Wednesday, February 28, 2007

More on the "Jesus' Tomb" story

Several of these links were included in an e-mail from the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Crypt Held Bodies of Jesus and Family, Film Says by Laurie Goodstein New York Times 02/27/07:

Mr. Kloner said in a telephone interview that the inscription on the alleged "Jesus" ossuary is not clear enough to ascertain. The box on display at the news conference is a plain rectangle with rough gashes on one side. The one supposedly containing Mary Magdalene has six-petalled rosettes and an elaborate border.

"The new evidence is not serious, and I do not accept that it is connected to the family of Jesus," said Mr. Kloner, who appears in the documentary as a skeptic.

New Testament scholars also criticized the documentary as theologically dangerous, historically inaccurate and irresponsible.

“A lot of conservative, orthodox and moderate Christians are going to be upset by the recklessness of this,” said Ben Witherington [an evangelical scholar], a Bible scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. “Of course, we want to know more about Jesus, but please don’t insult our intelligence by giving us this sort of stuff. It’s going to get a lot of Christians with their knickers in a knot unnecessarily.”
Der Heiland würde im Grab rotieren von Stefan Schmitt Der Spiegel Online 27.02.2007:

Ein Blick in die Tageszeitungen vom Dienstag weckt jedoch Zweifel am potentiellen Erfolg der Cameronschen Geschichtsauslegung: "Jesus-Grab entdeckt?", zweifelt das "Hamburger Abendblatt". "Ist hier das Grab Jesu?", wundert sich die "Bild"-Zeitung. Die "Welt" berichtet von "Skepsis", "unrealistisch" schimpft die "Berliner Zeitung".

Man darf davon ausgehen, dass diese Ablehnung nicht allein dogmatisch begründet ist. ...

Als das Feuilleton der "Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung" ("FAZ") am Tag der New Yorker PR-Veranstaltung den Film vorab als "Cameron-Code" verulkte, setzte sie den Trend für die Berichterstattung. Jürgen Zangenberg von der Universität Leiden, Experte für die Bestattungen imPalästina der Zeitenwende, verbreitete den Argwohn des Gelehrten: "Hier geht es um Geld und um Schlagzeilen." Er wurde nicht nur in der "FAZ" zitiert, sondern auch von der Deutschen Presseagentur. Andere Archäologen, Bibelforscher und Historiker reihten sich ein.
Jesus' burial saga: Raiders of the Lost Tomb by David Horwitz [not the kook who runs] Jerusalem Post 02/27/07:

Kloner: A great story, but nonsense by David Horwitz Jerusalem Post 02/27/07

Israel may open 'Jesus tomb' to public by Etgar Lefkovits and David Horwitz Jerusalem Post 02/27/07.

This article,
Analysis: Christian heresy of the Talpiot tomb? by Matthew Wagner Jerusalem Post 02/27/07, suggests that the documentary could produce some unpleasant consequences in the current arrangements for the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site for Jesus' tomb and Resurrection, in the Christian part of Jerusalem:

Throughout history all the major traditional Christian churches have vied for control over the site, one of the holiest, if not the holiest, to the Christian religion.

Infighting and conflict led to an Ottoman decree in the mid-1800s. Thanks to an intricate framework of time-sharing, space division and mutual recognition of jurisdiction, six distinct Christian communities - Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, and Ethiopians (who have minimal rights) - have shared the Holy Sepulchre with varying degrees of peace.

Any change in the Holy Sepulchre edifice - from replacing broken toilets to creating emergency exits - is hotly disputed. Rights of possession, procession, cleaning and restoring are carefully guarded.

The status quo is so fragile and the balancing of opposing interests is so complex that the sides refrain from adhering to daylight savings time so as not to upset the delicate equilibrium of prayer times.

Centuries of infighting, power struggles and jockeying for positions emanate from the heart-felt belief that a tiny plot in Jerusalem's Christian quarter is the site of Jesus's resurrection.
Predictably, fundamentalists are using the controversy to say, look, you just can't trust all this science stuff. From "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" a made-for-television flight of fancy, Mohler says on Larry King Live by Jeff Robinson Towers Online 02/27/07:

Calling the documentary's claims "far-fetched," [Albert] Mohler said Christians will continue to stand on the truth of Scripture that Jesus rose from the dead and will not be swayed neither by pseudo-science nor statistics.

"There is no time machine here that is going to take us back to the First Century and actually tell us what happened there," he said.

"I'm going to base my beliefs on the Scriptures which hold together far better than the kind of farcical documentary we are talking about here, throwing in a little bit of statistics. I mean, you're talking about the most common names, especially the most common male names, also female with the name Mary, you're talking about anything that could be found just about anywhere."

James Tabor, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, also appeared on the program. (my emphasis)
What makes the anti-Semitic bigot Bill Donohue any kind of authority on Biblical archaeology? I have to question the judgment of Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for agreeing to appear on a program with a low-grade sleazebag like Donohue.

If you're so moved, you can hear Brother Al's own version on his
radio show of 02/27/07.

Mysterien um das Heilige Grab von Lars Langenau Süddeutschen Zeitung 27.02.2007:

Die Windel des Heilands ist in der Schatzkammer des Aachener Doms zu bewundern - und sein Leichentuch gleich in mehreren Orten. Allein mit den in katholischen Kirchen aufbewahrten Holzsplittern des Kreuzes von Jesus sollen weltweit mehrere Galeeren zu bauen sein. So ähnlich verhält es sich mit den Nägeln, mit denen er ans Kreuz genagelt wurde.

Als Entdeckerin des überwiegenden Teils dieser wundersamen Dinge gilt die Heilige Helena. Die Mutter von Konstantin dem Großen - dem Begründer des Oströmischen Reiches - lebte bis 330 nach Christus. Heute gilt sie als eine der ersten Pilgerreisenden. Bei einer Tour nach Jerusalem im Jahre 300 fand sie zielsicher das Grab des Erlösers - und ließ darauf eine Kirche errichten.

1700 Jahre später stellt sich in die Reihe von Helenas geistigen Ahnen der dreifache Oscar-Preisträger James Cameron ("Titanic"). Gemeinsam mit dem israelisch-kanadischen Dokumentarfilmer Simcha Jacobovici will er in Jerusalem einen Sarg aus Kalkstein gefunden haben, der eine wahre Sensation wäre - wenn denn alles stimmt, was die beiden behaupten. ...

Auch die Namenskombination auf den steinernen Knochenkisten ist für den Religionswissenschaftler kein Beweis. "Die Namenskombination kann damals viel häufiger vorgekommen sein", sagte [Jürgen] Zangenberg. Die Auswahl der Namen sei damals sehr klein gewesen: "Jesus ist wie Hans oder Kurt."
Experts question claims behind Jesus documentary by Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy Newspapers 02/26/07:

The documentary used DNA testing on samples taken from the ossuary for Jesus and a second for Mary to show that the two sets of bones weren't related, evidence the television researchers said indicated that the two probably were married.

The documentary suggests that the ossuary labeled Judah, son of Jesus, may have carried the bones of their son, though the researchers make no mention of doing DNA testing on that box.
That does seem to be a strange part of the argument the filmmakers have made in the advance publicity. If they tested for DNA on the "Jesus" and "Mary" bones, why did they not test for DNA on the supposed son? It presumably would at least have confirmed that it was the son of the two whose bones were in the "Jesus" and "Mary" boxes.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Peter Galbraith on the Iraq War

Peter Galbraith, an advocate of a "three-state" solution for Iraq, i.e., separate Sunni-Arab, Sunni-Shi'a and Kurdish states, writes on The Surge New York Review of Books 02/15/07 (03/15/07 edition):

At best, Bush's new strategy will be a costly postponement of the day of reckoning with failure. But it is also a reckless escalation of the military mission in Iraq that could leave US forces fighting a powerful new enemy with only marginally more troops than are now engaged in fighting the Sunni insurgency. The strategy also risks extending Iraq's civil war to the hitherto peaceful Kurdish regions, with no corresponding gain for security in the Arab parts of the country.

Until now, US forces in Iraq have been fighting, almost exclusively, the Sunni Arab insurgency. Bush's new plan calls for the US military to initiate operations against the Mahdi Army (and related militias) as well, a measure that could mean US forces will become embroiled in all-out urban warfare throughout Baghdad, a city of more than five million. In addition, the Mahdi Army has members throughout southern Iraq, in the Diyala Governorate northeast of Baghdad, and in Kirkuk. While many Shiites do not support al-Sadr (the Mahdi Army has had armed clashes with the Badr Organization belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI, one of the two main Shiite parties), the Mahdi Army is a formidable force comprising as many as 60,000 armed men. With Bush ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran, the Iranian government may see a broad-based Shiite uprising against the coalition as its best insurance against a US military strike. It has every incentive to encourage—and assist—the Mahdi Army in organizing such an uprising. Iran has sufficient influence with Iraqi Shiite groups—including SCIRI—to ensure at least their neutrality in a clash with the Mahdi Army. ...

George W. Bush has said he will leave the problem of Iraq to the president elected in 2008. Rather than acknowledge failure in Iraq — and by extension a failed presidency — Bush has chosen to postpone the day of reckoning. It is a decision that will cost many American and Iraqi lives, will leave the United States weaker, and will prolong the decline in American prestige abroad caused by the mismanaged Iraq war. And it will not change the truth that the President so desperately wishes to escape: George W. Bush launched and lost America's Iraq war. (my emphasis)
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A trinity we could probably do without: bad scholarship, bad theology and the Discovery Channel

Another "tomb of Jesus" - this one in ... India (?!?)

The "Jesus bone box" (aka, burial box, ossuary) story reminded me of the old saying in Mississippi about prohibition of alcohol, that the bootleggers and the Baptist preachers were the main supporters of banning alcohol. Mississippi even managed to collect a tax on the illegal liquor sold in the state! It was called the "black market tax". (I'm not making this up.)

The reason it reminds me of that is that this is a story where archaeological scamsters and Christian fundamentalists can bash each other and both benefit from the publicity. It's being aired next Sunday, March 4, by the Discovery Channel under the title,
The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

This is another case of the dumbing-down of science by the popular media. At least if the advance hype is any measure, the filmmakers seem to be hyping an archaeological claim that is just unfounded. But the Christian fundamentalists will be able to use this to point to the alleged evils of science, plus get quoted in the major media as "the other side" of the controversy.

And the "village atheists" will be quick to embrace it just to twit the religious folks.

Science and critical thinking wind up being the real losers.

Some of the problems from the scholarly/scientific point of view in the story are given in this story,
Tomb could be of Jesus, wife and son: directors AFP 02/26/07:

Israeli archaeologist and professor Amos Kloner, who documented the tomb as the Jewish burial cave of a well-off family more than 10 years ago, is adamant there is no evidence to support claims that it was the burial siteof Jesus.

"I'm a scholar. I do scholarly work which has nothing to do with documentary film-making. There's no way to take a religious story and to turn it into something scientific," he told AFP in a telephone interview.

"I still insist that it is a regular burial chamber from the 1st century BC," Kloner said, adding that the names were a coincidence.

"Who says that 'Maria' is Magdalena and 'Judah' is the son of Jesus? It cannot be proved. These are very popular and common names from the 1st century BC," said the academic at Israel's Bar Ilan University.
The conservative Christian Post has been reporting on the controversy. For instance, this article, Christian Theologians Reject Jesus Family Tomb Claims by Michelle Vu 02/27/07, presents a criticism that is consistent with literalism but also has some historical merit:

Meanwhile, Dr. George Guthrie, the Benjamin W. Perry professor of Bible and the chairman of the department of Christian Studies at Union University, queried why the Apostle James and Jesus’ other family members did not know of this family tomb.

“As believers, his family members confess the resurrected Jesus,” said Guthrie, in a statement. “No opponent of Christianity points to the tomb. No followers of Jesus revere the tomb. There is no evidence – beyond the circumstantial evidence of exceedingly common names – that point to this as being the tomb of Jesus’ family.”
Some merit - but Guthrie is essentially dismissing the tomb because the Bible doesn't tell the story that way. And in the literalist reading, the Christian Scriptures are historically and scientifically accurate in every detail.

This article from the Catholic News Agency,
‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ documentary claims unfounded, hype, archeologists says 2/26/2007, also quotes Amos Kloner making a point about the general unlikelihood of Jesus' family having such a tomb:

"There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb," Kloner told the Jerusalem Post. "They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE" (AD).
Scholars and clergymen in Jerusalem slam new Jesus documentary AP/Ha'aretz 02/26/07 reports:

Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in
Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.

"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this, Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."

"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 - 10 being completely possible - it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."

Pfann is even unsure that the name Jesus on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it is more likely the name Hanun. Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher. (my emphasis)
A couple of things but me about this documentary, and the superficial polemics and news coverage it's generating. One is that the film's promoters are claiming that it challenges the basis of the Christian faith. It's true that the Resurrection of Jesus is the central event for the religion of Christianity, just as the Exodus is the central event for Judaism, and the Prophet's hadj from Mecca to Medina for Islam.

But the Resurrection for Christianity theology is in essence a spiritual event. I don't want to be disingenuous here. Most Christian church-goers probably think of the Resurrection in terms of Jesus' physical body getting up from the dead and leaving the tomb.

But the religious essence of the Resurrection for Christians is that it is a "faith event". Even conservative Christian accounts stress that after the Resurrection, Jesus was not subject to the ordinary physical limititations of the flesh that he had experienced during his life as recounted by the Gospels, i.e., he had a "spiritual" rather than a physical body. We might quibble about whether, say, walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee counted as being within the normal limitations of the human body in his regular lifetime. But the post-Resurrection Jesuswho appears and disappears suddenly, who is not immediately recognized by his disciples, who rises into the heavens in the Ascension, is not subject to the limitations that the Jesus scourged and crucified by the Romans experienced.

While the fundamentalists may happily join with the village atheists in insisting that a physical resusitation of Jesus is essential to the Christian faith, that agreement represents a common ground for sloppy theology and bad history.

The Resurrection as a spiritual event can mean many things to Christians, a central message being the assurance that the love of God survives even death.

Now, since most of the people in the world are something other than Christian believers, the Christian view of the Resurrection can be challenged on a number of grounds, religious and non-religious. But unless the critics are content with just irritating the fundis (which is apparently what Stephen Pfann above has in mind in referring to "skeptics"), they should focus on what the Christian faith actually teaches and has historically believed about the Resurrection, not on the fundi/village-atheist consensus.

On historical grounds, the question of whether Jesus had a tomb at all is a relevant one. The strongest argument that he had a tomb, even one that became physically empty of his body, is in the Gospels which recount this story. The Resurrection, physical or otherwise, is simply outside the realm of history. But the emphasis placed on stories at the tomb in those earliest surviving written accounts is itself an historical fact.

As Ann Graham Brock emphasizes in Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (2003), early accounts of what occurred at the empty tomb - more particularly, to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared and in what order and what he said to them - became an important factor in laying claim to traditions of authority in the early Christian communities. The earliest of the Gospels, Mark, originally ended with the report of the empty tomb, not post-Resurrection appearances.

On the other hand, John Dominic Crossan reminds us in Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (1995), the Romans normally did not allow victims of crucifixion to be buried at all. The ancient world, including the Jews of the Roman province of Judea, had a special horror of not being buried. Sophocles' Antigone is a classic literary treatment of this theme; the burials of Patrokles and Hektor are major elements of the Iliad.

It was thought, to put it broadly, that the dead person would never be at peace unless the body was properly buried. In addition to the horrible physical torture crucifixion represented, the knowledge by the victim and his family that he would never be properly buried was part of the torture and punishment. In a particularly unappetizing description likely to be dismissed out of hand by conservative Christians, Crosson writes that the bodies were typically left on the crosses until they were eaten by wild dogs. (Unlike many artistic representations, the victim's feet were typically only a few inches off the ground in crucifixion.)

So it's not unthinkable that Jesus' followers somehow might have managed to get the body for burial, as the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea suggest. But in terms of the historical record, the small liklihood of that has to be taken into consideration.

Instead, what the Discovery Channel seems prepared to serve up to its audience is sloppy science that will compete with poor theology, to their mutual benefit.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Ray Takeyh on Iran

Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (2006), writes in Time for Détente With Iran Foreign Affairs Mar/Apr 2007:

The United States does need to make important changes to its approach to Iran, however, in terms of both substance and style. Given the theocratic nature of the Iranian regime and its paranoia, Washington will have to adapt its rhetoric. U.S. officials can no longer denounce Iran as an "outpost of tyranny" or the "central banker of terrorism" in one breath and propose negotiations in the next. Like all regimes born of revolution, Tehran insists that the international community not just recognize its interests but also legitimize its power. Iran's theocrats are in no way unique; remember that for decades the Soviets demanded that the United States officially acknowledge postwar demarcations of Eastern Europe. A new U.S. policy toward Iran will have to officially recognize the authority of the Islamic Republic.

In this spirit, Washington must abandon its hopeless policy of regime change, including its paltry award of $75 million to Iranian exiles and for broadcasts into Iran. For one thing, such idealism is misplaced. Unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, Iran simply does not have a cohesive opposition movement willing to take direction and funding from the United States. For another, calls for regime change are counterproductive. Washington's fulminations and its provision of aid to the (nonexistent) democratic opposition have convinced many Iranian hard-liners that Washington's offer to negotiate is an attempt to undermine the regime in Tehran. Thus, any effort by moderates to engage with the United States is routinely denounced as a concession to the Great Satan's subversive ploys. Iran will certainly change, but on its own terms and at its own pace. The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush's appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation. (my emphasis)
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Iraq, post-US presence

A couple of recent articles challenge the worst-case scenarios for Iraq if the United States withdraws its troops: Apocalypse Not by Robert Dreyfuss Washington Monthly Mar 2007 and What If We Leave? by John Mueller The American Conservative 02/26/07 issue.

I'm pessimistic on this score. I think it's likely that the Iraqi civil war will get worse for some period if the US were to withdraw over a six-month period. But I also think that we've reached the effective limits of American power in Iraq and it's well past time to recognize that. There is a lot of evidence that the American presence is fueling the civil war and is likely to worsen sectarian tensions the longer we stay.

The US would be far better off at this point pulling out of Iraq and pushing hard for measures that would help prevent the war from expanding into a more general Middle East war - although that also is a real possibility. But American influence to avert that result will be decreased by remaining in Iraq and enhanced by withdrawing. With Iran backing the Shi'a and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states backing the Sunni partisans in Iraq, it may already be too late to avert a more general war. But it's worth a try. And getting the US out of Iraq is a necessary step toward that goal.

Robert Dreyfuss points to how the Administration used a phony worst-case estimate on the WMDs to justify invading Iraq backed up by a Pollyannish best-case estimate on how American troops would be received, and is now using a worst-case estimate to justify the continuing US combat presence there:

The Bush administration famously based its argument for invading Iraq on best-case assumptions: that we would be greeted as liberators; that a capable democratic government would quickly emerge; that our military presence would be modest and temporary; and that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for everything. All these assumptions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

Now, many of the same people who pushed for the invasion are arguing for escalating our military involvement based on a worst-case assumption: that if America leaves quickly, the Apocalypsewill follow.
Dreyfuss looks at the bogeyman of Al Qaida setting up a new "caliphate" or a "safe haven" in Iraq:

The idea that al-Qaeda might take over Iraq is nonsensical. Numerous estimates show that the group called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its foreign fighters comprise only 5 to 10 percent of the Sunni insurgents’ forces. Most Sunni insurgents are simply what Wayne White — who led the State Department’s intelligence effort on Iraq until 2005 — calls POIs, or "pissed-off Iraqis," who are fighting because "they don’t like the occupation." But the foreign terrorist threat is frequently advanced by the Bush administration, often with an even more alarming variant—that al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a headquarters for the establishment of a global caliphate. In December 2005, Rear Admiral William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a briefing in which he warned that al-Qaeda hoped to "revive the caliphate," with its capital in Baghdad. President Bush himself has warned darkly that after controlling Iraq, Islamic militants will "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."

The reality is far different. Even if AQI came to dominate the Sunni resistance, it would be utterly incapable of seizing Baghdad against the combined muscle of the Kurds and the Shiites, who make up four fifths of the country. (The Shiites, in particular, would see the battle against the Sunni extremist AQI—which regards the Shiites as a heretical, non-Muslim sect—as a life-or-death struggle.)

Nor is it likely that AQI would ever be allowed to use the Sunni areas of Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks on foreign targets. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had a full-fledged partnership with the Taliban and helped finance the state. In Iraq, the secular Baathists and former Iraqi military officers who lead the main force of the resistance despise AQI, and many of the Sunni tribes in western Iraq are closely tied to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaeda. (my emphasis)
After examining several scary postwar scenarios that war supporters use, John Mueller talks about the complications to diplomacy caused by the neoconservative policy and practice of threatening regime change in Iran and Syria. And he speculates on what the postwar public reaction in the US might be like.

The sorting-out process may be facilitated if, as seems likely, the U.S. reacts to its Middle East misadventure by embracing an Iraq Syndrome reminiscent of the Vietnam Syndrome that restrained America from meddling further in Africa and Southeast Asia, while the Soviet Union foolishly gathered up a set of expensive dependencies there (and in Afghanistan) that hastened the demise of the Cold War.

The American public would probably be quite capable of shrugging off defeat and failure, as it proved in Vietnam as well as in the lesser debacles of Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993. And since American casualties are what matter in the U.S., little attention would likely be paid if a civil-war bloodbath developed in Iraq. Accordingly, there would likely be few, if any, calls to send troops, contrary to the current cry of war supporters that if things fall apart we would just have to go in again. Since Iraqi citizens do not vote in American elections, the U.S. government would likely reduce financial support for the Iraqi government after American troops leave.

This process might impel a suitably mellowed country to abandon some of its self-infatuated rhetoric. The United States has become a "superpower" unable to make electricity to work in Baghdad and an "indispensable nation" incapable of garnering international co-operation when it really needs it, and it may come to re-examine its role in the world. (my emphasis)
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A new "Devil's game", Iran-Contra style - with "blowback" certain to follow

Over the cliff with Dick Cheney? Cheney at the VFW convention in 2002 where he kicked off the final public phase of the run-up to war with Iraq

Sometimes I wish Seymour Hersh weren't such a good reporter. Because his articles on the Iraq War and the preparations for expanding it to Iran are often sad reading. It would be so much nicer to just get lost in the press corps' obsessions about Obama's body language or whether the word "mistake" escaped Hillary Clinton's lips.

But Hersh is doing what real journalists do, however rare a species they are becoming in the United States today. And his latest New Yorker piece is no exception:
The Redirection 03/05/07 issue; posted 02/25/07. The Establishment press at least managed to headline the story, with most comment I've seen so far focusing on his report that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have established "a special planning group" to create "a contingency bombing plan that can be implemented, upon order from the President, within twenty-four hours".

The entire article is well worth reading for anyone who wants to be informed about the US situation in the Middle East. To me the more concerning news in his article involves two things. One is that Cheney and his supporters have won the adoption of a strategy that is painfully reminiscent of the short-sighted support of Sunni Islamist groups that Robert Dreyfuss describes in detail in his book Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (2005). That means that they are actively promoting and supporting Sunni Salafist opponents to the Alawi-dominated Syrian government and of Iran. The Al Qaida-type jihadism is an extreme version of the Salafi brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

The second is that they are apparently running the operation "Iran-Contra" style, with the Saudis providing funds and what are effectively rogue operators in the government bypassing the CIA in managing the covert operations.

The latter is easier to explain than the first. Elliott Abrams, a key Iran-Contra figure, is the National Security Council official in charge of "democracy promotion" in the Middle East (
The Last Man Standing by Michael Hirsh and Dan Ephron Newsweek 12/04/06 issue; Bush's frightening Middle East appointment by Gary Kamiya Salon 12/10/02). He is now involved with former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar, whose Bush family nickname of "Bandar Bush" Michael Moore made famous in Fahrenheit 9/11, in pumping Saudi money to Salafist extremist groups. Hersh reports:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.

I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.) ...

The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight, was accounting for covert funds. “There are many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions,” he said. The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star general.

This goes back to Iran-Contra,” a former National Security Council aide told me. “And much of what they’re doing is to keep the agency [the CIA] out of it.” He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, “The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.” (my emphasis)
Great. Amateur hour in Middle East policy. Anyone want to take bets on how that's going to work out?

The sectarian aspects of the policy are more tangled. Hersh does a good job of explaining them. But don't feel bad if your head feels like it might explode like one of those overwhelming Republicans in Tom Tomorrow's brilliant cartoons. Because the whole concept is a mess.

Iran and Iraq are Shi'a majority states. Syria is majority Sunni but the government is dominated by the Alawi sect, which is often regarded as Shi'a. Lebanese Hizbullah is Shi'a. About a third of Saudi Arabia is Shi'a, with the Shi'a concentrated in the area of the country where most of the oil is. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all majority-Sunni countries with Sunni governments.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated but secular regime had been the chief Sunni opponent of theocratic Shi'a Iran. That's why the Reagan administration supported Saddam's Iraq against Iran in their long war during the 1980s, even to the point of making the US an active belligerent in
naval skirmishes of 1987-88 against Iran. Good Republicans like that bold Maverick John McCain, future Vice President Dan Quayle, John Warner and Bob Dole were adamantly in favor of backing the regime of Saddam Hussein - the worstest, awfulest dicatator since Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, to hear war supporters tell it in 2002-2003 - against those fanatical Shi'a Iranians.

Now, when our Dear Leader Bush invaded in 2003 and ousted Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, it was soon replaced a Shi'a-dominated regime, the Shi'a being the majority in that country. The main leaders of the Iraqi government today - our allies - are the SCIRI and Da'wa parties, both heavily pro-Iranian. They depend on the support, or at least the tolerance, of Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'a militia, the JAM (Mahdi Army). Muqtada is more Iraqi-nationalist oriented, but has also made it clear that his group will support Iran against American attacks.

So far, the McCain escalation policy now being implemented by Cheney and Bush in Iraq looks primarily like US forces fighting against Sunni militias in Baghdad and elsewhere on behalf of the Shi'a government. The Shi'a militias, primarily those of SCIRI and JAM, dominate the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). So it appears more and more that the US role is becoming one of supporting the Iraqi Shi'a against the Iraqi Sunnis.

That has some strategic sense in itself. Because most of the actual insurgents fighting against the Shi'a government are Sunnis. (The Iraqi Kurds are a major factor, too, but for Hersh's piece that's not an immediate issue.)

The problem is that the Sunni governments in that area, including the American oil industry's wealthy Saudi friends, are upset by the relative increase of Shi'a power in general and Iranian power in particular. This is a direct consequence of the Iraq War. Instead of a hostile secular-Sunni regime in Iraq with a big army, Iran now has a friendly Shi'a fundamentalist regime in Iraq that is allied with Iran and willingly so.

But now, according to Hersh's article, the Cheney-Bush administration is backing Sunni opponents to the Shi'a regime of Syria and Iran using Saudi money. Including the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, at least indirectly. That group, known also as the Brotherhood or the Brothers, is essentially the mother-ship of present-day Sunni fundamentalism (if "mother"-ship applies to a group called "the Brothers").

It was a similar arrangement that was developed to support the "mujahadeen" groups in Afghanistan when the Soviets were occupying that country. We referred to those groups as brave Freedom Fighters in those days. But the "blowback" from that experience was the current jihadist movement, including Al Qaida. That movement has multiple sources, of course. But, as Dreyfuss recounts in Devil's Game, the US and Israel promoted Islamic fundamentalist groups for years in the Middle East to undercut the appeal of secular Arab nationalism, without thinking through the potential consequences for the future very carefully.

Now, under the brillian leadership of Dark Lord Cheney, we're doing it again.

Remember, to steady your head: in Iraq, we're supporting the Shi'a fundamentalists in their civil war against the Sunnis; in Iran and Syria, we're backing some of the most extreme Sunni fundamentalists against the Shi'a regimes there.

Hersh reports:

The key players behind the redirection [of policy] are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney’s office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, “The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.”)

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”

“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.” (my emphasis)
And Dick Cheney is running this crackpot scheme. Even if it were a brilliant policy (and it's not) operating under ideal conditions (no way), Cheney's leadership would doom it to being a mess.

Hersh's article is a fascinating account of the diplomacy behind this whole messy scheme. Not encouraging reading. But I highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand the current US Middle East policy.

Another aspect of Hersh's report caught my attention in particular:

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. “The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,” a former senior intelligence official said. “They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.” The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who “get scooped up and released in a short time,” after they have been interrogated. (my emphasis)
Given what we know about the use of torture in Abu Ghuraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and other stations of the Bush Gulag, the statement, "We’re working these guys and getting information from them," has an especially sinister ring.

See also Steve Soto's post discussing the Hersh article,
Media Is Missing The Story The Left Coaster blog 02/26/07.

Soto also references a
CNN report of 11/25/06 that gives some background on the US-Saudi arrangement to promote radical Salafist groups against Iraq and Syria. International correspondent Nic Robertson reports there on Dick Cheney's surprise visit to Saudi Arabia that had just occurred:

What the Saudis would like to see come out of this meeting, they would like to see the United States not pull its troops out of Iraq because they believe that that will add to the unrest in Iraq, add to the war in Iraq and potentially spill over into Saudi Arabia.

Another of Saudi Arabia's very big concerns, at this time, is what they see as growing Iranian influence in the region. They see that in particular, they say in Iraq, they say they also see it in Lebanon where they say Iran, along with Syria, is helping rearm Hezbollah in Lebanon and undermine the pro-Western government, there. That, of course, something of concern for the United States as well.

What Dick Cheney could hope to get from the Saudis is for the Saudis to bring their influence to bear with the Sunni community in Iraq to help stabilize the situation there to help calm the tensions and passions down. But at this stage where the violence is so high and so strong in Iraq, any immediate agreement here today is very unlikely to see an immediate change on the ground in Iraq.

What I was told by one Saudi advisor was that the Saudis expect to be involved heavily with the United States in the region and in Iraq over the next two years, what exactly that involvement will be is unclear. The Saudi advisor also described this as a broad new initiative that will encompass not just Iran, not just Iraq, not just Syria and Lebanon, but will also deal with the militancy of Hamas. (my emphasis)
Soto writes:

...[Hersh] reports that the administration has been working with the Saudis to bankroll Sunni insurgent efforts against Hezbollah inside Lebanon, and against Shiite militias and Iran inside Iraq. Nic Robertson already broke this story months ago for CNN.
Though Soto apparent reads more into Robertson's November comment to which he links than was there (he doesn't say that Saudi Arabia and the US are promoting Sunni jihadist-type groups), he does touch an important point. I didn't take from Hersh's article that the US is specifically supporting the Saudis in giving aid to Salafi extremist group in Iraq to operate against the Shi'a. But we know from other news reports Saudi Arabia and Jordan are providing significant aid to the Sunni insurgency there, the forces that are killing most of the Americans in that war. So we may be getting the "blowback" already, in real-time.

It would seem unlikely in the extreme that the US would actively encourage such a think in Iraq. In effect, it would mean supporting both sides (Sunni and Shi'a) in a civil war in which the main US effort is focusing on backing one of the sides (Shi'a) over the other (Sunni).

But did I mention that Dick Cheney was directed this bizarre scheme? And if they are using Iran-Contra as a template, such a practice (helping Sunni militias in Iraq fighting against Americans) is not so terribly implausible. After all the "Iran" part of the Iran-Contra scandal involved selling advanced TOW missiles to Iran while the Reagan administration was actively backing Saddam Hussein's Iraq against Iran in their war that lasted nearly a decade.

But I still woundn't want get ahead of the facts on this. And what Hersh's report tells us is bad enough.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Zorro: Capítulos 7-10 (Feb 20-23)

Diego/Zorro (Photo: Telemundo)

last update on Zorro: La espada y la rosa left off with Diego having rescued Esmeralda from cannibals who had escaped from Mel Gibson's last movie. But they were out there in the forest with the whole tribe of Mel Gibson refugees coming after them.

Diego managed to get Esmeralda to the part of the river that had skulls on poles sticking up, which he assured her was a burial ground where the Mel Gibson Indians wouldn't follow them. He even admitted to her that he was Zorro! By the end, they were smooching in the river next to the skulls on the poles. Then they took off their clothes and were smooching some more, and maybe some other stuff as well.

Meanwhile, back at the hacienda, Alejandro de la Vega blew off el Comandante's soldier who came demanding he turn over Yumalay (whose name Telemundo this week apparently decided to spell that way instead of Yumalai.) He denied there was an Indian there, despite the suspicious splotches of blood el Comandante's man had seen near there, and intimidated the soldier into leaving.

We then learn a bit more about the De la Vega past. It seems that Alejandro's true love was an Indian named Regina (at least that was her Christian name after she was baptized) who was evidently involved in some kind of violent action like Yumalay's attempt with her brother to assassinate el Gobernador. We learn that Diego remembers seeing his mother killed, but not the face of the murderer. But when he first meets el Gobernador in Episode 10, his eye-patch starts to trigger Diego's memory, though it has become fully conscious yet.

Alejandro wants to give Yumalay a chance to explain herself, not least because she bears sucha strong resemblance to Regina. Later in the week, we get more flashbacks to Alejandro and Regina, which have the same actress (Adriana Campos) who plays Yumalay taking the Regina role. This could be one reason that she reminds him of Regina since she looks, uh, identical.

A couple of asides are in order at this point. One is that family confusion is a theme in basically all telenovelas I've seen. So the fact that Alejandro is drawn to a young woman who is either the sister or possibly the daughter of his former wife is not so unusual, though the latter possibility makes it a bit more sticky. But the novelas always manage to keep things out of William Faulkner territory. But, then, what I saw a reviewer say 20 years ago is still true: the screen isn't ready for Faulkner yet. Nor is the Bible, for that matter, but that's another story.

The other thing is that I'm intrigued with characters that manage to survive and adapt over generations: James Bond, Simon Templar ("the Saint"), Tarzan, Batman, Superman. So I've been looking a bit more into Zorro's literary background, which was supplemented in a major way in 2005 by the publication of Isabel Allende's Zorro: Una novela. Zorro first emerged from the pen of Johnston McCulley in a story published in 1919 in a pulp magazine called All Story Weekly, which I haven't yet read. But I am reading Allende's novel, which gives great detail about Zorro's youth. So the characters start to blur for me a bit with the telenovela.

Allende's Regina is a major character in her novel, in which she's half-Indian and half-Spanish. In the telenovela, it sounds so far like Regina was a full-blooded Indian. But in either case this adds some social complications.

Back to the romantic river scene, Diego even confesses to Esmeralda that his mother was Indian and that he lived with Indians as a child.

But after the nekkid smooching in the river, Diego leaves her on the riverbank to scout out the area a bit. He sees a feather than tells him the Mel Gibson cannibals are indeed looking for them in the area he thought was taboo for them because of the burial ground. This theme of Diego screwing up has already popped up a number of times. But even Zorro isn't always as slick as one might expect. When saving the prisoner from being murdered in Episode 1, he only managed to get there after the victim had been shot once, which fortunately wasn't a life-endagering wound.

Fortunately el Comandante, Capitán Ricardo Montero, arrives just as the Mel Gibson savages are running through the river attacking Esmeralda and he and his men save the day. Then Diego arrives back on the scene and lets Ricardo take credit for saving them. Ricardo was wounded in the arm by an arrow, letting him have a mark of his alleged heroism. Diego partisans can imagine that he arrived back to the riverbank in time to save Esmeralda but stayed in hiding because he saw el Comandante was there and wanted him to get credit for it.

Back in el ciudad de Los Ángeles, intrigues ensue. Diego has his friend Bernardo dress up as Zorro to convince Esmeralda that Diego had lied to her about being Zorro because he thought her knowing the secret could put her in danger. She was naturally ticked off at Diego for supposedly lying to her. But we learn later that she loves Diego anyway, because she confides this to her aunt Almudena.

Dolores, a trusted servant in Alejandro's hacienda (and the only black character so far) conspires with Alejandro's sister María Pía to try to prevent Diego from marrying either of the Moncada sisters. Because the two of them somehow think they're the only ones who know that it was el Gobernador Fernando Sánchez de Moncada who murdered Diego's mother Regina, with his own hands even. This also confirms that María Pía's rejection of el Gobernador has to do with his murdering Regina's groups of Indians. Their pitch to Alejandro, who considers Fernando his best friend and doesn't know about his murdering Regina, is that if Diego marries one of the Moncadas, it may come out that he's a mestizo. Spaniards of limpia sangre (pure blood) were considered a higher stratum than mestizos. Fernando himself even inquires of María Pía about Diego's background, apparently suspecting something of the sort.

Later, Esmeralda shows up fortuitously and helps María Pía delivers a baby, which raises Esmeralda in María Pía's regard immensely. Esmeralda's scheming sister Mariángel promises el Gobernador to convince Esmeralda to agree to a marriage with el Comandante who has his lascivious sights set on her. Which presumably doesn't decrease his interest in fooling around with Mariángel.

The gitana (Gypsy) queen Sara Kalí almost escapes from prison by taking the hapless Sargeant García hostage. But Pizarro foils her escape. However, her escape attempt alerts Renzo the gitano to her existence, although he's awaiting execution early the following morning. Zorro plans to save Renzo from execution, a mission that PadreTomás emphasizes, apparently fearing that Diego/Zorro might be hesitant to undertake it for reasons that aren't clear. Separately, Esmeralda sneaks off again to visit the gitanas and promises to help them save Renzo.

The escape attempt also gives Diego the chance to pump information out of García in the tavern so that he discovers there's a mystery woman in the prison. García counts Diego as a buddy, and the sargeant obviously has a loose tongue, especially when lubricated by alcohol.

The cliffhanger for the week involves a romantic drama. El Gobernador invites Alejandro and Diego along with el Comandante for dinner. Almudena is pleased with the chance to flirt with Alejandro. Alejandro has promised Diego to ask el Gobernador for Esmeralda's hand in marriage that evening. Unfortunately, el Gobernador surprises everyone except el Comandante Ricardo by announcing that Esmeralda will be marrying Ricardo. Altercations are sure to follow.

The second week of the telenovela emphasized the romantic dramas. Diego didn't appear in real time as Zorro, though there are always flashbacks. Plus, Bernardo appeared briefly as pseudo-Zorro.

Isabel Allende Zorro trivia: The telenovela is called Zorro: la espada y la rosa (the sword and the rose). It's easy enough to imagine la espada symbolizing Zorro/Diego and the rose symbolizing Esmeralda. But in the Allende novel, Diego joins a secret society in Spain called La Justicia. Two of the key symbols of the order are la espada and la rosa:

... la espada encarnaba el valor; ... la rosa recordaba a los miembros de la sociedad secreta que la vida no no sólo es sacrificio y trabajo, también es hermosa y por lo mismo debe ser defendida.

[... the sword incarnated courage; ... the rose reminded the member of the secret society that life is not only sacrifice and work, but it is also beauty and for that it should be defended.]

See also my previous Zorro post and next Zorro post..


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Review of "It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush" (2007) by Joe Conason

Joe Conason's new book focuses on the governmental and partisan manifestations of the Republican Party's deep-seated authoritarianism. Though Conason is an investigative reporter in the tradition of I.F. Stone, his focus in this book is pulling together a coherent narrative describing the Cheney-Bush administration's drive to undermine the substance of American democratic and Constitutional government while leaving the forms in place. He relies on the wealth of material already in the public record, much of which he has reported in some form in his regular columns which appear in the New York Observer, Salon, and He makes full use of his knowledge and skill in desribing the roles of key players without reducing complex processes to personality quirks or individual ambitions.

As a close observer of the major press dysfunction during the Clinton administration and subsequently, it's not surprising that his descriptions of the press' role in the Cheney-Bush style of rule are particularly vivid. He gives the following memorable picture of Fox News, which could almost serve as a definition:

Never in the history of American politics or American broadcasting has any media outlet been so closely identified with a president or a party as Fox News is with George W. Bush and the Republicans. Overseen by Fox News boss Roger Ailes [formerly a Republican media consultant], it is an inappropriate and journalistically illicit relationship that long ago crossed whatever normal boundary separates politicians and press organizations. ...

Fox News represents an innovation in the authoritarian mode: a fully dedicated mouthpiece for the state that is nevertheless unofficial and in the private sector. Such is the ingenuity of American capitalism, in the hands of naturalized citizen Rupert Murdoch, the News Corporation mogul who abandoned his Australian citizenship in order to qualify as an owner of American TV stations. Aside from profit, which only began to flow after almost eight years and roughly $800 million in estimated losses, the separation of ownership from the state affords much greater credibility to the propaganda message.
(my emphasis)
The problem with American media reporting, though, is not restricted to the blatant partisans of Fox News and Oxycontin radio.

Conason skillfully describes how the toxic combination of lazy and compliant reporters, the extreme governmental secrecy that is a hallmark of Cheney's style of rule, corporate media dominance, and actual government-sponsored propaganda have combined to cripple the functioning of an independent press that is a critical element of democracy. He calls atttention to a trend in the Republican Party toward advocating overt censorship, still alarmed as they are about the amount of genuine journalism still being practiced in the US. He call special attention to an article by Gabriel Schoenfeld, Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? Commentary March 2006, which lays out much of the ideological justification for this next level of authoritarian media regulation.

Conason creates a useful framework in which to view the authoritarian tilt of the Republican Party under the Cheney-Bush administration, from ideological organizations like the Federalist Society (which promotes corporatist legal doctrine) to the effect of having an atmosphere of permanent war. The latter is eseential for Dick Cheney's program of authoritarian rule, because only with such a climate of fear and threat can the Cheney policies of preventive war, torture, massive spying and an Executive not bound by any laws completely supplant the legal and Constitutional practices of the old Republic.

The Cold War provided such a framework, too. And in his concluding chapter, Conason fills in the dots leading from the Nixon administration's police-state measures known collectively as "Watergate" and the Reagan administration's secret war program which is best known through the Iran-Contra scandal to the Cheney methods of authoritarian governance which permeate the current administration.

Understanding the roots of the current situation in the darkest side of the Nixon administration is important because, as he writes, "[m]ost Americans, even those who lived through the Nixon era, have forgotten the context - let alone the details - of the Watergate scandal." He also observes, "The parallels are striking, but the difference is that Bush, Cheney, and Rove, and the forces they represent, are far more developed and powerful than the Nixon gang ever was." (my emphasis)

Though he doesn't mention it in the book, this illustrates the need for something lie a Truth Commission process after Cheney and Bush are out of power. Not only do we need prosecution of crimes committed - and there have been many - but we also need a process by which the abuses of this administration can be publicly aired and understood. We need to make it far harder for people like Cheney and Rumsfeld, who learned their governing principles and style from the worst aspects of the Nixon administration, to come to power 10, 20, 30 years down the line determined to succeed where Cheney, Rummy, Karl Rove and the rest will hopefully have failed. The criminal and antidemocratic practices of the Cheney-Bush administration need to be thoroughly discredited.

You can always quibble about what is not said in even the most thorough book. Conason only gives attention to the phoniness of the "moderate Republican" scam late in the book, while his earlier mentions of that bold Maverick John McCain could leave an excessively favorable impression on those not familiar with the Maverick's rightwing and downright militaristic record. Conason's book also only alludes to the role that segregationist practices from the Jim Crow era in the South play in the Republican Party's current authoritarian cast. But those really are quibbles about a book that provides a valuable understanding of the larger problem. In any case, Conason himself examined those issue more closely in Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (2003).

One thing Conason does here, though, that I haven't seen done so clearly elsewhere is to describe how the Wall Street wing of the Party and the Christian dominionists manage to combine what on the surface may seem conflicting agendas. In the chapter he devotes to this subject, "The Corporate State of Grace", he writes, "The creative destruction of modern capitalism disrupts traditions and disregards family values." In theory, this creates a tension between the goals of Wall Street free-marketeers and Christian theocrats.

But Conason does a great job of explaining that, in practice, these seemingly conflicting interests don't create the Party split that Establishment pundits constantly predict. In fact, the corporate interests and the Christian dominionists have "an informal but clear division of labor". What not so long ago was commonly called Big Business provides the money, the theocratis turn out votes of Republicans. (This division of labor also allows some politicians to pass themselves off as "moderate Republicans" while actually supporting the theocratic agenda.)

Many of the key Christian Right leaders are wealthy men themselves - few of them are women - and thus see their own economic interests as the same as those of corporate executives or investment bankers. "Whatever their differences, however, the religious right and the corporate right have much more in common", Conason writes.

Factional divisions can always cause problems. But the alliance of the stock market and the pulpit in the Republican Party has to be regarded at this point as a long-term and stable one. In particular, he notes pointedly, "The Chamber of Commerce types and the Baptist preachers both hate unions with a special passion."

The title of Conasons's book is derived from Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, which describes a fictional fascist takeover of the United States. Like all of Lewis' novels I've read - full disclosure: I'm a big fan of his - the decades-old historical context doesn't prevent It Can't Happen Here from being both entertaining and instructive. Elmer Gantry (1927) remains one of the best looks at American Protestant fundamentalism you can find. My second post at The Blue Voice quoted Lewis on a fictional rightwing in Gideon Plannish (1943), the Rev. Ezekiel Bittery, who gradually became known to a national audience:

And during all this time, the Reverend Ezekiel himself will, as publicly as possible, to as many persons as he can persuade to attend his meetings, have admitted, insisted, bellowed, that he has always been a Ku Kluxer and a Fascist, that he has always hated Jews, colleges and good manners, and that the only thing he has ever disliked about Hitler is that he once tried to paint barns instead of leaving the barns the way God made them.
A revival of interest in Sinclair Lewis' work would be a welcome development.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Maverick and Iraq, 1987

C-Span 3 is currently running video of a Senate debate in 1987 over the War Powers Act. The occasion was the beginning of a set of skirmishes which stretched into 1988, in which the US Navy fought the Iranian navy.

This made us active belligerents on the side of Iraq in fighting against Iran. You know, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the worstest, awfulest, most horriblest dictator since Hitler and Stalin.

I just listened to Maverick McCain emphatically insisting that it would be terribly wrong for Congress to do anything at all to restrict the Reagan administration from being an active belligerent on Saddam Hussein's side.

The Maverick also pompously sneered that he hadn't heard very many Senators praising the great job our servicemen were doing, saying that whenever something goes wrong those serving are attacked by unnamed critics. The bold Maverick even said directly that soldiers hearing about a war powers debate in Congress would be demoralized and not be able to fight as well. (He didn't seem to worry about this six years later in 1993 when he was demanding that the Clinton administration immediately pull out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk Down" incident.)

Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker, the Republican who Joe Lieberman ousted from the Senate, was arguing strenuously for the Congress to take formal action under the War Powers Act to set conditions for the conflict then under way. Did I mention that we were fighting on the side of the horrible awful dictator Saddam Hussein?

After the Maverick's speech, Weicker - a Republican - immediately tossed McCain's sleazy implication that Weicker and his supporters were hostile to American soldiers right back into the Maverick's face.

Weicker was actually a "moderate" Republican. He was more sensible on issues of war and peace than Lieberman. From his speeches I just heard, he also supported having the US be an active belligerent on the side of Saddam Hussein; he just wanted the War Powers Acts to be followed.

So far, I haven't heard any of these good Republicans say explicitly that the Reagan administration was an active belligerent on the side of Iraq. They make it sound like Iran had attacked American ships out of the blue.   (The Reagan administration was putting American flags on Kuwaiti oil tankers.)

Dan Quayle was also ranting in his usual manner that sounded like his just got through drinking aboutten cups of coffee. His argument was pretty spacy. He seemed to think that the War Powers  Act, which he opposed even having on the books, would require a Congressional action every time there was a mugging on the street somewhere. It was pretty ditsy.

What is a familiar sound is that three Republicans I've heard - the Maverick, Quayle, and John Warner - were adamant, just adamant that Congress should not attempt to assert its Constitutional power over war and the conduct of war. At least not when a Republican President is in office.

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Rosanne Cash update

Rosanne Cash October 2005 - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco (Photo: Ron Baker)

Mentioning Rosanne Cash in that last post reminded me I hadn't visited her Web site in a while.

She does a more-or-less monthly column there. For those who may not be aware, she writes stories as well as songs, and she's a good prose writer, too. Here's an excerpt from her column of
Feb. 12 (she refers to herself online as "Mrs. L"; she's married to John Leventhal):

The only bad thing about time off is that it gives me too much time to think about the state of the world. I wake in the night and wonder if Greenland is going to stay frozen through the decade, and if not, will a rowboat suffice to get me out of Manhattan? Seriously, I have been religious about turning off lights, recycling and walking rather than taking taxis. I also offset all these jet flights by donating to carbon neutral organizations. ( is a good one). I only use hybrid car services (Ozo here in NYC, and Eco-limo in Los Angeles) and I'm becoming more concious about consumption, in general. I think that too much material consumption affects the spirit like gluttony affects the body--- it makes you sluggish and thick and weighed down. My father had a great saying, which he got from a very elderly woman in the Deep South who owned an antique store he liked to visit. She would say (and then HE would say), 'Honey, every possession is just a stick to beat yourself with'. I've thought about that saying a lot. I think they meant that too many possessions carried too much responsibility, too much space was given up to them, too much energy wasted in acquiring and maintaining them. Of course, neither the old lady or my father followed the line of thinking to its natural conclusion by living a spartan life. My father was a bit of a pack rat, and he had a house stuffed with furniture and rugsandchina and linens and paintings and books. And so do I. But I am moving in the direction of doing some space clearing. (I hope Mr. L reads this column; he will be beside himself with joy.) I'll start by clearing out the newspaper clippings from the 80's and work my way up to the Manolos. I'll let you know how it goes.
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Keith Olbermann, Britney and the cult of celebrity

Finally, another blogger defends Britney Spears!

Well, actually she's more attacking Keith Olbermann who made frivolous attacks on poor Boo:
Everyone Loves Keith Olbermann - Except Me by Sandi Burtseva 02/23/07.

Burtseva goes further than I would in generalizing from Olbermann's celebrity reporting, particularly in relation to Britney. She seems to think that almost any kind of satirical or insulting shots about a celebrity's personal image is wrong, even when that image is essential to the reason they are a celebrity in the first place.

But she makes some valid points about the subject. Last year, Olbermann reported on Paris Hilton getting slugged in the face by some guy, saying "she's had worse things happen to her face". His report was also captioned, "A Slut and Battery". Though Paris Hilton is perhaps unique in that her only claim to celebrity status seems to be that she is a celebrity, she hasn't promoted herself as someone who goes around seeking to be slugged in the face. Among other criticisms of that report, Burtseva writes of Olbermann, "He thinks women who make particular sexual choices are to be taken less seriously when they claim to have been assaulted." Again, that's perhaps a bit too much of a generalization to hang on that one report of his. But as a criticism of that particular report, it's perfectly sensible.

Burtseva notes that on his Feb. 19 broadcast, he chose as his first topic to discuss "that most important of word events: Britney Spears' hairstyle choice". He had Village Voice columnist Michael Musto on to discuss it. Burtseva asks parenthetically:

Pause for a moment to consider this scenario: The man who has been called the Arthur R. Murrow of our time has a gossip columnist on his show to discuss a pop singer's hairstyle.
Good point.

She quotes the following dialogue between Olbermann and his guest:

OLBERMANN: The hairdresser, Miss Tognozzi, also asked if Britney Spears appeared to be under the influence. She said no, but she did use the word trance to describe her. A trance.

MUSTO: No, she actually said the tramp dropped her pants, and it got reported as trance, but it works anyway.
Burtseva comments sourly (and appropriately), "Olbermann elected not to take issue with the crude commentary of his guest. I'm not shocked."

Her general judgment of Olbermann's Britney-hair segment:

In the eyes of Olbermann and his sexist ilk, Spears made two mistakes: She dared to be overtly sexual and she dared to shed one of the defining markers of her femininity. I neither know nor care how much sex Spears has and with whom, or why she shaved her head, but I have this radical proposition: In spite of the fact that she's made sexy music videos, Spears' body is her own and should not be subjected to Olbermann's disgusting views.
That short paragraph is an example of a good idea sandwiched into bad framing. For one thing, it's not at all clear from her article who she wants us to picture as part of Obermann's "sexist ilk". Liberal reporters? Democrats? Guys named Keith?

And for someone like me who reads her blog post but didn't see the segment in question, she gives us four examples of Olbermann's "disgusting" views. One is the fact that he didn't object to Musto's comment, a comment that was kind of disgusting. The others are: Olbermann called Britney a "pop tart"; he wondered about "what she was on", i.e., whether she was on drugs or drunk; and, someone at the "cast and crew" blog of the Olbermann show referred to her in a post as "sweetheart".

Dumb or trivial, maybe. But I don't see those as "disgusting". None of them comes close to the "A Slut and Battery" caption in bad taste. And her conclusion in the end that Olbermann is "a petty, disrespectful misogynist" don't obviously follow from the information she provides in the article. I mean, if I'm going to join in trashing one of the leading liberal TV commentators - one of the only ones actually - I'd like to know I'm doing it for good reasons. Rightwingers could use her blog post to say, "Even the a liberal feminist like Sandi Burtseva says that Keith Olbermann is a woman-hater with disgusting, degrading views of women who even mocks domestic violence victims." Maybe there's more justice in her view than I'm seeing, but I'm withholding judgment on some of her general criticisms.

Having made all those reservations about Burtseva's post, she has a legitimate point about the Britney's-shaved-head story. As quoted above, "She dared to be overtly sexual and she dared to shed one of the defining markers of her femininity", i.e., her hair. It's a good point. Her sexy image is a big reason many of her fellow Southern Baptists have criticized her from the beginning of her national fame. And regardless of whatever particular issues she may have been having when she changed hairstyles drastically, would it be international news for days running if a male star of similar status shaved his head? Like Boo's ex Justin Timberlake, for instance?

I'm also not one to draw broad social conclusions from media coverage of some pop culture event or personality. But Brutseva has hit on something important, in that people project their ideas about sex and gender roles onto Britney's celebrity image. And then draw judgments based on how close she comes to fulfilling the expectations they project onto the image.

When Johnny Cash passed away, his daughter Rosanne said that there would always be a "Johnny Cash" - the public persona of the star - but there would never be another Daddy, the private father and man she knew. More than most famous people, Britney has to co-exist with "Britney", the celebrity character of which people have such intense and contradictory expectations.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

The secret and not-so-secret air war against Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion

John Prados looks at a new aspect of A War Conspiracy Documented 02/21/07. Prados explains why he sees a "smoking gun" in the correlation in the pre-invasion months between secret air war plans presented to the President in 2002-3and the actual air war in Iraq:
A January 31, 2003 meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly shows the two leaders discussing ways to provoke Saddam Hussein so as to justify war, indicating premeditation. Last week the National Security Archive in Washington posted the U. S. war plan - the set of briefing slides used by Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Tommy Franks to brief President Bush on "Polo Step," CENTCOM’s Iraq invasion scheme. The PowerPoint slides were prepared for a series of presidential meetings held from December 2001 to August 2002. The slides summarized CENTCOM’s buildup and maneuver concepts for Bush’s deliberations. Bush backed Franks’ concept of “adjusting” Iraqi defenses by executing what amounted to a covert offensive air campaign. They would use forces already in the Persian Gulf region for the ostensible purpose of enforcing no-fly zones created after the first Gulf War. has previously covered this operation (“The War Before the War ,” June 24, 2005), but the new evidence establishes an explicit link between the aerial offensive and the Iraq war plans.
The air war in Iraq has been severely underreported. And that was the case long before 2002. After the end of the Gulf War, the US and Britain established "free-fly" zones in Iraq, zones always of questionable status in international law. As Prados explains, there was one in northern Iraq to protect humanitarian assistance going to the Kurds. Though in practice it led to a considerable amount of autonomy for the Kurds, creating a much stronger basis for them to see further autonomy or independence. And there was a free-fly zone in the south to deter repressive measures against the Shi'a - though the US had allowed Saddam's regime to send helicopters against Shi'a rebels in the south immediately after Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait in 1991. The rebels had wrongly assumed they had American support based on public encouragement from Old Man Bush and from American broadcasts. into Iraq. This left the Iraqi Shi'a intensely suspicious of American intentions and promises in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Essentially, the US bombed Iraq off-and-on from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 until today, actually. Prados writes of the pre-2003 bombing:

Until 2001, it had been standard practice for U.S. and British aircraft participating in these missions to retaliate against Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, missiles, and radars that had fired at the planes. CENTCOM had a plan it called "Desert Badger" that established standard operating procedures for such strikes.
Gen. Tommy Franks developed a set of revised procedures for the bombing of Iraq in early 2002, part of a plan called Polo Step that included the plans for invasion. The National Security Archive of George Washington University (Top Secret Polo Step) has posted the declassified documents.

What Prados focuses on in his article is not simply the existence of war plans; it's not at all surprising that war plans would be available for Iraq and that they would be periodically updated, given the fact that the US and Britain (along with France until December 1998) were maintaining the "free-fly zones". Instead, he looks at the correlations between actions on the ground and the evolution of the war plan and its discussion at senior levels of the government.

The pre-2002 air campaign against Iraq is critically important background. The national press tended to treat repeated bombings of Iraq in those days as routine items, when it covered them at all. But some of those actions were substantial. presents a
detailed order of battle for one series of air attacks called Operation Desert Fox (1998-99). Whoever came up with the code name apparently wasn't bothered by the fact that German Field Erwin Rommel had been widely known as "the Desert Fox". summarizes:

There are currently [12/23/1998] over 34,500 military personnel in the area, including 2,600 soldiers, 20,300 sailors and Marines [of whom about 2,500 are ashore and the rest afloat], and joint headquarters and other joint units comprised of 1,000 people. The Air Force total, which was some 7,500 last week, increased by about 70 aircraft and 2,500 Air Combat Command personnel, reflecting deployments in mid-December. Forces in the region include land and carrier-based aircraft, surface warships, a Marine expeditionary unit, a Patriot missile battalion, a mechanized battalion task force, and a mix of special operations forces deployed in support of US Central Command operations. To enhance force protection throughout the region, additional military security personnel are also deployed. Currently, there appear to be slighly over 250 aircraft in the area, which total includes air to air, air to ground, dual role, support, and attack helicopters. The cruise missile force is twice the pre-December 1998 level and can be augmented significantly within days. (my emphasis)
The occasion for Operation Desert Fox was Saddam Hussein's decision to block access for UN weapons inspectors. Scott Ritter was a lead inspector on the UN team at the time and has given numerous accounts of those events. The official Iraqi justification for blocking their access was that the US was using it for espionage against the rules of the inspection. Ritter and the US government itself has since confirmed that it was indeed the case. As a matter of historical fact, the frequently-repeated assertion that in 1998 Iraq "kicked out the inspectors" is not true. The Iraqi government did block access. Chief UN inspector Richard Butler decided to pull out the team after the Clinton administration recommended they leave prior to the Desert Fox aerial bombardment. Ritter himself said at the time:

I think that it's inevitable that there will be military action tonight. [12/16/1998] ..Iraq failed to live up to its obligations and the US feels that it's time to strike...I'm dead set against this military strike. I think Iraq must be held accountable but I think a military strike even of a three-day nature, a massive strike that will inflict grievous harm on Iraq, will not solve the disarmament issue, will only make innocent Iraqi people suffer more and in the end will backfire and allow Saddam Hussein to generate international support and eventually he'll get sanctions lifted and keep the weapons. This is a bad idea, it's a bad time and I don't think we should do this at this point in time.
The core of the action was four days of intensive bombing. George Robertson, British Secretary of State for Defence, described the operation on 12/19/1998 after the third night of the operation:

Targets that were attacked by the RAF [Royal Air Force] aircraft last night included Republican Guard headquarters which are the lynchpin of Saddam's regime. ... If the Republican Guard ceases to support Saddam his brutal regime is under immediate threat. We want the Republican Guard to know that the cosy life that they have led under Saddam is under attack and we think they have got that message very clearly.

Last night, we also struck at key elements of Saddam's air defence system and at tank facilities. Air defence is a key element of Saddam Hussein's war machine and his tank force is a substantial element of his ability to conduct offensive military operations against his neighbours. Other coalition [US and Britain] targets overnight have included command-and-control facilities which allow Saddam to use his chemical and biological weapons. So far in this campaign coalition aircraft have flown several hundred manned-aircraft sorties including over 100 bombing raids, some 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired and around 100 air-launched cruise missiles have been used.

Coalition forces have attacked about 100 separate, precise military targets; some of these sites are very large military complexes which have required a significant number of attacks, others are single buildings which house key facilities. Around a third of these sites are related to Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, another third of the targets were part of Iraq's air defence system, either missile sites or command facilities; 20 targets are related to the overall control of Saddam's military machine and the balance are Republican Guard or other military sites such as airfields. We are still assessing the full impact of the damage we have inflicted and we hope to have a better picture later in the day. However, it is already clear that we have inflicted substantial damage on Saddam's chemical and biological war machine and set back his ambitions to threaten his neighbours. (my emphasis)
This series of attacks, involving as he himself said 100 bombing raids and 400 cruise missile strikes against around100 targets, Robertson describes as a "precise, limited operation."

A later evaluation examines the Desert Fox operation:
Operation DESERT FOX: Effectiveness With Unintended Effects by Mark Conversino of the Air War College Air & Space Power Journal 07/13/05. He writes of the results of the 4-day bombardment, which he describes as "major armed confrontation" between the US/Britain and Iraq:

In the end, DESERT FOX was a militarily effective use of airpower. Terminating the already very brief operation short of a change in either Iraqi behavior or leadership, and limiting targets to a relative handful, however, was a political decision. Yet the lure of achieving a bloodless yet devastating military victory while making a rapid exit possible, if necessary - what Eliot Cohen called "gratification without commitment" - ultimately, perhaps inevitably, led to the misapplication and abuse of airpower. Many airpower theorists had long cautioned against using airpower in penny-packets or in hyper-constrained political environments. "When presidents use it," Cohen wrote, "they should either hurl it with devastating lethality against a few targets (say, a full-scale meeting of an enemy war cabinet or senior-level military staff) or extensively enough to cause sharp and lasting pain to a military and a society." The 70-hour operation became what Cohen cautioned against: an attack on Saddam with a "sprinkling" of air strikes that would merely "harden him without hurting him and deprive the United States of an intangible strategic asset", an asset that Cohen called the post-Gulf War "mystique of American airpower."

Perhaps a longer, more punishing air campaign would have upended the regime. It is unclear, however, why anyone could imagine that such a brief air campaign had the slightest potential of driving from power a ruthless tyrant - and notorious "survivor" -like Saddam Hussein. In fact, post-OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] interviews conducted by the ISG [Iraq Survey Group] with high-ranking members of Saddam’s fallen regime revealed that the Iraqis were "satisfied" with the results of DESERT FOX. "They said, given a choice of sanctions with inspections or sanctions without inspections, they would prefer without." Likewise, the 2004 ISG report stated that in 2003 Saddam discounted the threat of an American-led invasion and considered the air attacks associated with DESERT FOX as the "worst he could expect from Western military pressure." This is hardly the attitude of a leader who was confronting the possible collapse of his regime in December 1998 in the wake of those air attacks. It seems clear that both American and British leaders considered the regime’s fall a possible result of this air campaign, though they apparently did not intend to sustain the attack in a manner sufficient to bring about that collapse. That they also were not prepared to either exploit or contain the results of a potential airpower-induced regime implosion revealed political short-sightedness. (my emphasis)
I've included some of that history as a framework for understanding the way in which the Cheney-Bush administration could make the aereal strikes that Prados describes in 2002-3 prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq without attracting a great deal of attention or debate. Although the two paragraphs just quoted emphasize the insufficiency of Operation Desert Fox to bring down Saddam's regime, it was clear a signficant set of military strikes. Congress, the press and the public had come to view even a "major armed confrontation" with Iraq like Operation Desert Fox as a routine occurrence that demanded no particular attention.

In 2002, the name for the enforcement of the free-fly zone in southern Iraq was changed from Operation Southern Watch to
Operation Southern Focus. As Prados explains:

Southern Watch air attacks resumed in May 2002, coincident with one of the Polo Step briefings, following a six-month period in which there had been virtually no air action. In August, when Franks presented near-final versions of his war plan, Rumsfeld changed the rules of engagement for the air forces and Southern Watchbecame Southern Focus. Suddenly, in early September, there followed a four-day series of sustained strikes hitting Iraqi military communications, headquarters, anti-ship missile and air defense communications facilities, all considered key targets in "adjusting" Saddam’s defenses. Two-thirds of more than 21,000 attack sorties, or flights counted by single aircraft, that took place before the invasion occurred in the Southern Focus timeframe beginning in August.

The September strikes corresponded to the White level that General Franks described in May and August slides. That was described as an air operation of five to seven days’ duration involving about 1,000 flights by coalition aircraft. This effort was supposed to have been triggered by the shootdown of a U.S. aircraft, an Iraqi link to a terrorist act, or confirmed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) within Iraq. After that strikes concentrated overwhelmingly upon shaping the battlefield rather than their supposed purpose of countering interference with the no-fly zones. In January 2003, it was reported that there had been almost two attacks on higher echelon Iraqi military targets for every one aimed at air defense or radar sites.

We know from history that Saddam’s air defenses never did destroy an aircraft in the no-fly zones—not even a Predator drone. Nor were there Iraqi terrorist attacks or prewar confirmations of WMDs. Saddam refused to supply the provocation that Bush wanted. Not to be put off, Bush simply dispensed with the triggers and moved ahead on his aerial offensive. When, at the height of the 2004 electoral season, President Bush told reporters that before the war his administration had been dealing only with Desert Badger [the procedures for attacking targets in enforcement of the free-fly zones], he was being disingenuous. This decoupling of the air attacks from any relation to actual Iraqi activity is the smoking gun that makes plain Bush's aggressive intent. (my emphasis)
Because the press commentary rarely explains the significance of some things, Prados' use of the word "aggressive" in that last sentence implies an illegal action. It certainly provides another piece of the picture showing that the Cheney-Bush administration and their loyal servant Tony Blair intended to go to war against Iraq well before the new weapons inspections began that were calledto a halt when the invasion was launched.

Bush has been known to say on more than one occasion that Iraq refused to let those inspectors in prior to the invasion, which is simply not true. The UN inspectors were doing their work and were asking for more time to search for evidence of the (non-existent) WMDs.

In the following interview, we see Rummy in An interview is available by court historian Bob Woodward with Rummy, with Rummy ducking questions about the sort of air war plans developed prior to the March 2003 invasion (
censored transcript of 10/23/03 interview at

What Rummy refers to as "Desert Badger Plus and a Desert Badger Plus Plus" is apparently the evolving set of plans released as Polo Step which Prados discusses.

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