Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Waning of the GOP

By William F. Buckley Jr.
National Review
April 28, 2007

The political problem of the Bush administration is grave, possibly beyond the point of rescue. The opinion polls are savagely decisive on the Iraq question. About 60 percent of Americans wish the war ended — wish at least a timetable for orderly withdrawal. What is going on in Congress is in the nature of accompaniment. The vote in Congress is simply another salient in the war against war in Iraq. Republican forces, with a couple of exceptions, held fast against the Democrats’ attempt to force Bush out of Iraq even if it required fiddling with the Constitution. President Bush will of course veto the bill, but its impact is critically important in the consolidation of public opinion. It can now accurately be said that the legislature, which writes the people’s laws, opposes the war.

Meanwhile, George Tenet, former head of the CIA, has just published a book which seems to demonstrate that there was one part ignorance, one part bullheadedness, in the high-level discussions before war became policy. Mr. Tenet at least appears to demonstrate that there was nothing in the nature of a genuine debate on the question. What he succeeded in doing was aborting a speech by Vice President Cheney which alleged a Saddam/al Qaeda relationship which had not in fact been established.

It isn’t that Tenet now doubts the lethality of the terrorists. What he disputed was an organizational connection which argued for war against Iraq as if Iraq were a vassal state of al Qaeda. A measure of George Tenet’s respect for the reach and malevolence of the enemy is his statement that he is puzzled that Al Qaeda has not, since 2001, sent out “suicide bombers to cause chaos in a half dozen American shopping malls on any given day.” By way of prophecy, he writes that there is one thing he feels in his gut, which is that “Al Qaeda is here and waiting.”

But beyond affirming executive supremacy in matters of war, what is George Bush going to do? It is simply untrue that we are making decisive progress in Iraq. The indicators rise and fall from day to day, week to week, month to month. In South Vietnam there was an organized enemy. There is clearly organization in the strikes by the terrorists against our forces and against the civil government in Iraq, but whereas in Vietnam we had Hanoi as the operative headquarters of the enemy, we have no equivalent of that in Iraq, and that is a matter of paralyzing importance. All those bombings, explosions, assassinations: we are driven to believe that they are, so to speak, spontaneous.

When the Romans were challenged by Christianity, Rome fell. The generation of Christians moved by their faith overwhelmed the regimented reserves of the Roman state. It was four years ago that Mr. Cheney first observed that there was a real fear that each fallen terrorist leads to the materialization of another terrorist. What can a “surge,” of the kind we are now relying upon, do to cope with endemic disease? The parallel even comes to mind of the eventual collapse of Prohibition, because there wasn’t any way the government could neutralize the appetite for alcohol, or the resourcefulness of the freeman in acquiring it.

General Petraeus is a wonderfully commanding figure. But if the enemy is in the nature of a disease, he cannot win against it. Students of politics ask then the derivative question: How can the Republican party, headed by a president determined on a war he can’t see an end to, attract the support of a majority of the voters? General Petraeus, in his Pentagon briefing on April 26, reported persuasively that there has been progress, but cautioned, “I want to be very clear that there is vastly more work to be done across the board and in many areas, and again I note that we are really just getting started with the new effort.”

The general makes it a point to steer away from the political implications of the struggle, but this cannot be done in the wider arena. There are grounds for wondering whether the Republican party will survive this dilemma.

All the President’s Press

The Nw York Times
April 29, 2007

SOMEHOW it’s hard to imagine David Halberstam yukking it up with Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz and two discarded “American Idol” contestants at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Before there was a Woodward and Bernstein, there was Halberstam, still not yet 30 in the early 1960s, calling those in power to account for lying about our “progress” in Vietnam. He did so even though J.F.K. told the publisher of The Times, “I wish like hell that you’d get Halberstam out of there.” He did so despite public ridicule from the dean of that era’s Georgetown punditocracy, the now forgotten columnist (and Vietnam War cheerleader) Joseph Alsop.

It was Alsop’s spirit, not Halberstam’s, that could be seen in C-Span’s live broadcast of the correspondents’ dinner last Saturday, two days before Halberstam’s death in a car crash in California. This fete is a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era: it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows. Such is literally the case at the annual dinner, where journalists serve as a supporting cast, but it has been figuratively true year-round. The press has enabled stunts from the manufactured threat of imminent “mushroom clouds” to “Saving Private Lynch” to “Mission Accomplished,” whose fourth anniversary arrives on Tuesday. For all the recrimination, self-flagellation and reforms that followed these journalistic failures, it’s far from clear that the entire profession yet understands why it has lost the public’s faith.

That state of denial was center stage at the correspondents’ dinner last year, when the invited entertainer, Stephen Colbert, “fell flat,” as The Washington Post summed up the local consensus. To the astonishment of those in attendance, a funny thing happened outside the Beltway the morning after: the video of Mr. Colbert’s performance became a national sensation. (Last week it was still No. 2 among audiobook downloads on iTunes.) Washington wisdom had it that Mr. Colbert bombed because he was rude to the president. His real sin was to be rude to the capital press corps, whom he caricatured as stenographers. Though most of the Washington audience failed to find the joke funny, Americans elsewhere, having paid a heavy price for the press’s failure to challenge White House propaganda about Iraq, laughed until it hurt.

You’d think that l’affaire Colbert would have led to a little circumspection, but last Saturday’s dinner was another humiliation. And not just because this year’s entertainer, an apolitical nightclub has-been (Rich Little), was a ludicrously tone-deaf flop. More appalling — and symptomatic of the larger sycophancy — was the press’s insidious role in President Bush’s star turn at the event.

It’s the practice on these occasions that the president do his own comic shtick, but this year Mr. Bush made a grand show of abstaining, saying that the killings at Virginia Tech precluded his being a “funny guy.” Any civilian watching on TV could formulate the question left hanging by this pronouncement: Why did the killings in Iraq not preclude his being a “funny guy” at other press banquets we’ve watched on C-Span? At the equivalent Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association gala three years ago, the president contributed an elaborate (and tasteless) comic sketch about his failed search for Saddam’s W.M.D.

But the revelers in the ballroom last Saturday could not raise that discrepancy and challenge Mr. Bush’s hypocrisy; they could only clap. And so they served as captive dress extras in a propaganda stunt, lending their credibility to the president’s sanctimonious exploitation of the Virginia Tech tragedy for his own political self-aggrandizement on national television. Meanwhile the war was kept as tightly under wraps as the troops’ coffins.

By coincidence, this year’s dinner occurred just before a Congressional hearing filled in some new blanks in the still incomplete story of a more egregious White House propaganda extravaganza: the Pat Tillman hoax. As it turns out, the correspondents’ dinner played an embarrassing cameo role in it, too.

What the hearing underscored was the likelihood that the White House also knew very early on what the Army knew and covered up: the football star’s supposed death in battle in Afghanistan, vividly described in a Pentagon press release awarding him a Silver Star, was a complete fabrication, told to the world (and Tillman’s parents) even though top officers already suspected he had died by friendly fire. The White House apparently decided to join the Pentagon in maintaining that lie so that it could be milked for P.R. purposes on two television shows, the correspondents’ dinner on May 1, 2004, and a memorial service for Tillman two days later.

The timeline of events in the week or so leading up to that dinner is startling. Tillman was killed on April 22, 2004. By the next day top officers knew he had not been killed by enemy fire. On April 29, a top special operations commander sent a memo to John Abizaid, among other generals, suggesting that the White House be warned off making specific public claims about how Tillman died. Simultaneously, according to an e-mail that surfaced last week, a White House speechwriter contacted the Pentagon to gather information about Tillman for use at the correspondents’ dinner.

When President Bush spoke at the dinner at week’s end, he followed his jokes with a eulogy about Tillman’s sacrifice. But he kept the circumstances of Tillman’s death vague, no doubt because the White House did indeed get the message that the Pentagon’s press release about Tillman’s losing his life in battle was fiction. Yet it would be four more weeks before Pat Tillman’s own family was let in on the truth.

To see why the administration wanted to keep the myth going, just look at other events happening in the week before that correspondents’ dinner. On April 28, 2004, CBS broadcast the first photographs from Abu Ghraib; on April 29 a poll on The Times’s front page found the president’s approval rating on the war was plummeting; on April 30 Ted Koppel challenged the administration’s efforts to keep the war dead hidden by reading the names of the fallen on “Nightline.” Tillman could be useful to help drown out all this bad news, and to an extent he was. The Washington press corps that applauded the president at the correspondents’ dinner is the same press corps that was slow to recognize the importance of Abu Ghraib that weekend and, as documented by a new study, “When the Press Fails” (University of Chicago Press), even slower to label the crimes as torture.

In his PBS report last week about the journalism breakdown before the war, Bill Moyers said that “the press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush administration to go to war on false pretenses.” That’s not universally true; a number of news organizations have owned up to their disasters and tried to learn from them. Yet old habits die hard: for too long the full weight of the scandal in the Gonzales Justice Department eluded some of the Washington media pack, just as Abu Ghraib and the C.I.A. leak case did.

After last weekend’s correspondents’ dinner, The Times decided to end its participation in such events. But even were the dinner to vanish altogether, it remains but a yearly televised snapshot of the overall syndrome. The current White House, weakened as it is, can still establish story lines as fake as “Mission Accomplished” and get a free pass.

To pick just one overarching example: much of the press still takes it as a given that Iraq has a functioning government that might meet political benchmarks (oil law, de-Baathification reform, etc., etc.) that would facilitate an American withdrawal. In reality, the Maliki “government” can’t meet any benchmarks, even if they were enforced, because that government exists only as a fictional White House talking point. As Gen. Barry McCaffrey said last week, this government doesn’t fully control a single province. Its Parliament, now approaching a scheduled summer recess, has passed no major legislation in months. Iraq’s sole recent democratic achievement is to ban the release of civilian casualty figures, lest they challenge White House happy talk about “progress” in Iraq.

It’s our country’s bitter fortune that while David Halberstam is gone, too many Joe Alsops still hold sway. Take the current dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder, who is leading the charge in ridiculing Harry Reid for saying the obvious — that “this war is lost” (as it is militarily, unless we stay in perpetuity and draft many more troops). In February, Mr. Broder handed down another gem of Beltway conventional wisdom, suggesting that “at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback.”

Some may recall that Stephen Colbert offered the same prediction in his monologue at the correspondents’ dinner a year ago. “I don’t believe this is a low point in this presidency,” he said. “I believe it is just a lull before a comeback.” But the fake pundit, unlike the real one, recognized that this was a joke.

Diplomacy at Its Worst

The New York Times
April 29, 2007

In May 2003, Iran sent a secret proposal to the U.S. for settling our mutual disputes in a “grand bargain.”

It is an astonishing document, for it tries to address a range of U.S. concerns about nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq. I’ve placed it and related documents (including multiple drafts of it) on my blog,

Hard-liners in the Bush administration killed discussions of a deal, and interviews with key players suggest that was an appalling mistake. There was a real hope for peace; now there is a real danger of war.

Scattered reports of the Iranian proposal have emerged previously, but if you read the full documentary record you’ll see that what the hard-liners killed wasn’t just one faxed Iranian proposal but an entire peace process. The record indicates that officials from the repressive, duplicitous government of Iran pursued peace more energetically and diplomatically than senior Bush administration officials — which makes me ache for my country.

The process began with Afghanistan in 2001-2. Iran and the U.S., both opponents of the Taliban, cooperated closely in stabilizing Afghanistan and providing aid, and unofficial “track two” processes grew to explore opportunities for improved relations.

On the U.S. side, track two involved well-connected former U.S. ambassadors, including Thomas Pickering, Frank Wisner and Nicholas Platt. The Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Javad Zarif, was a central player, as was an Iranian-American professor at Rutgers, Hooshang Amirahmadi, who heads a friendship group called the American Iranian Council.

At a dinner the council sponsored for its board at Ambassador Zarif’s home in September 2002, the group met Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi. According to the notes of Professor Amirahmadi, the foreign minister told the group, “Yes, we are ready to normalize relations,” provided the U.S. made the first move.

This was shaping into a historic opportunity to heal U.S.-Iranian relations, and the track two participants discussed further steps, including joint U.S.-Iranian cooperation against Saddam Hussein. The State Department and National Security Council were fully briefed, and in 2003 Ambassador Zarif met with two U.S. officials, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad, in a series of meetings in Paris and Geneva.

Encouraged, Iran transmitted its “grand bargain” proposals to the U.S. One version was apparently a paraphrase by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran; that was published this year in The Washington Post.

But Iran also sent its own master text of the proposal to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. I’ve also posted that document, which Iran regards as the definitive one.

In the master document, Iran talks about ensuring “full transparency” and other measures to assure the U.S. that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Iran offers “active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization.” Iran also contemplates an end to “any material support to Palestinian opposition groups” while pressuring Hamas “to stop violent actions against civilians within” Israel (though not the occupied territories). Iran would support the transition of Hezbollah to be a “mere political organization within Lebanon” and endorse the Saudi initiative calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran also demanded a lot, including “mutual respect,” abolition of sanctions, access to peaceful nuclear technology and a U.S. statement that Iran did not belong in the “axis of evil.” Many crucial issues, including verification of Iran’s nuclear program, needed to be hammered out. It’s not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing — and still is today.

Instead, Bush administration hard-liners aborted the process. Another round of talks had been scheduled for Geneva, and Ambassador Zarif showed up — but not the U.S. side. That undermined Iranian moderates.

A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have saved lives in Iraq, isolated Palestinian terrorists and encouraged civil society groups in Iran. But instead the U.S. hard-liners chose to hammer plowshares into swords.

I’ve chosen the two winners of my second annual “win-a-trip contest.” One is Leana Wen, a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. The second is Will Okun, who teaches at Westside Alternative High School in Chicago and dabbles in photography and writing.

Leana, Will and I will travel together through Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo. Stay tuned.

Grim Old Party

The New York Times
April 29, 2007

At the University of Chicago there’s a group of scholars who are members of what is called the Rational Expectations school of economics. They believe human beings tend to anticipate unpleasant future events and seek in advance to avoid them. Their teachings do not apply to the Republican Party.

The Republicans suffered one unpleasant event in November 2006, and they are headed toward an even nastier one in 2008. The Democrats have opened up a wide advantage in party identification and are crushing the G.O.P. among voters under 30.

Moreover, there has been a clear shift, in poll after poll, away from Republican positions on social issues and on attitudes toward government. Democratic approaches are favored on almost all domestic, tax and fiscal issues, and even on foreign affairs.

The public, in short, wants change.

And yet the Republicans refuse to offer that. On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along. They privately believe the country needs new approaches to the war against Islamic extremism, but they don’t offer them. They try to block Democratic initiatives, but they don’t offer the country any new ways to think about the G.O.P.

They are like people quietly marching to their doom.

And at the presidential level, things are even worse. The party is blessed with a series of charismatic candidates who are not orthodox Republicans. But the pressures of the campaign are such that these candidates have had to repress anything that might make them interesting. Instead of offering something new, each of them has been going around pretending to be the second coming of George Allen — a bland, orthodox candidate who will not challenge any of the party’s customs or prejudices.

Mitt Romney created an interesting health care reform, but he’s suppressing that in an effort to pretend to be George Allen. Rudy Giuliani has an unusual profile that won him a majority of votes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, of all places, but he’s suppressing that to be George Allen. John McCain has a record on taxes and spending that suggests he really could take on entitlements. But at least until last week, he suppressed that in order not to offend the George Allen vote.

And just in case any of these George Allen wannabes weren’t George Allen enough for voters, Fred Thompson may enter the race as the Authentic Conservative, even though deep in his heart he’s no more George Allen than the rest of them.

The big question is, Why are the Republicans so immobile?

There are several reasons. First, there are structural barriers to change. As it has aged, the conservative movement has grown a collection of special interest groups that restrict its mobility. Anybody who offers unorthodox tax policies gets whacked by the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform. Anybody who offers unorthodox social policies gets whacked by James Dobson.

Second, there is the corrupting influence of teamism. Being a good conservative now means sticking together with other conservatives, not thinking new and adventurous thoughts. Those who stray from the reservation are accused of selling out to the mainstream media by the guardians of conservative correctness.

Third, there is the oppressive power of the past. Conservatives have allowed a simplistic view of Ronald Reagan to define the sacred parameters of thought. Reagan himself was flexible, unorthodox and creative. But conservatives have created a mythical, rigid Reagan, and any deviation from that is considered unholy.

Fourth, there is the bunker mentality. Republican morale has been brutalized by the Iraq war and the party’s decline. This state of emotional pain is not conducive to risk-taking and free and open debate.

In sum, Republicans know they need to change, but they have closed off all the avenues for change.

The tale is not entirely hopeless. McCain seems now to be throwing off his yoke. Newt Gingrich is way ahead of his colleagues when it comes to new ideas and policies. The libertarians and paleoconservatives have been losing for so long they are suddenly quite interesting. There are even a few of us who think it is time to revive the Alexander Hamilton-Theodore Roosevelt legacy.

Change could, miraculously, come soon. But the odds are it will take a few more crushing defeats before Republicans tear down the self-imposed walls that confine them.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Planet of the Apes

The New York Times
April 28, 2007

This week the mystery deepened: Why no space aliens?

On Tuesday, scientists reported finding the most “Earthlike” planet ever, Gliese 581c. Its sun is cooler than ours, but also closer, so Gliese is in that climatic comfort zone conducive to water — hence to life, hence to evolution, hence to intelligent beings with advanced technology. Yet they never phone.

It’s actually a serious question, long pondered by sci-fi types. Since a civilization whose technological evolution was ahead of ours by even a few centuries could contact us from far, far away (and certainly from Gliese, a mere 20 light-years away), what does it mean that we haven’t heard a thing from any corner of this vast universe?

That life got started on few or no other planets? That on other planets giant asteroids kept pressing evolution’s reset button? Or, distressingly, that when civilizations reach the technological level we’ve reached, they tend to wipe themselves out, or at least bomb themselves back into the Stone Age?

O.K., that last one is pretty wild speculation. But you have to admit that current events aren’t wildly at odds with it. There’s an apocalyptic vibe in the zeitgeist, and it’s not hard to imagine how the technological sophistication that got us to the brink of global civilization could be our undoing. Let us count the ways.

(1) Classic nuclear Armageddon. This threat is in remission. Economic interdependence dulls enmity among nuclear powers, and crisis-averting lines of communication have gotten stronger since the cold war. Still, things can change.

(2) Eco-apocalypse. Solving climate change and other global environmental problems is a political nightmare. Nations are tempted to play “free rider” and not join in the sacrifices, since they’ll share the rewards anyway. The good news is that past environmental problems have featured negative-feedback loops: when negligence makes the problem bad enough, political will appears.

(3) Terrorism. Alas, the negative-feedback loop — bad outcomes lead to smart policies — may not apply here. We reacted to 9/11 by freaking out and invading one too many countries, creating more terrorists. With the ranks of terrorists growing — amid evolving biotechnology and loose nukes — we could within a decade see terrorism on a scale that would make us forget any restraint we had learned from the Iraq war’s outcome. If 3,000 deaths led to two wars, how many wars would 300,000 deaths yield? And how many new terrorists?

Terrorism alone won’t wipe out humanity. But with our unwitting help, it could strengthen other lethal forces.

It could give weight to the initially fanciful “clash of civilizations” thesis. Muslim states could fall under the control of radicals and opt out of what might otherwise have become a global civilization. Armed with nukes (Pakistan already is), they would revive the nuclear Armageddon scenario. A fissure between civilizations would also sabotage the solution of environmental problems, and the ensuing eco-calamity could make people on both sides of the fissure receptive to radical messages. The worse things got, the worse they’d get.

So while no one of the Big Three doomsday dynamics is likely to bring the apocalypse, they could well combine to form a positive-feedback loop, a k a the planetary death spiral. And the catalyst would be terrorism, along with our mishandling of it.

Disheartened? There’s more: to avoid mishandling things, we may have to forsake our beloved evolutionary heritage.

We may more often have to resist the retributive impulse that worked fine in the environment where it evolved but now often misfires. We may have to appreciate how our moral condemnations — which can help start wars — are subtly biased by our primate brains in self-serving ways that, in some contexts, no longer serve our selves.

We may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn’t be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still, this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us “makes sense” — and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.

If salvation indeed means transcending engrained irrationality, then the odds may well be against us. But look at the bright side: if you do run into any space aliens, they’re likely to be reasonable creatures.

Robert Wright, author of “Nonzero,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site

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More Like an Air Ball

The New York Times
April 28, 2007


Poor Slam-Dunk.

Not since Madame Butterfly has anyone been so cruelly misunderstood and misused. Slam-Dunk says that when he pantingly told the president that fetching information on Saddam’s W.M.D. would be a cinch, he did not mean let’s go to war.

No matter how eager Slam-Dunk was to tell W. what he wanted to hear while polishing W.’s shoes, that intelligence they craved did not exist. “Let me say it again: C.I.A. found absolutely no linkage between Saddam and 9/11,” the ex-Head Spook writes in his new book, self-effacingly titled “At the Center of the Storm.” Besides, Junior and Darth had already decided to go to war to show the Arabs their moxie.

The president and vice president wanted Slam-Dunk to help them dramatize the phony case. Everyone had to pitch in! That Saturday session in December 2002 in the Oval Office was “essentially a marketing meeting,” Slam-Dunk writes, just for “sharpening the arguments.”

Hey, I feel better.

Slam-Dunk always presented himself as the ultimate guy’s guy, a cigar-chomping spymaster who swapped jokes with the president. But now he shows us his tender side, a sniveling C.I.A. chief bullied by “remote” Condi.

He says Condi panicked in October 2002 and made him call a Times reporter, Alison Mitchell, who covered the Congressional debate about invading Iraq. He told Alison to ignore the conclusions of his own agency, which had said the links between Saddam and terrorist groups were tenuous, and that Saddam would only take the extreme step of joining with Islamic fanatics if he thought the U.S. was about to attack him. His nose growing as long as his cigar, he said nothing in the C.I.A. report contradicted the president’s case for war.

“In retrospect,” Slam writes, “I shouldn’t have talked to the New York Times reporter at Condi’s request. By making public comments in the middle of a contentious political debate, I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”

Can’t a guy be a lickspittle without being an ideologue?

There were so many nasties trying to push Slam around: Vice, of course, and Wolfie, and Wolfie’s neoconcubine Doug Feith. Once, Slam writes, Wolfie “hounded” a C.I.A. briefer to translate the diary of Abu Zubaydah, a captured Al Qaeda official, even though the C.I.A. had decided it was just misogynistic ramblings “about what he wanted to do with women.” Oh, that sexy beast Wolfie. Look out, Shaha!

But even though he was paid a $4 million advance to settle scores, Slam can’t turn on W. Maybe it’s the Medal of Freedom. “In a way, President Bush and I are much alike,” he writes. “We sometimes say things from our gut, whether it’s his ‘bring ’em on’ or my ‘slam-dunk.’ I think he gets that about me, just as I get that about him.” (He had me at “slam-dunk.”)

The worst meanie was horrid Bob Woodward. Slam socialized with Bob and gave him lots of intel for his best sellers, but then Bob “painted a caricature of me leaping into the air and simulating a slam-dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing. Credit Woodward’s source with ... a fine sense of how to make me look ridiculous, but don’t credit him or her with a deep sense of obligation to the truth.”

A deep sense of obligation to the truth is something Slam keenly understands, even though he scurried around like the butler in “Remains of the Day,” trying to toadie up to the president while, as he belatedly admits, W. was going to invade Iraq without debate or casus belli.

He says he warned Paul Bremer about de-Baathifying the Iraqi Army, but hey, he was just a staff guy. That’s probably how the two worst intelligence disasters in our history happened on his watch. He was merely providing intelligence for the guys who wanted to ignore or warp that intelligence and make bad policy. What could he do?

Slam says he was Cassandra. A C.I.A. paper was given to the president’s national security team in September 2002 tot sum up the possible negatives of invading Iraq, including anarchy and a breakup in Iraq, instability in the neighborhood, a surge of terrorism against U.S. interests, oil disruptions, and seething allies.

But it was discreetly tucked away in the back of the briefing book, after the stuff at the beginning about how great it would be to liberate Iraq and end threats to Iraq’s neighbors, and the stuff in the middle about reforming Iraq’s bureaucracy.

Slam gives tips to others who want to engage in public service, including: Don’t forget that there are no private conversations, even in the Oval Office. Another might be: If you worry about your own survival more than your country’s, you might end up as the whiny fall guy.

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MSNBC Transcript:

Finally tonight, a Special Comment about Rudolf Giuliani's remarks at a Lincoln Day Dinner in New Hampshire last night.

Since some indeterminable hour between the final dousing of the pyre at The World Trade Center, and the breaking of what Senator Obama has aptly termed "9/11 Fever," it has been profoundly and disturbingly evident that we are at the center of one of history's great ironies.

Only in this America of the early 21st Century could it be true, that the man who was president during the worst attack on our nation, and the man who was the mayor of the city in which that attack principally unfolded, would not only be absolved of any and all blame for the unreadiness of their own governments, but, more over, would thereafter be branded heroes of those attacks.

And now, that Mayor - whose most profound municipal act in the wake of that nightmare was to suggest the postponement of the election to select his own successor - has gone even a step beyond these M.C. Escher constructions of history.

"If any Republican is elected president - and I think obviously I would be best at this - we will remain on offense and will anticipate what (the terrorists) will do and try to stop them before they do it. "

Insisting that the election of any Democrat would mean the country was "back... on defense," Mr. Giuliani continued:

"But the question is how long will it take and how many casualties will we have. If we are on defense, we will have more losses and it will go on longer."

He said this with no sense of irony, no sense of any personal shortcomings, no sense whatsoever.

And if you somehow missed what he was really saying, somehow didn't hear the none-too-subtle subtext of 'vote Democratic and die,' Mr. Giuliani then stripped away any barrier of courtesy, telling Roger Simon of Politico.Com, quote....

"America will be safer with a Republican president."

At least that Republican President under which we have not been safer ... has, even at his worst, maintained some microscopic distance between himself, and a campaign platform that blithely threatened the American people with "casualties" if they, next year, elect a Democratic president - or, inferring from Mr. Giuliani's flights of grandeur in New Hampshire - even if they elect a different Republican.

How dare you, sir?

"How many casualties will we have?" - this is the language of Bin Laden.

Yours, Mr. Giuliani, is the same chilling nonchalance of the madman, of the proselytizer who has moved even from some crude framework of politics and society, into a virtual Roman Colosseum of carnage, and a conceit over your own ability - and worthiness - to decide, who lives and who dies.

Rather than a reasoned discussion - rather than a political campaign advocating your own causes and extolling your own qualifications - you have bypassed all the intermediate steps, and moved directly to trying to terrorize the electorate into viewing a vote for a Democrat, not as a reasonable alternative and an inalienable right ... but as an act of suicide.

This is not the mere politicizing of Iraq, nor the vague mumbled epithets about Democratic 'softness' from a delusional Vice President.

This is casualties on a partisan basis - of the naked assertion that Mr. Giuliani's party knows all and will save those who have voted for it - and to hell with everybody else.

And that he, with no foreign policy experience whatsoever, is somehow the Messiah-of-the-moment.

Even to grant that that formula - whether posed by Republican or Democrat - is somehow not the most base, the most indefensible, the most Un-American electioneering in our history - even if it is somehow acceptable to assign "casualties" to one party and 'safety' to the other - even if we have become so profane in our thinking that it is part of our political vocabulary to view counter-terror as one party's property and the other's liability... on what imaginary track record does Mr. Giuliani base his boast?

Which party held the presidency on September 11th, 2001, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party held the mayoralty of New York on that date, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party assured New Yorkers that the air was safe, and the remains of the dead, recovered - and not being used to fill pot-holes, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party wanted what the terrorists wanted - the postponement elections - and to whose personal advantage would that have redounded, Mr. Giuliani?

Which mayor of New York was elected eight months after the first attack on the World Trade Center, yet did not emphasize counter-terror in the same city for the next eight years, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party had proposed to turn over the Department of Homeland Security to Bernard Kerik, Mr. Giuliani?

Who wanted to ignore and hide Kerik's Organized Crime allegations, Mr. Giuliani?

Who personally argued to the White House that Kerik need not be vetted, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party rode roughshod over Americans' rights while braying that it was actually protecting them, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party took this country into the most utterly backwards, utterly counter-productive, utterly ruinous war in our history, Mr. Giuliani?

Which party has been in office as more Americans were killed in the pointless fields of Iraq, than were killed in the consuming nightmare of 9/11, Mr. Giuliani?

Drop this argument, sir. You will lose it.

"The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us," Mr. Giuliani continued to the Rockingham County Lincoln Day Dinner last night. "Never, ever again will this country be on defense waiting for (terrorists) to attack us, if I have anything to say about it. And make no mistake, the Democrats want to put us back on defense."

There is no room for this.

This is terrorism itself, dressed up as counter-terrorism.

It is not warning, but bullying - substituted for the political discourse now absolutely essential to this country's survival and the freedom of its people.

No Democrat has said words like these. None has ever campaigned on the Republicans' flat-footedness of September 11th, 2001. None has the requisite, irresponsible, all-consuming, ambition. None is willing to say "I Accuse," rather than recognize that, to some degree, all of us share responsibility for our collective stupor.

And if it is somehow insufficient, that this is morally, spiritually, and politically wrong, to screech as Mr. Giuliani has screeched ... there is also this: that gaping hole in Mr. Giuliani's argument of 'Republicans equal life; Democrats equal death.'

Not only have the Republicans not lived up to their babbling on this subject, but last fall the electorate called them on it.

As doubtless they would call you on it, Mr. Giuliani.

Repeat, go beyond Mr. Bush's rhetorical calamities of 2006.

Call attention to the casualties on your watch, and your long, waking slumber in the years between the two attacks on the World Trade Center.

Become the candidate who runs on the Vote-For-Me-Or-Die platform.

Do a Joe McCarthy, a Lyndon Johnson, a Robespierre.

Only, if you choose so to do, do not come back surprised nor remorseful if the voters remind you that "terror" is not just a matter of "casualties." It is, just as surely, a matter of the promulgation of fear.

Claim a difference between the parties on the voters' chances of survival - and you do Osama Bin Laden's work for him.

And we - Democrats and Republicans alike, and every variation in between - We - Americans! - are sick to death, of you and the other terror-mongers, trying to frighten us into submission, into the surrender of our rights and our reason, into this betrayal of that for which this country has always stood.

Franklin Roosevelt's words ring true again tonight.

And, clarified and amplified, they are just as current now, as they were when first he spoke them, 74 years ago.

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" - and those who would exploit our fear, for power, and for their own personal, selfish, cynical, gain.

Good night, and good luck.

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Bill Moyers Journal

Four years ago on May 1, President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln wearing a flight suit and delivered a speech in front of a giant "Mission Accomplished" banner. He was hailed by media stars as a "breathtaking" example of presidential leadership in toppling Saddam Hussein. Despite profound questions over the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction and the increasing violence in Baghdad, many in the press confirmed the White House's claim that the war was won. MSNBC's Chris Matthews declared, "We're all neo-cons now;" NPR's Bob Edwards said, "The war in Iraq is essentially over;" and Fortune magazine's Jeff Birnbaum said, "It is amazing how thorough the victory in Iraq really was in the broadest context."

How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? How did the evidence disputing the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein to 9-11 continue to go largely unreported? "What the conservative media did was easy to fathom; they had been cheerleaders for the White House from the beginning and were simply continuing to rally the public behind the President — no questions asked. How mainstream journalists suspended skepticism and scrutiny remains an issue of significance that the media has not satisfactorily explored," says Moyers. "How the administration marketed the war to the American people has been well covered, but critical questions remain: How and why did the press buy it, and what does it say about the role of journalists in helping the public sort out fact from propaganda?"

Click here for video & transcript

Top hedge-fund managers average $540 million in income

By Joe Kay
27 April 2007

An article in Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine this week reports that the 25 highest-paid hedge-fund managers in the US had an average income of $540 million in 2006, with the top three pulling in over $1 billion each.

The sums racked in by hedge-fund managers dwarf even the incomes of top corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers The average among them earned nearly $1.5 million a day, every day, for the entire year—or over $1,000 every minute.

Incomes for these managers of largely unregulated and secretive investment companies have soared in recent years. The average compensation for the top 25 increased 57 percent from 2005 and 127 percent from 2004. To get on the top 25, a hedge fund manager had to have an income of at least $240 million, twice the cutoff in 2005 and six times greater than the cutoff in 2002.

In total, the top 25 pulled in nearly $14 billion in one year. According to the International Monetary Fund, this is more than the total gross domestic product of Bahrain, Jordan, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and many other countries. As one media report noted, the sum would be enough to pay all of New York City’s 80,000 public school teachers for nearly three years.

This is a portrait of an aristocracy of wealth that is unlike any other period in American history. A tiny layer of society—the top one-tenth, or even one-hundredth or one-thousandth percent of the population—has amassed unimaginable wealth while wages for the majority of the population, in the US and internationally, continue to stagnate or decline.

What have these individuals done to justify their incomes? In a word, nothing. Their wealth derives overwhelmingly from financial speculation, short-term bets on stocks or derivatives, and similar operations that produce no real value. Others have specialized in pressuring corporations to cut costs, slash wages, and downsize in order to increase share value. The hedge fund managers typify an American ruling class that has become increasingly divorced from any direct relationship to the productive process, making its money through parasitism and fraud.

Hedge funds are investment companies that typically have restrictions on who is allowed to invest, only allowing large institutional investors or the extremely wealthy. The managers of these funds typically receive income as a percentage of their fund’s assets (usually 2 percent), plus a percentage of the funds’ gains in a given year (typically 20 percent).

By this formula, a fund with large assets and significant gains can pull in enormous sums of money. Investors are willing to keep pouring money into them, however, because of the high returns that many are able to make. Because hedge funds are largely unregulated, it is impossible to know exactly how the returns are made.

Representative of the group of top managers is James Simmons, manager for Renaissance Technologies Corporation. In 2006, Simmons pulled in an astonishing $1.7 billion. It was the second straight year that he was at the top of the list of hedge fund managers. Renaissance owns a fund called Medallion, which has assets of $6 billion and returns of 44 percent last year.

According to Alpha magazine, “Medallion, which is closed to outside investors, uses sophisticated computer programs to identify price anomalies, trading everything from equities and commodities to futures and options.” In other words, the fund makes its money through arbitrage—the employment of complex mathematical models to make bets on the movements of different securities.

In justifying the exorbitant incomes for managers such as Simmons, Stephen Brown, professor at the Stern School of Business at NYU, said, “You had railroads in the 19th century, which led to the opening up of the steel industry and huge fortunes being made. Now we’re seeing changes in financial technology leading to new fortunes being made and new dynasties created.”

In fact, other than their salaries, the new tycoons share little in common with the robber barons of old. While the latter created industries, the former do little more than bet on market moves or benefit from corporate cost cutting.

Also typical of the top hedge fund earners was David Tepper, who came in at number nine with “only” $670 million as manager of Appaloosa. If Simmons is a prototype arbitrageur, Tepper is the modern-day incarnation of the corporate raider—scouring the market for companies to buy up, strip of their assets, and sell off for a profit. Tepper also personifies the increasingly close collaboration between hedge funds and private equity firms, the latter generally playing a more direct role in corporate management.

Alpha magazine writes, “Appaloosa and New York-based private equity and hedge fund shop Cerberus Capital Management are leading a group that has offered as much as $3.4 billion to rescue auto-parts giant Delphi Corp. from bankruptcy. They’re playing hardball: In February the investors extended the date by which Appaloosa, Cerberus or Delphi can terminate the agreement, which stipulates that the auto-parts maker must reach tentative deals with key labor unions and settle legacy issues with ex-parent General Motors Corp.”

In other words, Appaloosa and Cerberus are pressuring Delphi and the United Auto Workers union to agree to concessions contracts to massively reduce labor costs. Cerberus is managed by Stephen Feinberg and has former Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow as its chairman. Feinberg himself worked for Drexel Burnham Lambert during the era of leveraged buyouts and junk bond financing.

Coming in at number 10 was Carl Icahn, whose hedge fund earned him $600 million last year. Icahn is another corporate raider who buys up stock and pressures management to cut costs and pursue other policies that will increase share value (such as stock buyback programs). Icahn has invested in a number of major companies in recent years, including TimeWarner and auto-supplier Lear Corporation, and he is considered a possible investor in Chrysler. Icahn won a name for himself as a corporate raider in the 1980s, when he bought up Trans World Airlines, initiating a cost-cutting campaign in the airline industry that continues to this day.

Also on the top ten were Kenneth Griffen of Citadel Investment Group ($1.4 billion), Edward Lampert of ESL Investments ($1.3 billion), George Soros of Soros Management Fund ($950 million), Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors ($900 million), Bruce Kovner of Caxton Associates ($715 million), Paul Tudor Jones II or Tudor Investments ($690 million) and Timothy Barakett of Atticus Capital ($675 million).

Soros and Kovner represent the two poles of the political establishment in the United States. Soros is a long-time Democratic Party supporter, who spent millions in 2004 trying to unseat Bush. Kovner, on the other hand, is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Enterprise Institute, the right-wing think tank behind much of Bush administration policy.

Referring to Soros, Alpha magazine notes that he “is proof that money trumps politics.” In spite of his support for the Democrats in 2004, “last year he bought 1.9 million shares in the oil-field services company Halliburton Co., whose KBR subsidy is the US military’s biggest contractor in Iraq.” Vice President Dick Cheney was once the CEO of Halliburton. The magazine continues, “So far the 76-year old [Soros] has kept his options open for the 2006 presidential campaign, although he sent the maximum $2,100 personal contribution to Illinois Senator Barack Obama. But he recently told the Houston Chronicle that he’ll play a less activist role in the upcoming election.”

The political power of hedge fund managers was highlighted in an article in the New York magazine this month (“The Running of the Hedgehogs,” by Duff McDonald). McDonald notes that hedge funds have begun campaigning to prevent any government regulation of their actions.

“In a sign of hedge funds’ growing clout in other spheres,” McDonald writes, in late January, Senator Chuck Schumer [the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee] called twenty or so of the top hedge-fund managers and invited them to the Upper East Side Italian restaurant Bottega del Vino. It was supposed to be a friendly chat—Schumer’s message was, you talk to us about what’s going on, and nobody has to worry about too much interference from regulators.” Among the attendees were many of the top hedge fund managers, including Jones and Tepper.

Hedge funds have benefited in recent years from a flood of cash in search of profitable investments. As this has become more and more difficult to find in industries engaged in production, investors have turned to financial speculation. While this offers high returns, it also poses great risks for investors and highlights the underlying instability in world financial markets.

See also:

2005 US income figures: top 10 percent had largest share of national wealth since 1928 [30 March 227]

US poverty highest in three decades [5 March 2007]

The multi-billion dollar demise of hedge fund Armaranth [4 October 2006]

Gilded Once More

The New York Times
April 27, 2007

One of the distinctive features of the modern American right has been nostalgia for the late 19th century, with its minimal taxation, absence of regulation and reliance on faith-based charity rather than government social programs. Conservatives from Milton Friedman to Grover Norquist have portrayed the Gilded Age as a golden age, dismissing talk of the era’s injustice and cruelty as a left-wing myth.

Well, in at least one respect, everything old is new again. Income inequality — which began rising at the same time that modern conservatism began gaining political power — is now fully back to Gilded Age levels.

Consider a head-to-head comparison. We know what John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in Gilded Age America, made in 1894, because in 1895 he had to pay income taxes. (The next year, the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional.) His return declared an income of $1.25 million, almost 7,000 times the average per capita income in the United States at the time.

But that makes him a mere piker by modern standards. Last year, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine, James Simons, a hedge fund manager, took home $1.7 billion, more than 38,000 times the average income. Two other hedge fund managers also made more than $1 billion, and the top 25 combined made $14 billion.

How much is $14 billion? It’s more than it would cost to provide health care for a year to eight million children — the number of children in America who, unlike children in any other advanced country, don’t have health insurance.

The hedge fund billionaires are simply extreme examples of a much bigger phenomenon: every available measure of income concentration shows that we’ve gone back to levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s.

The New Gilded Age doesn’t feel quite as harsh and unjust as the old Gilded Age — not yet, anyway. But that’s because the effects of inequality are still moderated by progressive income taxes, which fall more heavily on the rich than on the middle class; by estate taxation, which limits the inheritance of great wealth; and by social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which provide a safety net for the less fortunate.

You might have thought that in the face of growing inequality, there would have been a move to reinforce these moderating institutions — to raise taxes on the rich and use the money to strengthen the safety net. That’s why comparing the incomes of hedge fund managers with the cost of children’s health care isn’t an idle exercise: there’s a real trade-off involved. But for the past three decades, such trade-offs have been consistently settled in favor of the haves and have-mores.

Taxation has become much less progressive: according to estimates by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, average tax rates on the richest 0.01 percent of Americans have been cut in half since 1970, while taxes on the middle class have risen. In particular, the unearned income of the wealthy — dividends and capital gains — is now taxed at a lower rate than the earned income of most middle-class families.

Those hedge fund titans, by the way, have an especially sweet deal: loopholes in the law let them use their own businesses as, in effect, unlimited 401(k)s, sheltering their earnings and accumulating tax-free capital gains.

Meanwhile, the tax-cut bill Congress passed in 2001 set in motion a complete phaseout of the estate tax. If the Bush administration hadn’t been too clever by half, hiding the true cost of its tax cuts by making the whole package expire at the end of 2010, we’d be well on our way toward becoming a dynastic society.

And as for the social insurance programs —— well, in 2005 the Bush administration tried to privatize Social Security. If it had succeeded, Medicare would have been next.

Of course, the administration’s attempt to undo Social Security was a notable failure. The public, it seems, isn’t eager to return to the days before the New Deal. And the G.O.P.’s defeat in the midterm election has put on hold other plans to restore the good old days.

But it’s much too soon to declare the march toward a New Gilded Age over. If history is any guide, one of these days we’ll see the emergence of a New Progressive Era, maybe even a New New Deal. But it may be a long wait.

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China Needs an Einstein. So Do We.

The New York Times
April 27, 2007

I’ve been thinking about China as I read Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein. China isn’t even mentioned in the book — Einstein: His Life and Universe — but Mr. Isaacson’s stimulating and provocative retelling of Einstein’s career plays into two very hot debates about China.

First, what does Einstein’s life tell us about the relationship between freedom and creativity? Or to put it bluntly: Can China become as innovative as America, can it dominate the 21st century, as many predict, when China censors Google and maintains tight political controls while establishing its market economy?

Second, how do we compete with China, no matter how free we are, when so many of China’s young people are studying math and science and so many of ours are dropping out? Or to put it more bluntly: If Einstein were alive today and learned science the boring way it is taught in so many U.S. schools, wouldn’t he have ended up at a Wall Street hedge fund rather than developing theories of relativity for a Nobel Prize?

Mr. Isaacson’s take on Einstein’s life is that it is a testimony to the unbreakable link between human freedom and creativity.

“The whole theme of the last century, and of Einstein’s life,” Mr. Isaacson said in an interview, “is about people who fled oppression in order to go places to think and express themselves. Einstein runs away from the rote learning and authoritarianism of Germany as a teenager in the 1890s and goes to Italy and Switzerland. And then he flees Hitler to come to America, where he resists both McCarthyism and Stalinism because he believes that the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nurture free thought — rebellious free thought.”

If you look at Einstein’s major theories — special relativity, general relativity and the quantum theory of light — “all three come from taking rebellious imaginative leaps that throw out old conventional wisdom,” Mr. Isaacson said. “Einstein thought that the freest society with the most rebellious thinking would be the most creative. If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression.”

My gut tells me that’s right, but my mind tells me not to ignore something Bill Gates said in China the other day: that putting PCs, education and the Internet in the hands of more and more Chinese is making China not only a huge software market, “but also a contributor to this market. Innovation here is really at a rapid pace.”

Will China hit a ceiling on innovation because of its political authoritarianism? That’s what we need to watch for.

In the meantime, we should heed another of Mr. Isaacson’s insights about Einstein: he found sheer beauty and creative joy in science and equations. If only we could convey that in the way we teach science and math, maybe we could nurture another Einstein — male or female — and not have to worry that so many engineers and scientists in our graduate schools are from China that the classes could be taught in Chinese.

“What Einstein was able to do was to think visually,” Mr. Isaacson explained. “When he looked at Maxwell’s equations as a 16-year-old boy, he visualized what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave and try to catch up. He realized those equations described something wondrous in reality.

“By being able to visualize and think imaginatively about science, he was able to see what more academic scientists failed to see, which is that as you try to catch up with a light beam, the waves travel just as fast, but time slows down for you. It was a leap that better-trained scientists could not make because they did not have the visual imagination.”

If we want our kids to learn science, we can’t treat science as this boring or intimidating thing. “We have to remind our kids ... that a math equation or a scientific formula is just a brush stroke the good Lord uses to paint one of the wonders of nature,” Mr. Isaacson said, “and we should look at it as being as beautiful as art or literature or music.”

My favorite Einstein quotation is that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” A society that restricts imagination is unlikely to produce many Einsteins — no matter how many educated people it has. But a society that does not stimulate imagination when it comes to science and math won’t either — no matter how much freedom it has.

So my sense, from reading Mr. Isaacson’s book, is that if Einstein were alive today, he would be telling both America and China that they have homework to do.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bohdan Paczynski, Pioneering Astrophysicist, Dies at 67

The New York Times
April 26, 2007

Bohdan Paczynski, a leading astrophysicist whose unconventional ideas led to new methods of studying distant stars and hidden planets, including a sweeping nightly survey of the entire sky, died last Thursday at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 67.

The cause was brain cancer, said a spokesman for Princeton University, where Dr. Paczynski had been a professor of astrophysics since 1982.

In the 1980s, Dr. Paczynski (pronounced pah-CHIN-skee) advanced a technique used by astronomers to detect stars, planets and other bodies that emit faint light or none at all.

The technique, known as gravitational microlensing, works when light from a background star is bent by the gravitational pull of a darker object in the foreground. The result is a magnification of light that yields important information about the fainter object. He explained the idea, based in part on Einstein’s relativity theory, in a paper in The Astrophysical Journal in 1986.

Dr. Paczynski and others subsequently used microlensing to explore the Milky Way and they became the first “to recognize the increasing sophistication of our instruments that made this a practical astronomical tool to probe the galaxy in ways never done before,” said Scott Tremaine, a professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In 1995, Dr. Paczynski took part in a noteworthy public debate about the mysterious origins of intense bursts of gamma rays, first detected by satellites in the 1960s.

The debate, held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, hinged on whether the rays began within our galaxy or came from more distant sources. Dr. Paczynski theorized that the rays must have emanated from deep space. His antagonist, Donald Q. Lamb, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, argued that the sources were more likely much closer, and said that Dr. Paczynski was “a rather lonely initial advocate for his idea.”

The contest was amicable and inconclusive, ending when Dr. Paczynski’s theory was proved correct in 1997, after scientists were able to study the optical afterglow of a gamma-ray burst. They determined that the burst had “a cosmological source, from galaxies other than our own, and showed how incredibly prescient Bohdan Paczynski had been in his work,” Dr. Lamb said.

With astronomers from Poland, Dr. Paczynski established the All Sky Automated Survey, an attempt to capture a large-scale record of celestial activity and share the results electronically. The project is a continuing effort to find rare events, like cosmic explosions and killer asteroids, which turn on and suddenly turn off and would otherwise not be noticed, Dr. Tremaine said.

Dr. Paczynski had previously helped to start another international collaboration, the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, to detect faint stars and other dark matter from an observatory in Chile.

Dr. Paczynski was born in Wilno, now Vilnius, Lithuania. He received a doctorate in astronomy from Warsaw University in 1964. His early work, on stellar evolution and pairs of stars known as binaries, was conducted at the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center in Warsaw. He became an American citizen in 1991.

Dr. Paczynski is survived by his wife of 42 years, Hanna; a son, Martin, of Somerville, Mass.; a daughter, Agnieszka, of Washington; and a grandchild.

The bitter legacy of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007)

By Vladimir Volkov
26 April 2007

The first president of post-Soviet Russia, Boris Yeltsin, died on April 23 in a Moscow hospital of heart failure at the age of 76. He will go down in history as a world-class political criminal.

Yeltsin, along with the last general secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev and the leading Soviet bureaucrats of the time, played an instrumental role in one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century—the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This event had catastrophic consequences not only for the people of the former Soviet Union, who for two decades have suffered from grinding poverty, the denial of democratic rights, and the humiliating spectacle of the unbelievable enrichment of a criminal ruling clique, but also for the working class of the entire world.

The erasure of the Soviet Union from the political map of the world untied the predatory hands of world imperialism, above all those of the United States. It has given rise to an explosion of militarism, neocolonial aggression, and fierce struggle between the world’s powers for control over natural resources. The starkest expression of this process has been the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan—countries where ordinary life has been transformed into something akin to hell on earth.

The escalation of geopolitical violence is proceeding hand-in-hand with a merciless offensive against living standards and democratic rights in Western, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Asia, Africa, Latin America and in the United States, the center of world imperialism. This wave of social reaction has no analogy in history. It threatens the majority of the world’s population with ever greater privations.

The fall of the USSR did not in any way signify the “end of history,” the perspective advanced by bourgeois ideologues that the US would now dominate world affairs without opposition. Rather, it has created a dangerously explosive situation, dominated by economic and political tensions similar to those that existed on the eve of World War I.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the internal contradictions of the world capitalist system led to a crisis in international relations and a series of convulsions and upheavals that went on for decades, taking the lives of millions.

The October 1917 Russian Revolution, out of which the Soviet Union emerged, was the answer to the historical dead end of capitalism. Embodying the perspective of social progress and the international interests of the working class, the USSR was founded under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party—the two most important leaders of which were Lenin and Trotsky—as the springboard for a renewal of the entire world system on the basis of social equality and democratic economic planning.

However, this socialist internationalist perspective was betrayed by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which developed in the Soviet state due to the country’s economic backwardness and political isolation. The bureaucracy rejected the course of international revolution and, by the mid-1920s, adopted the reactionary national reformist theory of “socialism in one country.” It initiated a policy of collaboration with world imperialism and the suppression of revolutionary movements throughout the world.

Having concentrated the levers of power in its hands, the new ruling bureaucratic aristocracy under Stalin unleashed the Great Terror by the latter part of the 1930s, physically eliminating an entire generation of socialist intellectuals and advanced workers and suppressing the country’s living revolutionary legacy.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union remained a workers state only inasmuch as the nationalized property relations created by the October 1917 Revolution remained untouched. In every other regard, this was a regime of the privileged bureaucracy, which bowed before the bourgeoisie and was deeply hostile to the spirit, ideals, and methods of socialism.

Yeltsin was the direct product of this social milieu. His conformism, the limited nature of his outlook, the absence of any striving towards critical thought, his immense vanity, adventurism and contempt for ordinary people, were precisely those qualities cultivated by the Stalinist bureaucracy and needed for the restoration of capitalism.

Born into a peasant family in the village of Butka, in the Urals, Yeltsin began his life in relative poverty, moving with his family to Perm, where his father became a construction worker. Beginning work himself as a construction engineer, Yeltsin found his path to the Communist Party apparatus in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), becoming a paid official. By 1976, he had become first secretary of the Sverdlovsk party organization, a position he held until he was brought onto the politburo and then made the first secretary of the CPSU city committee in Moscow by Gorbachev.

From the moment when, at around the age of 30, Yeltsin became a senior party leader and bureaucrat, until his election by the People’s Deputies of the USSR at the height of perestroika, Yeltsin toed the party line. Indeed, if anything, he was more zealous than others, singing the praises of Brezhnev and giving the order to destroy the Ipat’evskii House in Sverdlovsk where the tsar’s family was shot.

The Russian historian Vadim Rogovin described this generation well more than once in his seven-volume series on Soviet history, “Was There an Alternative?”

Yeltsin was among those who succeeded Stalin’s recruits of 1937, a bureaucratic layer distinguished by its complete lack of principles. Those promoted by Stalin were ready to “unquestionably abide by and obediently fulfill any order given by the leader, not giving any particular thought to their justifiability, morality, or lack thereof.” (Konets Oznachaet Nachalo. Moscow. 2006. pg. 368)

Following in their wake, the Yeltsin “generation of utter cynics” was filled with people “who, without the slightest bit of embarrassment, were thoroughly corrupt and totally indifferent to the ideas that formed the moral foundation of the country” (Lecture by Vadim Rogovin. “Istoki i Posledstviia Stalinskogo Bol’shogo Terrora”. 1996)

Rogovin refused to believe in the “sudden insight” of people like Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Yakovlev, “who until the age of 60 were communists and then all of a sudden became shameless anti-communists” (Lecture by Vadim Rogovin. “Istoki I Posledstviia Stalinskogo Bol’shogo Terrora”. 1996).

All these people became supporters of capitalism because they were faithful servants of their own privileged layer and correctly grasped this layer’s changing feelings and moods and ruthlessly defended its material interests. The preparation for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR, which was led by Gorbachev, was not the product of his own personal improvisation. This was the consensus line of the leading layers in the Soviet bureaucracy, which in the 1980s made a definitive turn in the direction of a union with imperialism and the destruction of the socio-economic foundations of Soviet society.

Regardless of the sharp differences of opinion that emerged within this layer—which erupted into armed confrontations in August 1991 and the fall of 1993—the questions in dispute were of a tactical nature. They were bound up with determining the most effective means of realizing the rapacious goals of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The qualities cultivated by the Soviet bureaucracy helped Yeltsin perform his role as a champion of socio-political reaction, which he fulfilled from the moment he occupied his post as president of Russia in June 1990 up until his resignation in December 1999.

All the attempts by the mass media to glorify him as a “democrat”—as the one who gave freedom to the people of Russia and the former republics of the USSR—in the obituaries that have been published throughout the world have nothing to do with reality. Regardless of which critical episode one takes in the history of post-Soviet Russia, every single one demonstrates the destructive and anti-democratic character of the actions taken by Yeltsin and those in the circle that surrounded him, all of whom were deeply hostile to the interests of masses of Soviet working people.

One of the first decisions of the Yeltsin administration was the proclamation of state independence in June of 1990. This became the basis for the dismemberment of the USSR. At the beginning of 1991, the Russian government practically ceased paying taxes to the Soviet Union’s budget, provoking similar moves by the leaders of the country’s other republics.

This course was strengthened by the support of nationalist and separatist tendencies in the country’s republics and other regions. Yeltsin’s slogan, “Take as much sovereignty as you can stomach,” appealed to the basest of prejudices and was in direct contradiction to the will of the majority of Soviet citizens, who wanted the preservation of the Union, as expressed in the March 1991 referendum on the matter.

The August Putsch and Yeltsin’s rise

In August of that same year, a part of the Stalinist bureaucracy supported by sections of the military and the KGB staged an abortive coup attempt against Soviet President Gorbachev, an event that set the stage for Yeltsin’s rise to power in the former USSR. The so-called August putsch, which collapsed in just 61 hours, reflected the fears within some sections of the bureaucracy that Gorbachev was losing control, opening up the threat of an independent movement of the Soviet working class, as well as concerns over the divisions the spoils from the ongoing process of capitalist restoration.

Yeltsin, then the newly elected president of the Russian federation, used the episode to boost his own political power, opposing the coup from atop a tank and gaining acclaim throughout the West. Exploiting the powerful anti-bureaucratic movement from below, he prepared to seize the levers of power from the Gorbachev leadership and launched his own form of counter-coup, banning the Communist Party. Four months later, the Soviet Union was dissolved, when Yeltsin joined the presidents of Ukraine and Byelorussia in signing the “Belovezhskii Accord.” While the Soviet masses had anticipated the resolution of their social problems, the abolition of the USSR paved the way to the program of “shock therapy” that spelled misery for millions. This was the Soviet bureaucracy’s final betrayal.

Neither the decision to dissolve the USSR nor the program of capitalist restoration was debated or democratically approved, either by popular referendum or a vote in the parliament of Russia. These decisions, implemented behind the backs of the population and foisted upon them with the backing of world imperialism, destroyed the living standards of the masses, led to the collapse of the industrial base of the country, and engendered an endless number of national conflicts that ruined the lives of tens of thousands in the post-Soviet sphere.

Within just over two years of standing on a tank to defend the Russian parliament building against the August 1991 putsch, Yeltsin gave the order in October 1993 to shell the same building after elected legislators resisted his unilateral attempt to rewrite the constitution and disband the parliament. Hundreds were killed in the barrage of tank fire. Such were the “democratic” methods of Boris Yeltsin.

In the aftermath of these events, a new constitution was imposed giving the president practically unlimited powers and transforming the parliament into a largely decorative body. On this basis Yeltsin, who had up to this point already been ruling on the basis of presidential decrees, legitimized his power.

In the middle of the 1990s wholesale privatization was carried out, in the course of which the most profitable pieces of industry were transferred through fictitious schemes into the hands of oligarchs for next to nothing. According to one estimate, approximately $200 billion worth of state property was transferred to private hands for a total of $7 billion.

This seizure of state property continues to be one of the central sources of hatred by the population of Russia towards its leaders. The wholesale theft of social resources spelled disaster for masses of people.

Pensions and wages went unpaid and poverty, homelessness and hunger soared. Over the course of the 1990s, Russia’s GDP fell by 50 percent, fully 30 percent of the population fell into poverty, the mortality rate increased by 50 percent and life expectancy for men was cut by six years.

Meanwhile, the immiseration of millions and the vast transfer of wealth into the hands of a gangster clique that supported the Yeltsin government have produced, according to the latest Forbes report, 60 Russian billionaires, not to mention tens of thousands of new millionaires.

In December 1994, the Yeltsin regime initiated the first Chechen war, bringing the republic in the northern Caucuses to ruin and creating an atmosphere of lawlessness and rule through naked violence.

At the same time criminality and corruption flourished in Russia. One scandal that occurred at the time of Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in 1996 became a symbol of this corruption. At that time, two high-ranking functionaries in the Yeltsin pre-election headquarters were seized with $500 million of cash that they had been carrying out of a government building. Another similar such scandal, the “Bank of New York” affair, happened three years later when it became known that billions of dollars had been hidden in Western bank accounts as part of a money-laundering scheme to shelter the incomes of Russian oligarchs under the protection of leading government bureaucrats and with the participation of Western businessmen.

The final period of the Yeltsin administration was dominated by the financial crisis of August 1998. The collapse of the ruble, which lost over 70 percent of its value in the course of a month, was another blow to the living standards of the population. This was accompanied by the unleashing of the second Chechen war. Parallel with this, the previously unknown former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, was elevated to the role of Yeltsin’s successor.

Contrary to the claims of the mass media, Putin was not Yeltsin’s “big mistake.” His appointment was entirely in keeping with the logic of the restoration of capitalism. The new ruling elite did not want to lose its stolen wealth. As the market reforms continued, the level of social inequality in the country deepened. This raised the need for the “strengthening of the state”—that, is the repressive apparatus—and the further narrowing of even the decorative trappings of democratic governance.

Yeltsin fully sanctioned this move, and Putin fulfilled this role, which was worked out by the Kremlin. Putin’s Russia was not the negation of, but rather the logical continuation of, Yeltsin’s Russia.

It is no accident that Yeltsin, upon resigning, never raised any serious criticisms of the Putin administration. In return for this, Putin, in his brief statement about the death of the first Russian president, described Yeltsin as a man with “noble intentions” who tried to do everything “for the sake of the country and millions of Russians.”

These words are the height of hypocrisy, particularly coming from the mouth of someone who came to power on the bloodshed of the Chechen war and became the head of a bureaucratic, oligarchic, police regime that condemns anyone who criticizes the authorities or the behavior of a particular bureaucrat as an “extremist.”

Expressing total contempt for society and public opinion, Putin stated that thanks to Yeltsin “a new democratic Russia was born—a free, open state to the world; a state in which the government really belongs to the people,” in which people have “the right to freely express their thoughts and freely choose the leadership of the country.” This, just a week after Putin’s riot police clubbed and arrested hundreds of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg for daring to stage peaceful protests against the government

There is an element of political schizophrenia in Putin’s appraisal, inasmuch as he himself has said that the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” In another recent speech, Putin stated that the 1990s were characterized by the great hope of millions of people, “although neither the government nor business has realized these hopes.”

A more clear-eyed assessment of Yeltsin’s passing was provided by Vitalii Tret’iakov, former editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaia Gazeta and current head of the weekly paper, Moskosvskiie Novosti. He writes, “for the greater part of his presidency Yeltsin slept, drank, was ill, relaxed, didn’t show his face before the people and simply did nothing.”

“Despised by the majority of citizens in the country,” continued Tret’iakov, “Yeltsin will go down in history as the first president of Russia, having corrupted (the country) to the breaking point, not by his virtues and or by his defects, but rather by his dullness, primitiveness, and unbridled power lust of a hooligan...” (Moskovskiie Novosti, 2006, No. 4-6)

Hailed as a “democrat” and a “reformer” by Western governments, the corporate media and the Russian billionaires and millionaires whose fortunes he helped spawn, Yeltsin represented, in the final analysis, the excrescence produced by the betrayals and crimes carried out by Stalinism over the course of nearly seven decades.

The greatest of these crimes, was undoubtedly the systematic repression and destruction of genuine Marxism and socialist consciousness, leaving the Soviet working class politically unprepared to confront and defeat the unprecedented economic and social catastrophe unleashed by the restoration of capitalism and the rise of the clique of ex-bureaucrats and gangster businessmen who formed the real constituency of Boris Yeltsin.

See Also: Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the 20th century

IRAQ WAR: U.S. officials exclude car bombs in touting drop in Iraq violence

By Nancy A. Youssef
McClatchy Newspapers
Apr. 25, 2007

WASHINGTON - U.S. officials who say there has been a dramatic drop in sectarian violence in Iraq since President Bush began sending more American troops into Baghdad aren't counting one of the main killers of Iraqi civilians.

Car bombs and other explosive devices have killed thousands of Iraqis in the past three years, but the administration doesn't include them in the casualty counts it has been citing as evidence that the surge of additional U.S. forces is beginning to defuse tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

President Bush explained why in a television interview on Tuesday. "If the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory," he told TV interviewer Charlie Rose.

Others, however, say that not counting bombing victims skews the evidence of how well the Baghdad security plan is protecting the civilian population - one of the surge's main goals.

"Since the administration keeps saying that failure is not an option, they are redefining success in a way that suits them," said James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at London-based Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank.

Bush administration officials have pointed to a dramatic decline in one category of deaths - the bodies dumped daily in Baghdad streets, which officials call sectarian murders - as evidence that the security plan is working. Bush said this week that that number had declined by 50 percent, a number confirmed by statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers.

But the number of people killed in explosive attacks is rising, the same statistics show - up from 323 in March, the first full month of the security plan, to 365 through April 24.

Overall, statistics indicate that the number of violent deaths has declined significantly since December, when 1,391 people died in Baghdad, either executed and found dead on the street or killed by bomb blasts. That number was 796 in March and 691 through April 24.

Nearly all of that decline, however, can be attributed to a drop in executions, most of which were blamed on Shiite Muslim militias aligned with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Much of the decline occurred before the security plan began on Feb. 15, and since then radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army militia to stand down.

According to the statistics, which McClatchy reporters in Baghdad compile daily from Iraqi police reports, 1,030 bodies were found in December. In January, that number declined 32 percent, to 699. It declined to 596 February and again to 473 in March.

Deaths from car bombings and improvised explosive devices, however, increased from 361 in December to a peak of 520 in February before dropping to 323 in March.

In that same period, the number of bombings has increased, as well. In December, there were 65 explosive attacks. That number was unchanged in January, but it rose to 72 in February, 74 in March and 81 through April 24.

U.S. officials blame the bombings largely on al-Qaida, which they say is hoping to provoke sectarian conflict by targeting Shiite neighborhoods with massive explosions.

Ryan Crocker, who became the U.S. ambassador in Iraq this month, said the bombings are a reaction to the surge of additional U.S. troops into Baghdad.

"The terrorists like al-Qaida would make their own surge," Crocker said this week.

U.S. officials have said that they don't expect the security plan to stop bombings.

"I don't think you're ever going to get rid of all the car bombs," Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said this week. "Iraq is going to have to learn as did, say, Northern Ireland, to live with some degree of sensational attacks."

But some think that approach could backfire, with Iraqis eventually blaming the Americans for failing to stop bombings.

"To win, the insurgents just have to prove they are not losing," said Denselow, of London's Chatham House.

Experts who have studied car bombings say it's no surprise that U.S. officials would want to exclude their victims from any measure of success.

Car bombs are almost impossible to detect and stop, particularly in a traffic-jammed city such as Baghdad. U.S. officials in Baghdad concede that while they've found scores of car bomb factories in Iraq, they've made only a small dent in the manufacturing of these weapons.

Mike Davis, who recently wrote a history of car bombs, said that once car bombs are introduced into a conflict, they're all but impossible to eradicate. A few people with rudimentary skills can assemble one with massive effect.

"They really don't have to be very sophisticated; they just have to be very big," Davis said.

Davis said checkpoints are useful in detecting car bombs "until they blow up the checkpoint," and erecting walls is not practically feasible in communities. When U.S. officials proposed building walls around Baghdad's most troubled neighborhoods to fend off car bomb attacks, residents balked, saying the walls would further divide the city along sectarian lines.

Bombers also have shown that they can adapt quickly. When the U.S. military blocked off markets to vehicular traffic, bombers wearing explosive vests were able to walk into the areas.

Finding a defense against car bombs has fallen to the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a Pentagon task force created in 2003 to find ways to protect U.S. troops from roadside bombs, which remain the No. 1 killer of Americans in Iraq.

But car bombs aren't the primary killer of American service members, said Christine Devries, the task force's spokeswoman. Roadside bombs are.



There are no authoritative statistics on Iraqi civilian casualties. The Iraq Study Group in its report last year found that the Pentagon routinely underreports violence. Other groups have criticized the Iraqi government's statistics as unreliable - a moot point since the government recently stopped releasing comprehensive totals. On Wednesday, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq chastised the Iraqi government for withholding statistics on sectarian violence.

One study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, estimated that 78,000 Iraqis were killed by car bombings between March 2003 and June 2006.

Iraq Body Count, which keeps statistics based on news reports, finds that there have been just over 1,050 car bombs that have killed more than one person since August 2003, when a car bomb detonated in front of what was the United Nations headquarters, killing 17.

McClatchy gathers its statistics daily from police contacts, and while they're not comprehensive, they're collected the same way every day.

A roundup of Iraq violence is posted daily on the McClatchy Washington Bureau Web site, . Click on Iraq War Coverage.

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