Saturday, March 31, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 1: Memory at war with history


This is my fourth year of a blogging counter-observance of Confederate "Heritage" Month. It was orginally inspired by a daily selection of quotes that Edward Sebesta was highlighting on his Web site at the time pointing out what the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause outlook was really about.

To a large extent, I've used these posts as an opportunity to indulge my interest in Civil War history and prewar history. The Lost Cause view of the Civil War and its causes is similar to Holocaust denial in that it uses a narrative about historical events as an ideology for a present-day outlook: anti-Semitism in the case of Holocaust denial, white racism in the case of neo-Confederate/Lost Cause advocacy.

And like Holocaust denial or Christian-fundamentalist creationism, it's also aimed at what Chris Hedges describes at making facts and opinions interchangeable, in order to substitute a destructive, deceptive ideology for a reality-based understanding of the world.

In that sense, any kind of reality-based look at Civil War and "antebellum" (prewar) American history is useful in countering the dishonest way of thinking associated with the neo-Confederate, white supremacist outlook.

But, as Sebesta continually reminds us at his
Anti-Neo-Confederate blog, neo-Confederate ideology is not primarily a view of history, though neo-Confederates certainly try to exert an influence on "heritage"-related events and sites such as public statues, museums, historical commemorations and even plantation tours. Sebesta writes about the latter in Behind the Plantation Facade, Historical Societies and selective memory 12/23/06:


Just be aware, whether it is in Vermont or Georgia, or California or Minnesota, that often the "history" given out by historical organizations isn't but a frothy fantasy of the past, and this in itself is a political agenda. It is often a back door access to your thinking. Can you enjoy a beautiful plantation house, without subconsiously buying into certain views and fantasies? It is a question I can't definitely answer.
In this year's "Heritage" posts, I'm going to be a bit more eclectic in the topics. Fortuitously, my copy of the just-published second volume of William Freehling's history of prewar politics, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant (2007), just arrived a couple of days ago. So that alone should provide topics for some history-related posts. But I will probably be doing some posts on other aspect of neo-Confederate/Lost Cause ideology, as well.

I'm also going to feature some pictures of the 1995 US Civil War postal stamp series. This heading for the stamp sheet of the collection shows some influence of Lost Cause historiography by using "The War Between the States" as a subtitle:

 "War Between the States" has long been the preferred Lost Cause name for the Civil War. Because according to Lost Cause pseudohistory, there was no social conflicts involved of the kind "civil war" implies. It was strictly North against South, with the Southerners bravely defending their homes and sacred honor against violations from Yankee interference with their "states rights". I've addressed how bogus a notion that was in previous Confederate "Heritage" Month posts, to which I've linked indexes at end of this post.

The 1995 stamp series included the Harriet Tubman stamp featured here today. The Postal Service also produced a nicely-done book to accompany the series,with an introduction by historian James McPherson. It was titled The Civil War: A Collection of U.S. Commemorative Stamps 1861-1865, with no neo-Confederate "War Between the States" subtitle.

McPherson writes in the introduction:


Even more than the American Revolution, the Civil War has defined our national character. The violence and valor, and the nobility of the combatants' cause, each fighting to preserve a "sacred" truth, are enshrined in the American consciousness.

The flow of time over the past 130 years, however, allows us to reexamine a softened image, to see the broad contours with a new clarity, and to feel its human side with keener poignancy. An example of this perspective is Ken Burns' Civil War documentary narrated, in part, through the words of the men and women who experienced the war. Their voices speak to us not as Northerners or Southerners, but as Americans caught in a tragic tumult.

Now, James McPherson is a good historian whose entry in the Oxford series of books on American history, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), written to be accessable to a mass audience without sacrificing scholarly quality, has been credited with sparking a much bigger markets for such "popular" histories. He is certainly no friend of Lost Cause pseudohistory.


But that passage just quoted, which presumably was targeted to be as little disturbing as possible for the widest kind of audience, gives some hints of why Lost Cause pseudohistory has as much resilence as it has enjoyed. I won't belabor his use of "national character", which surely he knows has not enjoyed much credibility as a concept among historians for decades. But I will say it's a hokey concept that promotes more fuzzy thinking than clarity of focus.

Popular interest in the Civil War tends to be focused heavily on the war itself, which includes the excellent Ken Burns documentary McPherson mentions there. When looking at the experience of individuals in the war, much of the attention is inevitably focused on battles and the hardships of war, as well as the personal tragedies,sufferings and hopes of the individuals "caught in a tragic tumult", as he puts it there.

But the causes and conflicts leading up to the war don't receive nearly as much attention in popular accounts. Which opens the door for Lost Cause advocates to promote their pseudohistorical narrative about the war, which emphasizes above all that it had nothing to do with slavery.

Ironically, the democratic tendency in history since the 1960s to focus on the experience of ordinary people and not just politicians and generals, also opens the door for Lost Cause spinners to obscure the reasons for the war. Look, a common argument of theirs runs, most Southerners fighting in the war didn't own slaves at all. How can you say they were fighting for slavery?

Most American soldiers in Iraq today don't own oil wells, either. But anyone who actually believes that war has nothing at all to do with oil probably needs to ease up on their OxyContin consumption.

James McPherson himself in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997), which is based largely on original research into letters and other primary sources on the soldiers North and South. There was no military censorship on letters during the Civil War. Soldiers didn't write a lot about the causes of the war. But they didn't need to. Their families and friends to whom they were writing knew what those were.

But the armies fielded by both sides in the Civil War were probably the most literate armies the United States ever had, including today's. Nor were these "kids" for the most part. Many of the soldiers were in their twenties and thirties and were family men and active members of their communities. The preceding decade saw the most heated political debates in the history of the Republic. So even in pre-TV and pre-Internet days, it was hard not to hear about the major disputes over slavery. Soldiers also received newspaper in camp, and their letters indicated that there was intense interest among most of the soldiers when the latest news arrived. So they were informed about what was happening. And, as McPherson found in many of the letters from Southern soldiers, part of the Southerners idea of freedom was the freedom to one day own slaves themselves. The notion that Southern soldiers didn't think that slavery played any role in their cause is just bunk.

Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2004 05/02/04
Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2005 04/01/05
Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2006 04/01/06

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Torture in the Bush Gulag: Remembering the stakes

Scott Horton made a speech at Ole Miss Law School (University of Mississippi) in Oxford MS this past week on the grim subject of torture as practiced by the Cheney-Bush government: Accountability and the Renegade Executive Balkinization blog 03/29/07.

He began, appropriately enough for a presentation in William Faulkner's hometown, with a quote from him, from chapter 3 of Sanctuary:

"The Virginia gentleman one, who told us at supper that night about how they had taught him to drink like a gentleman. Put a beetle in alcohol, and you have a scarab; put a Mississippian in alcohol, and you have a gentleman -"
For some inexplicable reason, Horton ellided the two words "one, who" out. I always think you shouldn't tamper with Scripture without a good reason. (I consider Faulkner's works part of the Biblical canon.)

But Horton's subject was grimmer stuff. He connected the current scandal over the US Attorneys firing with the torture policy:

America today is in the grips of a scandal surrounding the machinery of justice, but it is a scandal being played out on more fronts than the mass media seems to realize. Indeed, in the end it turns on the concept of justice, not simply the bureaucracy that supposedly administers it.
The Cheney-Bush administration's Unilateral Executive theory puts the President and Vice President above the law and the Constitution. Obviously, they haven't been able to fully implement it in all areas. But they've gone much further in undermining democracy and the rule of law in the US than even Nixon did. Horton said:

It [the firing of the US Attorneys] is tied to a plan to use their offices to go after Democrats, whether a basis existed or not, and to pursue a voter suppression program focused on prospective Democrats. In other words, it's pure politics. Not high politics in the sense that Aristotle uses the term. But the crude gutter politics of the partisan hack. This sort of politics is not the exclusive province of one party. But over the last years, one party has exercised a monopoly on political power, and this appears to have led to a particularly virulent strain of political hackery.

Standing alone, this incident would be cause for grave concern. But it's just one aspect of a far broader crisis in which our country is enmeshed. The crisis has its start in the decision to introduce torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment - in contravention of 230 years of US military tradition, stretching back to George Washington's order after the battle of Trenton. Gonzales had a key role in this process as well, backed up by Cheney's chief-of-staff, David Addington and the now ever-present John Yoo. They tell us that they did this to insure that the president, as commander-in-chief, would have all the tools at his disposal that he might need to fight a war against terror. But if we strip the varnish off that, there are unmistakably unsavory elements underneath: one is a recognition that torture is a crime, and the second is a desire to enlist it into the president's arsenal notwithstanding what the law says. (my emphasis)
Horton is right on that point: the torture policy was the leap into the abyss of Presidential lawlessness. Reversing the torture policy and holding all those responsible for it accountable, legally accountable, is a necessary step to restoring the rule of law to the Presidency.

And he reminds us of the real purpose of torture as a government policy:

A former president of the Argentine bar, with whom I spoke two years ago, told me that his experience with torture in Argentina's "Dirty War" under a military dictatorship had been very clear. The dictator wanted torture as a talisman. It would show that the military rulers were above the law - subject to none of the restraints that marked the rule-of-law state. No one was under the illusion that torture techniques would actually get any useful intelligence. On the other hand, it would instill fear, and that was useful. He spoke to me with some conviction: the legal profession must oppose the introduction of torture, he said. In the end you will learn this is not about interrogation practices, it is about dictatorship, about tyranny. The experience of Argentina and Chile backs him up. Is the experience of America different? America is not governed by a military junta, of course. Nor can the brutality of technique and number of victims of the "Dirty War" yet be compared with the dark underside of the war on terror. But it is striking that most of the abusive techniques used by the Argentine junta were adopted and introduced in what President Bush has called the "program." This includes waterboarding, which the Argentinians called el submarino, the cold cell (or hypothermia), long-time standing and sleep deprivation in excess of two days. Nevertheless, this is a question we all should ponder. (my emphasis)
I'm not sure what he meant in saying, "Nor can the brutality of technique and number of victims of the 'Dirty War' yet be compared with the dark underside of the war on terror." It would be nice for Americans to be able to claim that. But I'm not at all sure it's true.

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State of the Cheney-Bush Presidency

"Now, with the Democrats in control of Congress and the president's approval ratings down around his shoe tops, the end-game of a tormented presidency has begun." - Joe Galloway, End-game of a tormented presidency has begun McClatchy Newspapers 03/29/07.

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Iraq War: "Mookie" calls for April 9 protest


Crusaders from the old days

Following up on yesterday's post, I see that "Mookie", Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army or JAM, is calling for public (and presumably non-violent) protests on April 9:
Sadr lambasts US for Iraq woes The Peninsula Online (Qatar)AP 03/31/07. AP reports:


Radical cleric Muqtada Al Sadr issued a scathing attack on the United States yesterday, following one of the country’s bloodiest days, blaming Washington for Iraq’s troubles and calling for a mass demonstration on April 9 — the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. ...

Al Sadr’s statement was his first since March 14, when he urged his supporters to resist US forces in Iraq through peaceful means. Al Sadr has been said by US and Iraqi officials to be in Iran, but his aides insist he is still in Iraq. The latest statement was read to worshippers during Friday prayers at a mosque in Kufa.

"I renew my call for the occupier (the United States) to leave our land," he said. "The departure of the occupier will mean stability for Iraq, victory for Islam and peace and defeat for terrorism and infidels." Al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militiamen fought US troops in 2004 but have cooperated with an ongoing US-Iraqi security push in Baghdad, blamed the presence of US forces for the rising violence, lack of services and bloodshed.
(my emphasis)
The highligted portion of that quote does not mean that Muqtada's fundamentalist JAM are nice people. They aren't. It does mean in the current situation, where the US is backing the Shi'a-dominated government against the Sunnis in their counterinsurgency and civil war, Muqtada and JAM have an interest in seeing the anti-Sunni fighting succeed so far as it can for now.

Rationality often goes out the window in wars, though. If enough Shi'a continue to be killed by Sunnis, Muqtada may decide it's no longer worth playing it safe and become more actively involved in violent action again.

The invaluable Juan Cole adds some details at his Informed Comment
blog post of 03/31/07:


Shaikh Abd al-Hadi al-Muhammadawi read out the sermon in the Kufa Friday Prayers Mosque. Muqtada demanded that US troops leave the country "even if the American Congress were to decide they should stay in Iraq." He insisted, "The issue of whether US troops should remain in Iraq depends on the Iraqi people, and no one has a right to extend their stay or to demand that they remain."

He added, "The departure of American forces from Iraq at the present time will bestow security on Iraq, represent a victory for peace, and mete out defeat to terrorism." He called on the Iraqi people "to fly the Iraqi flag above their homes and buildings and government offices to signify Iraqi sovereignty and independence."

He also pressed on all sections of the population "the necessity of letting the entire world hear that Iraqis reject the occupation."

He criticized "what has befallen Iraq during the Occupation, including tyranny, despotism, and the shedding of the blood of innocents." He complained about the lack of health and city services."

He added, "The Occupiers did not content themselves with all this, but also isolated Iraq from the Arab and Islamic worlds" and he accused the US, saying "they have proved able to sow the seeds of sectarian and ethnic conflict among Arabs and others, including between Arabs and non-Arabs among Muslims and others." He called on the people of Iraq to aid Iraq and to stand with it. (my emphasis)
One aspect of Muqtada's Shi'a movement that is important to remember is that, while friendly to Shi'a Iran, it does not have the strong ties to Iran that its larger coalition partners in the Iraqi government, the SCIRI and Da'wa, have long maintained. Muqtada's movement has also been notable for its Iraqi nationalism, emphasizing the need to preserve Iraq as a unified country.

Al Jazeera also reports on Muqtada's statement:
Al-Sadr calls for anti-US protests 03/30/07. April 9, the day on which he called for demonstrations, is the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. They report:


The Iraqi Shia leader in a statement on Friday also renewed his call for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

"Fly Iraqi flags atop homes, apartment buildings and government departments to show the sovereignty and independence of Iraq," al-Sadr said in the statement.

"[Show]that you reject the presence of American flags and those of other nations occupying our beloved Iraq," he said.
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Friday, March 30, 2007

Are 'Mookie's boys" escalating in Baghdad?


This photo accompanies a story in the military paper Stars and Stripes. (Photo: Monte Morin/Stars and Stripes)

It's
full caption reads:


An Iraqi woman walks her children past a group of U.S. soldiers with Company C, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in the southeastern Baghdad neighborhood of Obaidy. The 1-8 CAV is currently attached to the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
The story itself is about Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (JAM) in Baghdad, and it uses a common soldier's nickname for Muqtada: Mookie’s’ boys make troops take notice by Monte Morin Stars and Stripes 03/30/07. Morin writes:


The music said it all - Mookie’s boys were back in town.

U.S. Army Capt. Bruce Beardsley and his civil affairs team had barely stepped from their Humvees in this dust-blown quarter of New Baghdad recently when a bank of speakers stacked beside a tattered market began blaring a Mahdi Army militia chant.

"It’s their version of Psyops (psychological operations)," said Beardsley, a 38-year-old reservist and Maryland police officer.
Morin reports that, after laying low elsewhere, Muqtada's JAM is "flowing back into eastern Baghdad’s sewage-scented sprawl." Morin's reporting implies without exactly saying so that JAM is starting to make increased attacks on American troops. And he reports:


At the same time, Sadr has made recent statements renouncing his call for peace at the start of the security plan.

"News of the surge freaked everybody out," Beardsley said of the militiamen.

"They thought it was going to be a Saddam-style surge and that we would kill everybody. Instead, it was an American surge."
Since Morin uses that last quotation to explain what he's describing as a failure of the McCain escalation (The Surge), it's ambiguous at best as to whether Beardsley and/or Morin is saying that the difference between "a Saddam-style surge" and "an American surge" is considered a good thing or not.

In any case, it's far more likely that JAM has been deliberately avoiding clashes with American troops not because they expected the Americans to practice genocide in the Shi'a parts of the city but because they were happy to have the Americans stomp the Sunni guerrillas to the extent they could and thereby help their side in the civil war. Muqtada's political bloc in parliament, after all, is voting with the Shi'a-dominated government.

Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment blog on
03/18/07:


Thousands of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrated on Friday against the new security plan, and one of his lieutenants read out a message calling for non-cooperation with the United States. This was not, as some reports suggest, a call to arms. Muqtada knows that his Mahdi Army cannot fight the US military in a conventional, head-on way. He has only called for such almost suicidal missions when he felt that his own life and the survival of his movement were put in danger by US officials determined to kill him, as in April-May, 2004. Muqtada has ordered his militiamen not to violently confront the US, as WaPo pointed out. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports in Arabic that Muqtada said in his statement that the people of Sadr City (Shiite East Baghdad) should decline to cooperate with the US because its forces "are trying to besmirch its reputation by upholding false allegations and rumors that there are negotiations and cooperation between you and them." He added, "I am sure that you consider them your enemies ... for the enemy of God is inevitably your enemy." It sounds to me as though Muqtada is embarrassed about the degree of cooperation recently between his movement and the US, and he wants at least publicly to distance himself from the US and the security plan, without having to do more than issue a communique. (my emphasis)
I don't know if the Stars and Stripes report was referring to these stories from around two weeks ago, or if there was new information in terms of Muqtada's "recent statements renouncing his call for peace at the start of the security plan", to which Morin refers.

Morin's article contains some hopeful talk about improving security in the Shi'a parts of town and more cooperation with the Americans. We've heard this kind of talk for over four years now.

 

The Afghanistan War and NATO's present and future

This paper from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) looks at the options for the future of NATO alliance: Recasting the Euro-Atlantic Partnership by Franklin D. Kramer and Simon Serfaty 02/01/07.

The ongoing Afghanistan War gets such poor coverage in the American press. But that war is a NATO operation, in which our NATO allies Germany, France and Spain are actively participating in line with their commitment after the 9/11 attacks to support the US war there to go after Al Qaida and the Taliban regime that was allied with and protected it.

But the Afghanistan War is getting more criticism in Europe and it drags on with little progress, and even a deteriorating military situation with the increased activity of the Taliban, although some of what gets called "Taliban" in the press could turn out to be local warlords or tribal groups, or other Islamic fundamentalists not specifically affiliated with the actual Taliban. Kramer and Serfaty write that among NATO countries, "there is a general consensus that progress in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan is far from satisfactory."

And they elaborate in a passage that is a real reminder that even "humanitarian" military interventions of the 1990s need to be re-examined realistically in light of subsequent developments:
Other interventions do not suggest that Afghanistan is an aberration. Based on the existing record, the Euro-Atlantic countries can hardly guarantee that their involvement in future interventions will necessarily resolve any given situation. Bosnia is still far from an effectively functioning state; East Timor has had significant problems; Haiti remains a miasma. Somalia and Iraq are worse. Kosovo is yet to be resolved. Each of these interventions has had significant international involvement, substantial resources, and long-term commitments. But none has had clear success.

To be sure, there are examples of positive results - the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo put an end to significant killings, and, despite the difficulties since then, those instances had great benefit for that reason alone. But Bosnia and Kosovo show the difficulty of moving from humanitarian efforts -"halt the killing" - to the broader requirements of creating a functioning polity; and other cases, such as Somalia and Iraq, show that interventions do not even always result in the end of killing (though, of course, non-intervention can result in a great deal more, as in Rwanda and now Darfur). (my emphasis)
Kramer and Serfaty in this article essentially take it for granted that the NATO alliance will continue on a long-term basis. They describe a number of major areas on which the US and Europe need to cooperate: "failing" states; "radical militant Islam"; weapons of mass destruction; energy cooperation; and, global structural competition. And they talk about how Europe's view of the world tends to differ from America's:

Europe, of course, faces these issues as well, arguably even more acutely than the United States. For most European countries, the impact of radical militant Islam is not only an external issue but also one of domestic concern. Unlike the United States, it is Europe that is within the range of Iranian missiles. When Russia puts its thumb on the gas pipeline, it is Europe whose energy is affected. And while the global markets have the potential to hurt the United States, Europe has already been enduring relatively high unemployment and lower growth rates for some time. In all these manifestations, Europeans face much the same issues as Americans do. Reflective of this fact, the European Security Strategy put forth by the Union and the U.S. National Security Strategy are remarkably, but not surprisingly, parallel.

In responding to the issues, however, the European and American processes are often different. This stems from an additional critical question faced by Europe - namely, the institutional finality of the EU. The Union (and the broader issues surrounding it) continues to raise serious questions of identity for Europeans, reflected in numerous levels of torn sovereignty, parallel structures, and political steps that have moved forward (the euro) and back (constitutional treaty). The EU, originally an economic project with political consequence, is now far more — a legislative and judicial sovereign entity (though not always with sovereign power), a diplomatic actor (though with parallel and often superior actors in member states), and a military power (though with quite modest assertion so far). Thus, theUnion is both sovereign in itself and composed of sovereign member states, which have not given up their economic capacities, their diplomatic endeavors, or control over security and military policy. (my emphasis)
Their formulation that the EU was "originally an economic project with political consequence" is likely to reinforce a common American misunderstanding; the description is arguably outright wrong. Moving toward greater political union was always the primary long-term goal of the EU and its post-Second World War predecessors institutions. The EU itself is first of all a political union. Their description makes it sound like the EU's political, diplomatic and military roles came about almost by accident - which is pretty much the opposite of the actual case.

But, otherwise, they do a decent job of outlining some important differences between US and European positions. The observation, "Unlike the United States, it is Europe that is within the range of Iranian missiles," raises an obvious question: why does Dick Cheney seem to consider Iran's alleged (and likely) efforts to develop nuclear weapons as a far more urgent issue than the nations of Europe who are much more at risk in that eventuality?

I would also note that the most controversial aspect of the current Cheney-Bush US official national security strategy, the use of preventive war (though it's euphemistically called preemptive war in official documents, presumably for legal reasons) is definitely not part of the EU member nations policy - even though Britain and some other EU members participated in the preventive-war invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Garance Franke-Ruta vs. Ann Althouse

I watched this YouTube video of TAPPED blogger Garance Franke-Ruta and Ann Althouse, who claims to be kind of liberal but sounds more like a committed twit here:

Ann Althouse and the Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy 

The "Jessica Valenti" controversy had to do with some catty crack Althouse made about a woman who was photographed in a large group of bloggers meeting with Bill Clinton. Althouse criticized her appearance like some small-town scold because she thought what she was wearing made it too apparent that she has breasts. And she wasn't talking about some low-cut. As far as I could see, Jessica in that photo was dressed "professional casual" and, well, women have breasts. Althouse's criticism seemed hopelessly dumb to me.

I link the YouTube video because it's a good example of the kind of aggressive defensiveness - or maybe just plain bullying behavior is a better word for it - that so many rightwingers use to try to intimidate their critics. I've seen this clip described as Althouse "losing it", but I don't think that's quite what happened. She was whining about how those nasty liberals say bad things about her and asked Garance to account for those bad liberals' misbehavior.

Garance was trying to be polite and professional, it seemed, which is hard to do when your discussion partner suddenly goes OxyContin on you. Garance said, presumably honestly, that she didn't really know what Althouse meant, although she had heard something about the "Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy". That's when Althouse goes into OxyContin mode and rags on Garance for supposedly smearing her and committing character assassination. Garance tries for several minutes to get her off the subject but Althouse rants on and on.

She was a lot more polite than I would have been in that situation. That's not a criticism. Because Garance comes off looking and sounding like she was there to discuss more substantive issues and trying to stick to the topics that presumably the original viewers were there to hear about. I probably would have come across as considerably less sympathetic, because I would have tried to cut her off at the first accusation of "character assassination" and insisted that Althouse change the subject or end the discussion.

But it looks clear to me that Althouse set up the rant by whining to Garance about those meanie liberals being unkind to her and asking her to explain it. And since the "Jessica Valenti" controversy was the most recent one I'd heard about - in my case, the only time that Ann Althouse's name had stuck in my mind about anything - it wasn't surprising that it would come up if Garance tried to respond at all to her whiny question. And then she jumped on the chance to pose as the righteously outraged lady being picked on by nasty liberals.

The woman's obviously a cheap bully. She may have some kind of career in rightwing punditry.

Garance Franke-Ruta has a further comment on
The Bloggingheads Affair at her own blog, TheGarance 03/27/07 .

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A dark side of the "greatest generation"

From The secret war by David Wilson Guardian 03/27/07:

For the simple reality of both Marchant's film and Lilly's book is this: that young men - soldiers - who are given power over others, and have a structure surrounding them that closes ranks at the first sign of criticism, a structure which is, in turn, enclosed within a popular and political culture where members of the public want to invest in their father's or their brother's or their husband's decision to become a soldier and go to war with nobility and sacrifice are, in fact, the preconditions for abuse, torture and totalitarianism. As such, it is the duty of film-makers and historians and sociologists to expose that abuse - no matter how "noble" the individual soldier's sacrifice might seem.
Wilson is commenting on a book titled Taken by Force by Bob Lilly, first published in 2003 in France.
 

The Establishment press and the US Attorneys scandal

Speaking of Joe Conason, as I was in the previous post, he's advising the Democrats that they should Ignore the Pundits and Bark Louder Truthdig.com 03/29/07:

Someday the Democrats may learn an important lesson about the collective wisdom of the media in the nation’s capital: On important questions of policy and politics, the Washington press corps is almost always wrong. They are full of firm opinions about everything from clothing, haircuts and marital problems to political tactics, but the safest course is to ignore their advice.

At the moment, the most popular line among the certified pundits is that the congressional Democrats are too zealous in probing Bush administration corruption — and specifically the apparent politicization of the federal law-enforcement system by the White House and the Justice Department.
Of course, the US Attorneys' firing has turned out to be one of the most significant stories of the Cheney-Bush administration. It was the blogosphere, and Josh Marshall TalkingPointsMemo.com in particular, who pursued the story early own, while our cynical and dysfunctional "press corps" dismissed it as no big deal. Hey, if there are no Presidential blowjobs involved, why would they care?

Conason writes:

But then the Washington punditry has been reliably wrong about everything of consequence for many years, from Whitewater to weapons of mass destruction. For any sane politician, the "biggest risk" is listening to these people. ...

The Washington press corps is just as remote from American views and values as when it was howling for President Clinton’s head. By now, the Democrats should know that when these soothsayers warn against your present course, it is best to keep going straight ahead. And when they complain that you’re barking up the wrong tree, it is time to bark louder.
That our Establishment press: major, big-time dysfunctional.

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Sunrise, sunset

I consider Sidney Blumenthal's weekly column a must-read, along with Gene Lyons weekly column and Joe Conason's two per week. This week, Blumenthal advises Congress to Follow the e-mails Salon 03/29/07.

This sounds about right to me:

The rise and fall of the Bush presidency has had four phases: the befuddled period of steady political decline during the president's first nine months; the high tide of hubris from Sept. 11, 2001, through the 2004 election; the self-destructive overreaching to consolidate a one-party state from 2005 to 2006, culminating in the repudiation of the Republican Congress; and, now, the terminal stage, the great unraveling, as the Democratic Congress works to uncover the abuses of the previous six years. (my emphasis)
Yes, even though there are as yet no blowjobs in play, the wheels are coming off the Cheney-Bush administration. Oh, and the e-mail via the Republican National Committe ploy is yet another little problemita for Dear Leader's regime:

When I worked in the Clinton White House, people brought in their personal computers if they were engaged in any campaign work, but all official transactions had to be done within the White House system as stipulated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. ... Having forsaken the use of Executive Office of the President e-mail, executive privilege has been sacrificed. Moreover, Rove's and the others' practice may not be legal.
Blumenthal also makes an accurate and important observation about the way in which this administration (and to a large extent the whole Republican Party) has come to regard the Party as the highest authority: "He [Bush] treats the Democratic Congress as basically illegitimate." And to today's Republican Party, it is illegitimate. Because the Republican Party is now their highest reference point for legitimacy. Not the Constitution, not the law, but the Party.

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US Attorneys and integrity

Gene Lyons offers a reality-based view of the importance of integrity in the justice system in Where loyalty is a one-way street Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 03/28/07:

For Republicans, here’s the clearest lesson from the U. S. attorney purge: To the Bush administration, loyalty is a one-way street. All successful politicians shed embarrassing associates, but with George W. Bush it’s not necessary to be a liability to get trashed. Being inconvenient to one of Karl Rove’s power plays will suffice. Rove’s machinations are wrecking the GOP. Fully 68 percent in a USA Today / Gallup poll think White House officials should testify to Congress under oath; the 24 percent who don’t represent Bush dead-enders. Rigging the Patriot Act to evade the Senate’s advice and consent in choosing federal prosecutors was sure to backfire. Senators of both parties are jealous of their prerogatives. Not coming clean was bone stupid. When the attorney general’s aides start pleading the Fifth Amendment, things can only get worse. Treating U. S. attorneys like fry cooks at a fast-food joint was idiotic. Tell all the lawyer jokes you want. The ethical code that governs the legal profession guards fundamental American rights and freedoms. Here in Arkansas, two recent Republican U. S. attorneys have dealt with politically loaded situations demanding integrity and courage. Both did exactly the right thing under extreme pressure. Although I’ve voted against both men and may do so again, I have nothing but respect for their honor. (my emphasis)
It's a sad, sad commentary on the state of the American media landscape that a sensible, careful journalist and commentator like Gene Lyons appears in a small local Arkansas paper. While frivolous clowns like David Broder (aka, the Dean of All The Pundits) and David Brooks are considered very serious Big Pundits. Very, very sad. Gene Lyons puts more sensible commentary in one column than Dean Broder cranks out in an entire year - and that's probably giving the Dean too much credit.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Democrats and the Iraq War

Pretty much ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of American hostages in Teheran, the Democrats have felt themselves on the defensive over national security issues. The press script about how the public trusts the Republicans more on national security has often been at variance with the actual polling data. But our "press corps" knows not to let actual data get in the way of a beloved script.

The problem is that the Democrats in Congress have often acted as if the press script were the case. There are other factors at work, of course. Because, yes Virginia, there is a military-industrial complex, even though Serious People try to avoid the phrase. And the firms involved employ lots of lobbyists.

Also, for a variety of reasons, "increasing the military budget" has become political shorhand for "being tough on defense".

And to some people, escalating a war will always look "tougher" and therefore better than trying to negotiate a resonable peace. Let alone recognizing a defeat when we're experiencing one and adopting a policy to manage the consequences of that defeat.

Now, I realize that the political scene is not likely to alter so drastically as to make it politically acceptable to talk about American "defeat" in Iraq - except, of course, as a future possibility that the invincible United States must somehow avoid. But who knows? Maybe some Democrats will hit on the right way to talk about how Cheney and Bush lost the war. Because Lord knows the Republicans are trying desperately to hang the eventual recognition of that defeat around the necks of the Democrats.

I see a couple of problems for the Dems the next couple of years. Opposing the Iraq War. At this point, I suppose I should qualify this by saying opposing the Iraq War assuming it's not widened to Iran. If Cheney and Bush attack Iran, the one thing that the Dems won't have to worry about is the general public thinking Republican foreign policy is a catastrophic disaster. But I'll be optimistic in this post and assume the Iraq War stays in Iraq.

I've mentioned this before. But one thing the Dems really, really need to stop doing is validating the Republican talking point that using the appropriation power to place limits on the war in Iraq is something illegitimate or that fails to support "the troops in the field", or is interfering in "tactical" military decisions. The Constitution specifically requires Congress to exert regular budgetary control over the military and also empowers them to make regulations governing the armed forces.

This piece from the San Francisco Chronicle gives a good look at the issues, in part because it sloppily repeats some Republcian talking points:
Senate shapes its reply to Bush on Iraq: Resolution critical of war strategy divides both parties by Carolyn Lochhead 02/05/07. This, by the way, is one reason why I so often cite the title and author of news articles; Carolyn Lochhead is more likely than some other reporters to present prowar talking points without the qualifications they should have. This article is from early February, and the resolution in question was a non-binding one. We've fortunately already progressed to both the House and the Senate voting for a binding timetable for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, though Bush has threatened to veto it.

The compromise anti-escalation resolution that Republican Sen. John Warner introduced and most Senate Democrats were inclined to support at the time of Lochhead's article said among other things that the Congress "should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field." I'm didn't trash the Dems for supporting a resolution in this round of debate that would gain significant Republican support.

The problem is that in supporting it the Dems are also validated a prowar talking point that using the appropriation power against the war would "endanger United States military forces in the field". This already has come back to bite them to some extent, though attaching antiwar provisions to the emergency military appropriations bill does put Bush in the position of opposing "funding for the troops".

The Dems need to break out of this kind of framing, and hopefully the current Pelosi amendment is a step in that direction. The image this conveys is of Congress cutting off funds cold-turkey on a single day, laying off all the soldiers in Iraq and taking their weapons and vehicles, and leaving them to fend for themselves unarmed in trying to get home. The Dems should not be buying into this comic-book framing of things. If the Democrats succeed in placing a "rider" on an appropriations bill that would, say, require the orderly withdrawal of all US troops by a certain date, that would require an *orderly withdrawal by a certain date*, not abandoning the soldiers "in the field".

Every time the Dems defend their opposition to the war by arguing, "But we're not cutting off funds for troops in the field", they reinforce the Republican talking points that are being used against them. The Dems - and this seems especially so among Senate Dems - have spent so many years playing "me-too" with Republican framings of defense-related issues that they seem to be having a hard time breaking from it. If they can't break out of it now, it's hard to imagine circumstances in which they could.

Here's how Lochhead sloppily explains the Republicans' approach:

Defenders of the president's policy are laying the groundwork for a "who lost Iraq" blame game.

"I am not accusing members of the Senate of inviting carnage on the United States of America," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday, after asserting that the resolution would embolden al Qaeda terrorists.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the resolution would "ensure failure."

"We believe that if we send the message to our troops that we support them, but not their mission, and believe they'll fail, (we'll) ensure failure," McCain said.
Snow's sleazy comment, of course, is like Marc Anthony repeatedly declaring, "Brutus is an honorable man," in his famous speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caeser when actually he's verbally trying to rip Brutus to shreds. But Marc Anthony was on far better ground than Tony Snow. Snow's comment was just cheap and sleazy. And a news report like this should find a way to point that out.

Maverick McCain's argument just quoted is pretty much as sleazy. He's saying directly that if the Senate passes an anti-escalation resolution that it will damage the morale of American soldiers in Iraq and cause them to lose battles. Lochhead is at least correct in saying this is a set-up for a future "who lost Iraq?" argument.

The Dems could make a public reality-check on such claims in a variety of ways. They could demand proof from people like McCain who are making this claim to produce evidence showing that debates in the US Senate are damaging morale of soldiers fighting in Iraq. I recall a brief moment last fall where this occurred. Rummy and Perfect Peter Pace were asked if they had encountered any morale problems among the soldiers in Iraq and both of them said they had not.

The bold Maverick McCain has actually created a rhetorical box for himself of this that the Dems should exploit. Serving officers are going to be very reticent to talk publicly about morale problems, even if they are serious, especially relating to units under their command. Likewise, neither Maverick McCain or any other war supporter is going to point to Unit X and say, "This unit is suffering severe morale problems that is damaging their fighting readiness". For one thing, the officers in charge would inevitably deny it. And it would make them sound like they were not criticizing "the troops" after aggressive posturing as having the interests of "the troops" always first in their priorities.

And any serious study or Congressional hearing about morale would find that morale in individual units are primarily determined by unit cohesion and the factors that immediately and directly affect it. An early end to the Iraq War would deprive some generals of their chance to rack up some combat command time that would be invaluable for their future careers. But are the grunts fighting insurgents in Al-Anbar province eager to stay there for years and years more? Please.

The whole idea reminds me of something John Steinbeck wrote in an introduction to a collection of his war reporting from the Second World War. He said that one of the favorite stock stories of the time were about the general back in headquarters who longed to be out there at the front with his boys. Steinbeck said, you know, some of the privates and corporals might not be the smartest guys one might encounter. But he said he never met one dumb enough to buy that story!

And, in particular, the Dems also need to blow a hole in the argument that passing troops ceilings or other kinds of restrictions constitutes "tactical" interference, an idea the war fans are pushing hard. From Lochhead, here's the great Maverick's version:

For McCain, the [anti-escalation] resolution entails "a degree of micromanagement which is absolutely Orwellian. That alone should cause us to reject this kind of foolishness."
Now, I'm not really sure what it means even to say that "a degree of micromanagement" is "Orwellian", absolutely or otherwise. Normally "Orwellian" is used to refer to a situation where something is labeled euphemistically as the opposite of what it is. So the Maverick's statement doesn't exactly make sense.

But the word "micromanagement" is presumably what he wanted to get across. Demanding a cap on the number of troops is a broad limitation placed at the "strategic" level. The "tactical" level of operations - the only conceivable meaningful way "micromanagement" could be used in this context - is more on the level of, "We'll approach the target neighborhood north along Street X, then two blocks before the target we'll turn left onto Street Y for one block, then turn back right onto Street Z." Congress is not going to try to regulate anything at that level in the war, nor are any members even discussing such a thing.

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Which side are you on? Do you even know?

I don't know who it was that first came up with the comment that is attributed to Robert Frost that liberals are so open-minded the refuse to take their own side in a debate. It may be like one of those fake Abraham Lincoln quotes, I don't know. Naturally, the rabid conservatives like to pretend that liberals take their own side so much they want to suppress all others. But that quote, bogus or not, sometimes comes to mind when I read things like this: Is there life after Bush? by Gary Kamiya Salon 02/20/07.

Kamiya does some good political analysis. But it's not evident in this piece. You can almost pick a paragraph at random and see how vapid it is. Writing about those vulgar bloggers, he says:

But having said that, it should also be said that the hate-Bush mind-set can spin out of control, leading to propagandistic thinking and a cynical ends-justify-the-means ethos. Faced with a triumphant administration and an army of right-wing media hacks, it's understandable that the left fought back with everything it had. But the obsession with victory can come at a dangerous price. Right now, the left - or at least some elements in the liberal blogosphere - have at times shown a disturbing tendency to close ranks and deny inconvenient truths. It should not still be necessary to point out that in battling a foe, you don't want to turn into him.
He rags on the "liberal" and/or "left" blogosphere - I envy the European publics who at least have some better common idea about who's liberal, conservative or left ("liberal" is not the same as "left" in most democracies in the rest of the world. But he doesn't give a single example of who these foaming-at-the-mouth lefties bloggers are. He gives a link of the phrase "deny inconvenient truths" to an article by Salon editor Joan Walsh, Fighting words 02/16/07. But Walsh's piece is more specifically about the tension that can arise between partisanship and factual reporting, a perfectly legitimate issue, and she is generally respectful to the bloggers she mentions even in criticizing them.

But Kamiya's piece is ditsy. He talks about Bush-haters that certainly exist in the fantasies of David Brooks, who's been beating the drum about this alleged malady for years. Now, when you're using generalities like talking about the dangers of "propagandistic thinking and a cynical ends-justify-the-means ethos", who can really argue with the abstract point? But who is he actually talking about? He doesn't say.

But what he does do is echo the same nonsense that, the sad characters who dominate our national "press corps" promote. See, for instance, Think Progress' report,
Tony Snow and White House Reporters Slam The ‘Hateful,’ ‘Polarized’ Blogosphere 02/20/07.

Kamiya's piece seems to assume that after Bush and Cheney leave office, that things will revert to the 1970s or something, where you actually still had Republican "moderates" - real live ones, not the Maverick McCain and Chuck Hagel versions - and the bipartisanship so beloved by David Broder and all proper Big Pundits was actually feasible on major issues.

But the Republican Party isn't going to revert to some non-authoritarian form overnight. The Republicans, according to one count I've seen, have a higher percentage of their total Congressional seats coming from the Deep South than the Democrats ever had during the days of the "Solid South". And that Southern Republican base is essentially made up of conservative white people, heavily influenced by Christian Right appeals and policies.

They aren't going to suddenly decide to make nice in January of 2009. We saw how long their phony appeals for "bipartisanship" lasted after last November's elections. So Kamiya's apparent longing for a Broderian era of moderation and reduced partisanship starting in two years is unlikely to be fulfilled.

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Memory issues at the GSA

Of all the corruption stories out of the Cheney-Bush administration, this is the one so far that has resonated the most with me: GSA Chief Grilled on GOP Slide Show by Paul Kiel, TPM Muckraker 03/28/07.

The YouTube clip there shows Lurita Doan, head of the General Services Administration (GSA), trying to deny she remembers anything about a recent presentation in which she participated that was almost certainly a violation of the federal Hatch Act, which prevents federal agency resources from being used for explicitly partisan purposes.

After I watched it, I kept remembering incidents in my own experience with state and local government and with financial services instituions where something came up that might have been possible inappropriate and/or illegal instances of partisan politics intruding into regular agency or company business.

The instances I remember were much less blatant than the one seems to be in which she was involved. But I remember them years later. People who work for government agencies are very conscious of these things and understand that they can get in real trouble by overtly cooperating with unauthorized partisan activity as part of their professional work. I can imagine the Republican comma-dancers will try to say, oh, it's no big deal, and who could tell that might have been an infraction of a law anyway, and it happens all the time, and Bill Clinton did it too, and yadda, yadda.

But that one I don't buy at all. You might have a question about whether something was in a "gray area" or over the line. But unless you're suffering from Alzheimer's or some other degenerative nerve disease, you don't forget that it happened just a few weeks later.

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James Dobson: Christians ain't Christian (and that means they're going to Hail!)

From Dobson Offers Insight on 2008 Republican Hopefuls by Dan Gilgoff US News and World Report Online 03//28/07

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson appeared to throw cold water on a possible presidential bid by former Sen. Fred Thompson while praising former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also weighing a presidential run, in a phone interview Tuesday.

"Everyone knows he's conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for," Dobson said of Thompson. "[But] I don't think he's a Christian; at least that's my impression," Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party's conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination. (my emphasis)
When I first saw this story referenced at Josh Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo.com with that quote, "I don't think he's a Christian", I thought, "Is Dobson saying that Fred Thompson is Jewish?" And Dobson, currently the single most influential leader of the Christian Right, clearly meant what he said about Thompson not being a Christian as a negative thing.

But a Dobson spokesman explained that, no, he didn't mean that Thompson was from some "non-Christian" faith. Rather, Dobson just thinks that most Christians aren't Christians:

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson's characterization of the former Tennessee senator. "Thompson is indeed a Christian," he said. "He was baptized into the Church of Christ."

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson's claim. He said that, while Dobson didn't believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless "has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian - someone who talks openly about his faith."

"We use that word - Christian - to refer to people who are evangelical Christians," Schneeberger added. "Dr. Dobson wasn't expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to 'read the tea leaves' about such a possibility." (my emphasis)
In the United States, "evangelical" doesn't mean all Protestants, as it does in Europe. It refers specifically to those who believe in the "born again" variety of Christianity, which includes fundamentalists and Pentacostals but is not limited to them. It doesn't include Catholics.

Just to be clear: when Christian Right fans hear Dobson say of a national leader that he's not "a Christian", what most of them are hearing is, "he's practically a Jew". And, believe me, despite their alleged love for Israel - as long as Israel is fighting self-destructive wars, that is - being Jewish is not a good thing in their eyes.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A hip-cynical view of the ISG Iraq Report

Matt Taibbi wrote writes on politics for Rolling Stone does some good political reporting. But in this article from last December on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, he spends most of the space finding variations of phrase to say the same thing over and over again, and in the hip-cynical tone that Rolling Stone strives to affect: That Iraq Report? More of the Same Rolling Stone Online 12/06/06.

And the message is basically that the ISG report on the Iraq War was aimed at kicking the can down the road a couple of years. Here's one of the meatier variations on the theme:

With the military inundating the newspapers with leaks that basically pass the buck for the Iraq disaster to the diplomats and the politicians, the Bush administration still refusing to publicly face reality, and the politicians outside the administration hiding behind a Baker-Hamilton report that shelves any meaningful decisions until some undetermined date far into the future (while being careful to avoid "not-so-open" confrontations with the president), the Iraq catastrophe can now be safely perpetuated ad nauseum - and the only people who will suffer for it will be people who don't matter in Washington, i.e. the soldiers and the Iraqi people.

We may soon have to face this fact: With the midterm elections over, and George Bush already a lame duck, the Iraq war is no longer an urgent problem to anyone on the Hill who matters. The Democrats are in no hurry to end things because it will benefit them if Iraq is still a mess in '08; just as they did this fall, they'll bitch about the war without explicitly promising to end it at any particular time. George Bush has already run his last campaign and he's not about to voluntarily fuck up his legacy with a premature surrender or a humiliating concession to Syria or Iran. At least publicly, John McCain is going to head into '08 siding with those in the military who believe the problem is a lack of troops.

For the Iraq disaster to end, someone among these actors is going to have to make a difficult decision - admit defeat, invite a bloody civil war, lose face before a pair of rogue terror-supporting states - and it's obvious that none of them is ever going to do that, not until there's absolutely no choice.
It seems like I'm saying this a lot these days. But if the road into Iraq was paved with bad Second World War analogies, the road out will be paved part of the way with bad Vietnam War analogies.

Jim Baker would be proud of the "bipartisansship" Taibbi displays in this article. Although he's dumping on the report, we see in that quote that he's willing to make the Democrats equally irresponsible on the war as the Bush administration. And that particular kind of cynicism benefits the Republicans. Because people who like to display this kind of "been there, done that" cynicism are usually people who vote Republican. And, oddly enough, these worldly cynic wannabes can be amazingly credulous when it comes to a fantastic justification for a tax cut for the wealthy or a Wilsonianism-on-steroids pitch about bringing democracy to the Middle East via bombs, bullets and torture.

Ironically, Taibbi is more caught up in a fundamentally erroneous framework that at least some Democrats realize is a false assumption: the idea that how long the Iraq War continues is essentially exclusively an American decision.

And there's where the bad Vietnam War analogy comes in. The punditocracy and many politicians are processing the current situation as the beginning of "Vietnamization" in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson decided to begin peace talks and made his famous bombing halt.

Now, I actually enjoy thinking through historical comparisons. And it would be good, clean fun to go through the many ways that this is a bad analogy. But it's so off-base I'll settle here for saying that the enemy has a say in what happens. Our allied government in Iraq is weak, weak in the extreme actually. It's military and policie forces are little more than Shi'a partisan militias, Kurdish partisan militias (peshmerga) in the Kurdish provinces.

If the government collapses and/or the Shi'a militias turn against the Americans, the Saigon 1975 could well be the only half-plausible Vietnam War analogy left.

Assuming that the administration's early signals are implemented, there will be no regional diplomacic drive involving Iran and Syria and a real attempt to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the short run, there will be a tilt to the Shi'a parties SCIRI and Da'wa and an attempt to isolate and defeat Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, although Muqtada and his forces have so far avoided such clashes, for the most part. The idea of negotiating with the Sunni rebels will be off the table. The civil war and ethnic cleansing will continue and intesify.

If that's the direction things go, the question will not be whether Democrats or Republicans in America have more influence over policy, or whether the American civilian government is following the advice of the American military. It will be, how secure are the American supply lines and escape routes to and from Kuwait? Whether the end can be postponed for two more years would be an open question. But the enemy (enemies, really) will have a big say in the answer.

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America, history's great Exception?

Several articles from recent months have looked at the need for a more realistic and less self-inflated foreign policy for the United States, including:

Twilight of the Republic? Seeds of Decline, Path to Renewal by Andrew Bacevich Commonweal 12/01/06 issue

Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America by William Pfaff New York Review of Books 01/18/07 (02/15/07 issue)

Bacevich writes:

In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared the promulgation of freedom to be "the mission that created our nation." Fulfilling what he described as America’s "great liberating tradition" now requires that the United States devote itself to "ending tyranny in our world."

Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a "liberating tradition" is like saying that Hollywood has a "tradition of artistic excellence." The movie business is just that-a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while the studios produce a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration; but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise. ...

Crediting America with a "great liberating tradition" sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding. (my emphasis)
Pfaff writes:

The noninterventionist alternative to the policies followed in the United States since the 1950s is to minimize interference in other societies and accept the existence of an international system of plural and legitimate powers and interests. One would think the idea that nations are responsible for themselves, and that American military interference in their affairs is more likely to turn small problems into big ones than to solvethem, would appeal to an American public that believes in individual responsibility and the autonomy of markets, considers itself hostile to political ideology (largely unaware of its own), and professes to be governed by constitutional order, pragmatism, and compromise.

A noninterventionist policy would shun ideology and emphasize pragmatic and empirical judgment of the interests and needs of this nation and of others, with reliance on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, giving particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems between nations are recurrent or have important recurrent elements in them. The current crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, and Iran are all colonial or postcolonial in nature, which is generally ignored in American political and press discussion.

Such a noninterventionist policy would rely primarily on trade and the market, rather than territorial control or military intimidation, to provide the resources and energy the United States needs. Political and diplomatic action would be the primary and essential instruments of international relations and persuasion; military action the last and worst one, evidence of political failure. Military deployments abroad would be reexamined with particular attention to whether they might actually be impediments to solutions of the conflicts of clients, or reinforce intransigence in the complex dynamics of relations among nations such as the two Koreas, China, Taiwan, and Japan, where lasting solutions can only be found in political settlements between principals.
Finally, here's a comment about how whatever "exceptionalism" the US may have benefitted from, it hasn't been enough to save us from one of the perennial hazards of faulty leadership. From What is Bush and Cheney's Game vis-à-vis Iran? by Jeffrey Kimball History News Network 01/29/07:

How the mind of an individual occupying the office of the presidency works is, to say the least, noteworthy, because of the enormous power he (or she) can wield. How this mind works is even more significant when the president’s personality is highly unusual. George W. Bush's personality - as well as that of his vice-president—falls into this category. Bush and Cheney's slant on the nature of the world and foreign and military affairs issufficiently idiosyncratic to make a difference in the calculus of foreign policy, adding an unpredictable, chaotic element to the standard formulas for war and diplomacy. The United States is not so exceptional that it has been immunized from the tragedies brought on by seriously flawed leaders throughout history who willfully, incompetently, or irrationally engaged in reckless threat-making. (my emphasis)
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Iran War: Israel's position

This is an article from four months ago on Israel's position toward Iran: Olmert's drums of war by Aluf Benn Ha'aretz 11/17/06. Benn reported:

Therein lies Olmert's problem: After he made his bold statements, Netanyahu's warnings that Israel is faced with a situation similar to that faced by European Jewry when threatened by Hitler in 1938, and Shimon Peres' description of Ahmadinejad as "a Farsi-speaking Hitler," the moment of truth for Israel's political leadership is nearing.

The public will justifiably want to know what has been done to prevent the threat to its existence posed by Iran, and to stop the possible mass exodus of Jews from Israel, as described by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. Domestic pressure calling for military action will intensify.

However, experts on strategy have voiced doubts regarding Israel's ability to carry out an effective aerial attack on Iran's nuclear installations, similar to the raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. The experts say there are three prerequisites for such an operation:

* Accurate and updated intelligence on the locations of the targets, some of which are hidden underground and are well defended

* The right kinds of munitions capable of destroying their targets with a high chance of success

* Diplomatic coordination with the Americans. The U.S. forces in the region could become targets of Iranian retaliation, just like Israel, and therefore there is no way that an independent Israeli action can take place without authorization from Bush. Did Olmert get such a go-ahead and is this why he was pleased with his visit to the White House?
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Globalization issues

Stanley Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has some thought-provoking comments on The U.S. Midterm Elections and Globalization 11/15/06. He writes:

There are losers in this process, such as the workers who are dismissed from their jobs in the United States, and there are winners, such as those who get good-paying jobs in export industries. The workers in countries who get the jobs also benefit. Creating winners and losers from economic change is nothing new; technology changes create winners and losers, and the “progress” inherent in this comes from creating more winners than losers and generating higher productivity-permitting wage increases for the winners. This was true when the cotton harvester replaced manual harvesting, when automobiles took over from horse-and-buggy transportation, and when personal computers became ubiquitous.

The main shortcoming of this process is that many countries, including the United States, do little to compensate the losers. Low-wage and low-skilled workers in the United States were the first to suffer from the combination of job loss and little to no compensation.
This is also a chronic problem whose eventual solution is uncertain:

The United States has accepted the role of debtor to the world—as the ultimate destination of goods and services that has led to the large U.S. deficits on the current account. Many countries, predominantly in Asia, seek to have trade surpluses by keeping their exchange rates undervalued, certainly with respect to the U.S. dollar. The United States has bilateral trade deficits with many countries, but the two largest deficits in 2005 were with China ($201 billion) and Japan ($82 billion).

A trading system under which different countries play by different rules on such a crucial issue as exchange-rate practices does not merit the word “system.” There must be a limit to how much longer the United States can maintain such high trade and current account deficits and how much more foreign debt the United States can tolerate. There could be a soft landing, under which gradual realignment of exchange rates could lead to a large reduction of the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit, but there is no evidence that this is happening. It is unlikely that any one country, China for example, will allow a major appreciation of its exchange rate as long as other countries with perennially undervalued rates do not act simultaneously. What is needed, in my view, is a collective negotiation on exchange rates. Failing this, the United States may suffer a hard landing and this would affect welfare throughout the world.
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The smaller minorities in Iraq (UPDATED)

These two pieces focus attention on the effects of the Iraq War on some of Iraq's smaller minorities: 'Exodus' of Iraq's ancient minorities by Patrick Cockburn Independent 02/26/07;
Assimilation, Exodus, Eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003 by Preti Taneja (Minority Rights Group International) Feb 2007.

Cockburn, who has been one of the best Western reporters on the Iraq War, writes:

Iraq's minorities, some of the oldest communities in the world, are being driven from the country by a wave of violence against them because they are identified with the occupation and easy targets for kidnappers and death squads. A "huge exodus" is now taking place, according to a report by Minority Rights Group International.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 30 per cent of the 1.8 million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan, Syria and elsewhere come from the minorities.

The Christians, who have lived in Iraq for 2,000 years, survived the Muslim invasion in the 7th century and the Mongol onslaught in the 13th but are now being eradicated as their churches are bombed and members of their faith hunted down and killed along with other minority faiths.
Update 03/28/07: Juan Cole in an Informed Comment blog post of 03/23/07 raises a questions about some of the estimates of the number of Iraqi Christians referenced by the UN.  He's not challenged the fact of the exodus of Iraqi Christians, but pointing out that the percentages of Christians among the refugees and their proportion of the total Iraqi population could well be smaller than the UN estimates.
 
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Ancient Semitic snake repellent

I found this to be an interesting discovery: Deciphering of earliest Semitic text reveals talk of snakes and spells by Etgar Lefkovits Jerusalem Post 01/23/07. Lefkovits reports:

A 5,000-year-old Semitic text dealing with magical spells and snakes has been deciphered from an ancient Egyptian pyramid inscription, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced Monday.

The texts, which were first discovered a century ago in a 24th Century BCE Egyptian pyramid, are the earliest continuous Semitic texts ever to have been deciphered, said Semitic languages Prof. Richard Steiner of New York's Yeshiva University in a premiere presentation at the Hebrew University.

The passages, serpent spells written in hieroglyphic characters, are estimated to have been written between the 25th to the 30th centuries BCE. ...

Although written in Egyptian characters, the texts turned out to be composed in the Semitic language spoken by the Canaanites in the third millennium BCE, a very archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew.

The Canaanite priests of the ancient city of Byblos, in present-day Lebanon, provided these texts to the kings of Egypt.(my emphasis)
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Why Democratic officials need Democrats

The Democratic Party's current position requires the Democrats in the Senate and House to fight for the restoration of Constitutional government to maximize their own partisan itnerests as well as the people's interests.

Whether they will do so will be largely a function of what kind of signals they get from the Demcratic base. Because some of the ideas and practices that have caused the Dems to stagnate in many ways over the years are still on auto-pilot.

For instance, we had Presidential contender Joe Biden trapsing down to South Carolina to try to impress a bunch of Republican white guys by criticizing his own party and also by assuring them he appreciates
the traditional values of the Old Confederacy. He later backed off from those comments.

Yes, I'm sad to say that's the Joe Biden who is now the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The one we realy on to be conducting extensive hearings and asking tough questions and seriously demanding the White House honor subpeonas and so forth.

Instead, he goes down to South Carolina to tell a bunch of Republicans who won't vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate in a thousand years and tells them, "America needs, and I need, for the Republican Party to get back up. There’s not a single problem out there that cannot be solved without a bipartisan coalition.”

He needs the Republican Party to "get back up"? Since now they only control the Executive Branch, which claims its not obliged to follow the law or the Constitution, and also the federal judiciary? No, what we really need is for Democratic leaders to just shut up with stuff like this and concentrate on their Congressional oversight jobs.

These two articles from the San Francisco Chronicle 12/04/06,
Diplomacy seen as essential, but difficult by Matthew Stannard and Bush digs in at pivotal point in Iraq war by Carolyn Lochhead, give a good look of three of the Democratic Party's problems in dealing with the Iraq War over the next two years: political inertia, the authoritarian Republican Party's commitment to the war and a dysfunctional American press corps.

Political inertia

Lochhead quotes Charles Kupchan from the Clinton administration's National Security Council staff, offering a pre-emptive excuse for the Democrats to duck confronting the Iraq War issue:

The bottom line is that the president still holds the cards. Even though the Democrats won the midterms, they're not yet in control of Congress, they're not yet in control of the committees, and even though I expect the discussion next week to be very testy, Democrats can do little more than scream and shout and jump up and down.
This has become much too typical of a lazy Democratic attitude that still has far too much influence. The Dems are taking control of both Houses of Congress after an election in which they Iraq War was the single most important issue. A large majority of the public wants an early exit from Iraq. The Cheney-Bush administration is vulnerable to the revelations from Congressional investigations on so many fronts it's hard to count them.

And it's Bush that "holds the cards"? Say what?

I have a little more sympathy with serving elected officials, whose normal tendency is to step carefully around issues as controversial and volatile as the Iraq War. There's a terrible tendency to try to kick the can down the road in hopes that you can win points from one side while minimizing controversy from the other. For instance, California's staunchly Democratic Congressman George Miller spelled out the cautious, kick-the-can approach for Lochhead:

"I think we have an obligation to have the hearings so we can ask the questions the Republicans refused to ask, the hearings they wouldn't have, and I think we can do it in a very expeditious fashion," Miller said. "Then we'll have to come to a conclusion, given the evidence that's been presented to date."

Miller said he wants a U.S. troop withdrawal to start in six months.

"Clearly there are people in our caucus who would be shorter or longer," he said. "But hopefully the hearings and the actions in both the House and the Senate will be helpful."

Miller ruled out cutting off funding for the war.

"I don't think you're at that point yet," he said. "I certainly don't think you're at that point before you have an opportunity for the Democrats who are most deeply involved in terms of their committee jurisdiction having a chance to take a look at it under their stewardship."
Not necessarily a bad position the month prior to taking over the Congressional leadership. But after the Democratic-led Congressional Committees have had their "chance to take a look at it under their stewardship", how hard they press for answers and results will depend to a very large degree on pressure from the base.

Because even though I'm willing to give George Miller the benefit of the doubt here in December based on his solid previous record, I really don't see why the Democrats need to tiptoe around the issue of de-funding the war. What, are they afraid the Republicans might now criticize them if they suggest imposing deadlines? The Republican campaign this year was already calling them defeatists, "Defeatocrats" and allies of The Terrorists. Is he worried the Reps might really insult them now?

And this "begin withdrawal in six, four, twelve months" business is nonsense. The Iraq War has long since been doing the United States more harm than good. And the amount of control that the US can exercise of the outcome may not be negligible. But it's not that great either. If anything, the US would have more influence on Iraqi developments after withdrawing than with 140,000+ American troops on the ground there.

We need to start withdrawing now and plan to get all the combat troops preferably within six months. We also need to be aware that the situation is deteriorating so fast that we may not have the option to select the time length of the US withdrawal.

Republican support for Bush's War and the dysfunctional press corps

These are separate but closely related phenemena. The partisan Republican outlets - OxyContin radio, FOX News, the many Republican advocacy groups - spew out new defenses for the war and attacks on war critics nonstop. The Establishment press not only picks up on many of those. They also are operating on so many war-friendly and Republican-friendly scripts that they reinforce the Republican spin on events even without copying the partisan press.

Lochhead gives the Republican-friendly (and lazy-Democratic-friendly) view about the nomination of Robert Gates for Secreatary of Defence:

This week, they'll grill Gates on his plans, hopeful that unlike Rumsfeld, he is not wedded to past mistakes. A CIA director under former President George H.W. Bush, Gates is viewed as a member of the realist Republican school rather than the neoconservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq. He has called for engagement with Syria and Iran, an approach the Iraq Study Group is also expected to recommend even though the Bush administration long has spurned those nations.

Democrats hope Gates will tip the White House balance of power, allying with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice against Vice President Dick Cheney, who was allied with Rumsfeld.
The guy was also known as someone who is willing to bend intelligence findings for pure propaganda purposes and engaged in at best questionable conduct in the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s. Democrats, in this spin, are supposed to assume the compliant role of asking a few questions, approving Gates and then putting confidence in the new Republican DefSec as a political and policy ally within the administration.

Meanwhile, who is going to confront the problems of the Iraq War? Why, those responsible moderate Republicans, of course! Lochhead writes:

Ironically, the greatest pressure is expected from Republicans, who just lost control of the House and Senate and, unlike Bush, face another election in 2008.

Republicans have begun cutting their ties to Bush. Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel warned the president last week to seize the opportunity offered by the Iraq Study Group, led by Republican former Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Hagel wrote the war is "not an American divine mission," and called any refusal by Bush to use the Baker commission to build a bipartisan exit strategy a blunder.
Hagel voted for the Cheney-Bush torture policy. That's about all you need to know about his willingness to challenge the administration on issues related to the "global war on terror" (GWOT). Wow, Hagel suggests that Bush seize the opportunity to come with some kind of vague bipartisan exit strategy under which maybe someday probably most of the combat troops would still be there. And, golly, he said the Iraq War is "not an American divine mission"! What a bold statement of independence and courage! Where would we be without those "moderate" Republicans?

This is not to pick on Carolyn Lochhead's reporting in particular. These brain-dead scripts in which the "moderate" Republicans bravely do something bold and responsible about the Iraq War are part of the script on which our dysfunctional press corps operates. But, still, the Republicans in Congress have hardly been showing bold leadership on the Iraq War in the weeks since she wrote that.

Lochhead's version of Democratic timidity is slightly more reality-based, i.e., not complete fantasy, for the reasons I mentioned above. But her report ignores not only the Democrats' political mandate to challenge the administration's Iraq War failures. It also doesn't look at the political dynamics of the situation where all but the most hopeless Democrats (like Joe Lieberman, and I'm really beginning to wonder about Biden) are likely to feel a lot of pressure to aggressively challenge a continuing war in Iraq.

The Stannard article assesses US diplomatic options by quoting five experts: James Dobbins of the conservative-leaning Rand Institute; Charles Hill of the conservative Hoover Institution and "diplomat in residence" (?) at Yale; Abbas Milani, a Stanford professor and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution; Marina Ottaway of the nonpartisan Carnegie Institute for International Peace; and, tenacious war supporter Anthony Cordesman of the conservative-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The last two are good authorities on the Iraq War. I quote Anthony Cordesman normally once per week or so. He's one of the few war supporters I could name who didn't get carried away by fantasies of a short easy war and the magical flourishing of democracy in Iraq. He's managed to keep his reputation for integrity intact, which is more than one can say for the neocons who were so in favor of this war.

But Stannard doesn't get around to quoting Cordesman until the very end. The first authority he quotes is Dobbins from a Foreign Affairs article:

"The United States did not invade Afghanistan in order to remake that country as a model for Central Asia, nor did Washington announce an intention to subsequently promote the democratization of all of the states neighboring Afghanistan. Had the United States committed itself to such a program, it would never have secured the support of Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan for the war," Dobbins wrote. "The United States, however, did invade Iraq with the intention of making that state a model for the Middle East, promising that success in Iraq would be followed by efforts to transform the political systems of Iraq's neighbors. This was not a vision any of those regimes was likely to embrace. Nor have they."
While it's true that some of the neocon true believers expected this democracy effect and the idea played an important role in the administration's push for war, Stannard might have informed his readers that there were two war goals approved by Congress in October 2002: dealing with the Saddam regime's (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction and ending the regime's (nonexistent) operational ties to Al Qaida. What Dobbins says about this aspect of the Cheney-Bush policy affecting the perceptions of surrounding countries is probably correct. But presented without the proper context it is misleading.

Next cited is the Hoover Institution's Charles Hill peddling straight Republican partisan propaganda:

"Until about a year ago, there were really very important achievements, although in some cases minor first steps, such as actually getting an election ... in Saudi Arabia, or getting Egypt to talk about things that would be more open and democratic that they hadn't talked about before. Getting (Libyan leader Moammar) Khadafy to give up his weapons of mass destruction is one of those." ...

"The most signal achievement was (U.N. Security Council) Resolution 1559, on Lebanon, which said the Syrian army had to get out of Lebanon," he said. "That opened the way for beginning to get Lebanon on the road to regaining its legitimacy internationally."
The timid democratic openings in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were largely cosmetic and mainly showed the popularity of Islamist candidates. The Libyan agreement over their WMD program was negotiated before the Iraq invasion, though the administration didn't formally conclude it until later exactly so they could make such a claim.

I'm actually very hopeful about the next two years. But the Democrats definitely face some problems, especially in challenging Bush war policies. Political inertia. Republican support for the war. Dysfunctional reporting.

Then there's Joe Biden pandering to white Republican Southerners who have fond memories of the Confederacy, Good Lord!

It's like Rummy said about the Army. You fight for the Constitution with the Democratic Party you have, not with the Democratic Party you want or that you might like to have.

It does make me a bit jealous of multi-party parliamentary democracies, though.