Saturday, March 24, 2007

When Will Fredo Get Whacked?

The New York Times
March 25, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH wants to keep everything that happens in his White House secret, but when it comes to his own emotions, he’s as transparent as a teenager on MySpace.

On Monday morning he observed the Iraq war’s fourth anniversary with a sullen stay-the-course peroration so perfunctory he seemed to sleepwalk through its smorgasbord of recycled half-truths (Iraqi leaders are “beginning to meet the benchmarks”) and boilerplate (“There will be good days, and there will be bad days”). But at a press conference the next day to defend his attorney general, the president was back in the saddle, guns blazing, Mr. Bring ’Em On reborn. He vowed to vanquish his Democratic antagonists much as he once, so very long ago, pledged to make short work of insurgents in Iraq.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast between these two performances couldn’t be a more dramatic indicator of Mr. Bush’s priorities in his presidency’s endgame. His passion for protecting his power and his courtiers far exceeds his passion for protecting the troops he’s pouring into Iraq’s civil war. But why go to the mat for Alberto Gonzales? Even Bush loyalists have rarely shown respect for this crony whom the president saddled with the nickname Fredo; they revolted when Mr. Bush flirted with appointing him to the Supreme Court and shun him now. The attorney general’s alleged infraction — misrepresenting a Justice Department purge of eight United States attorneys, all political appointees, for political reasons — seems an easy-to-settle kerfuffle next to his infamous 2002 memo dismissing the Geneva Conventions’ strictures on torture as “quaint” and “obsolete.”

That’s why the president’s wild overreaction is revealing. So far his truculence has been largely attributed to his slavish loyalty to his White House supplicants, his ideological belief in unilateral executive-branch power and, as always, his need to shield the Machiavellian machinations of Karl Rove (who installed a protégé in place of one of the fired attorneys). But the fierceness of Mr. Bush’s response — to the ludicrous extreme of forbidding transcripts of Congressional questioning of White House personnel — indicates there is far more fire to go with all the Beltway smoke.

Mr. Gonzales may be a nonentity, but he’s a nonentity like Zelig. He’s been present at every dubious legal crossroads in Mr. Bush’s career. That conjoined history began in 1996, when Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, was summoned for jury duty in Austin. To popular acclaim, he announced he was glad to lend his “average guy” perspective to a drunken driving trial. But there was one hitch. On the juror questionnaire, he left blank a required section asking, “Have you ever been accused, or a complainant, or a witness in a criminal case?”

A likely explanation for that omission, unknown to the public at the time, was that Mr. Bush had been charged with disorderly conduct in 1968 and drunken driving in 1976. Enter Mr. Gonzales. As the story is told in “The President’s Counselor,” a nonpartisan biography by the Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio, Mr. Gonzales met with the judge presiding over the trial in his chambers (a meeting Mr. Gonzales would years later claim to have “no recollection” of requesting) and saved his client from jury duty. Mr. Minutaglio likens the scene to “The Godfather” — casting Mr. Gonzales not as the feckless Fredo, however, but as the “discreet ‘fixer’ attorney,” Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen.

Mr. Gonzales’s career has been laced with such narrow escapes for both him and Mr. Bush. As a partner at the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins, Mr. Gonzales had worked for Enron until 1994. After Enron imploded in 2001, reporters wanted to know whether Ken Lay’s pals in the Bush hierarchy had received a heads up about the company’s pending demise before its unfortunate shareholders were left holding the bag. The White House said that Mr. Gonzales had been out of the Enron loop “to the best of his recollection.” This month Murray Waas of The National Journal uncovered a more recent close shave: Just as Justice Department investigators were about to examine “documents that might have shed light on Gonzales’s role” in the administration’s extralegal domestic wiretapping program last year, Mr. Bush shut down the investigation.

It was Mr. Gonzales as well who threw up roadblocks when the 9/11 Commission sought documents and testimony from the White House about the fateful summer of 2001. Less widely known is Mr. Gonzales’s curious behavior in the C.I.A. leak case while he was still White House counsel. When the Justice Department officially notified him on the evening of Sept. 29, 2003, that it was opening an investigation into the outing of Valerie Wilson, he immediately informed Andrew Card, Mr. Bush’s chief of staff. But Mr. Gonzales waited another 12 hours to officially notify the president and inform White House employees to preserve all materials relevant to the investigation. As Chuck Schumer said after this maneuver became known, “Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence.”

Now that 12-hour delay has been matched by the 18-day gap in the Justice Department e-mails turned over to Congress in the dispute over the attorney purge. And we’re being told by Tony Snow that Mr. Bush has “no recollection” of hearing anything about the firings. But even these literal echoes of Watergate cannot obliterate the contours of the story this White House wants to hide.

Do not be distracted by the apples and oranges among the fired attorneys. Perhaps a couple of their forced resignations were routine. But in other instances, incriminating evidence coalesces around a familiar administration motive: its desperate desire to cover up the corruption that soiled what was supposed to be this White House’s greatest asset, its protection of the nation’s security. This was the motive that drove the White House to vilify Joseph Wilson when he challenged fraudulent prewar intelligence about Saddam’s W.M.D. The e-mails in the attorney flap released so far suggest that this same motive may have driven the Justice Department to try mounting a similar strike at Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney charged with investigating the Wilson leak.

In March 2005, while preparing for the firings, Mr. Gonzales’s now-jettisoned chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, produced a chart rating all 93 United States attorneys nationwide. Mr. Fitzgerald, widely admired as one of the nation’s best prosecutors (most famously of terrorists), was somehow slapped with the designation “not distinguished.” Two others given that same rating were fired. You have to wonder if Mr. Fitzgerald was spared because someone in a high place belatedly calculated the political firestorm that would engulf the White House had this prosecutor been part of a Saturday night massacre in the middle of the Wilson inquiry.

Another canned attorney to track because of her scrutiny of Bush administration national security scandals is Carol Lam. She was fired from her post in San Diego after her successful prosecution of Representative Duke Cunningham, the California Republican who took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Mr. Rove has publicly suggested that Ms. Lam got the ax because “she would not commit resources to prosecute immigration offenses.” That’s false. Last August an assistant attorney general praised her for doubling her immigration prosecutions; last week USA Today crunched the statistics and found that she ranked seventh among her 93 peers in successful prosecutions for 2006, with immigration violations accounting for the largest single crime category prosecuted during her tenure.

To see what Mr. Rove might be trying to cover up, look instead at what Ms. Lam was up to in May, just as the Justice Department e-mails indicate she was being earmarked for removal. Building on the Cunningham case, she was closing in on Dusty Foggo, the C.I.A.’s No. 3 official and the director of its daily operations. Mr. Foggo had been installed in this high intelligence position by Mr. Bush’s handpicked successor to George Tenet as C.I.A. director, Porter Goss.

Ms. Lam’s pursuit sped Mr. Foggo’s abrupt resignation; Mr. Goss was out too after serving less than two years. Nine months later — just as Ms. Lam stepped down from her job in February — Mr. Foggo and a defense contractor who raised more than $100,000 for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign were indicted by a grand jury on 11 counts of conspiracy and money laundering in what The Washington Post called “one of the first criminal cases to reach into the C.I.A.’s clandestine operations in Europe and the Middle East.” Because the allegations include the compromising of classified information that remains classified, we don’t know the full extent of the damage to an agency and a nation at war.

Not yet anyway. “I’m not going to resign,” Mr. Gonzales asserted last week as he played the minority card, rounding up Hispanic supporters to cheer his protestations of innocence. “I’m going to stay focused on protecting our kids.” Actually, he’s going to stay focused on protecting the president. Once he can no longer be useful in that role, it’s a sure thing that like Scooter before him, Fredo will be tossed overboard.

For 2008: An American Themistocles

The New York Times
March 25, 2007

Leonidas led the Spartans at Thermopylae, and as anybody who’s seen “300” can tell you, he had all the qualities of a perfect movie hero. He was brave, straightforward and self-sacrificing.

But it’s worth pointing out that Leonidas didn’t win the Persian Wars. Themistocles did, and Themistocles had an altogether different set of qualities. He was not straightforward; in fact, he could be deceptive and manipulative. He was not self-sacrificing; there was an air of corruption and fierce ambition about him. He was not charming or cultured; historians from Herodotus on down have had trouble warming to him.

But he was cunning and effective. After the defeat at Thermopylae he manipulated the demoralized Greek city-states into making a stand against the Persians at Salamis. He understood Persian impatience, and maneuvered the empire into a battle on waters most favorable to the heavier and slower Greek warships. He apparently lied to the Persian king, Xerxes, by promising to commit treason, and so tricked the Persians into a hasty attack.

The Athenians valued Themistocles, but they never really loved him. He was pushed from power mere months after his epic victory. As Plutarch later reported, the Athenians “treated him like a plane-tree; when it was stormy, they ran under his branches for shelter, but as soon as it was fine, they plucked his leaves and lopped his branches.”

When we Americans pick a leader, we usually look for the Leonidas type: direct, faithful and upright. We usually pick someone we hope is uplifting. Especially since Watergate, Americans have sought presidents uncorrupted by capital intrigue.

From Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush, we’ve favored Washington outsiders, people who seemed to offer freshness or authenticity, whose claim to leadership flowed from some inner light, rather than rugged expertise in the tough and nasty business of national politics.

But I wonder if this will be the election in which voters seek out a Themistocles, an election in which they put aside dreams of finding somebody pure and good, and select somebody they think will be wily and effective.

For over the past few years, America’s enemies have been more cunning than we have. Whether it was Mohamed Atta with the box cutters, bin Laden escaping at Tora Bora, the Baathists with their insurgency, Zarqawi inciting an Iraqi civil war, or Ahmadinejad maneuvering his way toward a nuclear bomb, America’s enemies seem to have been rendered clever by their relative weakness while we’ve been rendered stupid by our might.

And the tasks ahead require cleverness more than Gary Cooper simplicity and virtue. The next leader will have to build a coalition of autocrats against the extremists, not grow apoplectically rigid in the face of their barbarism. The next leader will have to manipulate the self-interest of other countries and factions, not bully them with ultimatums. The next leader will have to have an intimate knowledge of the apparatus of government and the limits and capacities of what it can do.

In other words, what the country seems to need is somebody who understands power, and the subtlety of its use, and who has had direct experience with friends and foes, foreign and domestic.

And this person must have all these world-weary qualities with a thick stripe of American idealism too. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr put it a few decades ago: “The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.”

This is a unique set of qualities — more Themistocles than Leonidas, more Bismarck and Sharon than Gandhi, Havel and Mandela. People who have this mixture of idealism and wiliness are usually experienced and tainted by scandal.

But I suspect the voters will go to the polling places with a colder eye this time. In any case, before we get too lost in the tactics and personalities of the campaign, it might be a good idea to actually figure out what kind of leader we are seeking to hire, what qualities the times require. Is it those of Themistocles or those of Leonidas, or someone else?

The General and the Housewife

The New York Times
March 25, 2007


Gen. Pervez Musharraf is facing angry street demonstrations around the country in the most serious crisis of his presidency — and that’s partly because he picked a fight with a middle-class housewife who is proving tougher and shrewder than he is.

This drama is playing out in extraordinary scenes on Pakistani streets: crowds of roly-poly lawyers in dark suits braving clouds of tear gas to demand that Mr. Musharraf resign — or even be tried for treason. It’s impossible to know whether the protests will lead to a democratic revolution that topples Mr. Musharraf, to a military crackdown, or to a political deal that causes the protests to fizzle.

And behind it all is the saga of the general and the housewife.

“The nation is ready to rise up; there is a revolution behind me,” says Amina Masood Janjua, a mother of three who has emerged as a nemesis of General Musharraf. Mrs. Janjua says she was a “very timid person,” uninvolved in politics and content to be “queen of my house.” But then two years ago, her husband disappeared, presumably kidnapped by government security agents.

The government has regularly “disappeared” people it doesn’t like, apparently keeping them in secret detention centers to be tortured and interrogated for months or years. Human rights groups count at least 400 such disappearances since 2002, when Mr. Musharraf began using the war on terror as cover to eliminate troublesome nationalists, religious activists and human rights organizers.

Mrs. Janjua’s husband, Masood Janjua, may have been picked up because of ties to a Muslim organization, but there is no indication he had broken any law. Mrs. Janjua says her family received a phone call from Mr. Musharraf’s military secretary last year promising that her husband would be freed soon. But nothing happened, and officially the government knows nothing of his whereabouts.

Terrified that her husband was being tortured, Mrs. Janjua began organizing other family members of the disappeared. They held a public demonstration — but the police attacked the group and beat and publicly stripped Mrs. Janjua’s 17-year-old son. As the police dragged him off, Mrs. Janjua’s 11-year-old daughter screamed: “You’ve taken my father; don’t take my brother!” He was freed that evening. The aim of the assault presumably was to warn Mrs. Janjua to be quiet — just as relatives of other missing people have been warned that their loved ones will be harmed if they protest or speak to the press.

One of the missing is Safdar Sarki, a Pakistani-American doctor and American citizen seized a year ago while campaigning for the rights of people in Sindh Province.

“I was crying today; I was thinking of him,” his wife, Rukhsana, said by phone from California. Her voice breaking, she promised that if Pakistan would just release her husband, she would make him stop fighting for human rights. She added: “My sons are asking every day, ‘Where is Papa? Where is Papa? ...’ ”

Likewise: Where is the U.S.? The Bush administration has stuck more solidly with Mr. Musharraf (“a solid friend” is the current State Department formulation) than with its principles. President Bush needs to make clear that the U.S. sides with Pakistan’s democratic future, not its autocratic past.

That future is being shaped by Mrs. Janjua, who sued the government over the disappearances. To everyone’s astonishment, the Pakistani Supreme Court took up the case and ordered the government to account for those who are missing.

Perhaps partly as a result — and also to prevent the Supreme Court from complicating his election-fixing plans — Mr. Musharraf this month suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court. That’s what has set off nationwide outrage and protests.

Ordinary Pakistanis seem increasingly fed up with the president’s lies and thuggery. Mr. Musharraf’s contributions to Pakistan are enormous — he rescued Pakistan’s economy, fostered 7 percent growth rates, promoted education and nurtured an expanding middle class. But those same accomplishments are now raising aspirations for genuine democracy rather than the sham he offers.

The risk is that a replacement would be worse: Pakistan has been one of the world’s worst-ruled nations over the last 50 years, and Mr. Musharraf is better than his predecessors. But if the Pakistani public demands better government, that is ultimately a bullish sign for Pakistan and a useful warning to other autocrats.

And maybe the movement will bring Mrs. Janjua and Mrs. Sarki their husbands home again.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Echoes Come From You

The New York Times
March 24, 2007

Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard a song from a mystical order, founded in Afghanistan, which was played by musicians from the borders of Nepal.

But Afghanistan is internally fragmented. It contains diverse Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Baluch people, who dominate the neighboring ‘stans.’ The Pashtun majority was split with Pakistan in the 19th century. The recent civil war has eroded nationhood further.

Government policy must respond to this fragmented pluralism. The myriad social organizations, histories and experiences of isolated Afghan communities should be liberated, and the state should become less centralized. This is because Afghans do not want to be ruled by an overbearing, alien government, and the civil service does not have the capacity to govern effectively across the country.

Devolution, however, should be counterbalanced by a new idea of a nation. President Hamid Karzai has embraced ethnic diversity in his elaborate Uzbek robes and Pashtun prayer beads. He must rebuild Kabul as a national symbol. He needs a new unifying definition of Afghanistan to replace the old and still powerful myth of jihad against foreign occupation.

Afghanistan is defined by its organic relationship to wider Muslim Asia. It is a barren country that first flourished as a trading station, connecting Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, taking silk to Rome and cotton to China. It is historically entrepreneurial, adept at exploiting foreign financial support and finding varied irregular incomes. It is now supported by the cash of four million recently returned refugees and many remittances. Afghan carpets, tiles and calligraphy are attractive to neighboring markets because they draw on a regional tradition. Afghanistan should benefit from the overland trade between its resource-rich or rapidly growing neighbors.

This trade can be developed by increasing the United States investment in building roads. A year ago, it took nearly a day to get from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan — which was the time it took in 1933. Now the journey can be done in half the time.

But Kabul airport, which could easily make money, is pathetic; imports are taxed 15 times as they move from the borders to the capital; exports are crippled by cumbersome regulations and transportation costs.

Karzai’s largest problem lies with his Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. He must use everything that Afghanistan shares with these countries: linguistically, historically, culturally and religiously to charm, outwit and influence them. He should do the same throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East has never been so wealthy or so generous. Yet Afghanistan has failed to win its financial support.

The United States must, like Karzai, approach Afghanistan consistently as part of a wider region. There are identical tribal and political groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, separated only by colonial line. We emphasize democracy and human rights and pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but we support Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, who takes a political, negotiated approach to the same groups in Pakistan. As a result of this schizophrenia, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders base themselves in Pakistan and attack our interests from there.

Actions in one country spread quickly to neighbors. The invasion of Iraq disturbed Iran, then the election of a Shiite government emboldened it to finance other Shiite groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Concessions to India frighten Pakistan into financing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Our response to the Taliban angers Muslims in Europe and Indonesia. Yet Afghanistan’s influence can also be positive. Shiite-Sunni violence has spread from Pakistan to Iraq. But the Murad Khane district in central Kabul, which contains five Shiite and Sunni ethnic groups, has, like the rest of Afghanistan, recently avoided sectarian violence.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, traveled through Central Asia, Persia and Arabia and died in Turkey, without being aware of leaving a single country. Tens of millions can recite his poetry. His line applies well to Afghanistan:

“Ma chu kuhim o sada dar ma ze tust.”

“We are mountains, our echoes are from you.”

Advocacy and Teaching

The New York Times
March 24, 2007

When a bill before a state legislature bears a woman’s name, it is usually because someone has been abducted or raped or murdered. But in Missouri, House Bill 213, or the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, is under consideration because someone was given an assignment.

According to a complaint filed in the United States District Court in Missouri, Emily Brooker, a student at Missouri State University, was required by her professor in a social-work class to participate in writing a letter supporting gay adoption. The letter was to be signed by every student and forwarded to the state legislature. (It was never sent.)

Ms. Brooker declined to sign, saying that the position taken in the letter conflicted with her religious beliefs. A month later she was called before a faculty-student committee to respond to questions about her academic performance and her fitness for social work. Nine months later (Sept. 17, 2006), she filed her complaint, and on Nov. 8, 2006, the university settled out of court and agreed to pay Ms. Brooker a sum of $9,000, waive academic fees totaling another $12,000, clear her academic record and remove her professor from his administrative duties and the classroom. In short, a slam-dunk.

A story with a happy ending? Yes and no. Yes, because at least on the reported facts, she was obviously in the right. No, because no one involved in this little drama got the issue right.

Ms. Brooker apparently believed that the issue was religious freedom, and this was certainly the argument made by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that brought the case on her behalf.

“Being a Christian shouldn’t make you a second-class citizen on a college campus,” said David French, the fund’s senior legal counsel. The injury, however, was not done to Ms. Brooker as a Christian, but to every student in the class, Christian or not, opponent or proponent of gay adoption.

For what the professor was requiring of his class was public advocacy, and it doesn’t matter whether an individual student would have approved of the advocacy; advocacy is just not what should be going on in a university.

Once advocacy is removed from the equation — once issues, including gay adoption, are objects of study rather than alternatives to be embraced — the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of either students or professors, become irrelevant.

A student assigned to study an issue must be equipped with the appropriate analytical skills. Acquiring and applying those skills in no way depend on political or ideological affiliations. If the assignment is to give an account of the dispute about gay adoption rather than to come down on one side or the other, two students with opposing views of the matter might very well produce the very same account. Academic performance and individual beliefs are independent variables. They have nothing to do with each other.

If the distinction between studying and advocating were honored, there would be no need for Provision J of House Bill 213, which deals with “conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments.” There could be no such conflicts if classroom assignments asked students to analyze an issue rather than pronounce on it; no one’s personal beliefs about anything would be in play.

Not only is Provision J beside the point; the entire bill is beside the point because it addresses a problem that should never arise, and proposes a remedy no different from the disease it claims to cure. Under House Bill 213, institutions of higher education would be required to report each year on their efforts “to ensure and promote intellectual diversity.”

“Intellectual diversity” — a term of art introduced by the conservative activist David Horowitz — mandates the proportional representation, on the faculty and in the curriculum, of conservatives and liberals. Its watchword is “balance,” but balance is a political measure, not an educational measure, for it could be achieved only by monitoring the political affiliations of professors and the political content of the materials they assign.

Emily Brooker’s professor was wrong to enlist her in a political campaign. Promoting and actively enforcing something called intellectual diversity would vastly extend his wrong and make it the law of the state.

Stanley Fish [is] the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University

Abdullah’s Chance

The New York Times
March 23, 2007

Is Saudi Arabia becoming the new Egypt?

That’s a question you hear more and more these days in Arab circles, as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah becomes more diplomatically active and Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world, becomes more diplomatically passive.

In recent months, we’ve seen Saudi Arabia publicly blast Hezbollah for launching an unprovoked war on Israel; we’ve seen King Abdullah forge a cease-fire between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza; we’ve seen him try to tame Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and there are rumors that a top Saudi official met with Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert. That meeting was apparently in preparation for the Arab summit in Riyadh, March 28-29, which King Abdullah will be hosting to revive his February 2002 peace overture to Israel of full normalization of relations in return for full withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Since Egypt, for now, seems to be adrift, and the Saudis seem to be afloat in oil revenues, it’s not surprising to see Saudi Arabia becoming more assertive. It could have real benefits — given the Saudis’ standing in the Muslim world — provided that the leader of Saudi Arabia is ready to do what the leader of Egypt did when it comes to making peace with Israel.

What the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks need most today is an emotional breakthrough. Another Arab declaration, just reaffirming the Abdullah initiative, won’t cut it. If King Abdullah wants to lead — and he has the integrity and credibility to do so — he needs to fly from the Riyadh summit to Jerusalem and deliver the offer personally to the Israeli people. That is what Egypt’s Anwar Sadat did when he forged his breakthrough. If King Abdullah did the same, he could end this conflict once and for all.

I would humbly suggest the Saudi king make four stops. His first stop should be to Al Aksa Mosque in East Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. There, he, the custodian of Mecca and Medina, could reaffirm the Muslim claim to Arab East Jerusalem by praying at Al Aksa.

From there, he could travel to Ramallah and address the Palestinian parliament, making clear that the Abdullah initiative aims to give Palestinians the leverage to offer Israel peace with the whole Arab world in return for full withdrawal. And he might add that whatever deal the Palestinians cut with Israel regarding return of refugees or land swaps — so some settlements might stay in the West Bank in return for the Palestinians getting pieces of Israel — the Arab world would support.

From there, King Abdullah could helicopter to Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. A visit there would seal the deal with Israelis and affirm that the Muslim world rejects the Holocaust denialism of Iran. Then he could go to the Israeli parliament and formally deliver his peace initiative.

Of course, I have no illusions about this. But is it any more illusory than thinking that the incrementalism of the last seven years is going to get anywhere? Now that’s a fantasy. Yes, Al Qaeda would denounce King Abdullah. What else is new? The Saudi ruling family is going to have to decide: Is it going to spend the rest of its days tiptoeing around Al Qaeda, or is it going to confront it — ideologically — head on? Many more Muslims would applaud the Saudi king for such an overture. And I have no doubt that Israel’s majority, which was ready to evacuate Gaza for nothing, would demand that the Israeli government respond positively to an Abdullah initiative delivered in this way.

This would also be a vehicle to tell Hamas to put up or shut up. It is one thing for Hamas to reject the Oslo peace accords. But how could it reject a peace overture to Israel presented by Saudi Arabia?

King Abdullah first unveiled his peace proposal in an interview he and I did in his home in Riyadh in 2002. As we sat by his desk, he told me he was motivated to propose full peace for full withdrawal to the Israelis because “I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don’t reject or despise them. But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive. And I thought of this as a possible signal to the Israeli people.”

Well, it is time to go beyond signals. If the Saudi king just wants to score some points, he will hold the Arab summit, re-issue the peace plan and go home. If he wants to make history and make peace, he will hold the Arab summit, re-issue the peace plan and deliver it in person.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Houdini kin wants body exhumed, tested

NEW YORK - For all his death-defying stunts, Harry Houdini couldn't escape the Grim Reaper: He died on Halloween 1926, apparently from a punch to the stomach that ruptured his appendix. But rumors that he was murdered have persisted for decades. Eighty-one years after Houdini's death, his great-nephew wants the escape artist's body exhumed to determine if enemies poisoned him for debunking their bogus claims of contact with the dead. [ MORE ]


Peres calls Lebanon war a 'mistake'

Vice-Premier Shimon Peres told a panel investigating the government's handling of last year's war in Lebanon that Israel's decision to invade was a mistake and the military was unprepared, according to testimony made public Thursday.

Peres also said Hezbollah did a better job of handling media coverage than the Israelis did.

The 15-page transcript of his appearance before the commission last November has large swathes deleted by Israel's military censors on security grounds, but nevertheless provides insights into the veteran statesman's thinking.

"The greatest mistake is the very fact of war," he told the commission. "If it had been up to me, I would not have gone into this war." [ MORE ]


R.I.P. -- Calvert DeForest (July 23, 1921 - March 19, 2007)

Senator James Inhofe: Supreme "Bullshitter"

by Joseph A. Palermo
The Huffington Post

A philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, wrote a book in 2005 with the illustrious title: "On Bullshit." Frankfurt's central argument is that a "bullshitter" is far worse than a liar because "he does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does," but "opposes himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.

By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." (p. 61) During hearings of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where former Vice-President Albert Gore, Jr., the Governing Council Chairman of the Alliance for Climate Protection, testified on global warming, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, showed himself to be a supreme bullshitter.

Senator Inhofe questioned whether global warming was "manmade," and he attacked Gore's film, the Academy Award-winning, "An Inconvenient Truth," for asking at the end: "Are you ready to change the way you live?" Inhofe bluntly denigrated the Gore family for allegedly consuming an inordinate share of greenhouse gas-producing carbons.

Gore deflected the aggressive Oklahoman by insisting that his personal consumption is "green." He also cited the consensus among the world's most esteemed scientists that global warming is indeed "manmade" and is rapidly reaching crisis proportions.

But Inhofe was undeterred. He cut off the former Vice President in mid-sentence in order to belittle him for being disingenuous. Inhofe says that his lovely state of Oklahoma experienced three extremely cold winters of late, and quipped: "Where's global warming when you need it?" He denounced "the George Soroses, the Michael Moores, and the Richard Bransons" for conspiring to scare the decent, god-fearing folk about global warming. He produced a placard with the names of "a hundred scientists" who believe global warming is a hoax.

In an insulting and sexist manner, Inhofe repeatedly interrupted the Chair of the committee, California Senator Barbara Boxer, who had to brandish the gavel to remind him that "elections matter," and he was no longer the chair. Inhofe is clearly one of the greatest minds of the 11th Century.

Gore called for a "freeze" in the production of additional greenhouse gases, and for a "cap and trade" program that would unleash market forces to help reduce greenhouse emissions. Gore showed that he is still a class act. During his testimony he was congenial and collegial even when under the acrimonious and personal assault from Inhofe and other retrograde Republicans whose loyalties lie with the petroleum lobby. Al Gore is way ahead of the curve. He is committed to saving the planet. Inhofe and his fellow travelers, like the egomaniacal "novelist" Michael Crichton, are in the same category as flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers. They are all supreme "bullshitters" in the Frankfurtian sense.

Congressional hearings detail political tampering in US climate research

By Naomi Spencer
22 March 2007

Hearings resumed March 19 in the US Congress on charges of political interference in governmental climate research. The evidence and testimony further demonstrate the lengths the Bush administration, at the behest of the oil industry, has gone to suppress scientists’ findings and confuse public opinion of climate change.

Among those testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform were prominent NASA scientist James Hansen and a former officer from NASA Public Affairs, George Deutsch. E-mails presented at the hearing confirmed that Deutsch’s responsibilities as a PA officer included preventing Hansen from speaking about climate data with reporters, a fact that Bush administration officials have repeatedly denied.

Hansen, who is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), recounted several instances of interference. In one case, one of his staff members submitted a press release based on a GISS paper that found the ocean was less effective at removing human-made carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than had previously been estimated. Public Affairs decided that this story could not be provided to the media.

Another staff member, Hansen testified, was made to attend a “practice” press conference, where he was asked whether anything could be done to stem the accelerating loss of sea ice. When he suggested, “We could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” he was told by officials, “That’s unacceptable!” Hansen told the House committee that Public Affairs had insisted, “scientists are not allowed to say anything that relates to policy.”

Following a public talk Hansen gave in 2004, in which he mentioned the practice of muzzling climate data, the NASA assistant administrator for public affairs traveled from headquarters to the Goddard Space Flight Center and gave what Hansen called an “oral ‘dressing down’ of the professional writer at Goddard Public Affairs who had informed me about this practice.”

The writer, Hansen said, “was admonished to ‘mind his own business.’ ” Such reprimands and instructions, Hansen said, are delivered orally so as to leave no paper trail. This way, “If NASA headquarters Public Affairs is queried by media about such abuses,” Hansen testified, “they respond ‘that’s hearsay!,’ a legal term that seems to frighten the media.”

The deliberate lack of written records indicates that administration officials are well aware of the inappropriate and essentially illegal character of restricting scientists’ speech.

However, a series of memos and e-mails in late 2005 detailed instructions on constraining public speech, after Hansen presented GISS climate data to the American Geophysical Union. The GISS analysis demonstrated record global temperature in 2005, a finding that sparked unwanted media attention for NASA.

In response, Public Affairs issued tight regulations on Hansen, including a requirement that media interviews be approved beforehand, with NASA headquarters having “right of first refusal,” and that Hansen obtain approval of any posting on the GISS web site. Hansen testified that while these orders were delivered orally, along with a threat of “dire consequences” for non-compliance, the new Public Affairs officer over him, George Deutsch, left written descriptions of the rules.

Deutsch had worked for Bush’s reelection campaign before dropping out of college and taking the appointment for Political Affairs at NASA. Several of his e-mails presented during the hearing plainly demonstrated that NASA leadership was stifling Hansen’s contact with the press. In one, Deutsch wrote, “Senior management has asked us not to use Jim Hansen for this interview.” In another e-mail, it was discussed who could appear in Hansen’s stead to deliver Bush administration talking points: “Are [sic] main concern is hitting our messages and not getting dragged down into any discussions we shouldn’t get into.”

Hansen’s experience is by no means unique. A January survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that six in ten federally employed scientists experienced political interference over the past five years, and half were pressured to remove the words “climate change” and “global warming” from their work.

During the hearing, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, ludicrously suggested that it was Hansen who was attempting to curb science and free speech. According to the New York Times, Issa claimed that by speaking out against White House efforts to inject uncertainty on global warming research, Hansen had become “an advocate for limiting the debate.” Hansen replied, “What I’m an advocate for is the scientific method.”

The White House has enormous control over scientific research via the allocation of funds. Along with the various other restrictive measures, punishment by the administration of outspoken climate researchers has also taken the form of budget cuts.

Hansen pointed out that when the Bush administration unveiled its 2007 budget, NASA’s science programs were given a funding increase of 1 percent. Yet Earth Science Research and Analysis faced a staggering 20 percent cut, which was to be enacted by cutting retroactively from the 2006 budget. Hansen remarked, “One way to avoid bad news: stop the measurements!”

“One-third of the way into fiscal year 2006,” Hansen explained, “NASA Earth Science was told to go figure out how to live with a 20-percent loss of the current year’s funds.” The cuts shelve most satellite missions and support for contracting and young scientists.

This comes at a time when NASA satellites are yielding important results. Two satellites measuring the Earth’s gravitational field, for example, found that the mass of Greenland is now decreasing by around 150 cubic kilometers of ice each year. West Antarctica’s ice depletion registered a similar loss. The area of ice sheets with melting has increased substantially, resulting in a doubling in the flow of ice streams, and the area in the Arctic Ocean with summer sea ice has decreased by 20 percent over the past two and a half decades.

Since the first part of the hearings on January 30, the panel has received eight boxes of relevant documents from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The documents, released amidst Monday’s testimony, strongly support the charges of Hansen and others that the White House made an organized and deliberate effort to mislead the public about the dangers posed by climate change through the editing of government climate reports.

One of those charged with this undertaking was former CEQ chief of staff Philip Cooney, who resigned from his position in 2005 after the New York Times reported that he had made hundreds of edits to climate reports. After quitting, Cooney quickly landed a job at ExxonMobil; prior to his appointment, he was the “climate team leader” for the oil industry’s lobbying agency, the American Petroleum Institute (API).

In his congressional testimony March 19, Cooney said his work was “solely to promote the public policies of President Bush and his administration.” Indeed, the present administration, with its inseparable linkages to the oil industry, appointed him for precisely this purpose.

Documents showed at least 181 edits to the administration’s Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program made by Cooney other CEQ officials, aimed specifically at exaggerating scientific uncertainties, and at least 113 edits to the same document for the express purpose of diminishing the importance of the human contribution to global warming.

Cooney also inserted numerous references to supposed possible benefits of climate change, while removing references to taking action to combat global warming based on the scientific evidence. He deleted references to the threat climate change posed to human health, society, and habitation, edits that he justified by saying he felt they “risked overstating human health impacts.”

He also removed references in the administration’s plan to the comprehensive National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change after an interest group funded by the API sued the government over the report’s linking of global warming to the burning of fossil fuels.

Significantly, Cooney deleted any reference to average surface temperature reconstructions, which indicate they have been rising over the last millennium. In multiple places, he changed the words “global change” to “climate variability and change” to suggest that the current warming trend was part of a natural process.

The hearing committee made special note of dozens of alterations that amounted to reversals or negations of conclusions. For example, after a discussion of climate data in the draft, Cooney proposed insertion of the following sentence: “The negative commentary asserted that certain assessment efforts were exaggerated, contrived, or otherwise unsubstantiated.”

The June 2003 Strategic Plan draft read: “Climate modeling capabilities have improved dramatically in recent years and can be expected to continue to do so. As a result, scientists are now able to model Earth system processes and the coupling of those processes on a regional and global scale with increasing precision and reliability.” CEQ had this passage eliminated.

Most of the alternations were subtler, but had the effect of casting excessive doubt on already cautious and conservatively worded scientific findings. For instance, in one passage, the draft read, “Warming temperatures will also affect Arctic land areas.” As in dozens of other passages, Cooney replaced the word “will” with the word “may” resulting in a statement of complete uncertainty. Similarly, in numerous places, Cooney added the word “potentially.”

During his deposition March 12, Cooney was questioned about the Strategic Plan as well as the climate section of a major EPA report that CEQ insisted be altered in similar fashion. The CEQ exerted so much pressure, insisting on hundreds of edits, that the EPA eventually cut the entire section out of the report.

Proposed new powers for bailiffs in Britain: an attack on the poor and indebted

By Dennis Moore
22 March 2007

The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons in early March, proposes new powers that will enable the agents of bailiffs—court officers involved in the collection of debts and fines—to force entry into people’s homes, seize belongings and, in certain cases, restrain people.

At present a bailiff enforcing a County Court Judgement for debt retrieval can only enter if a householder lets them in, or they find an open window or door unlocked.

The new bill will give powers to bailiffs to enforce consumer credit debts, including credit card bills, by forcing entry into people’s homes. At present only those enforcing Magistrates court fines can do this, providing they have a court order to this effect.

The charity Citizens Advice has warned that the bill will enable bailiffs to apply to the courts to use reasonable force to enter buildings, and this will leave people unable to refuse entry, as at the present time. The bill will also make it an offence to obstruct a bailiff, punishable by up to 12 months imprisonment.

Debt collection has become a growth industry. Many bailiffs are employed by private companies. Even before the new Bill becomes law there has been a chorus of complaints that bailiffs are not properly regulated, and that they often act illegally, employing methods of bullying and harassment to intimidate clients into paying debts and additional costs that are often illegal.

There is currently little control of what bailiffs do and how much they charge. The powers bailiffs have are derived from complex and archaic laws dating back to 1267.

An examination of 500 cases by Citizens Advice in England found:

* almost two-thirds (64 percent) of bailiffs were guilty of harassment or intimidation;

* 40 percent misrepresented their powers of entry;

* a quarter threatened debtors with imprisonment;

* 42 percent charged excessive fees.

In over half the cases the debtor was vulnerable, and in all the above instances the bailiff was breaking the law.

The greater powers now being accrued by debt collectors can only result in many more people being forced further into poverty and social misery.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive David Harker stated, “Our evidence over many years shows that bailiffs have an appalling track record of abusing their existing powers against vulnerable people. They are often abusive and aggressive, and use threats of violence and prison to pressurise people into paying lump sums they cannot afford.”

The bill was to include plans for independent regulation, but this has been dropped. It is proposed that consultation will be used, but this will not be completed before the bill becomes law.

The new powers come at a time of an explosion of personal debt in Britain.

Citizens Advice has reported that they were approached by 15 percent more people with debt problems in January 2007 than January 2006. In the past year they dealt with 1.4 million debt problems, an increase of 11 percent on the previous 12 months—approximately 5,300 people a day.

The reasons for such difficulties are not hard to find. Total UK personal debt at the end of January 2007 stood at £1,300 billion, with credit card debt at £54.5 billion and average household debt now standing at £8,795 (excluding mortgages). Britain’s personal debt is increasing by £1 million every four minutes.

While this has created a financial bonanza for the banks and the City of London, Labour is proposing to legally sanction the use of paid thugs to retrieve debts, using force to take what few valuable possessions people may possess with the threat of prison if anyone resists.

A Proper Distinction

The New York Times
March 22, 2007

Thousands of crimes are committed every year, and, given the constraints of time and money, it’s up to prosecutors to decide which ones to pursue.

We’d like to think that prosecutors exercise their discretion with godlike impartiality, but the founders, who had a low but accurate view of human nature, figured that wasn’t possible. They placed the federal prosecutors within the executive branch of government, a political branch. They ordained that prosecutors would be overseen by the attorney general, a political officer.

Since godlike impartiality is probably not possible, the founders figured, at least the prosecutors could be held accountable to the electorate. The founders made prosecutors political appointees.

But the word “political” in this context has two meanings, one philosophic, one partisan. The prosecutors are properly political when their choices are influenced by the policy priorities of elected officeholders. If the president thinks prosecutors should spend more time going after terrorists, prosecutors should follow his lead.

But prosecutors are improperly political if they bow to pressure to protect members of the president’s party or team. Most would agree that Harry Truman was being improperly political when he tried to block the reappointment of Maurice Milligan, a U.S. attorney investigating the Pendergast political machine in Missouri.

The problem is that there is a gray area between these two political roles. People of good faith disagree about whether the Clinton administration behaved improperly in firing almost all of the 93 prosecutors it inherited, in the midst of some high-profile and politically troublesome cases.

Prosecutors, like other professionals, develop a code of honor to help them steer through the gray areas. This code of honor consists of a series of habits and understandings to help individual prosecutors know how to behave when loyalty to the law is in tension with loyalty to the president.

People in well-led agencies are acutely conscious of this sort of honor code. If you work for, say, George Shultz or Robert Rubin, you will have a daily example of how to behave. If you work for some others, your sense of honor will be fuzzy, at best.

When you look at the prosecutors who were fired by the Bush administration, you see some who were fired for proper political reasons and some who were fired for improper ones. Carol Lam seems to have been properly let go because she did not share the president’s priorities on illegal immigration cases. David Iglesias seems to have been improperly let go because he offended some members of the president’s party.

But what’s striking in reading through the Justice Department e-mail messages is that senior people in that agency seem never to have thought about the proper role of politics in their decision-making. They reacted like chickens with their heads cut off when this scandal broke because they could not articulate the differences between a proper political firing and an improper one.

Moreover, they had no coherent sense of honor. Alberto Gonzales apparently never communicated a code of conduct to guide them as they wrestled with various political pressures. That’s a grievous failure of leadership.

The bad behavior has not stopped there. The Democrats, apparently out of legislative ideas after only 11 weeks in the majority, have gone into full scandal mode, professing to be shocked because politics played a role in prosecutorial priorities. They and those on their media food chain have made wild accusations far in advance of the evidence, producing enough cacophonous demagoguery to make rational discussion nearly impossible.

And the White House, instead of trying to restore some proportion, has picked a fight over a transcript. The president says he will allow White House staff to appear before Congress, but not in public, not under oath and not with a transcript. The president apparently expects his supporters to rally behind the sacred cause of No Transcript. In time of war, he’s decided to expend political capital so that his staffers can lie to Congress without legal consequences.

This is a position only a lawyer can love. From compassionate conservatism, we’ve descended to pedantic or legalistic conservatism.

As often happens when you have a government unencumbered by adult supervision, this affair is now spiraling down to the partisan depths. It will take on a life of its own and muddy everyone who touches it. But it all could have been prevented with a few distinctions about the proper role of politics, and a little sense of honor.

Stepping on the Dream

The New York Times
March 22, 2007

One of the weirder things at work these days is the fact that we’re making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college at a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

Young men and women are leaving college with debt loads that would break the back of a mule. Families in many cases are taking out second mortgages, loading up credit cards and raiding 401(k)s to supplement the students’ first wave of debt, the ubiquitous college loan.

At the same time, many thousands of well-qualified young men and women are being shut out of college, denied the benefits and satisfactions of higher education, because they can’t meet the ever-escalating costs.

You want a recipe for making the U.S. less competitive over the next few decades? This is it.

Traditionally, one of the sweetest periods in the lives of many college graduates has been the time immediately after leaving school, when they could relax and take the measure of the newly emerging adult world. It was a time, perhaps, to travel, or to sample intriguing employment opportunities, even if they didn’t pay particularly well. Debt was not usually the overriding concern of the young graduate.

That has changed. Along with their degree, most graduates leave college now with a loan obligation that will hover over them for years, maybe decades. Student loans have decisively overtaken grants as the primary form of financial aid for undergraduates.

Two-thirds of all graduates now leave college with some form of debt. The average amount is close to $20,000. Some owe many times that.

Tamara Draut, in her book, “Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead,” tells us:

“Back in the 1970s, before college became essential to securing a middle-class lifestyle, our government did a great job of helping students pay for school. Students from modest economic backgrounds received almost free tuition through Pell grants, and middle-class households could still afford to pay for their kids’ college.”

Since then, tuition at public and private universities has soared while government support for higher education, other than student loan programs, has diminished.

This is a wonderful example of extreme stupidity. America will pony up a trillion or two for a president who goes to war on a whim, but can’t find the money to adequately educate its young. History has shown that these kinds of destructive trade-offs are early clues to a society in decline.

At the state level, per-pupil spending for higher education is at a 25-year low, even as government officials and corporate leaders keep pounding out the message that a college degree is the key to a successful future.

Ms. Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, a public policy group in New York, got to the heart of the matter in her recent testimony before a U.S. Senate committee looking into higher education costs.

“The fundamental problem,” she said, “is rooted in the reality that our government no longer really helps people pay for college — it helps them go into debt for college. The question we need to be asking is not, ‘How much student loan debt is reasonable?’ but, ‘What is the best way to help students afford college?’ ”

The kids who graduate with enormous debt burdens — $40,000, $80,000, $100,000 or more — face a range of uncomfortable and even debilitating consequences, the first of which is the persistent anxiety over how their loans are to be repaid.

I’ve spoken recently with a number of law students who have already decided to go into corporate practice because their first choice — public interest law — would not pay enough to cover their loans. Many students have turned their backs on teaching for the same reason.

At that stage of life, you shouldn’t have to choose between a job you would love and one that you would take simply because it would pay the bills. Talk about stepping on a dream.

There are also plenty of cases of students who have postponed marriage or buying a home or having children because of their college loan obligations.

And then there are those who never see a graduation day. There’s no way of telling what talents have been squandered, or what great benefits to society have been lost, because bright students who were unable to afford the costs have been forced to leave college, or never went to college at all.

In a nation as rich as ours, it should be easy to pay for college. For some reason, we find it easier to pay for wars.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

But I Didn’t Do It!

The New York Times
March 21, 2007

Emboldened by the State of Virginia’s apology for slavery — the measure passed both houses unanimously — some Georgia lawmakers are in the process of introducing a similar resolution in their legislature. The reasoning behind the apology movement is straightforward: a great wrong was done for centuries to men and women who contributed in many ways to the prosperity of their country and were willing to die for it in battle; it’s long past time to say we’re sorry.

Resistance to the apology movement is also straightforward. There is the fear that because an apology is an admission of responsibility for a prior bad act, apologizing might establish a legal or quasi-legal basis for reparations. And there is also the objection that after so many years an apology would be merely ceremonial and would therefore be nothing more than a “feel good” gesture.

But the objection most often voiced is that the wrong people would be apologizing to the wrong people. That was the point made by Tommie Williams, the Georgia Senate majority leader, when he said: “I personally believe apologies need to come from feelings that I’ve done wrong,” and “I just don’t feel like I did something wrong.”

Williams’s counterpart in the house, Speaker Glenn Richardson, made the same claim of innocence on behalf of his colleagues. “I’m not sure what we ought to be apologizing for,” given that “nobody here was in office.”

Mr. Richardson’s statement at least has the merit of recognizing that an apology would not be made by an individual — the idea isn’t to go to some slave cemetery and speak to a gravestone — but by an institution. He just thinks that because no present member of the institution was around at the time of the injury, an apology would make no sense.

But this is very bad reasoning, and you can see why if you read just a few recent Supreme Court cases on any subject. Invariably, the justice delivering the court’s opinion will cite a precedent from a case decided 50 or 100 years ago, and say something like, “In Smith v. Jones, we ruled that ...” But of course he or she didn’t actually — that is, personally — rule on anything in 1940 or 1840, so what’s with the “we”?

The answer is that by using “we” to refer to an action taken before any present member of the court had reached the age of reason or was even alive, the justices acknowledge that they are part of an ongoing enterprise, and as such are responsible for its history; not as individuals, but as persons charged with the duty of carrying on a project that precedes them and will survive them.

At times “carrying on” includes revising and even repudiating earlier stages in that project. By overruling a precedent — a rare occurrence, to be sure — the justices say, collectively and on behalf of everyone who has ever donned the robe, “Oops, we got that one wrong; sorry, here’s another try.”

Legislatures do not overrule; they repeal, but the principle is the same. Legislators meeting on the first day of a new term don’t say, “O.K., let’s start all over again and figure out what laws we would like to have on the books.” Instead, they regard themselves as picking up a baton passed to them by their predecessors whose actions they now “own,” even in those instances when no legislator now sitting performed them. The vast majority of those actions will continue in force, but a few will be revisited, and of those, a smaller number will be modified or even reversed.

Sometimes a mistake now acknowledged can be remedied by changing the law. Sometimes that remedy would come too late, and another form of response is called for, as when the United States passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, deploring the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and authorizing payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Ronald Reagan signed that act into law, and two years later President George H. W. Bush formally apologized for “the wrongs of the past.”

Does that mean that Georgia should apologize, too? Not necessarily. The question is a political as well as a moral one, and it is not my intention here to answer it. All I am saying is that while there may be good reasons to resist apologizing, the “we didn’t personally do it and those it was done to are dead” reason isn’t one of them.

The Troika and the Surge

The New Yok Times
March 21, 2007

President Bush’s Iraq surge policy is about a month old now, and there is only one thing you can say about it for certain: no matter what anyone in Congress, the military or the public has to say, it’s going ahead. The president has the authority to do it and the veto power to prevent anyone from stopping him. Therefore, there’s only one position to have on the surge anymore: hope that it works.

Does this mean that Democrats in Congress who are trying to shut down the war and force a deadline should take the advice of critics and shut up and let the surge play out?

No, just the opposite. I would argue that for the first time we have — by accident — the sort of balanced policy trio that had we had it in place four years go might have spared us the mess of today. It’s the Pelosi-Petraeus-Bush troika.

I hope the Democrats, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, keep pushing to set a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, because they are providing two patriotic services that the Republicans failed to offer in the previous four years: The first is policy discipline. Had Republicans spent the previous four years regularly questioning Don Rumsfeld’s ignorant bromides and demanding that the White House account for failures in Iraq, we might have had the surge in 2003 — when it was obvious we did not have enough troops on the ground — rather than in 2007, when the chances of success are much diminished.

Because the Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and because many conservatives sat in mute silence the last four years, the administration could too easily ignore its critics and drag out policies in Iraq that were not working. With the Democrats back in Congressional control, that is no longer possible.

The other useful function Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues are performing is to give the president and Gen. David Petraeus, our commander in Iraq, the leverage of a deadline without a formal deadline. How so? The surge can’t work without political reconciliation among Iraqi factions, which means Sunni-Shiite negotiations — and such negotiations are unlikely to work without America having the “leverage” of telling the parties that if they don’t compromise, we will leave. (Deadlines matter. At some point, Iraqis have to figure this out themselves.)

Since Mr. Bush refuses to set a deadline, Speaker Pelosi is the next best thing. Do not underestimate how useful it is for General Petraeus to be able to say to Iraqi politicians: “Look guys, Pelosi’s mad as hell — and she has a big following! I don’t want to quit, but Americans won’t stick with this forever. I only have a few months.”

Speaker Pelosi: Keep the heat on.

As for General Petraeus, I have no idea whether his military strategy is right, but at least he has one — and he has stated that by “late summer” we should know if it’s working. As General Petraeus told the BBC last week, “I have an obligation to the young men and women in uniform out here, that if I think it’s not going to happen, to tell them that it’s not going to happen, and there needs to be a change.”

We need to root for General Petraeus to succeed, and hold him to those words if he doesn’t — not only for the sake of the soldiers on the ground, but also so that Mr. Bush is not allowed to drag the war out until the end of his term, and then leave it for his successor to unwind.

But how will General Petraeus or Congress judge if the surge is working? It may be obvious, but it may not be. It will likely require looking beneath the surface calm of any Iraqi neighborhood — where violence has been smothered by the surge of U.S. troops — and trying to figure out: what will happen here when those U.S. troops leave? Remember, enough U.S. troops can quiet any neighborhood for a while. The real test is whether a self-sustaining Iraqi army and political consensus are being put in place that can hold after we leave.

It will also likely require asking: Are the Shiite neighborhoods quieting down as a result of reconciliation or because their forces are just lying low so the U.S. will focus on whacking the Sunnis — in effect, carrying out the civil war on the Shiites’ behalf, so that when we leave they can dominate more easily?

When you’re sitting on a volcano, it is never easy to tell exactly what is happening underneath — or what will happen if you move. But those are the judgments we may soon have to make. In the meantime, since Bush is going to be Bush, let Pelosi be Pelosi and Petraeus be Petraeus — and hope for the best. For now, we don’t have much choice.

Iran’s Operative in the White House

The New York Times
March 20, 2007

If an 18-year-old American soldier were caught slipping obscure military paperwork to Iranian spies, he would be arrested, pilloried in the news media and tossed into prison for years.

But in fact there’s an American who has provided services of incalculably greater value to Iran in recent years. So you have to wonder: Is Dick Cheney an Iranian mole?

Consider that the Bush administration’s first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Iran’s bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran’s even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

You really think that’s just a coincidence? That of all 193 nations in the world, we just happen to topple the two neighboring regimes that Iran despises?

Moreover, consider how our invasion of Iraq went down. The U.S. dismantled Iraq’s army, broke the Baath Party and helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. If Iran’s ayatollahs had written the script, they couldn’t have done better — so maybe they did write the script ...

We fought Iraq, and Iran won. And that’s just another coincidence?

Or think about broader Bush administration policies in the Middle East. For six years, the White House vigorously backed Israeli hard-liners and refused to engage seriously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus nurturing anti-Americanism and religious fundamentalism. Then last summer, the White House backed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which turned Iran’s proxies in Hezbollah into street heroes in much of the Arab world.

Consider also the way the administration has systematically antagonized our former allies in Europe and Asia, undermining chances of a united front to block Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Cheney may nominally push for sanctions against Iran, but by alienating our allies he makes strong sanctions harder to achieve.

And by condoning torture and extralegal detentions in Guantánamo, the White House antagonized Muslims around the world and made us look like hypocrites when we criticize Arab or Iranian human rights abuses. Take Mr. Cheney’s endorsement of the torture known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning: “It’s a no-brainer for me,” he said. The torturers in Iran’s Evin prison must have cheered. They got a pass as well.

Even at home, Iran’s leaders have been bolstered by President Bush and Mr. Cheney. Iran’s hard-liners are hugely unpopular and the regime is wobbly, but Bush administration policies have inflamed Iranian nationalism and given cover to the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Why focus on Dick Cheney rather than his boss? Partly because Mr. Cheney, even more than Mr. Bush, has systematically pushed an extreme agenda that has transparently served Iranian purposes. And domestically, his role in the Scooter Libby scandal — and his disgraceful refusal to explain just what he was doing at the crime scene — ended up paralyzing executive decision-making and humiliating our government.

Is that really just one more coincidence? Or could it be another case of Mr. Cheney’s following instructions from his Iranian bosses to damage America?

O.K., O.K. Of course, all this is absurd. Mr. Cheney isn’t an Iranian mole. Nor is he a North Korean mole, though his we-don’t-negotiate-with-evil policy toward North Korea has resulted in that country’s quadrupling its nuclear arsenal. It’s also unlikely that he is an Al Qaeda mole, even though Al Qaeda now has an important new base of support in Iraq.

Like Kennedy and Johnson wading into Vietnam, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney harmed American interests not out of malice but out of ineptitude. I concede that they honestly wanted the best for America, but we still ended up getting the worst.

So what are the lessons from this episode?

Our national interests are as vulnerable to incompetence as to malicious damage. So we must identify and abandon the policies that backfired so catastrophically. The common threads of those damaging policies are clear: a refusal to negotiate with “evil”; an aggressive willingness to use military force to solve problems; contempt for our allies; and the bending of legal and moral principles to allow indefinite detention and even torture, particularly for anyone with olive skin and a Muslim name.

Whenever we’ve suspected a mole in our midst, we’ve gone to extreme lengths to find the traitor. This time, betrayed not by a mole but by failed policies, let’s be just as resolute. It’s time to uproot policies that in the last half-dozen years have damaged American interests incomparably more than any mole or foreign spy ever has in the last 200 years.

When Less Is Best


The New York Times
March 20, 2007

Why are we in Afghanistan? Vice President Cheney talks terror, Britain focuses on narcotics. The European Union talks ‘state-building,’ others gender. On a different day, the positions seem interchangeable. Five years ago, we had a clear goal. Now we seem to be pursuing a bundle of objectives, from counterinsurgency to democratization and development, which are presented as uniform but which are in fact logically distinct and sometimes contradictory.

Finance officers in Kabul and shepherds in Kandahar want to know what we did with the $10 billion we spent in the last four years. So do any number of commentators on Afghan TV and radio. And when Helmand villagers see soldiers from countries thousands of miles away carrying guns and claiming to be only building schools, they don’t believe them.

I have noticed that many Afghans now simply assume we are engaged in a grand conspiracy. Nothing else in their minds can explain the surreal gap between our language and performance. The United States needs to be honest about what it wants from Afghanistan and what it can achieve.

We should remember that we came first to protect ourselves against terrorist attack. Afghans can understand this and help. But counterterrorism is not the same as counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism requires good intelligence and Special Forces operations, of the sort the U.S. was doing in 2002 and 2003. Recently, however, NATO has become involved in a much wider counterinsurgency campaign, involving tens of thousands of troops. The objective now is to wrest rural areas from Taliban forces.

But many of the people we are fighting have no fixed political manifesto. Almost none have links to Al Qaeda or an interest in attacking U.S. soil. We will never have the troop numbers to hold these areas, and we are creating unnecessary enemies. A more considered approach to tribal communities would give us better intelligence on our real enemies. It is clear that we do not have the resources, the stomach, or the long-term commitment for a 20-year counterinsurgency campaign. And the Afghan Army is not going to take over this mission.

Our second priority should be to not lose the support of the disillusioned population in the central and western part of the country. We have spent billions on programs that have alleviated extreme poverty and supported governance but have not caught the imagination of Afghans. Afghans are bored with foreign consultants and conferences and are saying, ‘Bring back the Russians: at least they built dams and roads.” To win them over we should focus on large, highly visible infrastructure to which Afghans will be able to point in 50 years — just as they point to the great dam built by the United States in the 1960s. The garbage is still seven feet deep and buildings are collapsing in Kabul. We can deal with these things and leave a permanent symbol of generosity.

Once we are clear about our own interests, we can think more clearly about the third priority, which is to improve Afghan lives through development projects. There are excellent models, from U.N. Habitat to the Aga Khan network, which has restored historic buildings, run rural health projects, and established a five-star hotel and Afghanistan’s mobile telephone network. The soap business that the American Sarah Chayes has developed with Afghan women has been more successful than larger and wealthier business associations. Such projects should be separated from our defense and political objectives.

Sometimes it is better for us to do less. Dutch forces in the province of Uruzgan have found that, when left alone, the Taliban alienate communities by living parasitically, lecturing puritanically and failing to deliver. But when the British tried to aggressively dominate the South last summer, they alienated a dangerous proportion of the local population and had to withdraw. Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that we squandered an opportunity in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, being distracted by Iraq and not bringing enough troops or resources. But my experience in Afghanistan has led me to believe that the original strategy of limiting our role was correct.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Death of a Marine

The New York Times
March 19, 2007

Jeffrey Lucey was 18 when he signed up for the Marine Reserves in December 1999. His parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey of Belchertown, Mass., were not happy. They had hoped their son would go to college.

Jeffrey himself was ambivalent.

“The recruiter was a very smooth talker and very, very persistent,” Ms. Lucey told me in a call from Orlando, Fla., where she was on vacation with her husband and their two grown daughters last week. The conversation was difficult. Ms. Lucey would talk for a while, and then her husband would get on the phone.

“We see him everywhere,” Ms. Lucey said. “Every little dark-haired boy you see, it looks like Jeff. If we see a parent reprimanding a child, it’s like you want to go up and say, ‘Oh, don’t do that, because you don’t know how long you’re going to have him.’ ”

The war in Iraq began four years ago today. Fans at sporting events around the U.S. greeted the war and its early “shock and awe” bombing campaign with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Jeffrey Lucey, who turned 22 the day before the war began, had a different perspective. He had no illusions about the glory or glamour of warfare. His unit had been activated and he was part of the first wave of troops to head into the combat zone.

A diary entry noted the explosion of a Scud missile near his unit: “The noise was just short of blowing out your eardrums. Everyone’s heart truly skipped a beat. ... Nerves are on edge.”

By the time he came home, Jeffrey Lucey was a mess. He had gruesome stories to tell. They could not all be verified, but there was no doubt that this once-healthy young man had been shattered by his experiences.

He had nightmares. He drank furiously. He withdrew from his friends. He wrecked his parents’ car. He began to hallucinate.

In a moment of deep despair on the Christmas Eve after his return from Iraq, Jeffrey hurled his dogtags at his sister Debra and cried out, “Don’t you know your brother’s a murderer?”

Jeffrey exhibited all the signs of deep depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Wars do that to people. They rip apart the mind and the soul in the same way that bullets and bombs mutilate the body. The war in Iraq is inflicting a much greater emotional toll on U.S. troops than most Americans realize.

The Luceys tried desperately to get help for Jeffrey, but neither the military nor the Veterans Administration is equipped to cope with the war’s mounting emotional and psychological casualties.

On the evening of June 22, 2004, Kevin Lucey came home and called out to Jeffrey. There was no answer. He noticed that the door leading to the basement was open and that the light in the basement was on. He did not see the two notes that Jeffrey had left on the first floor for his parents:

“It’s 4:35 p.m. and I am near completing my death.”

“Dad, please don’t look. Mom, just call the police — Love, Jeff.”

The first thing Mr. Lucey saw as he walked down to the basement was that Jeff had set up an arrangement of photos. There was a picture of his platoon, and photos of his sisters, Debra and Kelly, his parents, the family dog and himself.

“Then I could see, through the corner of my eye, Jeff,” said Mr. Lucey. “And he was, I thought, standing there. Then I noticed the hose around his neck.”

The Luceys hope that in talking about their family’s tragedy they will bring more attention to the awful struggle faced by so many troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional illnesses. “We hear of so many suicides,” said Mr. Lucey.

Ms. Lucey added, “We thought that if we told other people about Jeffrey they might see their loved ones mirrored in him, and maybe they would be more aggressive, or do something different than we did. We didn’t feel we had the knowledge we needed and we lost our child.”

The Luceys are more than just concerned and grief-stricken. They’re angry. They’ve joined an antiwar organization, Military Families Speak Out, and they want the war in Iraq brought to an end. “That’s the only way to prevent further Jeffreys from happening,” Ms. Lucey said.

Mr. Lucey made no effort to hide his bitterness over the government’s failure to address many of the critical needs of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. His voice quivered as he said, “When we hear anybody in the administration get up and say that they support the troops, it sickens us.”

Don’t Cry for Reagan

The New York Times
March 19, 2007

As the Bush administration sinks deeper into its multiple quagmires, the personality cult the G.O.P. once built around President Bush has given way to nostalgia for the good old days. The current cover of Time magazine shows a weeping Ronald Reagan, and declares that Republicans “need to reclaim the Reagan legacy.”

But Republicans shouldn’t cry for Ronald Reagan; the truth is, he never left them. There’s no need to reclaim the Reagan legacy: Mr. Bush is what Mr. Reagan would have been given the opportunity.

In 1993 Jonathan Cohn — the author, by the way, of a terrific new book on our dysfunctional health care system — published an article in The American Prospect describing the dire state of the federal government. Changing just a few words in that article makes it read as if it were written in 2007.

Thus, Mr. Cohn described how the Interior Department had been packed with opponents of environmental protection, who “presided over a massive sell-off of federal lands to industry and developers” that “deprived the department of several billion dollars in annual revenue.” Oil leases, anyone?

Meanwhile, privatization had run amok, because “the ranks of public officials necessary to supervise contractors have been so thinned that the putative gains of contracting out have evaporated. Agencies have been left with the worst of both worlds — demoralized and disorganized public officials and unaccountable private contractors.” Holy Halliburton!

Not mentioned in Mr. Cohn’s article, but equally reminiscent of current events, was the state of the Justice Department under Ed Meese, a man who gives Alberto Gonzales and John Mitchell serious competition for the title of worst attorney general ever. The politicization of Justice got so bad that in 1988 six senior officials, all Republicans, including the deputy attorney general and the chief of the criminal division, resigned in protest.

Why is there such a strong family resemblance between the Reagan years and recent events? Mr. Reagan’s administration, like Mr. Bush’s, was run by movement conservatives — people who built their careers by serving the alliance of wealthy individuals, corporate interests and the religious right that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. And both cronyism and abuse of power are part of the movement conservative package.

In part this is because people whose ideology says that government is always the problem, never the solution, see no point in governing well. So they use political power to reward their friends, rather than find people who will actually do their jobs.

If expertise is irrelevant, who gets the jobs? No problem: the interlocking, lavishly financed institutions of movement conservatism, which range from K Street to Fox News, create a vast class of apparatchiks who can be counted on to be “loyal Bushies.”

The movement’s apparatchik culture, in turn, explains much of its contempt for the rule of law. Someone who has risen through the ranks of a movement that prizes political loyalty above all isn’t likely to balk at, say, using bogus claims of voter fraud to disenfranchise Democrats, or suppressing potentially damaging investigations of Republicans. As Franklin Foer of The New Republic has pointed out, in College Republican elections, dirty tricks and double crosses are considered acceptable, even praiseworthy.

Still, Mr. Reagan’s misgovernment never went as far as Mr. Bush’s. As a result, he managed to leave office with an approval rating about as high as that of Bill Clinton, who, as we now realize with the benefit of hindsight, governed very well. But the key to Reagan’s relative success, I believe, is that he was lucky in his limitations.

Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan never controlled both houses of Congress — and the pre-Gingrich Republican Party still contained moderates who imposed limits on his ability to govern badly. Also, there was no Reagan-era equivalent of the rush, after 9/11, to give the Bush administration whatever it wanted in the name of fighting terrorism.

Mr. Reagan may even have been helped, perversely, by the fact that in the 1980s there were still two superpowers. This helped prevent the hubris, the delusions of grandeur, that led the Bush administration to believe that a splendid little war in Iraq was just the thing to secure its position.

But what this tells us is that Mr. Bush, not Mr. Reagan, is the true representative of what modern conservatism is all about. And it’s the movement, not just one man, that has failed.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


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