comfortable admitting a mistake. A prime example is that Mrs. Clinton has never conceded that her vote to authorize the Iraq war was a mistake. She claims that Mr. Bush misused the war resolution and should have used it to press for a diplomatic resolution and for more UN weapons inspections. If she is being honest about that explanation, she is too naïve and too bad a judge of character to be president. What did she think George W. Bush would do with a resolution authorizing him to use military force against Iraq?
But she is not being honest about her rationalization for that vote, of course, and for her political purposes at the time it was not a mistake. In October of 2002, “W” was hugely popular and she did not want to take the risk of standing in the way of his war. She did not even take the time to read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for Congress by the CIA which called into question many of the underlying assumptions for going to war. She wanted to cast that vote for war for the same reason she wanted a seat on the Senate Armed Forces committee – so that she could look tough for her future role as commander-in-chief. The cost of the war, in blood, treasure, and Iraqi civilian casualties, did not even enter into the equation.
It is informative that her votes on the Iraq war were virtually indistinguishable from those of John McCain until she began her presidential campaign and had to moderate her positions in order to appeal to the Democratic voters’ strong anti-war sentiments. As recently as last year, she voted for a resolution put forward by senators Kyle (R-AZ) and Lieberman (I-CT) which was widely regarded as a first step toward war with Iran. If elected president, there is no reason to believe that “Hillary the Hawk” would actually follow through on her pledge to remove our military forces from Iraq, nor would she abandon the permanent military bases which we have been building there. War with Iran would be a distinct possibility.
Finally, no discussion of Mrs. Clinton’s “experience” in her husband’s administration is more revealing of her character than her handling of the travel office matter. For decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the employees in the White House travel office had to make arrangements on very short notice for the White House press corps to follow the president on his trips around the world. In many of the places the president visited only cash was accepted, and accordingly it was necessary to keep large stashes of “not-very-petty” cash on hand. The employees of the travel office were not civil service appointees, and could be replaced at will, but over time the custom was that they were regarded as de facto civil servants.
When the Clintons won the White House in 1992, Hillary wanted to replace the employees in the travel office with political cronies of theirs from Arkansas, but she didn’t want to take the heat for firing people who had served so many administrations with distinction. She therefore concocted an investigation of supposed irregularities in the handling of the travel office’s petty cash accounts, and had the travel office employees arrested and “frog marched” out of the White House in disgrace. They were persons of very modest means, but they had to expend huge amounts of money (in some cases their entire life savings) to hire expensive Washington lawyers to defend themselves. They were all eventually exonerated, but Hillary put them all through a legal hell just so she could bring in her own people without having to contend with charges of political cronyism. Of all the scandals of the Clinton administration, and there were many, this was the rankest.
Whatever one may think about Senator Clinton’s policy positions, there are enough red flags flying with respect to her character that we should all have serious reservations about electing her president. Like the current president, she is rigid about her policy positions and doesn’t want to listen to countervailing views. She is a vicious partisan and holds grudges, not for months but for decades. And contrary to her various statements on the stump, for all of her “experience,” she does not seemed to have learned much from her past mistakes. If she is elected, we will have another four, and possibly eight, years of the same bitterly partisan gridlock which we have endured for the past fifteen years. It is high time to turn the page and try something else.
At this writing, on the eve of the Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. primaries, Barack Obama actually leads Hillary Clinton in pledged (as opposed to “super”) delegates. Her campaign is in disarray and she does not look as “inevitable” as she appeared at the end of last year before the primaries and caucuses began. Perhaps Senator Obama can continue to build on his momentum and help me, and the country, dodge one more bullet. I certainly hope so.
G.O.P. Loses the House, the Senate, and its Conscience
I had seen it coming for a long time, and so, I am sure, had my favorite Republican in the Senate (hell, my favorite Republican, period), Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). Over two years ago, I had some bumper stickers printed up, when enthusiasm for the Bush/Cheney ticket was running at high tide in Republican circles, which warned: “Save the Republic and the Republican Party -- Send Bush and Cheney Back to Texas!”
This morning, November 8, 2006, the prophesy embedded in that warning has been realized as the public’s disgust with a deadly, futile, expensive and totally unnecessary war in Iraq (and with the president’s, vice president’s, and secretary of defense’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality and change its course) has resulted in a political tsunami which has swept the G.O.P. from control of the House of Representatives and (when the final returns are certified from the senatorial contests in Virginia and Montana) surely of the U.S. Senate as well. After years of failed or nonexistent congressional oversight, callous disregard of the needs of our troops and of the less fortunate members of society, reckless spending and fiscal stewardship, and shameless influence peddling and corruption of every conceivable variety, the shift to Democratic control of Congress is probably a good, healthy thing -- a much needed palliative.
What is not healthy for our body politic, however, is that political tsunamis of the sort witnessed yesterday in the mid-term elections of 2006 tend to sweep away the moderates, the centrists, of the losing party leaving only the most uncompromising of its members, in the safest districts or states, remaining. It happened in the Republican triumph of 1994 when all the Democratic moderates disappeared, leaving only the Barbara Boxers and Henry Waxmans as spokesmen and standard-bearers for the congressional wing of the Democratic Party, and it happened again yesterday as Republican moderates such as Rep. Anne Northrup of Louisville, Kentucky, and Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio and Linc Chafee of Rhode Island went down to defeat. Without their calming, reasonable voices the caucuses of the G.O.P. will be dominated even more by the extremist views of the John Cornyns, the Jeff Sessions, the James Inhofes. Both Chafee and DeWine, for instance, were Republican members of the Senate’s “Gang of Fourteen” which saved the United States Senate and the country from a constitutional crisis over the threatened filibustering of judicial nominations and the countervailing “nuclear option.”
It is ironic, and particularly galling to me, that Lincoln Chafee, who for years has been the conscience of the Republican Party, should lose his Rhode Island senate seat over the public’s very lately manifested disgust over the strategically stupid and incompetently executed war in Iraq. In the fall of 2002, when the effects of fear mongering left over from 9/11 were still uppermost in the public’s mind, and the administration was willing to tell any lie and spread any misconception to support the public’s bloodlust for revenge and war (against whomever), Lincoln Chafee was the only Republican senator with the courage to stand up to the president and point out that our efforts should be directed against the people who had attacked us, not against the Iraqis who had not. He was the only Republican who voted against the Iraq war, and in doing so demonstrated a prescient vision and courageous independence which countless Democrats like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John Kerry did not.
During the nightmare years since 9/11 when the administration’s mantra has been “be afraid, be very afraid,” Linc Chafee time and time again has stood up for our civil liberties and for a foreign policy which is not so unilateral that it divorces us from our friends and the rest of the civilized world. He voiced his opposition to warrantless wiretapping of American citizens; he called into question the suitability of someone like John Bolton to be our ambassador to the United Nations; during the confirmation hearings of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state, he pointedly asked her whether we should not at least be talking to countries like Venezuela and Iran with a view to normalizing relations; he opposed our nation’s flirtation with torture; and most importantly his was again the sole Republican vote against the recently passed military commissions act which abolished the right of habeas corpus for American citizens whom the president has labeled “enemy combatants.”
While standing up for our civil liberties here at home, and our international reputation abroad, Lincoln Chafee has also attempted to protect American taxpayers (of both current and future generations) from the reckless spending and fiscal policies which have characterized both the current administration and the congressional Republican Party since President Bush took office. He was one of only three senators who had the courage to vote against George Bush’s fourth tax cut, proposed just before the 2004 elections, observing: “I for one am very reluctant to saddle future generations with the bill for this fiscally ruinous policy.”
During the 2006 election campaign which concluded yesterday, Senator Chafee’s Democratic opponent was unable to point to a single vote, or action taken, with which he could criticize him before his Rhode Island constituents. Lincoln Chafee has always been very popular and well respected in Rhode Island, as was his father, Senator John Chafee, before him. The only fault the now victorious candidate Sheldon Whitehouse could find with Linc Chafee was with his party affiliation, with the “R” behind his name. He was invited to change parties, and had he done so could have won reelection virtually without opposition. But, as he has said, he “was born a Republican,” and would not change.
President Bush, and his administration, have made the Republican Party so reviled in the Democratic state of Rhode Island, that not even the great affection its citizens had for Lincoln Chafee could overcome their aversion to the future vote which he would have made had he been returned to the Senate -- his vote to allow the Republicans to organize the Senate. Thus, the irony of this situation is that Lincoln Chafee was defeated because of the policies of a president which he consistently opposed. In the 2004 presidential election, he even wrote in the name of the president’s father, George Hebert Walker Bush, rather than vote for the leader of his party whose policies he found so objectionable.
And so now the Republican Party, and the people of Rhode Island, and indeed the whole country are to be denied the independent thought, wisdom, and courageous stands of one of our modern political era’s great mavericks. We are all much the poorer for it.
Democracy Is on the March in the Mideast
Democracy is on the march in the Middle East -- and we may wish it had stayed home. It has been just a little over a year since President Bush declared in his second inaugural address that spreading democracy throughout the world (and particularly in the Mideast) would be the primary foreign policy objective of his second term. Rarely has a foreign policy goal been achieved so quickly and with such disastrous results.
In the past several weeks, we have seen the democratically elected leader of Iran express his desire to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth and, contrary to Western wishes, announce his nation’s intention to proceed with its nuclear ambitions. Members of the radical Muslim Brotherhood won over twenty percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, despite their party’s outlawed status and despite the fact that they fielded candidates in only about 150 of 400 legislative districts. In Iraq, the ultra-conservative Shiite United Iraqi Alliance controlled by fundamentalist clerics swept to victory in December’s elections winning 128 parliamentary seats, compared to 53 for the Kurdish Alliance, 44 for the Sunni supported National Concord Front, and 25 for former premier Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List, a secular group of candidates which had the considerable support of the United States government. Condoleezza Rice’s state department pushed the Palestinian Authority to hold elections despite warnings from President Abbas, and from Israel, that the country was not ready for them and the result was a stunning landslide victory for Hamas.
None of these developments should have been particularly surprising or unforeseen, and yet the president and his secretary of state professed to be shocked by them. Speaking of the Hamas victory, Secretary Rice commented “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.” Reacting to that extraordinary statement, columnist Trudy Rubin, one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Middle East in the American media, concluded that “the problem isn’t with the administration’s pulse; it’s with its brain.” For those who missed her perceptive column, “Bush miscalculated Hamas victory,” published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, her observations set forth below are well worth reading:
Madame Secretary, many people foresaw a Hamas triumph in Palestinian elections. The fact that you missed the obvious is shocking. How can we beat terrorism and exit Iraq with honor when the administration lets ideology trump common knowledge and common sense?
The Bush infatuation with Mideast democracy seems to have blinded his team to the basic realities of the region. The president insists that establishing Arab democracies is key to fighting terrorism. He compares this struggle to Ronald Reagan’s push for freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
He echoes the thesis of Natan Shransky, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli political leader, whose book “The Case for Democracy” debunks those who say Arabs can’t build democratic governments. Sharansky insists that promoting Mideast democracy is a matter of backing good vs. evil.
That certainly matches the Bush mind-set. The president has touted elections in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. Yet the White House has been consistently startled by the results.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to quote Ms. Rubin’s excellent discussion of the myriad of significant religious, cultural and political differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East which should have made it obvious that the president’s grandiose vision of a democratic Mideast suddenly transformed to accept Western values is a fantasy doomed to failure, but given Mr. Bush’s complete lack of foreign policy experience, his puzzling estrangement from his father and from his father’s masterful secretary of state, James Baker, and national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and the resulting untoward influence of neoconservative ideologues such as Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney, it is not difficult to understand how this administration’s idealistic, but impossibly impractical, foreign policy came into being.
The whole point of President George H. W. Bush’s pragmatic foreign policy, so ably implemented by Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft, was to advance American interests in the Middle East by dealing with the governments, and with the geopolitical realities, which they found on the ground. If this meant coming to terms with despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, or (prior to the invasion of Kuwait) with Iraq, that was entirely acceptable to those “realists” so long as the United States’ strategic interests, such as the free flow of oil and the containment of radical Islamic fundamentalism, were advanced by those associations. They had witnessed the chaos which had resulted from the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, and understood that sometimes a strongman like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or the former Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito, despite their democratic deficiencies, provided some very real benefits in keeping feuding religious and ethnic groups under control. While such leaders did not advance Western ideals, they did advance Western interests by keeping their regions stable.
The Reagan and first Bush administrations gave Saddam Hussein some $1.5 billion in military aid, not because they liked him, but because strengthening Iraq was in our strategic interest because secular Iraq stood as a buffer and bulwark against the radical Islamic fundamentalists who hated the “Great Satan” of the United States and had taken over the government of Iran. Even after expelling Saddam from Kuwait in the first Gulf War, Messrs. Bush, Baker and Scowcroft wisely chose to leave him in power in Iraq so that nation could continue to be a counter-balancing influence against Iran and, presciently, to avoid the chaos and ethnic bloodshed which George W. Bush’s subsequent invasion of Iraq has engendered.
That invasion, and the muddleheaded attempt at nation-building which has followed, has had the effect of undoing twenty years of United States foreign policy as practiced during the Reagan, first Bush, and Clinton administrations. Now, thanks to the younger Bush’s rejection of the policies of his father, the radical Shiite rulers of Iran have a foothold in Iraq with the electoral victory of their brethren, the fundamentalist Shiite clerics in Iraq. Twenty years of relative stability have been replaced by the chaos of ethnic violence and the prospect of civil war. And, not inconsequentially, a nation which is now to be controlled by Shiite religious fundamentalists borders our Sunni allies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- not a very pleasant prospect for them, or for Israel.
The neoconservative advisers, both within the government and in their “think tanks,” who surround the president are not concerned about the current lack of stability in the Middle East. They came into office planning, at a minimum, to overthrow the regimes in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Their political guru, Richard Pearle, has been quoted as saying that the overthrow of friendly regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be no great loss to the United States if the democratic conflagration ignited by neoconservative foreign policy in the Middle East happened to spread to those countries. They anticipated a “cakewalk” in Iraq, and only the unanticipated morass in which our military now finds itself has, thus far, forced a change in plans.
Their policy of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East at the point of a gun is, at one and the same time, horrifyingly cynical and wildly idealistic. Like the Jacobins of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who attempted to spread the ideals of the French Revolution throughout Europe by invasion and military might, these “true believers” do not care how much suffering they inflict upon the peoples of the Middle East so long as they succeed in establishing their abstract concept of democracy. They are ideologues all -- there is not a pragmatist among them, nor a realist. That is why they are so surprised at what their policies have wrought.
The neoconservatives have always believed, as their convert, President George W. Bush, so often states, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that democratic governments will be peaceful and that their interests will naturally be aligned with the United States. Thus “W” and the neocons wish to pursue peace through a policy of continual war. As to their two articles of faith set forth above, one would think that our experiences over the years with India and France, which though staunchly democratic, have opposed our interests at every turn, would have been sufficient to disabuse them of the second assumption, and a simple look in the mirror would have sufficed to disabuse them of the first.
There is, I would submit, no more democratic government on the face of the earth than the United States, and for the past hundred years there has been no nation which has been more warlike. We are the military nosy-parkers of the modern world. Count the military interventions and adventures: World War I, World War II, the Korean war, Vietnam, the first Gulf war, assorted military adventures in Panama, Grenada and Haiti, and, of course, our most recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Only in World War II, and with respect to Al Qaeda operating from Afghanistan, were we actually attacked. All the other wars and interventions were essentially conflicts of choice. During this same period, democracies such as France, Great Britain, Israel and India have merrily initiated and participated in wars of choice. So much for the theory that democracies pursue the policies and politics of peace.
But the neocons, both within and without the current administration, are not much influenced by realism or by inconvenient facts. Their ideology does not brook such mundane constraints. “Who are you going to believe,” they would say, “me or your lying eyes?” Perhaps that is why they could not anticipate the results of the recent elections in the Middle East -- democracy is not supposed to work that way, and actually they still don’t believe what they are seeing. These unsettling developments must be isolated aberrations, they think, to run so counter to their prevailing beliefs. And to fully appreciate how completely their shared ideology insulates them from practical facts and events on the ground, one need only ponder what one senior official of the Bush administration told Ron Suskind in an interview at the White House. I’ve quoted this extraordinary statement before, from Mr. Suskind’s excellent article “Without a Doubt” published in the October 27, 2004 edition of the Sunday New York Times magazine, but it bears repeating:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Well, empire or no, inconvenient facts and aspects of reality are beginning to impinge on the grand vision of democracy which “W” and the rest of his band of neocons are attempting to impose on the Middle East. They have succeeded by sheer force of military might, and some pretty strong bullying, to force democratic elections in some quarters of the Middle East, but they have been surprised and puzzled by most of the results. They shouldn’t be -- unlike the more sophisticated monarchs, dictators and assorted strongmen, the general populations of those Middle Eastern countries haven’t been educated in the West and don’t share Western values. About all they know about the United States and other Western countries (including Israel) is that they have a tendency to look down on their culture and their religion, and a proclivity for invading their countries whenever it suits their purposes.
They remember that fifty years ago France, Great Britain and Israel attacked Egypt with a view to seizing the Suez Canal until President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced them to suspend their invasion. They know for a period of over 35 years Israel has been occupying Palestinian lands and abusing the Palestinians in the occupied territories, all with only minimal protests or constraints by the United States. In just the last month, they have seen the United States, France, Great Britain and Germany declare that they would suspend financial aid to the Palestinian Authority because they didn’t like the results of its admittedly democratic election in which Hamas swept to power. Israel, which was largely responsible for Hamas’ victory by refusing to negotiate with the more moderate (and more corrupt) government of Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah party, announced that it would not negotiate with the “terrorist” Hamas government and, for good measure, would withhold the tax receipts which it had collected from the Palestinians for the day to day operations of the Palestinian Authority.
None of these actions seem calculated to win over the hearts and minds of the general populations of the Middle East or to incline them to view Western nations or Western values in a particularly favorable light. In addition to highlighting the hypocrisy of the United States and its European partners in pushing for democracy in the region and then rejecting their election results, the petulant suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority may well have the undesirable effect of pushing it into the arms of Iran which has offered to replace the withheld funding. Of all the Western nations, only Russia is attempting to maintain some ability to exert influence within the governing councils of the P.A. by taking the reasonable step of inviting the leaders of Hamas to Moscow for consultations.
Meanwhile, back in Iraq, our primary site of democratic nation-building in the region, the newly elected Shiite government is proving surprisingly immune to American and British attempts to shape it along preferred secular lines. On February 21st Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari angrily rejected pressure from both the U. S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to force that nation to shun religious sectarianism and install a government of national unity. After Ambassador Khalilzad bluntly stated that the United States had invested billions of dollars in Iraq and didn’t want to see that money going to support sectarian politics, the normally placid Mr. Jaafari shot back:
“When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘no we do not want a sectarian government’ --not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning…. We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you.”
Nevertheless, sectarian tensions have been building in Iraq for months, where bullet-ridden bodies are constantly being dumped in the streets, and Sunnis claim that executions are common place at the hands of death squads sanctioned by Mr. Jaafari’s Shiite-led government. The interior minister, Bayan Jabr, is a member of Iraq’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which ran the armed militia called the Badr Brigade. Now supposedly disbanded, the Badr Brigade has simply moved inside the Interior Ministry with its former commanders holding key posts. As recently as November, the U.S. Army raided an Interior Ministry facility in Baghdad and found 158 Sunni prisoners who were being tortured and starved.
John Pace, an Australian who until last month was the director of human rights of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, was reported by AP writer Ed Johnson as saying that the level of such executions and torture is soaring at the present time, and morgue workers are being threatened, both by the insurgents and by government-backed militias, not to properly document the circumstances and causes of violent deaths. Mr. Pace said approximately 75% of the several hundred bodies brought to the Baghdad morgue each month and classified merely as death by “gunshot wound” were “nearly all executed and tortured.” Speaking of the Badr Brigade mentioned above, Mr. Pace said “They have caused havoc. They do basically as they please. They arrest people, they torture people, they execute people, they detain people, they negotiate ransom and they do that with impunity.”
With the destruction of the sacred Shiite “Golden Mosque” in Samarra on February 22nd, and the retaliatory attacks by Shiites on over one hundred Sunni mosques in the immediate aftermath, Iraq now stands on the brink of civil war. The chaos and daily level of violence has reached such an extent that it would be hard not to argue that life, for ordinary Iraqis, was actually far better under Saddam. In a report filed by the AP’s Mr. Johnson on March 2nd, he quoted John Pace, who in connection with his U.N. post spent the better part of two years in Iraq, as saying:
“Under Saddam, if you agreed to forego your basic right to freedom of expression and thought, you were physically more or less OK. But now, no. Here, you have a primitive, chaotic situation where anybody can do anything they want to anyone.”
While conceding that the scale of atrocities under Saddam was “daunting,” Mr. Pace pointed out that now no one is safe from abuse, and the situation “is certainly as bad [as under Saddam]. It extends over a much wider section of the population than it did under Saddam.”
Truly, as the saying goes, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” The misguided foreign policy of the president of the United States has created this chaotic and terrifying situation. Without any but the most superficial understanding of the religion and culture of the Middle East, we have chosen to invade Iraq and to depose a tyrant, and, under the banner of “Freedom” replace his authoritarian government with a “democracy” of our own creation.
It is true that there was no political freedom in Iraq under Saddam Hussein -- but it is also true that under his harsh rule the typical Iraqi citizen could go about the ordinary business of living his life and raising his family in a stable environment free from random violence. Political freedom aside, Iraq under Saddam was one of the most sophisticated, secular and safe societies in the Middle East. Men, and women, were free to go to the markets, to their coffee houses, to museums, and engage in all the normal pleasures of daily life without fearing for their personal safety. In much of today’s “democratic” Iraq, the freedom to live such a normal life is just a distant memory.
Writing in the Washington Post on March 2, 2006, in a column entitled “We Can’t Force Democracy,” Robert D. Kaplan, recalling Thomas Hobbes, made a statement so refreshingly true that I never thought I would read it in a major American newspaper in our politically correct age:
“Without something or somebody to monopolize the use of force and decide right from wrong, no man is safe from another and there can be no freedom for anyone. Physical security remains the primary human freedom. And so the fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget.
“For the average person who just wants to walk the streets without being brutalized or blown up by criminal gangs, a despotic state that can protect him is more moral and far more useful than a democratic one that cannot. Monarchy was the preferred political ideal for centuries, writes the late University of Chicago scholar Marshall Hodgson, precisely because the monarch’s legitimacy -- coming as it did from God -- was seen as so beyond reproach that he could afford to be benevolent, while still monopolizing the use of force. To wit, the most modern and enlightened states in the Middle East in recent decades have tended to be those ruled by royal families whose longevity has conferred legitimacy: Morocco, Jordan, the Gulf emirates and even Egypt, if one accepts that Hosni Mubarak is merely the latest in a line of Nasserite pharaohs.”
Mr. Kaplan makes a very good point. Who among us would not prefer to live in Jordan, under the rule of the well-educated and enlightened King Abdullah, son of the respected and revered King Hussein, than take his chances with the primitive sectarian violence which is now running rampant in American occupied and nominally “democratic” Iraq?
We in America had the benefit of centuries of continually evolving parliamentary “democracy” in Great Britain before we undertook our own “republican” experiment in self-governance. Trying to plant the seeds of democracy in a region rife with religious hatred and sectarian strife, and with no experience with self-governance of any kind, is simply a bridge too far. Mr. Kaplan expresses the hope that the neoconservatives, having witnessed the disaster of their own making in Iraq, will abandon their plans for the overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and that the liberals will abandon their hope of undermining strongman Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, observing that both countries “could be Muslim Yugoslavias in the making.”
I will close this politically incorrect essay questioning the wisdom of George W. Bush’s Wilsonian dream ( I should say fantasy ) of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East by quoting a true conservative, the father, in fact, of “modern” conservative thought, Edmund Burke, writing in somewhat analogous circumstances around the time of the French Revolution:
“The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please. We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”
It is too bad that George W. Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and their fellow neoconservatives didn’t consider that sage advice from a genuine conservative before launching their liberal, Wilsonian invasion of Iraq, and forcing premature elections in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.
Perverting the Logic and Lessons of Nuremberg
When I was a college student in 1963, I infuriated a professor of German History by writing a paper which called into question the validity under international law of the counts of indictment in the Nuremberg trials which purported to make the planning for, or implementation of, aggressive war a war crime. Clearly, in 1939 the commencement of aggressive war was not regarded as a crime by large segments of the international community (as the refusal of the United States to ratify the Kellog-Briand Pact certainly demonstrated) and the whole attempt to make it one by the victors in the aftermath of World War II struck me as the worst kind of hypocrisy and ex post facto judgments after the fact. Another principle established at Nuremberg (which was not generally recognized prior to the war) was that soldiers could not rely on the defense of following orders if their military superiors demanded that they carry out what was later determined to be an illegal act.
Those two concepts of international law which seemed revolutionary and unprecedented in 1945 (and certainly were nonexistent in 1939) have come to be almost universally accepted as settled law over the past sixty years. The whole point of the UN Charter, and of the system of collective security adopted after the end of the Second World War, was to outlaw aggressive war and make it an international crime. The weakness of international law, of course, is that there is no enforcement procedure and victors are never required to account for their actions at the bar of international justice. That fact has not been lost on the high ranking officials of the Bush administration which has already commenced an aggressive war against Iraq, and pursuant to instructions from Vice President Cheney is well along with its preparations for a nuclear attack on Iran (see former CIA agent Philip Giraldi's background report in the August 1, 2005 edition of The American Conservative at page 27).
While George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other high ranking officials of the Bush administration have not hesitated to ignore the principles of international law established at Nuremberg when it suits their convenience, their uniformed military long ago took the lessons of Nuremberg, particularly the principle of not obeying an illegal order, to heart and have made them an integral part of their codes of military conduct. The rules of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice are taken quite seriously throughout the ranks of our uniformed armed forces while they are denigrated as outdated and "quaint" obstacles to progress by high-ranking civilian officials in the White House, Pentagon and Justice Department.
This reverence and respect for international law in the military, and contempt for it in the highest echelons of the Bush administration, have created an intriguing perversion of the logic and lessons of Nuremberg under which low ranking enlisted personnel are being prosecuted for carrying out illegal orders and policies while the top civilian officials and generals responsible for formulating and ordering them escape all punishment and accountability. With the exception of the initial investigation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib conducted by Major General Antonio Torguba (which because of his rank could not inquire into conduct by officers above the rank of brigadier general) every subsequent Pentagon or Army investigation into the torture polices implemented at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan has proved to be a total "whitewash."
In his report prepared in 2004, General Torguba praised a Navy canine handler, assigned to an explosives search detail, who refused to allow his dog to be used to terrify naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib as requested by intelligence personnel working at that prison. We are now treated to the information, developed during the court martial of other Abu Ghraib dog handlers at Fort Meade on July 27, 2005, that this interrogation technique (like the nakedness, like putting women's underwear over the prisoners' heads, like tying the prisoners in stressful positions for hours) was specifically authorized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a memo dated December 2, 2002 (that much had been known since late May of 2004 -- see "A Lawless Administration Reaps What It Has Sown" on the News Views page), but more specifically, that it was introduced into the Abu Ghraib prison by Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, then the commander of the prison camp at Guantanamo, in August of 2003 during an urgent visit to Abu Ghraib made to revise prisoner interrogation methods in Iraq.
As Knight Ridder's exceptional military affairs correspondent, Joseph Galloway, reported in his column "Prisoner Abuse Debate Threatens GOP," the former warden of Abu Ghraib, Major David DiNenna, testified in court martial proceedings last week, that General Miller suggested the illegal use of dogs to terrify Iraqi detainees and, most significantly, "We understood that (General Miller) was sent over by the secretary of defense."
The incongruity of the treatment of the enlisted personnel being prosecuted at Fort Meade and elsewhere (Pfc. Lynndie England at Fort Hood) and the hands-off treatment accorded General Miller and top civilians at the Pentagon who ordered the illegal practices was more than Mr. Galloway, a veteran of Vietnam, could countenance:
"In sworn testimony before Congress on May 19, 2004, Miller denied that he had ever recommended the use of dogs for interrogation at Abu Ghraib, or that they were ever used at Guantanamo. Army investigators last month reported that in fact while Miller commanded at Gitmo, an al-Qaida suspect named Mohamed Qahtani was faced with snarling dogs, forced to wear women's underwear on his head and was lead around by a dog leash attached to his chains. Sound familiar? Remember those nasty soldier photos that started all the ruckus early in 2004 at Abu Ghraib?
"And lest it escape anyone's notice: Miller was not acting on his own initiative. The investigators found that the interrogation of Qahtani was conducted under rules approved by Secretary of Defense Donald L. Rumsfeld on Dec. 2, 2002."
In its lead editorial, "The Truth About Abu Ghraib," published in the Washington Post on July 29, 2005, that newspaper writing about the same testimony at the Fort Meade court martial, said it cried out for further investigations by prosecutors and Congress:
"The White House and Pentagon have gotten away with their stonewalling largely because of Republican control of Congress. When the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted, GOP leaders such as Sen. John W. Warner (Va.) loudly vowed to get to the bottom of the matter -- but once the bottom started to come into view late last year, Mr. Warner's demands for accountability ceased. Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior officials have never been the subject of an independent investigation. A recommendation by the latest Army probe that Gen. Miller be reprimanded for his role in the Qahantani interrogation was rejected by Gen. Bantz Craddock of Southern Command."
Even a reprimand is deemed too harsh a sanction for Major General Miller who has been the principal military officer charged with implementing Secretary Rumsfeld's policies of "taking the gloves off"" and getting tough with Muslim detainees. Enlisted men, like Spc. Charles Garner, who are charged with putting those policies into practice on the ground, or in the prison cells, may go off for ten year terms of imprisonment in military prison, but the civilian policymakers in the Pentagon and the generals who give the orders implementing those policies are being protected by the administration and their allies in Congress. The disconnect has its origins in a conflict which has been brewing since the earliest days of the War on Terror between the Judge Advocate Generals, the highest uniformed lawyers in the branches of the various services, and the civilians in the Justice Department and the Pentagon.
When Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general, solicited the "torture memo" from the Justice Department's Office of the General Counsel in August of 2002, which permitted interrogators outside of the United States to inflict pain on detainees up to the point of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death," it was the Judge Advocate Generals who protested Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee's opinion as "extreme and wrong-headed," and for months fought with Secretary Rumsfeld, the Pentagon's general counsel William J. Haynes, II, and Attorney General John Ashcroft until they finally succeeded in getting the Justice Department's opinion and Secretary Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 memo (referred to above) withdrawn. The JAGs understood the damage which flouting the Geneva Conventions and the standards expected of military personnel could do to the morale, honor and esprit d' corps of the troops.
The "torture memo" had originally been solicited by the White House at the request of the CIA who wanted to give their operatives some legal protection from federal laws implementing the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but it should have been obvious from the start that the ill-reasoned opinion could not negate the standards of conduct for military personnel set forth in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Nevertheless, the rot and corruption came down from the top and began to infect the troops all the way down to the National Guard level as we have seen at Abu Ghraib. A particularly sinister and corrupting influence were the death squads, composed of Navy Seals, Delta Force, and para-military CIA personnel, which Secretary Rumsfeld authorized as Secret Access Programs (SAPs) with false identities, secret budgets, and permission to operate outside of the normal chains of command (see Seymour M. Hersh's Chain of Command, the Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, HarperCollins 2004, pages 50-51).
The degrading treatment, humiliations, and outright torture inflicted on "enemy combatants" and conquered civilians alike by the military in the Bush administration's War on Terror is shameful enough, but the numerous deaths, usually ascribed to "natural causes" of persons in military custody in both Iraq and Afghanistan is cause for real concern. In "Winning the Hearts and Minds," posted on the News Views page in June, I described the beating death of an innocent Afghan taxi cab driver in military custody at Bagram air base outside of Kabul, but for almost two years rumors have circulated about the death of an Iraqi Major General (as to whom even the Bush administration has had to concede the Geneva Conventions applied) at Qaim in Iraq during 16 days of interrogation during November of 2003 while in military custody.
The reports of the circumstances of Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush's death have undergone almost constant revision since the Army initially reported that he died of natural causes while being interrogated. The true facts are beginning to come out now that the court martial of two Army soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry charged with murder is under way at Fort Carson at Colorado Springs, Colo. The Army originally reported that General Mowhoush had been captured in a sweep of insurgents, but in fact he came to the Army's Forward Operating Base "Tiger" at Qaim in Western Iraq voluntarily on November 10, 2003 seeking information about his son who had been detained. According to a detailed account written by Josh White of the Washington Post entitled "Documents Tell of Brutal Improvisation by GIs," published on August 3, 2005, military officials were very excited by the appearance of General Mowhoush who was reputed to be an important commander of the Republican Guard and a key supporter of the insurgency.
At first the general cooperated with his interrogators, but after about a week Army officials became impatient with the lack of further progress, and according to Mr. White's article, Army officials wrote in a PowerPoint presentation on November 18, 2003 that "Previous interrogations were non-threatening. Abid (sic) was being treated very well. Not anymore. The interrogation session lasted several hours and I took the gloves off because Abid refused to play ball."
He was forced to endure a public interrogation in full view of the entire detainee population standing in stressful positions for hours while being publicly humiliated. The tactic backfired and he became less cooperative. When asked whether he could stop the insurgency if he chose to, he replied that he would now be powerless to influence it in view of his public humiliation. Three days later, on November 21, 2003, he was transferred from Qaim to a detention facility in the Iraqi desert called the Blacksmith Hotel run by Operational Detachment Alpha 531, soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group, and the CIA. The personnel wore civilian clothes and wore balaclavas to hide their identities.
There is no point in reporting the gruesome details of the beatings which General Mowhoush endured during the final five days of his life at the Blacksmith Hotel, but suffice it to say that his treatment was not in accord with the Geneva Conventions, but was in complete accordance with the SAP death squads established by Secretary Rumsfeld whose procedures, as described by an unidentified intelligence official to Seymour Hersh, were: "The rules are 'Grab who you must. Do what you want.'"
Two days before his death, General Mowhoush was repeatedly beaten by masked Special Forces and CIA personnel using fists, clubs and rubber hoses. On the morning of November 26, 2003, at 8:00 a.m. he was brought from his cell to Interrogation Room 6, "moaning and breathing hard." That morning he was to be interrogated, at least initially, by Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshoffer and guarded by Spec. Jerry L. Loper, a mechanic, rather than by the "Scorpion" team of CIA agent "Brian" and four "indigs" (indigenous Iraqis who worked with the CIA) who had beaten him on November 24th. Specialist Loper had the idea of forcing him into a sleeping bag and binding it up with electrical tape. They then commenced beating him like a pinata. At 9:06 a.m. Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer was crouching over the sleeping bag when he noticed General Mowhoush had become "unresponsive." They unzipped the bag and tried to revive him. Thirty minutes later he was pronounced dead.
The identities of the "Scorpion" team who beat General Mowhoush on November 24, 2003 have so far been kept secret as the CIA and the Secretary of Defense intended. It is extremely unlikely they will ever face charges. After all, they don't wear masks and sport civilian clothes and false identities for nothing. It was also for their benefit that Alberto Gonzales first solicited the "torture memo" from the Justice Department which concluded that it was alright to kill someone during interrogation so long as getting information rather than causing the person's death was the interrogators' "specific intent." No, the only people likely to face charges in the death of the Iraqi major general are the regular army personnel of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
The soldiers in the army are facing charges because, no matter what ill-reasoned opinions the top civilian officials in the White House, CIA and Pentagon may request from the Justice Department as an aid to their efforts in the "War on Terror," there is a standard of conduct expected of members of the United States armed forces and, no matter what fantasy world the top administration officials may live in, those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen live in the real world governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And in that real world, zipping a major general of an opposing army into a sleeping bag and beating him to death, even if his ribs had been broken by a "Scorpion" team two days earlier, isn't condoned. It doesn't seem to be consistent with our treaty obligations under the "quaint," but still unrepudiated, Geneva Conventions. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a former JAG officer himself, repeatedly tried to emphasize that point during all of the discussions and Senate hearings concerning the "torture memo."
Col. David A. Teeples, the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, testified at the court martial and, naturally, tried to defend his men on trial. Their conduct had not been as brutal as that of the "Scorpion" team, and they had just been trying to push the common interrogation objective along: "My thought was that the death of Mowhoush was brought about by [redacted] and then it was unfortunate and accidental, what had happened under an interrogation by our people."
There is probably a lot of truth in what Colonel Teeples said, and I doubt, as a practical matter, that he (as opposed to the redacted CIA personnel) had much operational control over the methods of interrogation, anymore than the scapegoated Brigadier General Barbara Karpinski had control of the interrogations going on inside Abu Ghraib, but as a full colonel in the United States Army he had to know that the interrogation and treatment of Major General Mowhoush was a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions and was unacceptable and wrong, both morally and institutionally.
The rot and the corruption, however, come down from the top and set the tone for the entire organization. The president, his White House counsel, and the Secretary of Defense, had all denigrated the Geneva Conventions repeatedly in their public statements. Everyone in the army knew that their civilizing niceties were not favored by an administration which wanted to "take the gloves off" in the War on Terror. Everyone in the army also knew that army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, was right when he told Secretary Rumsfeld and the Congress that it would take between 200,000 and 300,000 troops to successfully occupy Iraq, but that his career had ended in disgrace because he had the honesty to say so. Straight-talking candor and moral rectitude are not qualities likely to advance a military career in the Pentagon run by Donald Rumsfeld and his civilian "chicken hawks."
But to leave behind the immediate past, and the scandals of the deaths which have occurred all too frequently to persons in military custody at Abu Ghraib, or at Qaim or at the Blacksmith Hotel in Iraq, or at the Bagram air base near Kabul in Afghanistan, the question still remains what we are going to do about the future and how we want members of our armed forces to behave, and to be regarded, from this point forward. It is becoming increasingly obvious to conscientious members of Congress that we can no longer trust our president or his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to set the proper moral tone for our armed forces. Last week, as the lead editorial in the Washington Post noted on July 29th, a revolt of sorts broke out on the floor of the United States Senate:
"The only good news in this shameful story is that a group of Republican senators, though resisting justified Democratic demands for an independent investigation, are attempting to reform the policy of abuse to which the administration still adheres. Six GOP senators led by John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (SC) have backed an amendment to the defense operations bill that would exclude exceptional interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay and ban the use of 'cruel, inhumane and degrading' treatment for all prisoners held by the United States. The administration contends that detainees held abroad may be subject to such abuse. Attempts by the White House and Mr. Warner (Republican senator from Virginia and chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee) to block or gut the legislation failed, and on Tuesday the GOP leadership pulled the defense bill from the floor rather than allow a vote. The administration probably will spend the next month trying to quell this rebellion of conscience and good sense. The nation would be better served if President Bush instead accepted, at last, the truth about Abu Ghraib."
In his excellent column alluded to above, Knight Ridder's military correspondent, Joseph Galloway, described Vice President Cheney's unsuccessful attempt to browbeat the rebellious senators telling them "their law would tie President Bush's hands in the war against terrorism." But for a change, Mr. Galloway noted, the vice president's "bombast carried no weight." He then quoted the exchange on the Senate floor between administration supporter Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Senator McCain, who knows about the morality and the effectiveness of torture from personal experience:
"On the floor of the Senate, before everyone left on vacation, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., sounded the administration line: There is no need for this legislation because we are not dealing with prisoners of war but 'terrorists.'
"McCain stood up and responded that the debate was not 'about who they are. It's about who we are.' We are Americans, the senator said, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard than those who slaughter the innocent in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in London or on 9/11 here at home."
Mr. Galloway concluded his column by predicting that the light the rebellious senators were beginning to shine in the dark corners of the administration's heart of darkness might eventually reveal the crimes and immorality of persons much higher up the chain of command:
"Don't be surprised if that light finds a lot of people who rank much higher than specialist 4 or staff sergeant cowering in the corners.
"Please repeat after the good senator who knows about prisons and the torture of helpless human beings:
"This is not about who they are. This is about who we are. We are Americans and we hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct. And, no, the end does not justify the means. Not now. Not ever, when the means include torturing prisoners."
I find myself in almost total agreement with Mr. Galloway's excellent column. There is only one portion of it with which I might quarrel. In his first sentence he said "there is a quiet struggle going on in the nation's capital and the stakes are the very soul of the Republican Party and this administration." As a life-long Republican, I have been trying to make the same point about the Republican Party for the past three years -- it all depends, frankly, whether the John McCains, the Lindsey Grahams, the Chuck Hagels, the Lincoln Chafees can carry the day against the cynical politics of the Jeff Sessions, the Tom Coburns, the John Cornyns for whom it is all about winning politics at any cost, in which the successful outcome justifies any means. The jury is still out on that question.
But I fear the soul of the current administration has long since been lost. The top people in the White House, the Pentagon and the Justice Department sold their honor, their reputations, and maybe their souls to lead this nation into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq which has broken the U.S. Army both logistically and spiritually. If they actually did enter into that Faustian transaction, I wonder if the devil thinks he got the best end of the bargain? I wonder if he thinks he purchased damaged goods?
Winning the Hearts and Minds
Newsweek got it all wrong, and Amnesty International did too. The Koran (pardon the Anglicized spelling of the Arabic word I learned decades ago in school) was not flushed down a toilet by one of the guards at our prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (and that proud symbol of our military might is not a gulag as Amnesty International claims and the peoples of virtually every nation on the planet, including even our friends the Brits and the Aussies, assume). All this just goes to show how things can get blown out of proportion by the "liberal" media.
At 7:15 p.m. EDT on Friday night, June 3, 2005, right after the television news folks retired for the weekend, the Pentagon set the record straight. Brig. Gen. Jay Hood's three-week investigation revealed that the Koran was not flushed down the toilet at "Gitmo" -- the guards there merely urinated on it, kicked it, got it wet while engaging in some horseplay involving water balloons (those Arabs can't seem to take a joke) and wrote obscenities in it. As the headline on the fifth most prominent story on the front page of my Saturday morning newspaper put it, "U.S. probe finds Quran mishandled five times." There, doesn't that put everything back in proper perspective?
Shame on Newsweek for getting a detail wrong (thanks to a mistake by an anonymous Pentagon source) and reporting on the Koran abuse that The International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and any news organizations which have been paying the least bit of attention have been trying to get our government to focus on for the past three years, not just at "Gitmo," but at our prison facilities housing Islamic prisoners around the world.
The president who, like the rest of his administration, is much better at blaming the messenger than he is in correcting underlying problems, was quick to impugn Newsweek's patriotism and blame its story for the anti-American riots in Afghanistan which started around May 11th after the Koran story broke (and he did so at highly publicized news conferences, not during the deadest period of the news cycle) despite the fact that the military brass had already stated that the demonstrations in Afghanistan had been planned for sometime before the Newsweek story and were the product of unrest which had been building for a considerable time. Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, indicated much the same thing when he visited the White House this past week and asked that his government be given more say over U.S. military operations in his country and control over Afghans imprisoned by military authorities there.
Now why would a reliable puppet head-of-state come to Washington and cause trouble by making such requests? Perhaps it is because things are not going as well in Afghanistan as our administration (and our media’s preoccupation with the on-going debacle in Iraq) has led us all complacently to believe. Just this past Wednesday, June 1st, a suicide bomber killed over twenty people and injured seventy more at the funeral of a Muslim cleric who had opposed the Taliban. The same day another bomb exploded on a bridge west of Kandahar killing two and wounding five. With a force of only 19,000 Americans in Afghanistan, it is easy to appreciate how chaotic the situation could become if Al Qaeda decides to mount a full blown insurgency of the type now being experienced in Iraq.
For centuries Afghanistan has been virtually ungovernable (especially by outside, foreign interests -- the British and, more recently, the Russians could have told us that) and that is why our Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, wanted us to ignore Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and go after the easier, if unrelated, target of Saddam Hussein's Iraq instead. The CIA's former leading expert on Al Qaeda and all things Islamic, the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris, Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey's Inc. 2004), wrote last year that Hamid Karzai could survive as Afghanistan's leader only as long as United States troops remained in country to prop him up. He expressed the hope, in his insightful book, that Mr. Karzai might somehow make it out of Afghanistan alive.
In this week's edition of The New Yorker (June 6, 2005) an excellent article by Jon Lee Anderson, "The Man in the Palace," illustrates just how tenuous Mr. Karzai's position in Afghanistan is. On the first night of the rioting, May 11th, an anonymous letter was circulated in Kabul accusing him of being un-Islamic and a "U.S.A. servant" who puts the goals of the "evil master" ahead of Afghan interests, and called on the leaders of the mujahideen, the war lords of the Northern Alliance, to defy him. He is, of course, unable to control the drug trafficking, which represents the single largest factor in the country's economy, as the Americans have demanded, and his position has been terribly undercut by the mistreatment of Afghan prisoners at the hands of their U.S. jailers.
At about the same time that Newsweek was publishing its story on the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, The New York Times published the results of a State Department study describing the abuse of Afghans by American military authorities. The report gave details of the deaths of two Afghan men in custody at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. They were beaten to death by American soldiers during interrogation, and while The New Yorker article didn't go into the grisly details, The New York Times story certainly did.
One of the men, a twenty-two year old cab driver, who even his interrogators later conceded had no connection with terrorists and was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, was (in addition to his beatings) suspended for hours by his wrists handcuffed behind his back (this technique called the "Palestinian hang" is one of the contributions that our friends, the Israelis, have made to our War on Terror). When he was led into the interrogation room, his arms and legs were shaking uncontrollably. He asked for some water and his interrogators gave him a bottle, but his hands were shaking so violently that he could not undo the cap. They punched a hole in the bottom of the bottle and laughed as the water ran out all over his lap, and finally forced some water down his throat as he gagged. During his interrogation, he said he was feeling ill and asked to see a doctor. He was told that he could see a doctor after his interrogation was concluded. Four hours after the session was over, a doctor found him dead in his cell.
As Mr. Anderson observed in his excellent article in The New Yorker, the unrealistic demands of the United States' government, coupled with American abuse of Afghan citizens, is placing Mr. Karzai in an impossible political situation:
"Karzai was in the incongruous position of defending his record as a steadfast ally in the war on drugs while expressing horror at the reports of American abuse."
This type of treatment, which the CIA and The Department of Defense, defend as "taking off the gloves" in the War on Terror is, of course, known throughout Afghanistan and the Islamic world where it is practiced on Muslims as a matter of routine. We have heard a lot, of course, about the sexual hijinks of the dominatrix-like interrogators at "Gitmo," and of the National Guard personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, but we hear practically nothing about the dead Iraqi man, wrapped in plastic and packed in ice, beside whom one of the enlisted women at the prison there was photographed giving the "thumbs up" sign. Nor are we likely to.
In "Two War Criminals and the Thirteen Dwarfs" posted on the Bad Thoughts page in December, I discussed the special access programs (SAPs) established by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld composed of Navy Seals, members of the Army's Delta Force, and other paramilitary CIA personnel, who have been given secret identities and budgets outside of the normal chain of command and authorized to act as death squads. As Seymour Hersh reports in his excellent book, Chain of Command, the Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (HarperCollins 2004 at page 51) one intelligence official familiar with these special-access programs was quoted as saying:
"We're not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness. The rules are 'Grab whom you must. Do what you want.' "
Within the last two weeks a Lieutenant in the Navy Seals was acquitted of all charges in a military trial held in San Diego, California involving the beating death of a Muslim man who died in his custody. The remarkable thing is that he was charged at all. Contrast that result with the more publicized trial of the decorated Army Captain who, in a mercy killing, shot a fatally injured Iraqi upon learning that no medical personnel were available to alleviate his suffering. The Captain was reduced in rank and dismissed from the service.
The administration apparently thinks we have a perception problem, and that we are hated in the Muslim world because we are not getting our message out. President Bush has appointed his old advisor, Karen Hughes, as a special envoy to improve our image among Islamic peoples. He has given her a nearly impossible assignment. As our former CIA expert on Islamic matters pointed out in Imperial Hubris, we are hated throughout the Muslim world not because of who we are (or how we are perceived to be) but because of the things we do. It is our actions and policies which Muslims find objectionable, like our unstinting support of Israel, no matter how outrageous its actions; our occupation of a majority of Islam's most holy places; our economic control of the Muslims' oil; our support of corrupt and religiously apostate Islamic regimes; and, of course, our attacks on Iraq and (in a religious and political dynamic understood by almost no Americans) the overthrow of the Taliban who had organized the first political state based on Islamic religious principles since the fall of the Caliphate hundreds of years ago.
Needless to say, our disparagement of the Islamic faith and of its holy book, the Koran, and the confinement, abuse and torture of powerless Muslim men around the world, do not aid us significantly in "winning the hearts and minds" of peoples of the Islamic faith. It is apparently not easy to grasp the lesson which the leaders of our uniformed military are constantly emphasizing to us -- that it is not possible to conquer one-third of the world's population by military means, no matter how overwhelming our military might may be.
One would think that indisputable truth would by now have been driven home by the chaotic situation in Iraq, but for now the administration of George W. Bush still seems to cling to the notion that it can spread its democratic ideals and our western way of life throughout the Islamic world by military means and brute force. It's going to take more than Donald Rumsfeld and Karen Hughes to convert that fantasy into reality.
Delusions of Grandeur -- Fanning the All-Consuming Flame of Freedom
If the inaugural address delivered by President George W. Bush on January 20, 2005 had been given by a patient in a psychiatric ward anywhere in America, the solution would have been simple -- his doctors would merely have needed to adjust his medication to reestablish the patient’s connection with reality. Since, however, the person who delivered that meglomanic address is not just some troubled mental patient who thinks he is God’s messenger on earth, but the president of the most powerful military nation on the planet, the shock treatments necessary to restore some sense of reality may be formidable indeed, not just for the citizens of the United States but for the peoples of the entire world.
Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, President Bush proclaimed that the blessings of liberty were not merely to be nurtured here at home (indeed, in view of his administration’s policies of arresting and detaining citizens indefinitely without benefit of trial, our domestic liberties may have to be somewhat curtailed) but should be spread by force of arms to liberate oppressed peoples across the globe. If ever there was a time to reflect on Charles Lindbergh’s admonition that we should be careful in fighting for democracy abroad that we not lose it here at home, it would seem to be now when our army and marines are stretched to the breaking point trying to put down an insurgency in a third-rate country like Iraq, but “lessons learned” and unpleasant realities are not allowed to intrude on the president’s messianic vision of spreading the “untamed fire of freedom” to “the darkest corners of our world.”
Anyone who might indulge the wishful thought that Mr. Bush’s grandiose saber rattling is just rhetorical exuberance should think again. Like no man on the planet, with the possible exception of his evil twin Osama bin Laden, George Bush means what he says and says what he means. Neither he, nor bin Laden, is hard to figure out if one is simply willing to listen to what they have to say -- both are messianic zealots in the thrall of their respective fundamentalist religions and both are willing to subject the peoples of the earth to unimaginable miseries in pursuit of their abstract, visionary ideals. Both believe, if they are not quite willing to expressly declare, that they were placed on earth to do God’s bidding.
Who would have believed, in January of 2002, when President Bush delivered neoconservative David Frum’s “Axis of Evil” speech that we would actually invade Iraq? Who, in January of 2005, having heard President Bush deliver neoconservative Michael Gerson’s inaugural address can doubt that we will attack Iran? Vice President Cheney all but announced our intention to do so when he appeared on Don Imus’ radio and television show on the morning of President Bush’s inauguration.
An attentive listener could have detected the early warning signs of this new, more aggressive foreign policy in the questions to, and responses of, Condoleezza Rice in her confirmation hearings in the Senate foreign relations committee. Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), obviously concerned about our deteriorating relations with both Venezuela and Iran, asked how our relationships with both countries could be improved, and in particular asked whether our relationship with Iran could be normalized if Iran would commit to a verifiable abandonment of its nuclear program. President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of State replied that concession on Iran’s part would not be sufficient because Iran’s ruling clerics would still constitute a tyrannical, undemocratic government which oppresses its people. Just a few days later, at his inaugural, President Bush made explicit what her response to Senator Chafee had implied -- the war on terror (originally conceived to be a response to the 9/11 attack on America) was to be expanded to a war on tyranny to spread our democratic form of government to “the darkest corners of our world.”
Now, even for an administration which disdains the constraints of reality, this messianic policy will have some limitations. One cannot imagine, for instance, it being applied to the tyrannical rulers of communist China. All that repressive regime would have to do to bring our extraordinarily debt-burdened nation to its knees would be to fail to show up at our next Treasury auction. No, we are unlikely in the near-term to address “tyrannical” governments in North Korea, or even in our own hemisphere like Cuba or Venezuela, -- they will have to wait their turn for the blessings of our democracy.
The new breed of Jacobins, the neoconservatives, whose half-baked philosophy the president now espouses, are interested only in the Middle East where they see the spreading of chaos and the overthrow of established governments as somehow benefiting their favored state of Israel. Stripped of its noble and high sounding rhetoric, the flame of freedom is intended to consume only the governments and societies of the Muslim world. This is, as it always was, a religious crusade in democratic trappings.
Amazingly enough, the first hints of the president’s adoption of this neoconservative agenda calling for the democratization of the Middle East appeared in his commencement address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in June of 2002 when he first introduced the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive military attack. At the time, I could hardly credit his call for democracy in the Middle East because it made so little strategic sense for the United States’ interests in the region. Writing about one of the themes of that speech (that democracies would inevitably feel a rapport with the United States), I almost doubted that I had correctly understood its import stating (in “Incompetence at Home, Insanity Abroad” posted in June, 2002 on the Bad Thoughts page):
But enough about the benefits of democracy on the Indian sub-continent, lets get down to the real point of the president’s West Point speech, the democratization of our most important ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Bring on the vote, kick out the pro-western Saudi royal family, and let’s see how much the Arab street really loves us! It worked so well when President Carter persuaded the Shah of Iran that he was too autocratic and he should seek early retirement.
Democratization of the Middle East made so little sense, I could hardly believe that I had understood the president’s remarks correctly. Surely, he preferred the more moderate monarchs of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and our other friends in the region to the virulently anti-American attitudes of their populations. Not so, apparently -- even then he was drinking the Kool-Aid poured out by his neoconservative advisors. If there was any doubt on that point, it has been cleared up by his inaugural address of January 20, 2005.
The unique aspect of the Bush administration which never fails to astound, if not amuse and entertain, is the amazing extent to which the constraints of reality are never allowed to impinge on its blustery rhetoric. Here is the president of a nation which is unable to control and pacify even the four mile stretch of highway leading from downtown Baghdad to its airport, whose Army Reserves and National Guard forces are stretched to the breaking point attempting to quell an insurgency in Iraq, who proclaims to the oppressed peoples across the world:
“Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:
“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
Talk about “W” in Wonderland! Someone should explain to our delusional 43rd president that the bumper sticker “Bush/Cheney ’04: Making the world a better place, one country at a time!” was a joke, not a statement of foreign policy. He and his Secretary of Defense have strenuously resisted a permanent increase in the size of the Army, or even increasing the hopelessly small force currently trying to deal with the exploding insurgency in Iraq, but he wants us to undertake new invasions and rounds of nation-building around the world! Where are the “liberators” (occupiers/nation-builders) going to come from?
If President Bush’s second inaugural address demonstrates anything, it is how tight the circle of advisors around the president has become. There was no one around him, apparently, who dared tell him how ridiculous his speech was. Condoleezza Rice had just testified in her Senate confirmation hearings that “the time for diplomacy is now,” and yet she allowed him to deliver that speech!
The moderates and pragmatists are all gone. Now, only the true believers who drink the same spiked, neoconservative cocktail are allowed access to the president. There was no Colin Powell around to explain to the president how his incendiary remarks would be received by our friends and allies around the world. That “bold and visionary” statement of policy didn’t last out the week. By January 25th, administration spokesmen were having to explain abroad that lifting the yoke of oppression didn’t apply to the rulers of Russia and communist China. Those necessary concessions to reality just served to point out how silly and hypocritical the whole bombastic, neoconservative credo of overthrowing governments and “spreading-democracy-at-the-point-of-a-gun” is. George Washington and the rest of our founding fathers must have been turning over in their graves. Current-day realists like Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker could only shake their heads in dismay.
But the president’s fur-coated, cowboy-booted, and Stetson-wearing supporters who whooped and stomped at every soaring line of his speech shouldn’t get too discouraged. This is still an administration determinedly floating in the intoxicating mists of unreality. Concessions to reality will be held to the absolute minimum. As Ron Suskind, describing a discussion with a top White House aide who was displeased by one of his articles, related in his excellent article “Without a Doubt,” published in the October 27, 2004 issue of the Sunday New York Times magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Well, that may be, but before undertaking too ambitious an agenda of worldwide reform and redress, today’s group of “history’s actors,” the hubristic neoconservatives, might take a brief look back at how their ideological predecessors, the Jacobins, fared in their attempt to spread the true religion of “liberte, egalite and fraternite” throughout a skeptical world. First, Robespierre, the zealous guardian of the ideals of the French Revolution, had to make sure that they would burn with the all-consuming, blue flame of the true-believers by executing during The Terror thousands of innocent patriots, politicians, and finally everyday citizens such as shopkeepers, weavers, clock-makers, and domestic servants who somehow fell short of his view of the revolutionary ideal. Then, it fell to Napoleon to spread the benefits of the Revolution throughout Europe by armed conquest for a period of approximately twenty years until his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The ambitious agenda of France, then the most powerful military nation on the face of the earth, to spread the ideals of its revolution throughout Europe by force of arms finally exhausted that nation financially, physically and spiritually. It is a point worth noting that, since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, France has never again won another war on its own. Sometimes the flame of liberty and democracy not only “warms those who feel its power” but burns those who recklessly, and without prudent regard for the consequences of their actions, ignite it.
George W. Bush has pledged that the United States will seek out and root out tyrannical rulers around the world. Since the neoconservatives who espouse this hubristic agenda are concerned mainly with the security of Israel, we can anticipate that its practical application will be confined principally to Muslim rulers, and particularly to those located in the Middle East.
But perhaps the extirpation of tyranny, like the practice of charity, should begin at home. If he were capable of introspection, perhaps Mr. Bush should examine the policies of his administration which have led this nation to torture, arrest and detention without trial, the rendition of captured prisoners of war against whom there is no evidence to life imprisonment abroad, and finally to that most ignoble symbol of oppression, our prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Unless we are to lose our national character and soul, the search for “freedom” should not be neglected here at home. With apologies to Pogo and Walt Kelly, we have met the tyrants and they are us -- no matter how much high-flown rhetoric may issue forth from the inaugural reviewing stand.
A Lawless Administration Reaps What It Has Sown
A couple of months ago, when the photographs of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad first began appearing in newspapers, President Bush and Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, professed to be shocked and disgusted by what they had seen. They shouldn’t have been, of course -- any student of history knows that occupiers inevitably turn to torture to get information out of the hostile populations who resent their presence.
It was true of the Nazis in France, the French in Algeria, and it is true today of the Israelis occupying Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza. Torture has always been a cornerstone of Israeli security policy, and it was only natural that the high-ranking civilian officials in the Department of Defense with their close ties to the Likud Party (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith) would want to follow Israel’s example.
The problem, of course, was that we Americans not only regarded torture as morally reprehensible -- we actually had laws prohibiting it. So, the “best” legal minds in the Bush administration were assigned the project of getting around them. That would prove no difficulty for the “can do” legal denizens of the Bush administration’s deep. After all, they had already come up with justifications for preemptive war, aggression in violation of the UN charter and international law, and disregarding the Geneva Conventions which White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, had described as outdated and “quaint”.
The president, himself, kicked off the project of legal revisionism and redefinition by declaring on February 7, 2002, that we needed “new thinking in the law of war”, invoking the mantra that everything changed on 9/11. Yesterday, in the wake of the partial disclosure of 256 pages of memos and legal opinions justifying the use of torture, he claimed “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture.” A cursory reading of the memos and opinions reveal that that statement is only partially (or semantically) true. His legal advisers in the White House, Justice Department, and Department of Defense simply redefined torture to exclude any infliction of pain short of “death or organ failure”, and even that might be permissible provided that the primary purpose of the prisoner’s mistreatment was to obtain information rather than to cause pain.
Over twenty prisoners have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of them an Iraqi major general as to whom even the administration concedes the Geneva Conventions apply. He died after repeated “blunt force trauma” to the chest. Apparently, his interrogators were seeking more information than his name, rank and serial number. Most of these deaths have been swept under the rug as having occurred as a result of natural causes, but the Army has had the honesty to designate two or three as “homicides”. None, however, have resulted in the filing of criminal charges, and that was as intended.
The whole purpose of the legal memoranda issuing forth out of the Justice Department and the Department of Defense was to assure interrogators that they would not face criminal prosecution under applicable United States law for utilizing torture in the “War on Terror”. The rationale, apparently, was that our enemies didn’t feel constrained by the norms of civilized behavior and neither should we. The seminal document in the Bush administration’s decision to liberalize the use of torture in interrogations was the fifty page opinion dated August 1, 2002, prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of General Counsel entitled “Memorandum to Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President.” The whole document is a “how to” instructional guide spelling out the ways to safely torture prisoners without running afoul of criminal prohibitions, but just reading the opening paragraph conveys the gist of its message:
“You have asked for our Office’s views regarding the standards of conduct under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment as implemented by Sections 2340-2340A of title 18 of the United States Code. As we understand it, this question has arisen in the context of the conduct of interrogations outside of the United States. We conclude below that Section 2340A proscribes acts inflicting, and that are specifically intended to inflict, severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical. Those acts must be of an extreme nature to rise to the level of torture within the meaning of Section 2340A and the Convention. We further conclude that certain acts may be cruel, inhumane, or degrading, but still not produce pain or suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within Section 2340A’s proscription against torture. We conclude by examining possible defenses that would negate any claim that certain interrogation methods violate the statute.”
The first several paragraphs of the opinion make clear the author’s view that the Convention and the U.S. statute implementing it call for criminal penalties only with respect to “the most egregious conduct” and not merely for “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” Perhaps the National Guardsmen currently facing charges for the abuses at Abu Ghraib should attempt to retain the opinion’s author as their defense counsel, provided he is able to get time off from his new position as a federal appellate judge for the Ninth Circuit.
The author, now Judge Bybee, also expressed his doubt as to whether the Convention and implementing statute were constitutional at all as applied to interrogations of enemy combatants pursuant to the president’s powers as Commander-in-Chief. “We find that in the circumstances of the current war against al Qaeda and its allies, prosecution under Section 2340A may be barred because enforcement of the statute would represent an unconstitutional infringement of the President’s authority to conduct war.” Well, so do the Geneva Conventions and all the other rules pertaining to the civilized conduct of war, but no president prior to George W. Bush has seen fit to dispense with them.
Then Assistant Attorney General Bybee’s principal method of getting around the law’s prohibition against torture, however, was based on the statute’s requirement for “specific intent”. An interrogator would not be guilty of committing torture unless he inflicted severe pain and suffering with “specific intent”. Merely knowing that he was inflicting such severe pain was not enough -- “the infliction of such pain must be the defendant’s precise objective.” Thus, if the interrogator’s precise intent was to elicit information, and the prisoner just happened to die in the process of attempting to obtain that information, even though the interrogator understood that his methods might well cause death, the statute would not have been violated. “If the defendant acted knowing that severe pain or suffering was reasonably likely to result from his actions, but no more, he would have acted only with general intent.” Even certain knowledge that death would result would be insufficient to violate the statute, Mr. Bybee explained, citing a Supreme Court case on homicide: “the …common law of homicide distinguishes…between a person who knows that another person will be killed as a result of his conduct and a person who acts with the specific purpose of taking another’s life.”
A word of warning: don’t try this at home; this defense wouldn’t work for you or me. You have to remember the over-arching rule of federal law -- “Being a Fed is never having to say you’re sorry.”
Needless to say, the Department of Defense took Mr. Bybee’s opinion and ran with it. In 2003, the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes II, made it the basis of that department’s whole approach to interrogation and torture. Moreover, according to an article published in the internet edition of the Washington Post on June 24, 2004, written by Dana Priest and Bradley Graham entitled “U.S. Struggled Over How Far to Push Tactics”, he did so over the vehement objections of the top uniformed lawyers (the Judge Advocate Generals) of every branch of the military service “who found the legal judgments to be extreme and wrong-headed”. As has usually been the case, not just in this matter but in the entire conduct of the Iraq war, the generals were in substantial disagreement with the civilians running the Defense Department, and the Judge Advocates even went so far as to express their misgivings to a distinguished committee of the Bar Association of the City of New York. That is doubtless how these memoranda began to become publicly known.
When Attorney General John Ashcroft was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the legal opinions providing justification for the abuses in Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan, and at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq, he refused to make his department’s opinion available to the senators, despite the fact that a copy had already been obtained and published by the Washington Post. He did so not on the basis of any claim of executive privilege or statute exempting disclosure, but, consistent with this administration’s penchant for secrecy, on the president’s need to receive confidential advice. This so infuriated a number of the senators attempting to exercise their oversight responsibilities that Joe Biden warned Mr. Ashcroft that he was flirting with contempt of Congress.
The most dramatic moment of the hearing, however, came when Mr. Biden glared at Mr. Ashcroft and began slowly to explain to the attorney general in words of very few syllables, and with great emphasis as one would in making a point to an idiot child, that the reason that the United States signed the Geneva Conventions was to protect our own soldiers, so they would not be tortured when they were captured. It was a point which members of our uniformed military, but not the top civilian officials at the Pentagon who for the most part have never served, could readily understand.
It would seem to be an easy concept to grasp, but from the beginning of their tenure the members of the Bush administration have taken the position that rules are for other people, but not for themselves. Secretary Rumsfeld’s draft of the procedures for the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, which would have permitted death sentences without any judicial review except for administrative appeals within his own department, is a case in point. The members of the Bush administration are too convinced of their own rectitude to abide the constraints of law. These “true believers” regard themselves as infallible -- the rules of law are for mere mortals.
That point is forcefully driven home in the concluding paragraph of an excellent editorial entitled “Legalizing Torture” published in the June 9, 2004, edition of the Washington Post:
“Perhaps the president’s lawyers have no interest in the global impact of their policies -- but they should be concerned about the treatment of American servicemen and civilians in foreign countries. Before the Bush administration took office, the Army’s interrogation procedures -- which were unclassified -- established this simple and sensible test: No technique should be used that, if used by an enemy on an American, would be regarded as a violation of U.S. or international law. Now, imagine that a hostile government were to force an American to take drugs or endure severe mental stress that fell just short of producing irreversible damage; or pain a little milder than that of ‘organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’ What if the foreign interrogator of an American ‘knows that severe pain will result from his actions’ but proceeds because causing such pain is not his main objective? What if a foreign leader were to decide that the torture of an American was needed to protect his country’s security? Would Americans regard that as legal, or morally acceptable? According to the Bush administration, they should.”
The pressure of the presidential election, the confrontations of the hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the undeniable logic of editorials such as the one quoted just above, have finally brought such heat on the administration that it has overcome its paranoid obsession with secrecy and declassified some (but by no means all) of its policies regarding torture.
But for the honor and integrity of the members of our uniformed military, both enlisted members and officers, we never would have learned about any of this. The president and the Secretary of Defense had known of the abuses at Abu Ghraib for months before the scandal was thrust upon the public’s consciousness by the publication of the photographs. No report, no matter how closely guarded, would have come into existence without the courageous action of a member of the National Guard who couldn’t live with the actions of his superiors anymore. Major General Antonio Torguba’s report describes the case of a Navy canine handler, assigned to an explosives search detail, who refused to permit his dog to be used to intimidate prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The first abuses at Guantanamo came to light because naval personnel complained that interrogation techniques being employed there were morally repugnant and probably illegal.
But to return to the shock and disgust supposedly registered by the president and his Secretary of Defense upon first seeing the photographs of naked, hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib being threatened by dogs, one of the declassified documents just released has shed a little light on that too. On December 2, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld approved interrogation procedures calling for stripping prisoners naked, hooding them for prolonged periods of time, threatening them with dogs, and causing them to stand for hours in stressful positions. His only question was why they were not being required to stand in those positions for longer periods of time.
So, what was the source of Secretary Rumsfeld’s disgust -- the practices or the fact that they had been made public? Or was his disgust triggered by the sexual poses and the human pyramid of naked bodies? Before leaping to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, you ought to consider one under-reported fact. In the 1970’s an Israeli who was a professor at Princeton University wrote a paper on the subject of the sexual taboos of Arab males. He concluded that the best way to break down Arab men was through their reticence about all things sexual.
I doubt that the National Guard personnel at Abu Ghraib had read that paper or had come to identical conclusions on their own. But I would be willing to bet that the Likudniks staffing the top civilian posts at the Department of Defense had either read that paper, or at least had heard about it. I’ll bet they passed the information along to their boss.
This Is Not Your Father’s Republican Party
In the latter part of the 1990s, General Motors came up with an advertising slogan for their Oldsmobile Division which was supposed to appeal to a younger, more “hip” segment of the automobile buying public. Perhaps you remember it: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile!” For anyone with a sense of historical perspective and even a cursory familiarity with the culture of the automobile industry, the slogan had a poignant, if ironic, ring of truth. The Oldsmobile of the late ‘90s had become a mere colorless shadow of the car and automotive name plate which had inspired generations of buyers to near cult-like loyalty.
For decades, the name Oldsmobile was associated with technological innovation and the very best engineering which General Motors had to offer. Buicks might have more style, and Cadillacs might confer more status or prestige, but for dedicated “car people” only Oldsmobiles afforded the cutting edge technology and engineering excellence which serious automotive aficionados demanded. And so they bought Oldsmobiles (and only Oldsmobiles) model after model, year after year, generation after generation: great-grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers and sons -- until the early ‘80s when this most loyal group of consumers discovered, to their horror, that General Motors (in an ill-advised move to promote cost-cutting and government mandated fuel efficiency standards) had begun putting Chevrolet engines in their beloved Oldsmobiles!
A flurry of lawsuits from the faithful followed, but monetary damages could not assuage the hurt or lessen the sense of betrayal -- their beloved Oldsmobiles had lost their distinctive character and suddenly were no different from Chevrolets, Pontiacs or Buicks. It took only two decades more for this once proud automotive name to disappear completely. Oldsmobiles are no longer made.
I think I know how those loyal Oldsmobile buyers must have felt. I am nearly 62 years old, the son and grandson of Republicans. I have been a Republican all of my life, but I cannot discern any Republican principles in evidence in the administration of George W. Bush.
Only the Republican Party label ties his administration to Republican administrations of the past. Even the party’s nick-name is now eschewed. A little over a year ago, the neoconservative editors of The Wall Street Journal decreed that the term “G.O.P.” henceforth would be banned from their paper. The rationale was that those initials no longer had any meaning for younger readers or voters, and perhaps it is just as well that the old nick-name has disappeared -- certainly no adherents of the Grand Old Party could identify with the policies of the current administration which is run by men and women whose formative years were spent in, and whose political philosophies were derived from, the Democratic Party. George W. Bush has slipped an engine designed by Woodrow Wilson into what was advertised as a Republican vehicle.
Before you dismiss this unorthodox assertion out of hand, consider the policies of the current administration and contrast them with traditional Republican principles in the following areas:
Foreign Policy. For most of the 20th century, the Republican view of the best approach to relationships with our fellow nation-states was reflected in the statement attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.” Republicans believed in a strong military, but they did not believe in an interventionist foreign policy, and they did not believe in the indiscriminate use of American military force abroad. Over the course of the past century, it was Democratic presidents who got us involved in foreign wars, and by and large it was Republican presidents who managed to extricate us from the more disastrous of those military adventures.
Prior to our intervention in World War I, Woodrow Wilson campaigned for president promising to keep us out of that European war being waged between democratic republics and benevolent constitutional monarchies. Simply put, we had no dog in that fight and no strategic national interest in the outcome. But, breaking his campaign promises, Woodrow Wilson led us into war on the side of the Allies for ideological reasons -- to “make the world safe for democracy” -- and as a result tipped the balance in a war nearing stalemate and a negotiated truce, and made possible the punitive Treaty of Versailles which led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Far from making the world safe for democracy, our Democratic president and academic ideologue set the stage for fascism and Soviet-style communism, the effects of which were to plague Europe and the world for the better part of the 20th century.
When Woodrow Wilson’s misguided idealism led inevitably to the start of World War II in 1939, a mere twenty years after the Treaty of Versailles, another Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also promised the American public that he would try to keep us out of that conflict while pursuing policies which would almost certainly lead to our involvement. By choking off most supplies of oil to the Empire of Japan, F.D.R. managed to provoke the Japanese into attacking us in the Pacific and our involvement in World War II was assured. Most historians approve of F.D.R.’s results in that respect, if not his methods, but, again, the winning of the war was followed by a disastrous loss of the peace. F.D.R. and most of the Democrats in his foreign policy establishment took a generally benevolent view of Joseph Stalin and our “ally” the Soviet Union, and generations of peoples were handed over to communist tyranny in Central Europe and in Asia by the arrangements made at Yalta.
Democratic president Harry Truman got us involved in war on the Korean peninsula, and then interfered so much with its military conduct that it bogged down into a “no-win” stalemate. It fell to Republican president, and former general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to negotiate the truce ending the Korean War, and to bring most of our troops home, after his election in 1952.
Democratic icon John F. Kennedy first inserted 600 military advisors, and then 15,000 or so members of the special forces, into South Vietnam simply to demonstrate that he was “tough on communism” prior to his contemplated campaign for reelection in 1964, but full credit for our involvement in the war in Vietnam must go to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Had President Kennedy lived to run for reelection in 1964, I doubt we would have gotten so deeply involved in the Vietnam war because he had too much intelligence and too much sense of perspective to let it go that far.
After Mr. Kennedy’s assassination, however, President Johnson began to associate the nationalistic movement in Vietnam as a personal challenge to his manhood (“I’m not going to preside over another damned Dien Bien Phu,” he said). Having somehow persuaded the American public in the presidential election of 1964 that Barry Goldwater was a dangerous warmonger, while he was a man of peace, President Johnson managed to extract the Gulf of Tonkin resolution from Congress based on a trumped up (some would say nonexistent) set of facts, and the war was on. Like President Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson tried to micro-manage the conduct of the war rather than letting his generals take the politically unpopular steps necessary to win it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Republican president Richard M. Nixon, and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, eventually managed to extricate our troops from Vietnam, and after a horrific and unnecessary loss of life on both sides, the most humiliating war in our history was over.
Of the five major wars fought by the United States during the 20th century, only one was entered into by a Republican administration. George H. W. Bush fought the Gulf War in 1990 for strategic, rather than ideological, reasons after Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia and the world’s oil supplies. President Bush, and his brilliant Secretary of State, James Baker, organized a truly international coalition of Western and Arabic nations which expelled Iraq’s forces from Kuwait in a masterful and swift military campaign and successfully completed its limited mission with a minimum of casualties.
President Bush was urged by some to continue the war and pursue the Iraqi forces back to Baghdad and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, but he declined to do so because that was beyond the scope of his coalition’s mission, and more significantly because he understood (with a wisdom which has completely eluded his son, our 43rd president) that such an act would enrage our Arab allies and create a power vacuum and the fertile soil for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism which our current war against Iraq has, in fact, created.
With all of this as prologue, what are we to conclude about the presence of, or absence of, Republican principles in the foreign policy of the administration of George W. Bush, our 43rd president? At the outset, it would be appropriate to acknowledge that this administration’s foreign policy has not been formulated in any meaningful way by its Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who from the beginning has been the “odd man out” in the Bush administration. His advice has consistently been disregarded by the president and the other members of his foreign policy team, and Mr. Powell has been turned to only when our nation’s actions have appeared so outrageous or arrogant that it has been necessary to placate foreign governments or international organizations.
No. The State Department has had almost no role in formulating the foreign policy of George W. Bush’s administration. Had it been given more of a role, perhaps we would not now be so isolated from our traditional allies and so disparaged and detested on the world stage. This administration’s foreign policy has been formulated by a cabal comprised of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Condoleezza Rice. On occasions, the president himself has been permitted to sit in on the discussions.
The significant fact is that the majority of these people have not grown up in the Republican Party, and they share none of the G.O.P.’s traditional reticence about interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. With the exception of Cheney and Rumsfeld, they are ex-Democrats, and they all fervently believe in the Wilsonian doctrine of imposing American values and the American economic system throughout the world by military force. Moreover, Messrs. Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith hold an emotional attachment to the State of Israel which is at least as strong as the one they feel for the United States. There is not a pragmatist among them -- they all share the missionary zeal of the “true believers”. They are ideologues all.
When George W. Bush was running for president he gave an address on foreign policy issues at the Reagan Library that made him sound just like Teddy Roosevelt. We would maintain a strong national defense, but we would always show respect for the customs, practices and beliefs of other nations and other cultures, even those very different from our own. Above all, his administration would eschew the meddling, interventionist practices of “nation building” which had so characterized the foreign policy of the Clinton administration. I was delighted to hear him say so. I could not have asked for a more practical and down-to-earth statement of Republican principles. And so things proceeded for the first few months of his administration, and then the planes flew into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon and everything changed.
As of this writing, two years to the day removed from September 11, 2001, we have commenced two wars since “9/11”, one in Afghanistan for which we had widespread international support, and one against Iraq for which we had virtually none. We are also engaged in a “War Against Terror” which is not a real war but a rhetorical one, whipped up for domestic political consumption. Real wars are fought against other nations, ruled by governments, which hopefully can surrender or negotiate a truce or peace treaty.
Our “War Against Terror” is actually a series of police investigations and initiatives undertaken in concert with our friends, and former friends (a much more sizeable contingent), around the world. Our former friends in Europe, France and Germany (“old Europe” as our Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, likes to call them), for example have provided invaluable assistance in flushing out the terrorists and disabling the terrorist networks located in their countries. So too have Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other countries which the neoconservative supporters of the Bush administration, both within and without the government, take pleasure in disparaging on a daily basis because they did not agree with our decision to wage an unprecedented, and unprovoked, war of aggression against the sovereign nation of Iraq.
Actually, those various nations which our sophomoric governmental officials and media pundits take such delight in denigrating have obtained a great many more criminal convictions (the terrorists actually are criminals, not warriors) than has John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. Two years after “9/11” our Justice Department has not obtained a single felony conviction of a terrorist by going to trial (as opposed to plea bargains), whereas Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have handed down numerous death sentences to convicted terrorists, and Germany, which like virtually all Western countries other than our own does not employ the death penalty, has sentenced several terrorists to lengthy prison terms.
But to leave the field of criminal law (however designated) and return to the consideration of Republican principles, or lack thereof, inherent in the Bush administration’s foreign policy justifications for its wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, we can easily conclude that the war against the Taliban (who, after warning, refused to surrender their Al Qaeda “guests” who had used Afghanistan as a staging ground to attack the United States) met all the criteria of a just war, both under modern international law as reflected by the United Nations charter and under Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of walking softly and carrying a big stick. The whole point of the stick is to swing it at someone who has taken a swat at you.
Unfortunately, after a fairly successful military operation in Afghanistan, we became distracted by our war in Iraq, and with only about 9,000 United States troops left in the country, the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements are beginning to reestablish themselves in the rural areas. Only the capital of Kabul remains under coalition control, courtesy of the N.A.T.O. peacekeepers provided by Germany (“old Europe” seems a bit newer where Afghanistan is concerned), but the old warlords again control most of the country just as they did before our intervention. The United States is discovering that Afghanistan is a difficult area to control, just as the Russians and the British learned before us.
The second Gulf War against Iraq, however, could not be justified under any traditional rationale of international law or under any principles of foreign relations ever espoused by the Republican Party. The stated foreign policy justification for that unprecedented attack on another country can be found only in The National Security Strategy of the United States written by national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and published as the official statement of our nation’s foreign policy in September of 2002. It would be hard to imagine a statement of policy more at variance with the speech which candidate George Bush delivered at the Reagan Library in his year 2000 presidential campaign. It took her 33 pages to express the Bush administration’s policy of preemptive war (the germ of which originated with Paul Wolfowitz in the first Bush administration, but was emphatically rejected by our 41st president as unacceptably arrogant) but I can characterize it in just three words -- Unilateral, Arrogant, Uninformed.
Basically, our new post “9/11” security strategy provides that the United States will take preventive action to insure that no foreign nation can hope to attain military parity with us, and we will make a preemptive first strike against any nation whom we suspect has weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) and might be inclined to use them against us. For a president like George W. Bush who likes to speak in the lingo of the Old West, this “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to foreign policy has a simplistic appeal, and furthermore it can be used as a justification to attack any nation whom we wish. We merely have to form a suspicion that some nation is hostile to us to justify an attack. If it turns out in retrospect that our intelligence was wrong and they didn’t have WMDs or weren’t a threat to us (as now plainly appears to have been the case with Iraq) it was just our mistake -- sorry, we acted on what seemed to be the best intelligence available at the time.
In any event, if we want to attack some nation, chances are that they are a bad bunch anyway. After all, who is sorry that Saddam Hussein is gone? Well, who besides the Iraqis who no longer have electricity, clean drinking water, even minimal security from lawless elements, jobs or the means of earning a living, or the prospects that they will have any of the above at anytime in the foreseeable future? Also, the American soldiers who are being shot at and killed on a daily basis while occupying an increasingly hostile country aren’t too happy about the situation, nor will the American taxpayers be when they get the bill for an occupation which is running about one billion dollars a week -- just about the same cost per week, incidentally, as our adventure in Vietnam. At least we didn’t have to rebuild Vietnam, because we lost that war.
The next nation whom we should attack under the criteria set forth in The National Security Strategy of the United States is North Korea. They meet all of the tests: We don’t have to wonder if they have WMDs -- they are pleased and proud to announce that they do, and that they intend to test fire an atomic bomb in the very near future. They are manufacturing one new atomic bomb each month and they have the long range intercontinental missiles necessary to deliver them to our cities on the West Coast. Moreover, as if the isolated, paranoid leaders of that lone remaining Stalinist state needed any more incentive to do us harm, we included them as a charter member of the three nation “Axis of Evil” whom we intend to attack and destroy. One (Iraq) down, North Korea and Iran to go!
The trouble is, however, that we are in no position to fight another war anywhere, even if the nation under consideration, unlike Iraq, really does constitute a real and present danger to the security of the United States. We already have 130,000 troops tied down in Iraq which is not nearly enough to do the job of occupying that country, and we can’t even afford to pay the costs of maintaining them. Already we are pleading for financial assistance and passing the tin cup around among the nations whom we belittled and sneered at because they were opposed to our invasion of Iraq -- Hey, you cheese eating surrender monkeys and German peaceniks, we could use a little financial help over here!
It is now becoming obvious even to our 43rd president that he was led down the primrose path by his neoconservative officials in the Pentagon and in the national security advisor’s office. The only group of people who performed well in Iraq were our uniformed military personnel. General Tommy Franks and his ground commanders did a brilliant job of formulating and executing an exceptional invasion plan. The high ranking civilian employees of the Defense Department and the national security establishments, however, could not have been more poorly prepared for what they found in post-war Iraq. They must have started to believe all of their own propaganda about bringing the benefits of democracy to the Arab world and making the Mideast a safer place for Israel. If they knew any history, they should have realized that even an oppressed people do not enjoy being occupied by a conquering army, especially by one whose culture is so different than their own. It does not help matters much when the conquerors are too inept or too cheap even to restore basic services or to provide a modicum of security.
Just as our former president, George H. W. Bush, knew it would, the removal and overthrow of Saddam Hussein has created a power vacuum in Iraq into which have been sucked every radical Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist in the Middle East who wishes to do America harm. Contrary to the assertions of the “War Party” in the inner circles of the second Bush administration, Al Qaeda was not present in Iraq in any meaningful way while the country was being governed by their secular nemesis, Saddam Hussein, but they have certainly made their presence felt during the American occupation, blowing up buildings and killing diplomats, soldiers and moderate clerics by the hundreds. The whole situation in Iraq is in danger of coming completely unraveled and degenerating into chaos. Our 41st president, unlike his son, was wise enough to know that sometime the devil you know is preferable to the unknown.
No one in the this administration ever admits making a mistake, especially not the president himself, but it was refreshing to note a small hint of the humility which candidate George Bush had promised at the Reagan Library when President George Bush addressed the nation and, more significantly, the international community the other night in appealing for peacekeeping troops and pledges of financial aid in the rebuilding of Iraq. It is too bad that we did not hear a little more of that tone in the run-up to war last fall and winter -- perhaps we wouldn’t have found ourselves in the present mess of our own making.
Nevertheless, the change in tone was encouraging. Perhaps George W. Bush is beginning to realize that the humility and strength of Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy produces more positive results than the ideologically driven policies of the Wilsonian Democrats who now staff his defense and foreign policy establishments.
Limited Government and Fiscal Responsibility: Although the concepts of limited government and fiscal responsibility are actually separate and distinct traditional Republican virtues, in practice they have been flip sides of the same coin. Accordingly, they will be discussed together here.
While it is technically possible for an administration to favor a burgeoning federal bureaucracy insinuating itself into every facet of American life and still cling to a policy of fiscal responsibility, there has never been an historical instance in which the growth of government has been accompanied by fiscal discipline. The reason, of course, is that “big government” is terribly expensive and its proponents do not have the courage to ask the taxpayers to pay for it on a “pay as you go basis”. That is why “big government” always goes hand in hand with big deficits.
Imagine, if you will, the response of the American people, and of the Congress, if President Bush had leveled with them prior to the start of the war in Iraq about its costs. Had he admitted (as his administration plainly knew to be the case) that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the security of the United States, but that he wished to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein so as to undertake an experiment in democracy in that Muslim country, and further had told them that the cost would be about 45 billion dollars for the war itself and an additional 87 billion dollars for the first full year of occupation, what chance would there have been that the American citizenry or their elected representatives would have given our 43rd president the go ahead for his elective war? What chance, particularly, if he asked them to pony up the total 132 billion dollar first year cost in current funds through higher taxes?
Like most Democratic presidents before him, George W. Bush wants what he wants when he wants it. Despite the costs (probably around 600 billion dollars before we are finally able to extricate ourselves from Iraq), he wanted his war with Iraq very badly, but unlike the “tax and spend” Democratic administrations before him, he did not want to raise taxes to pay for it. A penchant for cutting taxes, in fact, is the only Republican characteristic which his administration shares with traditional Republican thought. Traditional Republicans recognize, of course, that the trade-off for lower taxes is smaller and less expensive (and less intrusive) government.
It is a trade-off which they, but not the administration of George W. Bush, are more than willing to make. For “W” there will be no choice between “guns and butter”. He will have his wars, his tax cuts, his huge domestic spending programs for education, Medicare expansion, homeland security and criminal justice, and simply pass the costs along to future generations.
When Vice President Cheney appeared for an hour-long interview with Tim Russert on the September 14, 2003 edition of “Meet the Press”, he was asked by Mr. Russert about the fiscal discipline of the Bush administration and its economic record:
“Mr. Vice President, the economy and the Bush-Cheney record. The day you took office, Inauguration Day, as compared to now. Dow Jones is down 11 percent. Unemployment rate is up 49 percent. A $281 billion surplus is now a $500 billion plus deficit. Jobs, net loss of 2.6 million. The debt is up 20 percent and still growing. How can you run for reelection on that record?”
Mr. Cheney defended the administration’s dismal economic performance by noting that a recession was already underway when they took office and that “the combination of the recession, the economic slowdown, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the war on terror have obviously created economic problems for the country,” but he did not allude to the tremendous, self-inflicted costs which the administration’s elective, and unnecessary, war with Iraq had contributed to the economic picture. Instead, he pointed to the future effects which the administration’s tax cuts would have in helping to dig the nation out of the economic hole in which it found itself -- “especially the tax-cut package that we’ve passed now three times does offer very bright prospects for the future.”
Warming to the unusual policy of seeking tax cuts while pursuing an expensive war, Mr. Russert suggested: “If you froze the tax cut for the top 1 percent of Americans, it would generate enough money to pay for the $87 billion for the war, if you did it for just one year. Would you consider that?”
Rejecting completely the concept of shared, civilian sacrifice during a time of war, the Vice President responded that such a partial suspension of the most recent tax cut would be a grave economic error, and that only through such tax cuts could an economic recovery be guaranteed: “If you’re going to go increase taxes on small businesses, you’re going to slow down the extent to which we’re able to reduce unemployment. So I think it’s a serious mistake ; the wrong time to raise taxes.”
Mr. Russert responded: “The president said in 2002 the tax cut would generate 800,000 jobs; in 2003, he said -- be another million jobs. None of that has happened. What has happened is the deficit is skyrocketing, over $500 billion. You used to be a deficit hawk.”
Mr. Russert then quoted remarks made by Dick Cheney when he was a Republican congressman from Wyoming that “the deficit potentially is Mr. Reagan’s Vietnam” and that “some of us are frustrated by the failure of the administration to do anything about deficits.” Asked about President Reagan’s health after cancer surgery, the then Representative Cheney (R. Wy.) said “He looks good; he’s just a little soft on deficits.”
Obviously, that was then -- this is now.
For decades, the Republicans were the champions of limited government. They thought there was hardly anything that government could do more efficiently, or more economically, than the private sector. The old, derisive joke “We’re from the federal government, and we’re here to help you,” was dogma in Republican circles. When Newt Gingrich led the “Republican revolution” and took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, even “New Democrat” Bill Clinton was brought to Jesus, fiscally speaking, and by 1996 had declared that “the era of big government is over”. Under the leadership of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the Clinton economic team, the size and cost of the federal government actually declined during the course of the Clinton administration (admittedly most of the cuts were to the military) while the domestic economy grew and prospered.
When he was running for president in 2000, candidate George W. Bush campaigned as a traditional Republican champion of a minimal role for the federal government. “Big government is not the answer” he said in his speech accepting his party’s nomination. As president, however, he apparently has concluded that it is the answer for practically everything. According to a Brookings Institution and New York University study released on September 5, 2003, the true size of the federal work force (which includes certain federal contractors and grant recipients) grew by more than one million to 12.1 million under Bush, a seventy-five percent rebound in growth from the “peace dividend” of the Clinton era.
The “compassionate conservative” now wants government to be all things to all people and is not a bit apologetic about its growth or increased cost. As White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, “The president’s priorities are that government gets results for the people, and he is focused on protecting Americans, winning the war on terrorism, and ensuring economic security.”
If this Republican president sounds a lot like his fellow Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson, his domestic legislation reads like it was drafted by Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy, and in a lot of ways it was. He knuckled under to Teddy Kennedy both with respect to his education bill (in which he abandoned school vouchers and any real teacher accountability) and with respect to the Medicare prescription drug benefit (in which he cravenly abandoned means testing) setting up a scenario for the already strapped Medicare system to fail years earlier than it otherwise would.
Robert Novak’s column of August 28, 2003, entitled “Ted Kennedy’s Senate” points out that despite nominal Republican control, the Senate’s “liberal lion” sets the tone for most domestic legislation, including education, minimum wage, hate crimes, and health care matters. Although Mr. Kennedy has not held a leadership position in the Senate since the 1970s, Mr. Novak observes: “Yet today, he sets the tone of the Senate, perhaps more so since Republicans regained a majority in the 2002 elections. At age 71, Teddy is at the peak of his power.”
With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, this should not be the case, but President Bush, preoccupied with a faltering economy, the chaos of his war in Iraq and our plummeting status in the international community, lacks the energy and will to devote to his domestic agenda. In like manner, he lacks the focus and will to address the constitutional crisis building in the Senate over the Democrats’ abuse of the “advise and consent” function in the confirmation process as Democratic senators such as Kennedy, Schumer, Leahy, Clinton and Daschle repeatedly are allowed, without political cost, to filibuster all of his key judicial nominations (although, considering that most are selected by Attorney General John Ashcroft, this abuse of the confirmation process may, in fact, be a mixed blessing).
Whether through inattention, or more likely through pursuit of calculated political advantage, the Bush administration has presided over one of the most expansive intrusions of government into the lives of American citizens in recent history:
Bureaucratic minions of the huge Department of Homeland Security are undressing octogenarians daily before allowing them to board airplanes.
Secretary Ridge of Homeland Security sends the naively credulous scurrying to Home Depot to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting whenever he chooses to panic the nation by raising the silly “terrorist threat warning” to Code Orange.
Thanks to the ill-considered Patriot Act, FBI agents are routinely dispatched to investigate Americans’ reading habits whenever “concerned citizens” make reports of “bad attitudes” (I don’t often find myself in agreement with Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution, but her column about the FBI investigation of a man caught reading an anti-Bush magazine article in the checkout line of an Atlanta bookstore is fabulous -- “Oh, God, not another bookstore call,” the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office was quoted as saying when she called for details on the investigation).
The regulations drafted by the bureaucrats in the Department of Education (remember when Republicans pledged to abolish that meddling and politically correct department?) to enforce President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy were the subject of an illuminating and hilarious op-ed piece entitled “No Illusion Left Behind” published in the September 21, 2003 edition of the Washington Post written by Jerry Parks, a retired administrator in Iowa’s public schools. While praising the administration’s laudable goal of making every schoolchild “proficient” in reading, math and science by 2014, he said the Education Department’s arbitrary definition of that proficiency as the level of achievement of the current 40th percentile of the nation is “shaping up to be a spectacular train wreck of a collision between bureaucracy and reality”:
“In other words, in 2014 every child will score better than 40 percent of the nation today, or roughly 19 million children. We will be essentially trying to get every child in the nation to be ‘above average,’ and should probably change our name to something like the United States of Lake Wobegon.”
What’s even more unrealistic, according to Mr. Parks, is that the Education Department has included special education children and non-English-speaking students in the population of fourth-grade students who must meet the arbitrary 40th percentile test: “Is there some educational strategy I’ve missed that can turn a non-English third-grader into an average fourth-grade reader in one year? Who writes this stuff?”
Who, indeed? Remarkably, it is the political leaders and bureaucrats of a new-fangled Republican administration who really do believe that “we’re from the federal government and we’re here to help you.” And it’s official Republican Party policy. In a wide-ranging three hour “on-the-record” interview with New Hampshire’s conservative Union Leader, RNC chairman, Ed Gillespie, told that newspaper’s editors “in no uncertain terms that the days of Reaganesque Republican railings against the expansion of federal government are over.” As the editors of The Union Leader noted in that paper’s remarkable editorial “GOP, MIA: Taking the road most traveled” published August 31, 2003:
“No longer does the Republican Party stand for shrinking the federal government, for scaling back its encroachment into the lives of Americans, of for carrying the banner of federalism into the political battles of the day.
“No, today the Republican Party stands for giving the American people whatever the latest polls say they want. The people want the federal government to tell states how to run local schools? Then that’s what the Republican Party wants, too. The people want expanded entitlement programs and a federal government that attends to their every desire, no matter how frivolous? Then that’s what the Republican Party wants, too.”
But the current administration doesn’t want to pay for those entitlement programs through current taxes. Just charge it, and send the bill to our grandchildren.
Civil Liberties: We should not have been surprised by the approach taken by the Bush administration to our Constitution and to our civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. As soon as it was clear that George W. Bush would be nominated, Dick Cheney and his other advisors gave us an early warning of just how fast and loose they would be willing to play with the system of government envisioned by our founding fathers. When Mr. Cheney was putting together George Bush’s prospective cabinet and pondering his choice of an appropriate running mate, he thought “why not me?”
Personally, I can think of a hundred good reasons why Dick Cheney should not have been George Bush’s vice presidential candidate, but there was one overriding reason which should have ended all consideration of that self-aggrandizing scheme. It was contrary to the stated intention of the Constitution. George Bush was an inhabitant of the State of Texas; Dick Cheney was an inhabitant of the State of Texas. The drafters of our Constitution, conscious as they were of regional differences and styles, thought that was a very bad idea, and they essentially forbade it in Article II of the Constitution, and carried that prohibition forward when they amended that article with Amendment XII in 1804. In providing for the electoral college whose members would choose the president and vice president, they wrote:
“The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves;”
So Dick Cheney, an inhabitant of Houston, Texas, where he had been managing Halliburton for years (as well as living, voting, paying taxes, driving with a local license, and living out all the other indicia of residence) could run for vice president with George W. Bush of Midland, Texas; it was just that neither of them could constitutionally receive any electoral votes from the State of Texas. Considering how close the election of 2000 was shaping up to be, and in retrospect how close it turned out to be, that did not seem to be a very practical idea.
So, rather than pick another person to run for vice president, Dick Cheney decided to pick another state to be an inhabitant of, and the state he chose was Wyoming. After all, about ten or twelve years before, he had actually lived there when he wasn’t in Washington, D.C. Accordingly, for a couple of days before the election, Dick went back to his western roots, and actually registered to vote in Wyoming, before heading back to Houston and our nation’s capital. Hey, I’m sure his heart never left Wyoming.
When George W. Bush and his advisors and administration set up shop in Washington D.C. after their disputed election, they were just as true to the spirit of the civil liberties revered by our founding fathers and enshrined in the Bill of Rights as they had been to the founders’ idea of having the president and vice president be inhabitants of different states. To quote from the apocryphal Bush Cheney ’04 bumper sticker (playing on Barry Goldwater’s ’64 campaign theme), “In your heart, you know they’re technically correct.”
And that’s a great shame, because in a very real sense, the Republican Party was founded out of reverence for, and to vindicate, civil liberties -- there is no more basic civil liberty than to be free to live and work according to your own dictates, rather than being enslaved by another, and a century later it was again the Republican Party which made possible the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965, the two landmark pieces of legislation of the civil rights era, despite the opposition of the Democratic Party’s Southern wing. But, with all of this as prologue, let’s examine the record of George W. Bush’s administration in the area of civil liberties and contrast that record with the positions of the founding fathers of our republic as enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
With the possible exception of the administration of Woodrow Wilson, in the last hundred years there has not been an administration as hostile to civil liberties and the free exercise of the rights guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution as has been the administration of George W. Bush. The members of the current government will claim that this attitude has been necessitated out of concern for national security because of the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and the War on Terror, but the civil liberties enshrined in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights were not intended only for comfortable times -- indeed, it is precisely in times of national stress (when the government is most tempted to cut constitutional corners) that our constitutional guarantees are most important. Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of our Declaration of Independence and of our Bill of Rights, said it best: “Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither and lose both.”
The first response of the current administration after “9/11” was to send John Ashcroft to Congress to lobby for his overreaching USA Patriot Act which was to include a repeal of the writ of habeas corpus. That act, which was passed without full committee hearings, in the hysteria following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, has proved to be disastrous enough in authorizing searches without notice to (or knowledge of) the citizens being targeted (not quite the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” that the drafters of the Fourth Amendment had in mind) and making possible lengthy detentions and arrests without charges or access to counsel (not quite the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense” envisioned by the Sixth Amendment) but the secretive searches and detentions authorized by the Patriot Act were originally intended to go beyond even these breaches of the spirit of the Bill of Rights and eliminate the most basic protection Anglo-American common law provides to protect a subject or citizen from the excesses of his government.
Attorney General John Ashcroft had the unmitigated gall to go before Congress and demand legislative repeal of the common law writ of habeas corpus! That “Great Writ”, which is the cornerstone of all individual liberties under the Anglo-American system of justice, and which predates our Constitution by hundreds of years, gives a judge the power to order the government to bring a prisoner before him so that he can determine whether the prisoner is being legally held, and, if he determines that there is not sufficient legal cause, to order his release. We came close to losing that most basic protection of our individual liberties in the post “9/11” hysteria, and would have but for the determination of Republican senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) who told our grasping attorney general that his proposals were simply beyond the pale.
The people who have suffered most in the post “9/11” era characterized by John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act are the legal visitors to the United States under the jurisdiction of the dysfunctional Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Thousands of people, who have committed no offense other than being of Middle Eastern descent, or raising the suspicions of others, or being in technical violation of a visa requirement, have been swept up and imprisoned, and held incommunicado for months without notice to their families, and without access to counsel. The horror stories are too numerous to mention, but here are a few which particularly impressed me.
One Canadian citizen, who owned and managed a group of stores in the New York City area and made frequent trips back and forth from Canada to oversee them, was visited by an FBI agent who was making inquiries about a man of Middle Eastern descent who worked in one of the stores. He assured the authorities that the man was a good worker and not a terrorist in any way, and the agent seemed entirely satisfied by his explanation. A few days later he was asked to come in again to talk with the agent, and upon arrival was taken into custody and charged with overstaying his visa by one day.
He was sent to a detention facility in New Jersey where he was held for several days without any notice to his family or access to legal counsel. Finally, he was told that it would be weeks before a detention hearing could be scheduled, but if he waived the hearing he would be deported back to Canada. Since he had been intending to return to Canada anyway on the day after he had been arrested, he gladly waived the hearing, but the INS took several months to actually deport him, and in the meantime he languished in jail in New Jersey with his whereabouts unknown to his family and without any way to contact legal counsel. By the time he finally was deported, he had lost all of his stores because he had no way of contacting his employees or creditors or of making his mortgage payments. He is a free, but ruined, man now living in Canada where he is under the care of a psychiatrist and unable to hold down a job because of the emotional distress caused by his experience.
Another case which has recently received a good deal of publicity involved an Iraqi man who has lived in the United States for many years. He was involved in a divorce case and as part of the proceedings was ordered not to have any contact with his wife. While the case was pending, he sent his wife some flowers which was held to be a technical violation of the court order, and he failed to list that “offense” on some immigration filing. He was arrested one night, and handcuffed in front of his son by federal authorities, and led off to jail for failing to report the “flower incident” to immigration authorities.
When the domestic relations judge learned of his arrest, she was horrified and tried to intervene, but the INS is determined to proceed and is continuing to hold him in custody while it proceeds with his deportation. He has been quoted as saying that this kind of arbitrary police action is what he left Iraq and came to this country to avoid.
Another publicized incident involved a man holding joint Canadian and Syrian citizenship who was suspected of some untoward activity and was picked up while changing planes in New York. The Canadian authorities heard about the man’s situation and requested that he be returned to Canada, but INS chose to deport him to Syria where he was tortured for several months before finally being allowed to return to Canada. The Canadian authorities are furious about the treatment of their citizen and have lodged a formal protest.
What should concern us most, however, is not the cases which we have heard about, but the hundreds of cases about which we hear nothing. Since “9/11” the INS has picked up and detained between two and three thousand aliens, most of whom have been lawfully living in this country for years. Virtually none of these detentions have resulted in any charges involving terrorist activities, but the numbers of persons reported still to be in custody (the government refuses to say precisely how many) continues to decline, presumably because of deportations.
Last year, in Southern California, between 500 and 1,000 (again, the government is vague about the numbers) men of Middle Eastern descent were asked to come in and reregister just before the Christmas holidays, and the great majority of those who complied were detained. The government has been closed-lipped about what has become of them, and presumably most have been released, but for a nation which has long tolerated and winked at illegal immigration from Mexico, this kind of treatment of people who are trying to comply with our immigration laws should be a matter of national shame.
As disturbing as has been our treatment of immigrants and guests in a nation which has always prided itself as a welcoming beacon of liberty and opportunity to the oppressed (“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”), the treatment of our own citizens has to raise even more ominous concerns. Although a nation may fairly be judged by how it treats the lowliest and least powerful people within its borders, the Constitution, our basic charter, speaks to the inalienable rights of citizenship which all citizens have a right to expect at all times and under all circumstances.
Surely, before an American citizen can be arrested and imprisoned by his government, it must give him a list of the crimes of which he stands accused, an opportunity to confront witnesses against him and call witnesses in his behalf, and have the assistance of counsel before an impartial jury empanelled in a court sitting in a state or district where the crime was allegedly committed. Surely, the Sixth Amendment guarantees nothing less. One would think, one would pray, that this would be the case -- but the administration of George W. Bush brooks no constraint, and fancies itself a law unto itself, unrestrained by the mandates of the Constitution or of co-equal branches of government. Consider the case of Jose Padilla.
Jose Padilla is an American citizen, born and raised in the United States, who was traveling abroad in 2002 in the post “9/11” era, and during the course of his travels is alleged to have met with Osama bin Laden, or, at least, to have been in attendance at a gathering at which he was present. When he landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, he was met by federal authorities, arrested, and whisked off to New York City where he was held incommunicado for several weeks and interrogated without access to his family or legal counsel.
The Justice Department attempted to have him indicted before a federal grand jury in New York City and was unable to obtain an indictment. Think about that for a moment -- in New York City, just months after “9/11”, the government had such a weak case against Jose Padilla that they were unable to obtain an indictment from a grand jury! As any schoolchild knows, a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich, and yet the evidence against Mr. Padilla was so weak that no “true bill” was voted out of the grand jury.
On June 9, 2002, just before he was to appear before a federal judge in a habeas corpus proceeding which would doubtless have resulted in his release from federal custody, the Department of Defense designated Mr. Padilla an “enemy combatant”, removed him beyond the control of the federal judge who had jurisdiction of his case, and imprisoned him in a Naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. He has yet to be granted access to legal counsel or to be charged with any offense. It is the intention of the Bush administration to hold him without charges, and without access to a court or to counsel, indefinitely.
We no longer have Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, to serve as a “poster-child” example of a police state, so I guess the case of Jose Padilla and the United States of America will just have to do until a better example comes along. And who was it who ordered the indefinite incarceration of this “bad man”, without charges and without access to the judicial process? Why, George W. Bush, our 43rd president, of course. But “W” isn’t very much of a “detail guy” so he delegated the responsibility for Jose Padilla’s treatment to someone else. So, who is this modern day Heinrich Himmler, who can make a person disappear with the stroke of a pen, and is in charge of trampling on our Constitution, and stomping out inconvenient civil liberties?
Why, I am proud to say that he is a son of the “New South”, the first of his family ever to attend college (and Yale University at that), the valedictorian of his Coffee County, Alabama high school class, and a proud graduate of the University of Chicago’s law school. They don’t put as much emphasis at Chicago on Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights as they do at the University of Virginia.
The shadowy man behind the thick dark rimmed glasses, the man who files the affidavits which the Bush administration claims no federal judge can contest or go behind, and which send U. S. citizens to a 21st century gulag, is Michael Mobbs, an obscure GS-15 in the Department of Defense who works in the Pentagon for his law school classmate Douglas Feith, Under Secretary for Policy, one of the architects, along with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Kenneth Adelman, and several other neoconservatives, of the Bush administration’s war against Iraq. Like most of them, Mr. Mobbs was a registered Democrat when he fell under the influence of Kenneth Adelman and went to work for the Reagan administration in the field of arms negotiations and control. Today, when he isn’t consigning U.S. citizens to perpetual imprisonment without charges or trial, he works with his fellow neocons in the Bush administration’s war against Islam and in advancing the interests of the State of Israel.
But don’t think that you are safe from the tender mercies of Michael Mobbs or John Ashcroft’s Justice Department or the FBI just because you haven’t been traveling recently in Muslim countries. No, Big Brother wants to know what you have been reading lately -- for your own good, of course -- he wants to protect you from all of those “opinions” which President Bush finds so disquieting. After all, not everyone has Andrew Card and Condoleezza Rice to digest the news for him and cull out the opinions and give him only the true scoop.
So, if you’ve been visited lately by a couple of FBI agents, as an Atlanta man was who was observed by a “concerned citizen” when he was reading a magazine article critical of the Bush administration while standing in the checkout line of a bookstore, just realize that it’s all for our own protection and is mandated by the USA Patriot Act. As the embarrassed special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta field office explained to Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution (what a quaint, old-fashioned name) they really have no choice but to investigate all of these citizen provided leads in the War Against Terrorism.
Also, if President Bush is coming soon to a town close to you, and you want to hold up a sign or “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (there’s that quaint old language again -- sounds a lot like the First Amendment) don’t get all huffy if the Secret Service or the local police want to herd you off into a cow pasture on the other side of town into what is now called a “free speech zone”. Hey, President Bush is here to raise money for his reelection campaign, and he doesn’t like seeing your boorish sign any more than he likes being subjected to those other opinions in the newspapers and magazines that Andy and Condoleezza read and digest for him.
If you do manage to evade the Secret Service and hold up your sign somewhere along the president’s parade route, you’d better be prepared to spend a night or two in jail. As The American Conservative reports in an article written by James Bovard entitled “Free Speech Zone” in its December 15, 2003 edition, a Pittsburgh man who held up a sign saying “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us,” managed to sandwich himself into a crowd of favorable signs held by Bush well-wishers who were permitted to stand along the parade route when Mr. Bush visited the city on Labor Day of 2002. When the Secret Service agents realized that the man was holding up an anti-Bush sign, they asked him to move along to the “free speech zone” which they had set up in a baseball field about a third of a mile away from the site where President Bush was to make his speech. When the man refused to leave and go to the designated area, the police confiscated his sign and arrested him for disorderly conduct.
Later, after his arrest, the protester Bill Neel said he thought “the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way , anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.” At his trial, the local detectives testifying about the Secret Service’s instructions pretty much confirmed his views, or at least the “out of sight, out of mind” part of them. The police testified that the Secret Service instructed them to confine “people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views” in a free speech area. Pennsylvania district judge Shirley Trkula was less than impressed with the government’s case declaring “I believe this is America. Whatever happened to ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it?’” She threw out the case.
The Bush administration is undeterred, however, in its attempts to stamp out speech critical of the president, and when in Columbia, South Carolina, a man held up a sign declaring “No War for Oil” amid a huge throng of supporters with signs praising the president, local police acting under Secret Service instructions ordered him to move along to a “free speech zone” about a half mile away, and arrested him when he refused to do so.
Local prosecutors refused to press the case, but the United States Attorney charged the man under a rarely used federal statute making it a crime to enter a “restricted area around the President of the United States.” He will probably get his conviction. It is awfully difficult for the federal government to lose a case anywhere in the area supervised by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. That’s why Jose Padilla is being held in the Naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina and all of the government’s high profile “terrorism” cases are filed in Virginia.
The Bush administration really does believe that the rule of law and court procedures apply to other people, but not to them. In the trial of the “20th hijacker”, Zacarias Moussaoui, filed in the Northern District of Virginia, the government is seeking the death penalty, but steadfastly refuses to let the defendant mount a defense by interviewing those who have accused him or who might be able to absolve him of guilt as is his right under the Sixth Amendment and under applicable federal rules of criminal procedure.
The Justice Department claims that to allow the defendant such routine procedural protections would jeopardize national security. The U.S. District Judge has held the government in contempt of court, and it is now pursuing an appeal in the hope that the Fourth Circuit will hold that the Sixth Amendment and the federal rules of criminal procedure do not apply to the government in a case in which it alleges that national security issues are at stake. I wish I thought that the government’s absurd argument would get the reception which it deserves.
With the exception of Theodore Olsen, the Solicitor General, who has no role in establishing policy, there is not a single distinguished lawyer working in the top echelons of the Bush administration. Certainly, no one would make the mistake of placing John Ashcroft in that category. The reputation of this administration, particularly with respect to its position in supporting the Constitution and defending civil liberties, has suffered accordingly. In that regard it has embarrassed itself, and the proud tradition of the Republican Party, very badly.
Basic Honesty and Ethics: For the better part of the 20th Century, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Republican Party which separated it from its Democratic counterpart was its tendency to put principle above politics. Perhaps, after so many decades as the minority party in both houses of Congress, principle was all the Republicans felt they had left to take pride in, but for whatever reason theirs was the attitude of men who would “rather be right than president”, and the selection of Barry Goldwater as the G.O.P. standard-bearer in the presidential campaign of 1964 was the ultimate example of that philosophy. His campaign slogan said it all, even in the face of an overwhelming electoral defeat: “In your heart, you know he’s right!”
A corollary of this tendency to elevate principle over political expediency was an unwillingness to tolerate dishonesty or unethical conduct among Republican Party members, no matter how powerful or well connected they were. Though time and time again Democrats might “circle the wagons” to protect misconduct or bad behavior in an elected party member, Republicans threw their misbehaving or dishonest officials to the wolves -- Senator Joe McCarthy, presidential advisor Sherman Adams, Vice President Spiro Agnew, President Richard Nixon, Senator Robert Packwood were all abandoned or told they had to go. They did not have to be pushed by Democrats, and there was no constant defense of bad conduct by party flaks as there was throughout the Clinton years -- it was a Republican senator who asked “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”, and it was a delegation of the most senior and most distinguished members of the Republican Party who undertook the sad duty of going to the White House and telling Richard Nixon he had to resign the presidency.
In this the most political, and the most politically successful, Republican administration in history, the administration of President George W. Bush has all but abandoned the principled Republican approach not only to matters of substantive policy, but, just as important, has also abandoned the basic honesty and high standards of ethical conduct which for decades have characterized the way Republicans practice the art of politics.
In the Eisenhower administration, Sherman Adams, one of the president’s most trusted and influential advisors had to resign his White House position because he accepted a vicuna coat as a gift from a political supporter, but in the administration of our 43rd president Vice President Dick Cheney is allowed to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of deferred compensation each year from Halliburton Company, the corporation to whom his administration has awarded billions of dollars of no-bid contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And more than just the appearance of impropriety is involved, despite the vice president’s claim that his payments are fixed and not dependent upon company profits, and his correct assertion that he has sold all of his Halliburton stock. What he doesn’t tell us, however, and isn’t widely known, is that he has tens of millions of dollars invested in the Vanguard group of mutual funds which is one of the largest holders of Halliburton stock. So, every dollar of no-bid business which the Bush administration sends Halliburton’s way contributes to Dick Cheney’s bottom line! Sherman Adams had to resign in disgrace over a coat.
The no-bid contracts, with their inherent conflicts of interest, which the government of George W. Bush has awarded to Halliburton, Bechtel and countless other friends of the administration (MCI Corporation was to receive a no-bid contract to rebuild the telephone system in Iraq before its parent MCI-Worldcom was revealed as the biggest corporate criminal in history) pale in significance, however, when compared to the basic dishonesty of the administration’s campaign to sell the war against Iraq to the Congress and the American people:
We were told that Iraq had huge stores of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” which posed a grave and imminent threat to the safety of the United States. Thanks to the candor of weapons inspector David Kay, we now know that no such stores of weapons existed, but even if they had, it was preposterous to assert that they constituted a danger to the United States because Iraq had no missile systems capable of delivering them. Lest that obvious defect in the administration’s argument occur to a populace gripped by its daily warnings of terrorist threats, the propaganda masters came up with a fanciful theory that chemical or biological weapons could be flown to the shores of America across the Atlantic Ocean by balsa wood drones!
In order to justify a preemptive attack on another nation, unprecedented in American history, we were told that Iraq was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. President Bush, in his State of the Union address, told the nation and the world that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” repeating erroneous British intelligence reports which months earlier had been debunked by the CIA. Colin Powell refused to participate in perpetrating this fraud on the American people because he knew from his own State Department intelligence sources that it was untrue, but week after week, month after month, both before and after Mr. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech, administration spokesmen such as Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows constantly reiterating the danger of nuclear attack and asserting that the United States couldn’t afford to wait for UN arms inspectors to complete their work, that we must invade Iraq immediately -- how would we feel, they asked, when it was too late and the mushroom cloud appeared over New York or Washington, D.C.?
Even more despicable than the administration’s orchestration of its campaign of lies to scare the American people into supporting its war against Iraq, was its dishonest efforts to make them overcome their natural revulsion against aggressive warfare and want to attack that nation. Within hours of Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, the neoconservative signatories of the 1997 “Mission Statement” of the Project for the New American Century, such as William J. Bennett, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, were calling for a retaliatory attack on Iraq even before they knew what nation or group had attacked us.
Since the mid-90s the large collection of “neocons” clustered in groups outside of government such as think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute or the Center for Security Policy had been calling for regime change in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Syria, and, now that they were in control of the defense and foreign relations establishments in the administration of George W. Bush, the events of “9/11” presented them with the opportunity that they had long awaited. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that Iraq had absolutely no role in “9/11” and that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda hated Saddam Hussein and his secular regime in Iraq almost as much as they hated the rulers of Saudi Arabia and America, the neoconservatives inside the Bush administration stepped up their campaign (already in the planning stages) for an attack on Iraq.
In the first meeting of the National Security Council held immediately after “9/11”, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz proposed an attack on Iraq, rather than on the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan which had attacked us, because the Iraq regime was weak and brittle (not because it was powerful and dangerous) whereas a military campaign in Afghanistan would be difficult. Iraq, he said, was more “doable”. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the decision was made to first turn America’s military forces against those who had attacked us and killed so many of our citizens.
Plans for what was to become the most effective “bait and switch” campaign in history were not abandoned, however, but merely put on hold. Vague, never-substantiated rumors of clandestine meetings in Prague supposedly occurring between Al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence officials were floated and constantly repeated in the media. In September of 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before Congress about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but couldn’t be specific as to when they had occurred. National security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who will say anything to advance an agenda, asserted on numerous occasions that Iraq was training Al Qaeda personnel in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Finally, any number of neoconservative spokesmen, from Vice President Cheney inside the administration to former officials turned pundits like Frank Gaffney outside it, were constantly on television asserting the ridiculous and counter-intuitive proposition that while Saddam Hussein might not have the courage to use his weapons of mass destruction against us himself (because of the immediate destruction such use would entail for Iraq) that he would in all likelihood be willing to make them available to terrorist groups to use against us.
There was no factual basis for any of these assertions, and now that the United States has completed its invasion of Iraq and overthrown the regime of Saddam Hussein, they have been abandoned.. The administration now no longer even claims that there was any connection between Al Qaeda and the government of Iraq -- in fact, they now expressly concede that one never existed. The embarrassing confirmation by weapons inspector David Kay of the now self-evident fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the start of the war last spring has apparently ushered in a long overdue flurry of truth-telling in Washington, but this recent outbreak of candor does not excuse the deliberate campaign of lies which the administration orchestrated for months prior to, during, and after the end of “major hostilities” on May 1, 2003.
For months prior to the run-up to war in Iraq, both the President and the Vice President almost never mentioned Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda without mentioning Saddam Hussein or Iraq in the same or succeeding sentence. Thus, without ever expressly having to say so, they created the powerful but false impression that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were somehow implicated in the “9/11” attacks. They are careful now to deny that they ever said any such thing, and in so asserting they are technically correct. There never was any involvement by Iraq in Al Qaeda’s “9/11” attacks, and neither Dick Cheney nor George W. Bush ever said that there was. How, then, do you suppose that months before the start of the war in Iraq, 56% of Americans polled were of the opinion that it was Iraqis who flew the planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers?
Misimpressions of fact on such a massive scale do not occur by accident. By constantly mentioning Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda and Iraq, together in most of their public pronouncements, senior officials of the Bush administration created a useful link between those leaders and organizations in the public’s mind when no such link actually existed. Thus, in what is undoubtedly the most effective use of the technique of the “Big Lie” since the era of Nazi Germany, they turned America’s rational fear and hatred of Al Qaeda into an emotional and irrational fear and hatred of Iraq. Having done so, they harnessed those falsely created emotions in the American public and used them to pull the United States toward an unprecedented war of aggression against Iraq which was totally at variance with the character of the American people and with the historical experience of our nation.
If, in the past, the American people could not understand how Adolf Hitler managed to persuade the decent people of Germany to sign on to his acts of aggression which led to World War II, they should begin to have some appreciation now for how that occurred. During the course of discussions with friends about the Iraq war, people who I know to be intelligent and well-educated have strenuously argued that Iraq was somehow implicated in “9/11” despite the absence of any evidence to support that point of view. One very smart woman, whom I greatly admire, actually said with reference to Iraq, “well, they did kill thousands of our people”. I let the matter drop -- I didn’t have the heart to inquire into whether the “they” in her statement referred to the Iraqi people or all Muslims. Whichever she meant, her statement represented an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of the Bush administration’s propaganda team.
The contempt for Americans which the architects of the Iraq war have demonstrated in playing fast and loose with the truth has by no means been confined to members of the general public. The neoconservative officials of the Bush administration have shown no reluctance about lying to senators and congressmen of their own Republican Party in order to advance their agenda.
When he was lobbying for the war in Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz represented to numerous conservative senators, including Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, that the cost of the war would be small because revenues from Iraqi oil production would pay for most of it. He made those assurances despite being in possession of reports indicating that the Iraqi oil industry was in shambles, and that far from being in position to contribute revenues to offset the costs of war, it would require at least two billion dollars of U.S. funds just to become operational.
When, in September of 2003, he presented the administration’s request for a supplemental appropriation of 87 billion dollars for Iraq, Senator Bunning thundered “What the hell is going on with this supplemental?’’ and the usually glib Mr. Wolfowitz could offer no explanation. Senator Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the administration’s strongest supporters in the Senate, has stated to friends that he felt the Pentagon misled him, and his committee’s second ranking Republican, Senator Hagel, expressed his disapproval in even stronger terms. So, too did Arizona senator, John McCain, another ardent supporter of the war, who was none too pleased with the administration’s budgetary surprise.
This is an administration which prefers secrecy to sunshine (wasn’t it Al Smith who said “Nothing un-American can live in the sunlight”?) and likes to hold its cards close to the vest. Therefore, when the president and his legislative whips on the hill were engaging in some of the most brutal arm-twisting since the days of Lyndon Johnson to coerce reluctant Republican congressmen to vote for the budget-busting Medicare prescription drug bill (more than pet legislative projects were said to be in jeopardy -- careers were threatened, not only of the congressmen themselves, but also of their families) the White House let the Congressional Budget Office’s ten year cost estimate of 400 billion dollars stand uncorrected. Two weeks after the vicious lobbying campaign had finally secured passage of the bill (the roll call vote was held open almost until dawn to round up the last reluctant votes) the White House revealed that their cost estimate was a third higher than the CBO’s, a whopping 534 billion dollars for the first ten years.
This is also an administration which never makes a mistake, or at least never admits to making any. With the recent revelations that Iraq had no serious nuclear program, and that there were no chemical or biological weapons of any consequence in that country prior to our invasion last spring, and finally that there was no Al Qaeda - Iraqi connection, all of the major arguments which the administration advanced over the past year and a half to justify its war with Iraq have proven to be groundless. Since errors of judgment in the White House are out of the question, a scapegoat for the failed Iraq policy has to be found, and as usual it is said to be bad intelligence coming out of the CIA. The president was just the victim of bad information.
The problem with this approach, however, is that the failed Iraq policy was not just the product of incomplete or inaccurate intelligence. Everyone has known of the inherent weaknesses of the CIA ever since Senator Frank Church emasculated that agency in the 1970s and forced it more and more to be a collection of boy scouts analyzing data provided by satellite and less and less a group of dangerous (and sometimes unsavory) human operatives who gathered information on the ground. The information collected by such a restricted “spy agency” is of necessity sketchy and incomplete. The fault should lie not with the hamstrung agency, but with what the decision makers chose to do with the sketchy and incomplete information collected. Ron Suskind’s excellent new book “The Price of Loyalty” (Simon & Schuster, 2004) recounting the experiences of former Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill, while serving in the Bush administration is illustrative of the problem.
During the first meeting of the National Security Council held January 30, 2001, just ten days after George W. Bush’s inauguration, the new president welcomed the members of his national security team and, after stating that his administration would disengage itself from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, asked Condoleezza Rice to present the agenda. “So, Condi, what are we going to talk about today?”, he asked, and his new national security advisor replied “How Iraq is destabilizing the region, Mr. President” and invited CIA Director George Tenet to offer a briefing on the latest intelligence from Iraq. He then proceeded to unroll a huge aerial photograph of a factory which had just been taken by a surveillance plane, stating that it might be “a plant that produces either chemical or biological materials for weapons manufacture.”
When Vice President Cheney saw the photograph he became very excited and motioned for everyone in the room to gather around the table. “Come on up. You have to take a look at this.” Suddenly, there were over a dozen people looking intently down on a grainy photograph the size of a tablecloth. Finally, Paul O’Neill, a pragmatic problem solver in a room full of ideologues, and lately the CEO who had turned around the fortunes of Alcoa, said “I’ve seen a lot of factories around the world that look a lot like this one. What makes us suspect that this one is producing chemical or biological agents for weapons?’’ Mr. Tenet mentioned something about the rhythm of shipments in and out of the factory, but conceded that there was “no confirming intelligence” as to the materials being produced.
The straight-talking maverick O’Neill had obviously asked an unwelcome question. The conversation turned to military options, ways to improve intelligence, and how to squeeze the regime of Saddam Hussein financially. An account of the entire initial meeting of the NSC can be found at pages 70-75 of Mr. Suskind’s illuminating book, but the message as he so succinctly put it was obvious -- “Ten days in, and it was about Iraq.”
The problem about intelligence faced by the administration of our 43rd president was not that it was too strong in its conclusions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but that its conclusions on that score were too sketchy and too open to mixed interpretations. The decision had long since been made to go to war against Iraq, and the administration needed some clear, black and white answers on the threats posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein rather than the infuriating shades of gray being presented by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
It was for that reason that Paul Wolfowitz set up the clandestine Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to review the raw data being supplied by the CIA and the DIA and put a positive, pro-war spin on it. Whenever a given fact situation was open to multiple interpretations, the most sinister conclusions about it were drawn in order to bolster the case for going to war. Those welcome conclusions were fed to the president and vice president, and they communicated them to the Congress and the nation. Given the weakened state of the CIA after the Church Committee reforms, the problem of American intelligence was less the uncertain data being collected than the insistence of the White House’s senior political people in drawing positive and unequivocal conclusions from mixed and ambiguous intelligence data.
Before leaving the topic of the weakened state of America’s intelligence agencies, no discussion of the basic honesty and ethics of the Bush administration would be complete without at least a passing mention of the “outing” of Valerie Plame, Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife. Vice President Cheney had heard a rumor that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium (“yellowcake”) from the African nation of Niger and ordered the CIA to check the story out. The CIA dispatched Ambassador Wilson to Niger, and, after due inquiries and investigation too complicated to be discussed here, he reported back to the CIA that there was nothing to the rumor.
The story was too valuable an argument for going to war, however, to be completely abandoned, and it kept creeping back into the president’s speeches. It was inserted into a speech Mr. Bush was to make in Cincinnati, Ohio in the fall of 2002, but George Tenet got wind of it and persuaded the speech writer to take it out. The CIA apparently thought it had put the issue to rest, but the unfounded rumor reared its ugly head again, in a somewhat different form, in the president’s 2003 State of the Union speech. Since the CIA wouldn’t clear the wording, it was revised to the convoluted language that several months later became extremely embarrassing to the administration: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Later in the year when it became known that Ambassador Wilson had been the person dispatched to Niger to investigate the rumor and had concluded that it was false, he appeared on the July 6, 2003 edition of Meet the Press and was asked by Tim Russert about the story and about his mission to Niger. The ambassador replied “If they were referring to Niger when they were referring to uranium sales from Africa to Iraq…that information was erroneous and…they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the president’s State of the Union address.”
With that, the cat was out of the bag, and the administration was forced to admit that the statement made in the president’s State of the Union speech was false. The president’s political people in the White House were furious, and someone described by Robert Novak as a very senior administration official told him (in an attempt to denigrate Mr. Wilson and his investigation) that Ambassador Wilson had only been chosen for the mission to Niger as a favor because his wife worked for the CIA.
Why Mr. Novak would permit his column to be used in such a fashion to facilitate a petty, political vendetta is an ethical question for another day, but the fact was that Mr. Wilson’s wife was not just any CIA employee. She went by the name of Valerie Plame, and she was that rarest and most valuable of CIA operatives in the post-Frank Church era. She was a secret agent with a private, non-governmental cover. Her exposure, in a fit of political pique, endangered not only her own life and the lives of everyone overseas who were known to have had dealings with her, but made her useless to the CIA for future undercover work.
Moreover, her exposure was not simply an ethical transgression of the worst possible sort, it was a federal crime. The CIA was furious and called for a Justice Department investigation. The president expressed the opinion (or more accurately, the hope) that the person who leaked the information about Ms. Plame would probably never be known. Certainly, neither he nor anyone else in the White House tried to get to the bottom of the matter. No one was questioned, and no request for lie detector tests was made.
The investigation was turned over to John Ashcroft’s Justice Department and nothing more was heard about it until about a month ago when it apparently began to get too close to some of Mr. Ashcroft’s personal friends in the White House. He recused himself in the matter in favor of his Deputy Attorney General, who himself promptly recognized that it should be a matter for a special prosecutor beyond direct White House or Justice Department control. Since there is no longer any independent counsel statute, as such, he appointed the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, a lawyer with an excellent reputation for fighting governmental corruption, and promised him a free hand in his investigation.
It remains to be seen whether the president’s prediction, that the identity of the leaker will probably never be known, turns out to be accurate. In any case, I am sure that everyone in the secretive administration of our 43rd president hopes nothing will come out prior to the presidential election in November.
Conclusion: As an old-fashioned paleoconservative who grew up politically in the Middlewestern wing of the Republican Party, the neoconservatives in charge of George W. Bush’s White House and the defense and foreign policy apparatus of his administration seem pretty strange to me. His foreign policy seems to have a lot more in common with Woodrow Wilson (or for that matter, with Trotsky) than it does with Bob Taft or any of the Republicans of my youth. Similarly, the treatment by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department of our civil liberties and the personal freedoms supposedly guaranteed by our constitution and the Bill of Rights seems to harken back to the era of Woodrow Wilson, not a particularly happy time for the exercise of civil liberties.
With respect to the time honored Republican philosophy of limited government and fiscal restraint, even the Chairman of the Republican National Committee says that those are concepts which have outlived their usefulness. Certainly, the conversion of a 281 billion dollar surplus into an annual budget deficit of around 500 billion dollars in just three years, and the proposal by the president of so many new expensive and intrusive government programs seems to indicate that the era of big government is far from over. The administration of our 43rd president has much more in common with the government of Lyndon Baines Johnson than it does with the administration of his father, George H. W. Bush.
Finally, the candor, basic honesty and high ethical standards which Republicans have always assumed to be an integral part of their political makeup seem strangely absent from the current administration. Why does the “buck” never seem to stop at the desk of our 43rd president? Why is his administration so determined never to admit a mistake? Has this administration become so politically adept that it has lost touch with all the old virtues? What has happened to the courageous code of Barry Goldwater? In our hearts, we knew he was right. Now, when we are told something by this administration, we fear that it is only technically correct.
The way the Democratic presidential primary season is shaping up, it appears that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts will be the Democratic nominee. Accordingly, it looks like the nation will be offered a choice between the Massachusetts wing of the Democratic Party as represented by Mr. Kerry and the Texas wing of the Democratic Party as represented by Mr. Bush. I am not sure that I have a dog in that fight.
For the last two or three months, I have been meaning to write an article tentatively entitled “Who Are the Neocons, and Why Are They Changing the Character and Soul of America?”. It would have been a daunting task, because to do justice to the subject it would have been necessary to research the activities and political philosophies of the movement’s principal figures going back at least ten or fifteen years. Earlier this week I discovered that Pat Buchanan had already written the article for me, and in the process had answered the question posed in my proposed title. That article, which appeared in the March 24th issue of The American Conservative, is a journalistic tour de force and the single most impressive treatment of the neoconservatives’ influence over our government and our national political life which I have ever read. It is posted here on Curmudgeon’s Corner with the gracious permission of The American Conservative.
This is the first time that I have ever posted an entire article from another publication on this web site, and it will probably be the last. The topic is of such importance to our nation’s political discourse, however, and Mr. Buchanan’s treatment of the subject is so fearless and intellectually honest, that his article deserves to be read by any serious observer of current events, or by any American who has simply been wondering for the past several months why, despite the terrible events of September 11, 2001, our nation seems intent on abandoning the principles and ideals which for over two hundred years have made it great.
In making the case that Israel, rather than the United States, is the primary beneficiary of our war against Iraq (and quite possibly of other wars to come), Mr. Buchanan points out the folly of offending our friends and allies throughout the world, and of spilling our blood and expending our resources, in a cause which is not really our own.
A neoconservative clique seeks to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interest.
by Patrick J. Buchanan
The War Party may have gotten its war. But it has also gotten something it did not bargain for. Its membership lists and associations have been exposed and its motives challenged. In a rare moment in U.S. journalism, Tim Russert put this question directly to Richard Perle: “Can you assure American viewers ... that we’re in this situation against Saddam Hussein and his removal for American security interests? And what would be the link in terms of Israel?”
Suddenly, the Israeli connection is on the table, and the War Party is not amused. Finding themselves in an unanticipated firefight, our neoconservative friends are doing what comes naturally, seeking student deferments from political combat by claiming the status of a persecuted minority group. People who claim to be writing the foreign policy of the world superpower, one would think, would be a little more manly in the schoolyard of politics. Not so.
Former Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot kicked off the campaign. When these “Buchananites toss around ‘neoconservative’—and cite names like Wolfowitz and Cohen—it sometimes sounds as if what they really mean is ‘Jewish conservative.’” Yet Boot readily concedes that a passionate attachment to Israel is a “key tenet of neoconservatism.” He also claims that the National Security Strategy of President Bush “sounds as if it could have come straight out from the pages of Commentary magazine, the neocon bible.” (For the uninitiated, Commentary, the bible in which Boot seeks divine guidance, is the monthly of the American Jewish Committee.)
David Brooks of the Weekly Standard wails that attacks based on the Israel tie have put him through personal hell: “Now I get a steady stream of anti-Semitic screeds in my e-mail, my voicemail and in my mailbox. ... Anti-Semitism is alive and thriving. It’s just that its epicenter is no longer on the Buchananite Right, but on the peace-movement left.”
Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan endures his own purgatory abroad: “In London ... one finds Britain’s finest minds propounding, in sophisticated language and melodious Oxbridge accents, the conspiracy theories of Pat Buchanan concerning the ‘neoconservative’ (read: Jewish) hijacking of American foreign policy.”
Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic charges that our little magazine “has been transformed into a forum for those who contend that President Bush has become a client of ... Ariel Sharon and the ‘neoconservative war party.’”
Referencing Charles Lindbergh, he accuses Paul Schroeder, Chris Matthews, Robert Novak, Georgie Anne Geyer, Jason Vest of the Nation, and Gary Hart of implying that “members of the Bush team have been doing Israel’s bidding and, by extension, exhibiting ‘dual loyalties.’” Kaplan thunders:
The real problem with such claims is not just that they are untrue. The problem is that they are toxic. Invoking the specter of dual loyalty to mute criticism and debate amounts to more than the everyday pollution of public discourse. It is the nullification of public discourse, for how can one refute accusations grounded in ethnicity? The charges are, ipso facto, impossible to disprove. And so they are meant to be.
What is going on here? Slate’s Mickey Kaus nails it in the headline of his retort: “Lawrence Kaplan Plays the Anti-Semitic Card.”
What Kaplan, Brooks, Boot, and Kagan are doing is what the Rev. Jesse Jackson does when caught with some mammoth contribution from a Fortune 500 company he has lately accused of discriminating. He plays the race card. So, too, the neoconservatives are trying to fend off critics by assassinating their character and impugning their motives.
Indeed, it is the charge of “anti-Semitism” itself that is toxic. For this venerable slander is designed to nullify public discourse by smearing and intimidating foes and censoring and blacklisting them and any who would publish them. Neocons say we attack them because they are Jewish. We do not. We attack them because their warmongering threatens our country, even as it finds a reliable echo in Ariel Sharon.
And this time the boys have cried “wolf” once too often. It is not working. As Kaus notes, Kaplan’s own New Republic carries Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman. In writing of the four power centers in this capital that are clamoring for war, Hoffman himself describes the fourth thus:
And, finally, there is a loose collection of friends of Israel, who believe in the identity of interests between the Jewish state and the United States. … These analysts look on foreign policy through the lens of one dominant concern: Is it good or bad for Israel? Since that nation’s founding in 1948, these thinkers have never been in very good odor at the State Department, but now they are well ensconced in the Pentagon, around such strategists as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith.
“If Stanley Hoffman can say this,” asks Kaus, “why can’t Chris Matthews?” Kaus also notes that Kaplan somehow failed to mention the most devastating piece tying the neoconservatives to Sharon and his Likud Party.
In a Feb. 9 front-page article in the Washington Post, Robert Kaiser quotes a senior U.S. official as saying, “The Likudniks are really in charge now.” Kaiser names Perle, Wolfowitz, and Feith as members of a pro-Israel network inside the administration and adds David Wurmser of the Defense Department and Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council. (Abrams is the son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz, editor emeritus of Commentary, whose magazine has for decades branded critics of Israel as anti-Semites.)
Noting that Sharon repeatedly claims a “special closeness” to the Bushites, Kaiser writes, “For the first time a U.S. administration and a Likud government are pursuing nearly identical policies.” And a valid question is: how did this come to be, and while it is surely in Sharon’s interest, is it in America’s interest?
This is a time for truth. For America is about to make a momentous decision: whether to launch a series of wars in the Middle East that could ignite the Clash of Civilizations against which Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has warned, a war we believe would be a tragedy and a disaster for this Republic. To avert this war, to answer the neocon smears, we ask that our readers review their agenda as stated in their words. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. As Al Smith used to say, “Nothing un-American can live in the sunlight.”
We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests. We charge them with colluding with Israel to ignite those wars and destroy the Oslo Accords. We charge them with deliberately damaging U.S. relations with every state in the Arab world that defies Israel or supports the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland of their own. We charge that they have alienated friends and allies all over the Islamic and Western world through their arrogance, hubris, and bellicosity.
Not in our lifetimes has America been so isolated from old friends. Far worse, President Bush is being lured into a trap baited for him by these neocons that could cost him his office and cause America to forfeit years of peace won for us by the sacrifices of two generations in the Cold War.
They charge us with anti-Semitism—i.e., a hatred of Jews for their faith, heritage, or ancestry. False. The truth is, those hurling these charges harbor a “passionate attachment” to a nation not our own that causes them to subordinate the interests of their own country and to act on an assumption that, somehow, what’s good for Israel is good for America.
Who are the neoconservatives? The first generation were ex-liberals, socialists, and Trotskyites, boat-people from the McGovern revolution who rafted over to the GOP at the end of conservatism’s long march to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980.
A neoconservative, wrote Kevin Phillips back then, is more likely to be a magazine editor than a bricklayer. Today, he or she is more likely to be a resident scholar at a public policy institute such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or one of its clones like the Center for Security Policy or the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). As one wag writes, a neocon is more familiar with the inside of a think tank than an Abrams tank.
Almost none came out of the business world or military, and few if any came out of the Goldwater campaign. The heroes they invoke are Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King, and Democratic Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.) and Pat Moynihan (N.Y.).
All are interventionists who regard Stakhanovite support of Israel as a defining characteristic of their breed. Among their luminaries are Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, Michael Novak, and James Q. Wilson.
Their publications include the Weekly Standard, Commentary, the New Republic, National Review, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Though few in number, they wield disproportionate power through control of the conservative foundations and magazines, through their syndicated columns, and by attaching themselves to men of power.
Beating the War Drums
When the Cold War ended, these neoconservatives began casting about for a new crusade to give meaning to their lives. On Sept. 11, their time came. They seized on that horrific atrocity to steer America’s rage into all-out war to destroy their despised enemies, the Arab and Islamic “rogue states” that have resisted U.S. hegemony and loathe Israel.
The War Party’s plan, however, had been in preparation far in advance of 9/11. And when President Bush, after defeating the Taliban, was looking for a new front in the war on terror, they put their precooked meal in front of him. Bush dug into it.
Before introducing the script-writers of America’s future wars, consider the rapid and synchronized reaction of the neocons to what happened after that fateful day.
On Sept. 12, Americans were still in shock when Bill Bennett told CNN that we were in “a struggle between good and evil,” that the Congress must declare war on “militant Islam,” and that “overwhelming force” must be used. Bennett cited Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and China as targets for attack. Not, however, Afghanistan, the sanctuary of Osama’s terrorists. How did Bennett know which nations must be smashed before he had any idea who attacked us?
The Wall Street Journal immediately offered up a specific target list, calling for U.S. air strikes on “terrorist camps in Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Algeria, and perhaps even in parts of Egypt.” Yet, not one of Bennett’s six countries, nor one of these five, had anything to do with 9/11.
On Sept. 15, according to Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, “Paul Wolfowitz put forth military arguments to justify a U.S. attack on Iraq rather than Afghanistan.” Why Iraq? Because, Wolfowitz argued in the War Cabinet, while “attacking Afghanistan would be uncertain … Iraq was a brittle oppressive regime that might break easily. It was doable.”
On Sept. 20, forty neoconservatives sent an open letter to the White House instructing President Bush on how the war on terror must be conducted. Signed by Bennett, Podhoretz, Kirkpatrick, Perle, Kristol, and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, the letter was an ultimatum. To retain the signers’ support, the president was told, he must target Hezbollah for destruction, retaliate against Syria and Iran if they refuse to sever ties to Hezbollah, and overthrow Saddam. Any failure to attack Iraq, the signers warned Bush, “will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”
Here was a cabal of intellectuals telling the Commander-in-Chief, nine days after an attack on America, that if he did not follow their war plans, he would be charged with surrendering to terror. Yet, Hezbollah had nothing to do with 9/11. What had Hezbollah done? Hezbollah had humiliated Israel by driving its army out of Lebanon.
President Bush had been warned. He was to exploit the attack of 9/11 to launch a series of wars on Arab regimes, none of which had attacked us. All, however, were enemies of Israel. “Bibi” Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of Israel, like some latter-day Citizen Genet, was ubiquitous on American television, calling for us to crush the “Empire of Terror.” The “Empire,” it turns out, consisted of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, and “the Palestinian enclave.”
Nasty as some of these regimes and groups might be, what had they done to the United States?
The War Party seemed desperate to get a Middle East war going before America had second thoughts. Tom Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) called for an immediate invasion of Iraq. “Nor need the attack await the deployment of half a million troops. … [T]he larger challenge will be occupying Iraq after the fighting is over,” he wrote.
Donnelly was echoed by Jonah Goldberg of National Review: “The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense.”
Goldberg endorsed “the Ledeen Doctrine” of ex-Pentagon official Michael Ledeen, which Goldberg described thus: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.” (When the French ambassador in London, at a dinner party, asked why we should risk World War III over some “shitty little country”—meaning Israel—Goldberg’s magazine was not amused.)
Ledeen, however, is less frivolous. In The War Against the Terror Masters, he identifies the exact regimes America must destroy:
First and foremost, we must bring down the terror regimes, beginning with the Big Three: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. And then we have to come to grips with Saudi Arabia. … Once the tyrants in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have been brought down, we will remain engaged. …We have to ensure the fulfillment of the democratic revolution. … Stability is an unworthy American mission, and a misleading concept to boot. We do not want stability in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Saudi Arabia; we want things to change. The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize.
Rejecting stability as “an unworthy American mission,” Ledeen goes on to define America’s authentic “historic mission”:
Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. … [W]e must destroy them to advance our historic mission.
Passages like this owe more to Leon Trotsky than to Robert Taft and betray a Jacobin streak in neoconservatism that cannot be reconciled with any concept of true conservatism.
To the Weekly Standard, Ledeen’s enemies list was too restrictive. We must not only declare war on terror networks and states that harbor terrorists, said the Standard, we should launch wars on “any group or government inclined to support or sustain others like them in the future.”
Robert Kagan and William Kristol were giddy with excitement at the prospect of Armageddon. The coming war “is going to spread and engulf a number of countries. … It is going to resemble the clash of civilizations that everyone has hoped to avoid. … [I]t is possible that the demise of some ‘moderate’ Arab regimes may be just round the corner.”
Norman Podhoretz in Commentary even outdid Kristol’s Standard, rhapsodizing that we should embrace a war of civilizations, as it is George W. Bush’s mission “to fight World War IV—the war against militant Islam.” By his count, the regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil (Iraq, Iran, North Korea). At a minimum, the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya, as well as ‘“friends” of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority. Bush must reject the “timorous counsels” of the “incorrigibly cautious Colin Powell,” wrote Podhoretz, and “find the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated” Islamic world. As the war against al-Qaeda required that we destroy the Taliban, Podhoretz wrote,
We may willy-nilly find ourselves forced … to topple five or six or seven more tyrannies in the Islamic world (including that other sponsor of terrorism, Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority). I can even [imagine] the turmoil of this war leading to some new species of an imperial mission for America, whose purpose would be to oversee the emergence of successor governments in the region more amenable to reform and modernization than the despotisms now in place. … I can also envisage the establishment of some kind of American protectorate over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, as we more and more come to wonder why 7,000 princes should go on being permitted to exert so much leverage over us and everyone else.
Podhoretz credits Eliot Cohen with the phrase “World War IV.” Bush was shortly thereafter seen carrying about a gift copy of Cohen’s book that celebrates civilian mastery of the military in times of war, as exhibited by such leaders as Winston Churchill and David Ben Gurion.
A list of the Middle East regimes that Podhoretz, Bennett, Ledeen, Netanyahu, and the Wall Street Journal regard as targets for destruction thus includes Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and “militant Islam.”
Cui Bono? For whose benefit these endless wars in a region that holds nothing vital to America save oil, which the Arabs must sell us to survive? Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam?
Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.
Indeed, Sharon has been everywhere the echo of his acolytes in America. In February 2003, Sharon told a delegation of Congressmen that, after Saddam’s regime is destroyed, it is of “vital importance” that the United States disarm Iran, Syria, and Libya.
“We have a great interest in shaping the Middle East the day after” the war on Iraq, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations. After U.S. troops enter Baghdad, the United States must generate “political, economic, diplomatic pressure” on Tehran, Mofaz admonished the American Jews.
Are the neoconservatives concerned about a war on Iraq bringing down friendly Arab governments? Not at all. They would welcome it.
“Mubarak is no great shakes,” says Richard Perle of the President of Egypt. “Surely we can do better than Mubarak.” Asked about the possibility that a war on Iraq—which he predicted would be a “cakewalk”—might upend governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, former UN ambassador Ken Adelman told Joshua Micah Marshall of Washington Monthly, “All the better if you ask me.”
On July 10, 2002, Perle invited a former aide to Lyndon LaRouche named Laurent Murawiec to address the Defense Policy Board. In a briefing that startled Henry Kissinger, Murawiec named Saudi Arabia as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” of the United States.
Washington should give Riyadh an ultimatum, he said. Either you Saudis “prosecute or isolate those involved in the terror chain, including the Saudi intelligence services,” and end all propaganda against Israel, or we invade your country, seize your oil fields, and occupy Mecca.
In closing his PowerPoint presentation, Murawiec offered a “Grand Strategy for the Middle East.” “Iraq is the tactical pivot, Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot, Egypt the prize.” Leaked reports of Murawiec’s briefing did not indicate if anyone raised the question of how the Islamic world might respond to U.S. troops tramping around the grounds of the Great Mosque.
What these neoconservatives seek is to conscript American blood to make the world safe for Israel. They want the peace of the sword imposed on Islam and American soldiers to die if necessary to impose it.
Washington Times editor at large Arnaud de Borchgrave calls this the “Bush-Sharon Doctrine.” “Washington’s ‘Likudniks,’” he writes, “have been in charge of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Bush was sworn into office.”
The neocons seek American empire, and Sharonites seek hegemony over the Middle East. The two agendas coincide precisely. And though neocons insist that it was Sept. 11 that made the case for war on Iraq and militant Islam, the origins of their war plans go back far before.
“Securing the Realm”
The principal draftsman is Richard Perle, an aide to Sen. Scoop Jackson, who, in 1970, was overheard on a federal wiretap discussing classified information from the National Security Council with the Israeli Embassy. In Jews and American Politics, published in 1974, Stephen D. Isaacs wrote, “Richard Perle and Morris Amitay command a tiny army of Semitophiles on Capitol Hill and direct Jewish power in behalf of Jewish interests.” In 1983, the New York Times reported that Perle had taken substantial payments from an Israeli weapons manufacturer.
In 1996, with Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, Perle wrote “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In it, Perle, Feith, and Wurmser urged Bibi to ditch the Oslo Accords of the assassinated Yitzak Rabin and adopt a new aggressive strategy:
Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq—an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right—as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions. Jordan has challenged Syria’s regional ambitions recently by suggesting the restoration of the Hashemites in Iraq.
In the Perle-Feith-Wurmser strategy, Israel’s enemy remains Syria, but the road to Damascus runs through Baghdad. Their plan, which urged Israel to re-establish “the principle of preemption,” has now been imposed by Perle, Feith, Wurmser & Co. on the United States.
In his own 1997 paper, “A Strategy for Israel,” Feith pressed Israel to re-occupy “the areas under Palestinian Authority control,” though “the price in blood would be high.”
Wurmser, as a resident scholar at AEI, drafted joint war plans for Israel and the United States “to fatally strike the centers of radicalism in the Middle East. Israel and the United States should … broaden the conflict to strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region—the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Tehran, and Gaza. That would establish the recognition that fighting either the United States or Israel is suicidal.”
He urged both nations to be on the lookout for a crisis, for as he wrote, “Crises can be opportunities.” Wurmser published his U.S.-Israeli war plan on Jan. 1, 2001, nine months before 9/11.
About the Perle-Feith-Wurmser cabal, author Michael Lind writes:
The radical Zionist right to which Perle and Feith belong is small in number but it has become a significant force in Republican policy-making circles. It is a recent phenomenon, dating back to the late 1970s and 1980s, when many formerly Democratic Jewish intellectuals joined the broad Reagan coalition. While many of these hawks speak in public about global crusades for democracy, the chief concern of many such “neo-conservatives” is the power and reputation of Israel.
Right down the smokestack.
Perle today chairs the Defense Policy Board, Feith is an Undersecretary of Defense, and Wurmser is special assistant to the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, who dutifully echoes the Perle-Sharon line. According to the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, in late February,
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said in meetings with Israeli officials … that he has no doubt America will attack Iraq and that it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterwards.
On Jan. 26, 1998, President Clinton received a letter imploring him to use his State of the Union address to make removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime the “aim of American foreign policy” and to use military action because “diplomacy is failing.” Were Clinton to do that, the signers pledged, they would “offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” Signing the pledge were Elliott Abrams, Bill Bennett, John Bolton, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. Four years before 9/11, the neocons had Baghdad on their minds.
The Wolfowitz Doctrine
In 1992, a startling document was leaked from the office of Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon. Barton Gellman of the Washington Post called it a “classified blueprint intended to help ‘set the nation’s direction for the next century.’” The Wolfowitz Memo called for a permanent U.S. military presence on six continents to deter all “potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” Containment, the victorious strategy of the Cold War, was to give way to an ambitious new strategy designed to “establish and protect a new order.”
Though the Wolfowitz Memo was denounced and dismissed in 1992, it became American policy in the 33-page National Security Strategy (NSS) issued by President Bush on Sept. 21, 2002. Washington Post reporter Tim Reich describes it as a “watershed in U.S. foreign policy” that “reverses the fundamental principles that have guided successive Presidents for more than 50 years: containment and deterrence.”
Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, writes of the NSS that he marvels at “its fusion of breathtaking utopianism with barely disguised machtpolitik. It reads as if it were the product not of sober, ostensibly conservative Republicans but of an unlikely collaboration between Woodrow Wilson and the elder Field Marshal von Moltke.”
In confronting America’s adversaries, the paper declares, “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively.” It warns any nation that seeks to acquire power to rival the United States that it will be courting war with the United States:
[T]he president has no intention of allowing any nation to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. … Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States.
America must reconcile herself to an era of “nation-building on a grand scale, and with no exit strategy,” Robert Kagan instructs. But this Pax Americana the neocons envision bids fair to usher us into a time of what Harry Elmer Barnes called “permanent war for permanent peace.”
The Munich Card
As President Bush was warned on Sept. 20, 2001, that he will be indicted for “a decisive surrender” in the war on terror should he fail to attack Iraq, he is also on notice that pressure on Israel is forbidden. For as the neoconservatives have played the anti-Semitic card, they will not hesitate to play the Munich card as well. A year ago, when Bush called on Sharon to pull out of the West Bank, Sharon fired back that he would not let anyone do to Israel what Neville Chamberlain had done to the Czechs. Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy immediately backed up Ariel Sharon:
With each passing day, Washington appears to view its principal Middle Eastern ally’s conduct as inconvenient—in much the same way London and Paris came to see Czechoslovakia’s resistance to Hitler’s offers of peace in exchange for Czech lands.
When former U.S. NATO commander Gen. George Jouwlan said the United States may have to impose a peace on Israel and the Palestinians, he, too, faced the charge of appeasement. Wrote Gaffney,
They would, presumably, go beyond Britain and France’s sell-out of an ally at Munich in 1938. The “impose a peace” school is apparently prepared to have us play the role of Hitler’s Wehrmacht as well, seizing and turning over to Yasser Arafat the contemporary Sudetenland: the West Bank and Gaza Strip and perhaps part of Jerusalem as well.
Podhoretz agreed Sharon was right in the substance of what he said but called it politically unwise to use the Munich analogy.
President Bush is on notice: Should he pressure Israel to trade land for peace, the Oslo formula in which his father and Yitzak Rabin believed, he will, as was his father, be denounced as an anti-Semite and a Munich-style appeaser by both Israelis and their neoconservatives allies inside his own Big Tent.
Yet, if Bush cannot deliver Sharon there can be no peace. And if there is no peace in the Mideast there is no security for us, ever—for there will be no end to terror. As most every diplomat and journalist who travels to the region will relate, America’s failure to be even-handed, our failure to rein in Sharon, our failure to condemn Israel’s excesses, and our moral complicity in Israel’s looting of Palestinian lands and denial of their right to self-determination sustains the anti-Americanism in the Islamic world in which terrorists and terrorism breed.
Let us conclude. The Israeli people are America’s friends and have a right to peace and secure borders. We should help them secure these rights. As a nation, we have made a moral commitment, endorsed by half a dozen presidents, which Americans wish to honor, not to permit these people who have suffered much to see their country overrun and destroyed. And we must honor this commitment.
But U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical. They often collide, and when they do, U.S. interests must prevail. Moreover, we do not view the Sharon regime as “America’s best friend.”
Since the time of Ben Gurion, the behavior of the Israeli regime has been Jekyll and Hyde. In the 1950s, its intelligence service, the Mossad, had agents in Egypt blow up U.S. installations to make it appear the work of Cairo, to destroy U.S. relations with the new Nasser government. During the Six Day War, Israel ordered repeated attacks on the undefended USS Liberty that killed 34 American sailors and wounded 171 and included the machine-gunning of life rafts. This massacre was neither investigated nor punished by the U.S. government in an act of national cravenness.
Though we have given Israel $20,000 for every Jewish citizen, Israel refuses to stop building the settlements that are the cause of the Palestinian intifada. Likud has dragged our good name through the mud and blood of Ramallah, ignored Bush’s requests to restrain itself, and sold U.S. weapons technology to China, including the Patriot, the Phoenix air-to-air missile, and the Lavi fighter, which is based on F-16 technology. Only direct U.S. intervention blocked Israel’s sale of our AWACS system.
Israel suborned Jonathan Pollard to loot our secrets and refuses to return the documents, which would establish whether or not they were sold to Moscow. When Clinton tried to broker an agreement at Wye Plantation between Israel and Arafat, Bibi Netanyahu attempted to extort, as his price for signing, release of Pollard, so he could take this treasonous snake back to Israel as a national hero.
Do the Brits, our closest allies, behave like this?
Though we have said repeatedly that we admire much of what this president has done, he will not deserve re-election if he does not jettison the neoconservatives’ agenda of endless wars on the Islamic world that serve only the interests of a country other than the one he was elected to preserve and protect.
March 24, 2003 issue
Copyright © 2003 The American Conservative
It’s Not Quite Goodbye to a Thoroughly Amoral Man
On March 27, 2003, Richard Perle submitted his resignation as Chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board to Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Although he will presumably be vacating his office next to Mr. Rumsfeld’s at the Pentagon, the mentor and guru of the hawkish neo-conservatives in our nation’s defense establishment, and the chief architect of our war against Iraq, will continue to serve as a member of that board and will leave behind at the Pentagon two of his principal disciples, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the number two and three men at the Defense Department. Mr. Rumsfeld accepted Perle’s resignation with obvious regret, but noted with satisfaction that he would continue to be available for consultation as a member of the policy board.
The stated reason for Mr. Perle’s resignation was an apparent conflict of interest which recently came to light in connection with a consulting contract which he held with the bankrupt Global Crossing telecommunications company. He was paid approximately $200,000 for his work on behalf of that firm in seeking a buyer, and would receive another contingent fee of almost $800,000 more if the sale went through. The approval of the Department of Defense was a prerequisite to any such sale. Although his letter of resignation denied any use of improper influence in promoting the sale, Mr. Perle stated that he could not “easily quell criticism of me based on errors of fact concerning my activities” and was resigning so as not to be the cause of any distraction during this country’s war against Iraq.
Actually, there is nothing particularly new in Richard Perle using his influential position at the Department of Defense to create profits for his far-flung business interests. Earlier in March the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported that Autonomy Corporation, a company based in Cambridge, England, on whose board of directors Mr. Perle serves, was one of the few British corporations that stand to make a profit from the Iraq war. With Mr. Perle’s help that company has been selling advanced computer eavesdropping systems to intelligence agencies in countries around the world. As a director, he holds stock options on 75,000 of Autonomy’s shares. He advises Autonomy on market opportunities, but stated that he has had no input into procurement decisions by United States’ agencies.
My guess is that Richard Perle’s resignation as chairman of the Defense Policy Board had a lot less to do with his business dealings with Global Crossing and Autonomy Corporation, and their inherent conflicts of interest with his unpaid, advisory position at the Department of Defense, than with a muck-raking article written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker entitled “Lunch with the Chairman: Why was Richard Perle meeting with Adnan Khashoggi?”. Mr. Perle is highly upset over that article, and is reputedly conferring with his lawyers about the possibility of suing Mr. Hersh for libel in the United Kingdom where libel laws are much less stringent than in the United States, but to fully appreciate the chutzpah of the “Chairman” in this instance, it is necessary to know just a little bit about Richard Perle and his opinions about all things Arabic and Islamic.
Simply put, Richard Perle has never met an Arab whom he could abide. He is on the board of the militant and right wing Jerusalem Post. He is a member of just about every Israeli “think tank” operating in Washington, DC or in Tel Aviv, and in 1996, as an influential member of the American Enterprise Institute, was one of the principal authors of a study prepared for the incoming Likud administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, then the newly elected prime minister of Israel, prepared by The Institute of Advanced Strategic and Political Studies entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” in which the new Israeli government was urged to adopt a policy of hot pursuit to deal with Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority, to look for ways to abrogate the Oslo Accords, to deal with the failed regimes and governments of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states, and, most significantly, to bring about regime change in Iraq and Syria.
In the summer of 2002, Richard Perle, as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, invited an employee of the Rand Corporation, Laurent Murawiec, to address his policy group in a closed door meeting at the Pentagon on the subject of Saudi Arabia. Although, as it turns out, Mr. Murawiec had never been to Saudi Arabia at any point in his life, he had met a couple of Saudis while living in Paris, and had formed some very definite opinions about their people and their government as a result. The gist of his assessment, in an address which was leaked to the press, was that Saudi Arabia was the greatest enemy which America had in the Middle East; that it was the “kernel of evil” and the Saudi royal family should be overthrown; and that the United States should attack Saudi Arabia and seize its oil fields.
Thinking that this view represented official Bush Administration policy, the neo-conservative members of the media such as the Weekly Standard and Fox News took this position and ran with it for several days until Donald Rumsfeld made a statement that no current employee of the Department of Defense had even been present at the briefing (true, since the Defense Policy Board is made up of former Secretaries of Defense, current and past Members of Congress, and other influential Washington policymakers), that Saudi Arabia was a valued ally of the United States, and that the views of Mr. Murawiec in no way reflected the views of the United States government.
Nevertheless, such a statement of views presented to an influential group of policymakers at the Pentagon, which was wholeheartedly endorsed by the neo-conservative elements of the American media for several days, shook up the Saudis to a considerable extent. It is with this brief bit of historical background that Richard Perle’s luncheon meeting in January of 2003, in Marseilles, France with arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi can be best appreciated.
Along with his varied business and governmental interests, Mr. Perle finds time to act as chairman of Trireme Partners, L.P., a firm he and a few associates founded which deals in the goods, technologies and services associated with homeland security and national defense matters. Adnan Khashoggi is a Saudi national and international arms dealer who attempted to help the United States in the botched “arms for hostages” deal to free the Americans held hostage by Iran in the 1980s. He received a letter from one of Perle’s associates in Trireme Partners intoducing the firm and boasting that three of its managers “advise the US Secretary of Defense by serving on the US Defense Policy Board and one of Trireme’s principals, Richard Perle, is chairman of that Board”. The other two members of the firm sitting on that board were Henry Kissinger and Gerald Hillman, a close business associate of Mr. Perle’s whom he had placed on the policy board despite his lack of any significant governmental experience. The letter asked Mr. Khashoggi, who has ties both to the CIA and the Saudi royal family, to set up a meeting with Mr. Perle.
That luncheon meeting in Marseilles was attended by Mr. Khashoggi, another wealthy Saudi businessman, industrialist Saleh Al-Zuhair, who was reportedly interested in presenting a proposal for avoiding war in Iraq, and Richard Perle. Although Mr. Perle has never attempted to hide his contempt for the Saudi government and its royal family, whom he has frequently denounced as major contributors to terrorism, he is apparently not adverse to making a little money off of them and, according to Seymour Hersh, the purpose of the meeting was to obtain lucrative homeland security contracts with the Saudi ruling family.
After the meeting, Mr. Perle’s associate, Gerald Hillman, sent Mr. Al-Zuhair a lengthy memorandum suggesting that if Saddam Hussein admitted to having weapons of mass destruction and agreed to leave Iraq with his sons and several of his top ministers, then the United States “would not have to go to war with Iraq”. Mr. Hillman’s letter to Al-Zuhair was then leaked to the Saudi and Lebanese press where it was described as a possible peace plan being negotiated through the offices of the Saudi government with the support of Richard Perle.
When, in the course of researching his article which appeared in the March 17, 2003 issue of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh asked the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, whether there was any substance to the alleged Saudi peace plan which supposedly came out of the luncheon meeting, the Prince (who has served as his country’s ambassador in Washington for twenty years and knows Perle all too well) dismissed the “peace plan” as a pretextual cover for the meeting, stating:
“There is a split personality to Perle,” the ambassador said.
“Here he is, on the one hand, trying to make a hundred-million-dollar deal, and, on the other hand, there were elements of the appearance of blackmail -- ‘If we get in business, he’ll back off on Saudi Arabia’ -- as I have been informed by participants in the meeting.”
The Prince got his legal definitions wrong (Saudi Arabia has committed no crime and therefore could not be “blackmailed”) but he certainly grasped the heart of the matter. The lucheon meeting in Marseilles was a shakedown -- extortion, pure and simple. Richard Perle was running a protection racket out of the Pentagon by virtue of his influential position as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and was letting the Saudis know, in no uncertain terms, that things would go better for them if they did business with Trireme Partners, L.P.
Mr. Perle hasn’t taken Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker lying down, and in addition to threatening him with a libel action in Great Britain, has called the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist”. There’s that “Terror” word again. Perle throws it around all of the time. Apparently it goes well with his geopolitical plans for remaking the Middle East, and it doesn’t hurt the bottom line of his various businesses either.
While Perle has been busy orchestrating a campaign against Hersh among his various contacts in the media, his nemesis was at Harvard to accept that university’s prestigious Goldsmith’s Career Award for Excellence in Journalism. In accepting the award, Mr. Hersh told his audience at Harvard “I have never seen my peers as frightened as they are now….There is no real standard of integrity because the White House doesn’t have any.”
As any regular reader of this website knows, your Curmudgeon has never been much of an admirer of Richard Perle. The “Prince of Darkness”, as Perle has been called for his role in sabatoging the nuclear disarmament agreements between the United States and the old Soviet Union, goes blithely about his business of starting wars, derailing peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and redrawing the map of the Middle East, all for Israel’s benefit, without much regard for the long-term consequences his policies and projects may have for the United States, all while making tons of money for himself in the process. He seems to me to be a sort of real life “Noah Cross”, the wealthy, determined and amoral founder of the Los Angeles water system, played so brilliantly by John Huston in Roman Polanski’s classic movie “Chinatown”. Noah Cross was so wealthy, influential and well-connected that he could break any law with impunity and still achieve all of his goals. Sadly, that also seems to be the case with Richard Perle.
Rather than close on that note, I will end this article with two assessments of Mr. Perle from two journalists who are a good deal more knowledgeable about him than I am. One is serious and one is funny. I will save the humorous assessment for last and quote at some length from Eric Alterman’s excellent piece “Perle, Interrupted” which despite its prescient title appears to have been written before Perle’s March 27th resignation. Mr. Alterman’s article, which will appear in the April 7, 2003 issue of The Nation, can also be found on that publication’s website at www.the nation.com:
“Together with Paul Wolfowitz, Perle is the primary intellectual architect of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Exercising his influence through his many proteges, whom he’s placed in key jobs throughout the Pentagon and elsewhere, Perle’s only official role is as voluntary chair of the President’s Defense Policy Board. That leaves him free not only to say what he pleases but to do what he wants.
“Having spent decades in and out of office, feeding journalists and seeing his ‘genius’ promoted in return, Perle has employed his semi-oracular status to promote war with Iraq while consistently underestimating its likely costs. As Perle told US News and World Report: ‘The Iraqi opposition is kind of like an MRE [meals ready to eat, a freeze-dried Army field ration]. The ingredients are there and you just have to add water, in this case U.S. support.’ Testifying before Congress in 2000, Perle insisted, ‘We need not send substantial ground forces into Iraq when patriotic Iraqis are willing to fight to liberate their country.’ Last year, he conceded that the US troop requirement might go as high as 40,000.”
Reading that rediculous assessment of needed troop requirements, it is easy to understand why all of the neo-conservatives have been telling the nation for months that the war with Iraq was going to be a “cakewalk”, one of their favorite terms, and why Donald Rumsfeld decided, against the persistent advice of his generals, to wage a sort of “War-Lite” ground campaign in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s initial estimate of needed ground forces for the invasion was only 70,000. It is now becoming questionable whether even 250,000 troops will be enough. The mothers and fathers, and husbands and wives, of the slain soldiers in Iraq can thank Richard Perle in no small measure for the miscalculations which have led to the deaths of some of their loved ones. But, to return to the text of Mr. Alterman’s excellent article in The Nation:
“Not satisfied with helping to inspire a war -- not that big a deal, really, to a guy who’s had a hand in derailing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and upending US-Soviet arms control agreements -- Perle apparently thought it would be glorious to be rich as well. In his spare time, it turns out, he is also managing partner in a venture-capital company called Trireme Partners, which invests in companies ‘dealing in technology, goods, and services that are of value to homeland security and defense.’ In his New Yorker piece Hersh raised questions about whether Perle had violated the terms of his service on the Policy Board and noted the confluence of his business interests with government work.”
Now, departing from the serious and indignant tone of Eric Alterman’s assessment of Richard Perle, I will close with the following brief and humorous assessment of The Chairman found at the end of “Mr. Smallweed’s” satirical article in the Saturday, March 29, 2003 issue of The Guardian entitled “The death of Boudicca: was it because of her celluite?” Although the entire article dealt with other humorous issues of interest to the British public, the author apparently could not bear to close without a typically British swipe at Richard Perle upon learning of his resignation:
“This Richard Perle: it’s said he has now resigned his prestige chairmanship, but that’s not going to shut him up. Could he not be cast before swine -- preferably before swine with particularly vicious trotters?”
If only it were that simple.
Vigilantes Don’t Ask Permission
George Bush has not yet turned the United States into an outlaw nation. We still have not acted on the advice of the Rand Corporation analyst invited by Richard Perle to address his Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon who suggested that the United States should attack Saudi Arabia and seize its oil fields. No, although we are rightly feared by civilized nations around the world for our disdain of international law and our unseemly eagerness to use our overwhelming military power, we are not one of the “bad guys”. We are not outlaws -- just international vigilantes.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is an outlaw nation in the eyes of most of the international community. Twelve years ago it attacked its neighbor Kuwait and was driven back across its borders by a broad based coalition of nations put together by President George H. W. Bush and his able Secretary of State, James Baker. As part of the truce ending the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam agreed to give up and destroy his chemical and biological weapons which he had developed with the United States’ assistance when he was our ally (and cat’s paw) against the fundamentalist Islamic nation of Iran during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Most people, and most nations, believe that he has failed to do so.
Since the early to mid-1990s, it has been the goal of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other neo-conservative advisors surrounding President Bush to topple Saddam Hussein as the leader of Iraq. The unrelated attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001 created a wave of outraged domestic opinion against, and hysterical fear of, Islamic peoples everywhere and gave the hawks in George Bush’s administration the opportunity they had been looking for to pursue their objective of seeking regime change in Iraq by military force.
On the day after “9-11” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proposed a military attack against Iraq in the National Security Council while Secretary of State Colin Powell rolled his eyes in disbelief. For months thereafter Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and other hawkish members of the administration, and even the President himself, denigrated the United Nations as “irrelevant” and stated that the United States should act alone to eliminate the “threat” of Saddam Hussein and install a democratic regime in his place.
The only problem with this forthright pursuit of administration policy was that, by any objective standard, Iraq posed no threat to the United States and effecting “regime change” by military force is a violation of international law and of the United Nations’ charter. Although President Bush and the hawkish, neo-conservative ideologues advising him were eager to proceed with a unilateral military attack on Iraq, Colin Powell, and reportedly First Lady Laura Bush, plead for a course of action which was within the normal purview of international relations and international law. The outnumbered “doves” carried the day, and accordingly a decision was made to go to the United Nations’ Security Council and call on that body to demand compliance by Iraq with previous UN resolutions requiring disarmament and destruction of its chemical and biological weapons.
On September 12, 2002, a year and a day after Al Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, President Bush addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and, barely masking his contempt for the UN and its Security Council, challenged that body to demand compliance with its previous resolutions requiring Iraq to destroy its “weapons of mass destruction” or risk becoming “irrelevant” as a force in international relations. Secretary of State Powell drafted UN Resolution 1441 declaring Iraq in “material breach” of its obligations to disarm under previous resolutions and giving that country one last chance to come into compliance or face “serious consequences”. Secretary Powell and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, skillfully lobbied that resolution through the Security Council which approved it by a 15-0 vote, and Hans Blix was appointed the chief UN arms inspector to monitor compliance.
The ground work for military action against Iraq within the framework of the United Nations’ charter had thus been successfully laid. Much to the horror of the Bush Administration, and especially of the hawkish advisors who had wanted to by-pass the UN all along, however, Iraq started to cooperate with Hans Blix’s weapons inspectors. Though the United States kept stating that the cooperation was only on matters of “process” rather than on matters of substantive disarmament, Mr. Blix seemed not entirely unhappy with the progress of his mission, or with the steps which Iraq was taking toward disarmament, and asked for several more months to proceed along the path to disarmament. France, Germany, Russia, China and most of the other members of the Security Council, for whom the goal all along had been disarmament rather than a pretext for war, seemed willing to give Mr. Blix more time.
For the United States and George Bush, who had assembled his “Coalition of the Willing” consisting of the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Bulgaria (Great Britain was even “willing” to participate militarily), the proposed delay was infuriating. He had already dispatched five aircraft carrier battle groups and 250,000 troops to the Persian Gulf to launch his invasion, and he had expected to do so in early March. Now, all of a sudden everyone in the world seemed to be willing to give peace a chance, including the populations (as opposed to the governments) of his coalition partners.
Eighty-one percent of the people of the United Kingdom were opposed to going to war without a specific, further UN resolution authorizing it. The populations of the other coalition members (who weren’t actually going to be participating militarily in any event) were also opposed in similar proportions. Even Turkey, which had been promised a thirty billion dollar aid package in exchange for allowing its territory to be used as a northern front, had second thoughts and refused to cooperate with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
As a matter of fact, of all the peoples of the world, only in the United States was there a majority in favor of going to war and that slipping majority had been achieved only by an incessant barrage of Bush Administration propaganda (echoed by a largely compliant and uncritical media) seeking to convince the populace that Iraq somehow had ties to the Al Qaeda network which was responsible for “9-11”. Faced with peace demonstrations throughout the world and a public relations disaster of monumental proportions, the Bush Administration decided it had no choice but to go back to the UN and try for another resolution authorizing war if only to save the political career of Tony Blair who had totally lost the support of his ruling Labour Party and the British people.
So, Colin Powell and Ambassador John Negroponte were again dispatched to the Security Council to drum up support for a UN resolution authorizing war against Iraq. They found the going rather rough. For one thing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hadn’t made their task any easier by referring to France and Germany as “old Europe” and comparing Germany to Cuba and Libya, nor had the President by repeatedly stating that the United States was going to war with, or without, the United Nations’ approval and reiterating his claim that if the UN refused to support U.S. policy it would render itself as irrelevant a debating society as the League of Nations had been. The Bush Administration still hasn’t learned, apparently, that it’s easier to get peoples’ votes when you aren’t insulting them all of the time, but the simple truth is that most of the members of the UN Security Council were not displeased with the progress which Hans Blix had made in nudging Iraq toward disarmament. They had voted for Resolution 1441 not as a pretext for war, as had the United States and the United Kingdom, but as a means to coerce Iraqi disarmament and they thought it was working passably well in that regard.
When France and Russia said they were opposed to war and would vote against (ie. “veto”) any resolution to go to war at this time, and a third permanent member of the Security Council, China, announced similar misgivings, the United States realized the jig was up so far as actually obtaining a resolution authorizing war. The United States still hoped for a minor public relations victory, however, and set out to win the favorable votes of nine members of the Security Council which they could claim as a moral victory even if France and Russia exercised their vetoes. For two weeks, the United States has been alternately begging, threatening and cajoling such nations as Mexico, Pakistan, Cameroon, Angola, Guinea and Chile for their support without picking up a single vote. We still have the same four votes of the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Bulgaria that we had going in.
The spectacle of as arrogant and powerful a nation as the United States pleading for votes in the United Nations’ Security Council (an international body for which the current administration has never failed to express its contempt) among the third world nations of Africa and South America is both embarrassing and exhilarating at the same time. If President Bush and other members of his administration had shown only a small portion of the humility and respect for the views of other nations which candidate George Bush promised in his speech at the Reagan Library, we wouldn’t be having all of this trouble now. When you spend all of your time sticking your finger into other peoples’ eyes (or as a defiant gesture into the air) these results should not be unexpected. In just two years in office, George Bush has succeeded in making the United States the most hated nation on the face of the earth.
Just this past week, President Bush addressed the nation and said we were going to war with Iraq with, or without, the UN’s approval. He pledged to put forth his resolution even in the face of veto threats by France, Russia and possibly China, just to make the members of the Security Council stand up and be counted -- just to demonstrate their irrelevance in the march of history which henceforth would be written and dictated by the United States. As this is being written, he is no longer sure that is such a good idea. The prospect of losing such a vote by a margin of 11-4 suddenly doesn’t have so much appeal. He is off tomorrow to the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he can meet with his coalition partners, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, in safety and out of earshot of their outraged populations.
Go ahead, President Bush. Kick down the door and get on with the lynching. Tony Blair is holding the shotgun for you, and Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are holding the rope. Richard Perle and all of his neo-conservative followers in the news media such as William Kristol, Fred Barnes, Brit Hume, George Will and the entire editorial board of the Wall Street Journal are holding the torches and inciting the crowd. Saddam Hussein is a bad fellow and may deserve to die even if that gutless UN jury failed to condemn him to death. But please, stop this pathetic begging and whining -- it’s becoming embarrassing. Vigilantes don’t ask for permission.
North Korea Calls the Bush Administration’s Bluff
For almost one hundred years, the overriding policy of the Republican Party in dealing with foreign nations was the one first enunciated by its most manly president, Theodore Roosevelt: it was the sensible maxim known to every school child (in the days when America still had a decent system of public education) -- “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.”
When he was running for president, George W. Bush paid lip service to that Republican philosophy in a speech delivered at the Reagan Library, promising an American foreign policy which would be grounded in humility and which would show respect for the customs and practices of other nations, even those which were very different than our own. Our 43rd president, however, never had much interest in, or commitment to, that view of international relations, and it is not surprising, therefore, that he completely abandoned that restrained approach to dealing with America’s friends and enemies once the airplanes flew into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Squandering a huge reservoir of good will and sympathy toward America after 9-11, he let the “neo-cons” in charge of his administration’s foreign policy and defense establishments propound a new “kick-ass” approach to our dealings with other nations, the first example of which was his statement almost immediately after 9-11 that other nations had to be either “with us, or against us” in our War Against Terrorism. There would be no recognition of, or respect for, the problems such a simplistic statement of policy would pose for a host of nations who sympathized with the United States and wanted to be our friends.
The next prominent example of this new aggressive statement of American foreign policy came in the President’s first State of the Union speech when he focused attention not on the Al Qaeda network which had attacked us, but, in a needlessly bellicose and provocative turn of phrase, on the “Axis of Evil” (the three nations of Iraq, Iran and North Korea) which had not. It is not surprising that this provocative phrase jarred and caused unease in traditional Republican circles (and here I refer to the Middle Western backbone of the GOP represented in the past by Wendell Willkie and Bob Taft, and today by Dick Lugar, Charles Grassley, Chuck Hagel and others, not the Democratic converts from the Deep South or the new breed of ultra-hawkish, pro-Israeli, ex-Democrats represented by such men as William Kristol, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz who constitute the new, aggressive “neo-conservatives” so well entrenched in the Bush Administration’s defense and foreign policy establishments). Traditional Republicans wondered why, with so much trouble already on America’s plate in the form of Al Qaeda, we needed to provoke and antagonize several other potential enemies and cause such unease in a host of nations who traditionally had been our allies and friends.
The next step in scrapping not just traditional Republican policy, but the entire nation’s abhorrence of aggressive warfare, came in President Bush’s commencement address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point on June 1, 2002 when he declared that the United States would no longer wait to be attacked by foreign nations but would pursue a military policy of preemptive first strikes against nations thought to constitute potential threats to the country. That speech, which provoked almost universal cries of alarm from those outside of the United States, and from students of international law within it, was just a prelude to The National Security Strategy of the United States written by National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, published in September of 2002, and edited (or so he said) by President George W. Bush to eliminate portions of that 33 page document which some might perceive to be arrogant.
If our president succeeded in toning down the arrogant rhetoric of that document, I would have loved to have seen the first draft, because a statement of national policy more astounding in its ignorance of the world outside of America, or more breathtaking in its arrogance with respect to it, would be difficult to imagine. Stripped of its fuzzy “feel good” language of political correctness covering everything from ridding Africa of AIDS to leading the third world into economic prosperity, this extraordinary document basically stated that the United States would militarily attack and destroy any nation which attempted to gain military parity with this country, and would economically coerce any nation or society which failed to adopt our particular brand of western democracy and its free market economic system.
Condoleezza Rice’s tome (and perhaps it is unfair to saddle her exclusively with the blame for creating it, since the germ of its idea originated with Paul Wolfowitz in the first Bush Administration before the 41st president quashed the policy as unacceptably arrogant) deals in large measure with the United States’ opposition to “WMDs” (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in the hands of any nation other than our own. The document states in the most unequivocal terms that any nation attempting to acquire WMDs would be subject to immediate and preemptive attack by the military forces of the United States. The freedom of the United States (and, indeed, the freedom of the entire civilized world) was said to be dependent upon this distasteful, but necessary, military policy. As such, it provided a clear, concise, and unequivocal rationale and justification for our forthcoming attack on Iraq.
For reasons having more to do with personal family history and grudges than with the national security of the United States, President George W. Bush determined that the first nation in the “Axis of Evil” which would come under attack from the United States for the offense of attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction would be Iraq. It was an inconvenient fact, of course, that Iraq never had posed (and probably never could pose) a significant threat to the United States, and had the bad grace to allow some three hundred UN weapons inspectors into the country to confirm that they were unable to find any such WMDs, but the Bush Administration is undeterred in its determination to launch an attack on Iraq and has declared that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” so far as weapons of mass destruction are concerned, and is readying four to five aircraft carrier battle groups in the Persian gulf in preparation for its attack.
In the midst of these military preparations, North Korea, another charter member of the “Axis of Evil” has come forward, pleased and proud, to announce that they already possess WMDs (two nuclear weapons together with the missiles to deliver them) and, contrary to past assurances, are on a crash course to develop several more. They have just expelled the two or three UN weapons inspectors from their country, and have cranked up their nuclear reactor to begin producing plutonium to produce more nuclear warheads. By the time that we have finished with our conquest of Iraq (which could not possibly pose any threat to us over the next several years) North Korea will have an arsenal of ten to twelve nuclear weapons which they can use to threaten every major city in the United States west of the Mississippi River, or, as is more likely, can sell to any number of other nation states or terrorist networks which do not wish us well.
So, what is the response of the Bush Administration to this admittedly real and present danger to the safety and security of the United States? George W. Bush described this very situation in his commencement address to the graduating Cadets at West Point on June 1, 2002:
“The gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology. When the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology --when that occurs, even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations. Our enemies have declared this very intention, and have been caught seeking these terrible weapons. They want the capability to blackmail us, or to harm us, or to harm our friends -- and we will oppose them with all our power.”
Does the administration recognize the terrible danger that North Korea’s recent actions pose and, acting on the President’s bold words, intend to “oppose them with all our power”? Why, no. It intends to handle this conflict (not “crisis”) through diplomatic means. Through negotiations: (read “appeasement”, “placation”, and “paying tribute”) not directly, of course, but through our “friends” in the region such as Communist China which has been supplying its North Korean ally with the chemicals necessary to convert spent nuclear fuel rods to active nuclear materials, or Russia which has been aiding Iran with its burgeoning nuclear program, or South Korea’s new government which understandably wants less and less to do with the confrontational government of the United States.
“Walk softly, and carry a big stick?” Why that’s just not the Bush Administration’s style. For almost a year the United States has been telling the paranoid, isolated leaders of the 1950’s style Stalinist government of North Korea exactly what they could expect from us once we get through dealing with Iraq and other Islamic nations which are easy targets for our military might. Like any school yard bully, the “neo-cons” running Bush’s foreign relations and military establishments know that success is dependent upon picking your victims carefully. You don’t want to pick on anyone with the capacity to hit back. Iraq doesn’t have that capacity, but North Korea with its million man army, with its ability to overrun Seoul just forty miles from its border, and with its existing and developing nuclear weapons program, certainly does.
For over a year, we’ve been bragging and braying like a drunk in a bar. Trouble is, all of our “big sticks” are in the Persian Gulf getting ready to whip up on defenseless Iraq. They will be occupied there for a considerable time and North Korea knows it. In seeking an easy conquest, we have ignored a real and dangerous threat and now there is nothing we can do about it. We are sitting at the poker table holding a four-flush, and North Korea has just called our hand.
Choking on Ariel Sharon's Pastrami Sandwich
Winston S. Churchill, III, the British journalist, former member of Parliament, and grandson of the legendary prime minister, addressing the National Press Club on October 10, 2001, recalled a conversation he had with Ariel Sharon almost thirty years earlier in 1973. Mr. Churchill had asked Mr. Sharon what would become of the Palestinians:
“Oh,” Sharon said, “we’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yes, we’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlement, in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlement, right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years time, neither the United Nations, nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
It is beginning to look as though Ariel Sharon has achieved his long time goals of permanently converting the West Bank into Israeli territory, and scuttling the Oslo Accords and with them any hope of a Palestinian state. The settlements which he had erected across the West Bank while Housing Minister in the government of Bibi Netanyahu, coupled with the conflagration of the “second intifada” sparked by his deliberately provocative visit to the Temple Mount in October of 2000, and the vacillations of a United States’ foreign policy preoccupied with its own “war on terror” all appear to have converged to deliver to Israel the additional territory and more defensible borders which Mr. Sharon, as a former general, had long craved. But at what cost?
Israel, as the strongest military power in the Middle East, is no longer threatened by any nation or any combination of nations in the region. The threat to Israel comes from within, and specifically from the conquered people who it rules in the “occupied territories”. It is important to retain perspective and to remember that almost all of the violence which is now inflicted on Israel proper on a daily basis started in October of 2000, after Mr. Sharon’s “worship in force” at the wailing wall and the collapse of the talks at Camp David between former prime minister Barak and Yasir Arafat. It begs the question to point out that Mr. Arafat is a gutless coward and buffoon who was unwilling to spend any of his political capital to reach agreement on a Palestinian state at Camp David. The important facts are that while the Oslo Accords and the negotiations between Barak’s Labour government and the Palestinian Authority were on-going the Palestinian people had reason to hope. After the talks collapsed and Barak’s Labour government was swept from power and replaced by an Israeli government dominated by Mr. Sharon’s Likud party, that reason to hope disappeared. Desperate people commit desperate acts.
Despite grinding poverty and the daily humiliations inherent in an oppressive military occupation which has lasted over 35 years, the current wave of suicide bombings and violence unleashed by Palestinian extremists against Israeli civilians were unknown before Mr. Sharon’s provocation at the Temple Mount in October of 2000 and the collapse of the Camp David talks. A bar chart published in the New York Times edition of June 27, 2002, depicting the deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians since the start of the “second intifada” reveals virtually no Israeli deaths in September of 2000, but skyrocketing deaths on both sides after that time. The ghastly figures, of course, now grow daily, but as of the time the bar chart was published on June 27, 2002, there were 550 Israeli and 1,600 Palestinian dead. Naturally, the cycle of violence continues to feed on itself. As the poet W. H. Auden observed in his poem “September 1, 1939”:
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
Thus, we are treated to the distressing prospect of seeing the idealistic and noble people of Israel gradually morph into the very terrorists who afflict them. Last week, the Israeli cabinet made a deliberate and considered decision to drop a thousand pound bomb onto an apartment building in a residential section of Gaza in which Hamas terrorist, Salah Shehadeh, and countless other innocent Palestinians were sleeping. The Israeli government was pleased to learn that they had killed the Hamas leader, and dismissed the deaths of the other 14 Palestinians, many of whom were children, as unavoidable collateral damage. You know you are witnessing the unraveling of civilization when police work is performed in the dead of night by dropping a thousand pound bomb into a residential neighborhood from an F-16 fighter jet. This morning, July 31, 2002, the inevitable retaliation occurred when Hamas struck back, planting a bomb which exploded in Hebrew University in Jerusalem killing seven people.
It is shocking to know that the bombing of that Gaza apartment building was conceived of not in some shadowy terrorist cell, but at the highest levels of the Israeli government. It is even more shocking, however, to learn that the target of that midnight bombing attack was not just the Hamas leader, but the peace process itself. Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and for years one of the most knowledgeable commentators on Israeli affairs in the American media, reported in her column “Gaza bomb shatters peace effort” that the timing of the bombing was chosen to head off a promising development for peace on the part of Palestinian militants:
“According to the Israeli press, the bombing took place just 90 minutes after another major Palestinian militia, the Tanzim, had agreed to announce a unilateral cease-fire. The cease-fire was the result of months of intensive negotiations, led by the European Union, about which top Israeli and American officials had been briefed. It was widely known that the Tanzim’s cease-fire manifesto was to be announced Tuesday, and that Hamas was likely to participate.
“But on Monday, at midnight, those prospects were blown away.
“The bombing has set off a firestorm of debate among Israeli journalists and politicians. Alex Fishman, the veteran military correspondent of Israel’s largest and right-of-center daily, Yediot Ahronot, asked on Wednesday: ‘Is it possible that somebody in Israel’s high political and military echelons wanted to deliberately sabotage the chances for a cease-fire?’ ”
Well, since Ariel Sharon has been an outspoken opponent of the peace process, the Oslo Accords and the concept of a Palestinian state for years, perhaps the better question should be is it possible that somebody in those high political and military circles “did not want to deliberately sabotage” those chances, or as even a casually well informed Valley Girl would say… “Well, duh!”.
Ms. Rubin was almost as condemnatory of the Bush administration’s response to the bombing as she was of the Israeli government’s action itself:
“As for the Bush administration, its limp response to the Gaza bombing makes a mockery of its stated policy. President Bush has called on Palestinians to stop their violence and change their leaders, at which point he will help them get a Palestinian state. The Tanzim offer, which bubbled up from the Palestinian grass roots, not down from Arafat, would have done both. It would have pushed forward a younger generation of leaders before Palestinian elections in January.
“But the White House has responded to Sharon’s air strike with nothing but spin, denouncing it as heavy-handed. There are no indications yet that Bush recognizes how dangerous Sharon’s policies are for Israel and the region.”
I daresay Ms. Rubin is right -- President Bush and his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, are so obsessed with planning their ill-advised war against Iraq that they have no time to consider the dangers that Ariel Sharon’s policies pose not only for Israel itself, but also for the United States’ relationships with other Arabic states in the region which are actually of much greater strategic importance than is our relationship with Israel. Colin Powell could explain it to them, but he is the forgotten man in the Bush administration, and even if he did so it would fall on deaf ears, as have the warnings of the King of Jordan delivered earlier this week.
So, for the moment, Ariel Sharon stands astride Israel and the West Bank like a colossus with all of his fondest wishes granted. He is occupying virtually every major city in the West Bank, imposing near 24 hour curfews to damp down terrorism, and there is virtually no prospect that Israel’s occupation will be anything but permanent. His military incursions undertaken this spring and summer have virtually destroyed all of the Palestinian Authority’s infra-structure, as they were intended to do, leaving only Israel with the power to govern in the “occupied territories”. He has convinced the distracted government of the United States that the buffoon Yasir Arafat is “irrelevant” and that it should have no further dealings with either him or his Palestinian Authority so long as he remains its titular leader (and he knows that Mr. Arafat is bound to win reelection in January, particularly after Mr. Bush’s foolish denunciation of him). So, the United States is a spent force, and he, Ariel Sharon, has his additional territory, no worries about an independent Palestinian state, and a free hand in the “occupied territories” under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.
But Ariel, as the Chinese proverb warns, “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Observers a good deal more far-seeing than President Bush and his limited national security advisor have realized that Mr. Sharon’s success in killing off the “two state solution” to the problems of Palestine have doomed Israel to a permanent military occupation of the West Bank filled with a rapidly growing population of Palestinians who have no reason to wish Israel anything but harm. In his excellent op-ed piece published in the New York Times on June 30, 2002, entitled “The End of Something”, Thomas Friedman points out that Israel’s situation is now directly analogous to that which South Africa faced during apartheid:
“And if that is the case, it means that Israel will have to rule the West Bank and Gaza permanently, the way South African whites ruled blacks under apartheid. Because by 2010, if current demographic patterns hold, there will be more Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem than Jews. And if that is the case, it means an endless grinding conflict that poses a mortal danger to Israel.
“Because there are three trends converging in the Middle East today. The first is this vicious Israeli-Palestinian war. The second is a population explosion in the Arab world, where virtually every Arab country has a population bubble of under-15-year-olds, who are marching toward a future where they will find a shortage of good jobs and a surplus of frustration. The third is an explosion of Arab satellite TV stations, the Internet and other private media.”
Mr. Friedman poses a not unrealistic scenario of a whole generation of young Arab men growing up who have been whipped into a frenzy against Israel and the United States by coverage in the Arab media portraying the mistreatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. He speculates that of those there will be at least 10 who will one day discover that “there is a Pakistani gentleman at the door selling a suit case nuclear bomb” for only $100,000 which the young man would like to personally deliver to Tel Aviv, “and dad is going to write the check”.
Mr. Friedman forcefully argues that the only long-term solution for Israel is “to get out of the territories -- any orderly way it can --and minimize its friction with the Arab world.” But this would require Ariel Sharon to surrender his dream of annexing the West Bank, a dream shared incidentally by his supporters in the United States congress who draw their political support from the “hard-shell” Christian right, such as House Republican majority leader, Dick Armey, and Republican whip, Tom DeLay. That would be a hard thing for a military man like Ariel Sharon, who thinks in terms of territory rather than concepts, to do. But it may be Israel’s only hope, unless it wants to discard its national character and remake itself in the image of the totalitarian regime which its citizens came to the Middle East to forget.
President Bush is right. For peace to have any chance in the Middle East, there needs to be a regime change. But interestingly enough, the need for that regime change is not most essential in Iraq, or even in the Palestinian Authority, but in Israel itself. Since Israel, unlike the United States, is a theocracy where prayer is not frowned upon, let us pray for peace in Israel and Palestine. Let us pray for the Labour party in the next Israeli election.
Otherwise, the Israeli people may find themselves choking on Ariel Sharon’s pastrami sandwich, which is always served with two large side dishes of death and carnage.
Black Holes, Cosmic and Domestic
Astronomers reported on Tuesday, September 17th, that with the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope they had discovered two more black holes of an intermediate class, hitherto suspected but unconfirmed, which help explain the origins of the universe. The closer of these has a mass 4,000 times that of our sun and is a mere 32,000 light years from us; the larger is 20,000 times the mass of our sun and is located 2.2 million light years away in the Andromeda galaxy, the cosmic next door neighbor of our Milky Way.
Closer to home, however, there is a black hole forming which apparently is even harder to see. It has such mass that it is sucking all of the light, reason and common sense out of our political discourse -- I refer, of course, to the Bush Administration’s massive campaign of disinformation in support of its goal of a war against Iraq.
Yesterday, September 18th, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the smartest, wittiest and certainly the most devious member of the Bush team, appeared on Capitol Hill to fire the administration’s first salvo of propaganda toward Congress in hopes of getting a “resolution” (they apparently think Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution is too archaic and quaint to ask for the constitutionally mandated Declaration of War) in support of an invasion of Iraq.
Secretary Rumsfeld of course was unable to provide the congressional committee with even a shred of actual evidence that Iraq poses a real or present danger to the United States. Clearly there is none to provide, and an attempt to do so might tempt even the most timid congressman to put his or her reelection prospects at risk by asking precisely what action Iraq had ever taken during the course of its national existence against this country (for the historically challenged, the answer to this unasked question is “none” -- Iraq has never taken any action against the United States).
As a matter of fact, all of the litanies of horrors of which Saddam Hussein rightly stands accused were committed years ago when he was the ally of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations. How about the oft repeated chestnut that he used poison gas against his neighbors and his own people? Indeed he did, and he did so with the knowledge and approval of the United States. We even provided him with the 60 Hughes helicopters which he used to spray the deadly chemicals. All told, the United States provided Iraq with 1.5 billion dollars worth of military weapons and technology in the five years preceding the Gulf War. He was our boy, and proxy, in the battle against the Islamic fundamentalist nation of Iran. If he hadn’t misinterpreted our ambassador, April Glaspie’s, ambiguous response to his question whether we would have any objection to his invasion of Kuwait, he still would be.
So, while Saddam Hussein is admittedly a “bad man”, almost all of his bad acts were committed when he was the United States’ ally and with our permission and approval. The present propaganda campaign conducted by the Bush Administration in its attempt to whip the nation into a frenzy to support an invasion of Iraq is so thick with hypocrisy you can cut it with a knife.
So, how did the clever and talented Donald Rumsfeld deal with this dearth of evidence against Iraq in his appearance before Congress intended to drum up support for an invasion of that country? By repeating the conclusory, but unfounded, allegations that Iraq represents a dire threat to the United States with such persuasive use of language that he made his testimony seem as if it presented something new and worthy of consideration. And he did so without saying anything which could be refuted as demonstrably untrue, establishing that the concept of the “Big Lie” did not die with Joseph Goebbels.
Secretary Rumsfeld merely asserted that Iraq was the most dangerous “terrorist state” facing America today. This was the “sound bite” carried on the network and cable news telecasts of his testimony. Actually, a good deal more coverage was given to the two women protesting the prospective war with their inane chanting of “Inspections, not War”, but to the casual viewer, or to the timid congressman, Mr. Rumsfeld’s well chosen words made quite an impact. What his words conveyed, but did not actually say, was that Iraq represented an even greater threat to this country than does the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Well, if Iraq is that dangerous, it must be very dangerous indeed -- after all we have just seen what Al Qaeda was capable of in its attacks on the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan.
So the literate Donald Rumsfeld drove home his point, and created a powerful misimpression about Iraq’s perceived threat, in a way that the inarticulate President Bush, or the ponderous Vice President Cheney, never could -- by the precise, but misleading, use of language. Al Qaeda is a terrorist network, but is not a “state”. Although both North Korea and Iran possess nuclear weapons and harbor an ingrained hostility toward the United States, no one can actually prove that they are more dangerous to the United States than Iraq, and communist China which has actually threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States (“The United States should be more concerned with Los Angeles than with Taiwan” said its present premier) has not been labeled a “terrorist” state by our government.
So the “black hole” of the Bush Administration’s campaign of disinformation about Iraq continues to build critical mass. Common sense objections to war, such as the Defense Department’s own admission that Iraq’s military capability is a mere shadow of its former self, and that it is not feared even by its own neighbors in the region (all of whom are opposed to our proposed attack) are sucked without consideration or comment into the powerful gravitational pull of our war lust.
Never mind that an unprovoked attack on another nation goes against everything this country has represented for over a century -- our reasonable fear of Al Qaeda has been turned into a hysterical, unreasoning fear of a nation which has never done us any harm. Saddam Hussein committed the unpardonable offense of politically outlasting his erstwhile ally, George H. W. Bush, and to avenge that affront the men and women of America’s armed forces will be sent into Iraq to do and die.
A personal note from the editor: Although the tone of the above article may not convey it, I am rather an admirer of Donald Rumsfeld. He was my congressman when I lived in Illinois; his father-in-law gave me my first job; a beautiful tray, depicting lemons and grapes and bearing the legend “Love Makes the World Go Round” which was hand-painted by his mother-in-law and given to my wife and me as a wedding present, still sits in my bar; and I will always stand in awe of his long-departed beagle, Benjy, who once destroyed an entire Washington hotel room. Were I president, I would want Donald Rumsfeld to be my Secretary of Defense, but I would tell him to stick to his job and not try to also act as an ad hoc Secretary of State. In addition, there would be no Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice or John Ashcroft around to support his hawkish instincts.
A Word to the President and American Public from T. Jefferson
Hey, "W", your oath was to “defend”, not “suspend”, the Constitution of the United States! The president, his vice president, his attorney general, and his secretary of defense are all talking and acting as though our constitution is an obstacle to be avoided, rather than the foundation of our nation to be protected, in our undeclared “war” against terrorism. If that attitude is adopted by the third branch of government, our federal judiciary, we will have already lost our “War on Terrorism” because the terrorists will have cowed the Bush Administration and the American public into giving up the single most definitive characteristic of American life -- our unique constitution, with its stated goal of protecting the freedom of the individual against the power of the central government.
The framers of our constitution were rightly very suspicious of a federal government with unlimited powers over its citizens. We had just fought a revolution to get rid of a king, and the men who met in Philadelphia to draft our new constitution wanted to make sure that the president who would head the executive branch of the new central government would be checked by an independent judiciary and would be subservient to the statutory enactments and fiscal restraints of the bicameral congress. It’s no accident that the Second Amendment declared that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” -- our founding fathers thought that someday they might be needed to protect the citizens of their new nation against their own government.
Nor was it any accident that the Sixth Amendment declared “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” The recently liberated colonists, like the Englishmen in the mother country for generations before them, believed in the protections of the common law, and its “Great Writ” of habeas corpus, as a bulwark against the tyranny of governmental excess and of the Star Chamber.
It is a sad commentary, therefore, on this generation of “comfortable” Americans that we cherish our basic freedoms so little that we are willing to surrender them to our government in the illusive hope that by doing so we may buy ourselves a little more security. A recent poll taken by USA Today found that 80% of the sample of Americans polled would be willing to do just that. Since our current attorney general, John Ashcroft, obviously lacks the breadth of vision to stand up for our constitutional form of government at the first sign of trouble from abroad, perhaps we would be wise to remember the words and advice of a country lawyer from Albemarle County, Virginia, the author of our Bill of Rights, and our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who lived through much tougher and more challenging times:
“Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither and lose both.”
We are well on our way to experiencing that dire prophesy. It was not the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution that led to the disastrous results of September 11, 2001 -- it was the incompetence, bureaucratic cowardice, and lack of imagination of the employees of our federal government, specifically the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, who proved unequal to analyzing and acting upon the clues and intelligence information that were laid before them.
Why reward that same group of mediocre bureaucrats by giving them the right to designate various citizens as enemies of the state or “enemy combatants”, and by the simple administrative act of affixing that label to a citizen, deny him his rights under our constitution? President Bush and John Ashcroft seem to be proud of the fact that 2,400 people are currently being detained for indefinite periods of time without charges and without access to the judicial process (“2,401”, the president boasted in his cabinet meeting this week, after Ashcroft revealed that American citizen, Jose Padilla, had been arrested in Chicago on May 8, 2002, and had been held incommunicado by the Justice Department in New York City for over 40 days as a material witness, but without sufficient evidence for a federal grand jury to indict him). The president commented that “This guy Padilla is a bad guy,” and he may very well be, but he is also an American citizen, and under our system of government it is up to the administration to produce evidence capable of convincing a judge that he is a “ bad guy” -- it is not up to some GS-15 in the FBI, CIA or the Department of Defense to make that determination.
Of the “2,401” people under arrest and subject to indefinite detention in our undeclared “war against terrorism”, only two have been charged with being terrorists or having conspired to commit terrorist acts. Obviously, there are some among those 2,400 detainees who are not threats to the United States and were just swept up in the bureaucratic hysteria following “9-11”. They should not be held indefinitely without charges, with even their identities kept secret by the Justice Department. This is nothing to be proud of; this should be a matter of national shame.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz stated on June 12th that Mr. Ashcroft had blown the threat of Padilla’s “dirty bomb” plot all out of proportion, and in reality it was all just a lot of “loose talk”. That may explain why Padilla was declared an “enemy combatant” by the Defense Department on the day before he was scheduled to go before a federal judge in New York, and spirited out of the state and out of the custody of the U.S. Marshall and imprisoned in a Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
As a matter of fact, in recent weeks the announcements of terrorist arrests, or warnings of terrorist threats, seem to crop up whenever the administration is confronted with a particularly embarrassing case of bureaucratic bungling and there is an exigent need to deflect public attention and to change the subject.
As soon as Congress learned that the FBI had ignored the Phoenix memo before “9-11” and had kept its existence hidden from the president and congressional oversight committees for nine months, Vice President Cheney went on the Sunday talk shows and said we were at war and it ill-behooved the Congress to inquire into such past matters when we were facing fresh, new terrorist threats.
When FBI agent Coleen Rowley’s memo about the Minneapolis field office’s frustrations in being denied the chance to seek search warrants for Zacarias Moussaoui’s computer hard drive and telephone records came to light around Memorial Day, we were treated to a series of preposterous terrorist threat warnings from the FBI suggesting that the Brooklyn Bridge would be destroyed, the public water supply would be poisoned, our subway and inter-city train services were targeted for attack, and that we could shortly expect to see suicide bombers in our streets.
When it started to become obvious (see “Incompetence at Home, Insanity Abroad” in the Bad Thoughts section) that except for FBI and CIA mishandling of intelligence information the tragedy of “9-11” might well have been avoidable, the president announced (much to his credit) that he was rethinking his opposition to the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but that news certainly deflected attention away from FBI agent Coleen Rowley’s appearance before the select Senate-House committee holding oversight hearings into the intelligence community’s handling of information prior to “9-11”. Thereafter, when congressional critics began to question why the FBI and CIA, the chief miscreants in the intelligence debacle, were left out of the proposed Homeland Security Department, the forty day old arrest of Jose Padilla suddenly came to light.
Each of these “terrorist warnings” or leaks of terrorist arrests serves to deflect public attention away from the failures of the federal government properly to protect the citizens of this country, thus providing the administration with some political cover (who would point the finger of blame when we are at “war”?), but every false warning or news release blown out of proportion about a terrorist arrest also plays into the hands of the terrorists who wish us harm by increasing national hysteria and creating panic in our financial markets (one of Al Qaeda’s original stated goals). Such questionable tactics also serve to make our citizens just a little bit more amenable to surrendering our constitutional rights and privileges to the federal government in the false hope that may make us more secure from terrorist attack.
Oh, what a brave new world you are leading us into, President Bush! It is a good thing that you have forged such a close bond with Russian president Putin because the area we are entering is completely new to the American experience. Perhaps Mr. Putin, as former head of the Soviet Union’s KGB, can explain the benefits to the nation of secret arrest and indefinite detention without charges and without trial. Certainly, it is anathema to the tradition of the English common law upon which the framers of our constitution drew so heavily. Thomas Jefferson would not be pleased.