Sunday, July 31, 2005

What's Really Happening in Iraq?
Most of the discussions or arguments I've gotten into on the question of Iraq fall into one of two categories: the wisdom of intervening there in the first place, or the success of American counterinsurgency/reconstruction efforts thus far, including how we're doing on the crucial subject of "winning Iraqi hearts and minds." But even accounting for the probably inevitable ethnocentrism of focusing on these things, I'm starting to think we're all really missing the point: what are the long-term prospects for a stable, unified, peaceful and pluralistic Iraq?

The answer, according to this devastating New York Review of Books piece: Not good. The two most likely options might be all-out civil war, or an Iranian puppet state.

Peter Galbraith's article starts off by essentially dismissing the Sunni-led insurgency, the problem Americans most commonly worry about. His conclusion is that just by demographics, the insurgents can't win--there simply aren't enough of them. But neither can they be defeated militarily: facing a somewhat similar resistance from Iraq's Shi'ites, Saddam Hussein couldn't crush them despite a much larger military and a willingness to resort to far more brutal tactics than those we are using.

The core problem (and this should hardly come as a revelation) might be that there's simply no Iraqi national identity. Imagine if we had insisted on Yugoslavia staying together after the fall of Tito. Iraq is Yugoslavia with oil and religious fanatics. They can't even sustain an army.

Building national security institutions is a challenge in a country that does not have a shared national identity. Saddam's army consisted of Sunni Arab officers (with a few exceptions) and Shiite and (until 1991) Kurdish conscripts. Today, the Iraqi military and security services are a mixture of Kurdish peshmerga, rehabilitated Sunni Arab officers from Saddam's army, and Shiite and Sunni Arab recruits. What is little known is that virtually all of the effective fighting units in the new Iraqi military are in fact former Kurdish peshmerga. These units owe no loyalty to Iraq, and, if recalled by the Kurdistan government, they will all go north to fight for Kurdistan.

The Shiites, naturally, want a Shiite military that will be loyal to the new Shiite-dominated government. They have encouraged the Shiite militias— and notably the Badr Brigade—to take over security in the Shiite south, and to integrate themselves into the national military. Neither the Shiites nor the Kurds want the Sunni Arabs to have a significant part in the new Iraqi military or security services. They suspect— with good reason in many cases—that the Sunni Arabs in the military are in fact cooperating with the insurgency. No Kurdish minister in the national government uses Iraqi forces for his personal security, nor will any of them inform the Iraqi authorities of their movements. Instead, they entrust their lives to specially trained peshmerga brought to Baghdad. Many Shiite ministers use the Shiite militias in the same way.

A few months after the Iraqi elections, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to warn the new Shiite-led government not to purge Sunni Arabs from the police and military. He got a promise, but the government has no intention of keeping on people associated with Saddam's regime. Too many of them have the blood of Shiites or Kurds on their hands, and neither group is in a forgiving mood.

National identity can't be willed into existence. Galbraith's article is replete with anecdotes of Kurds and Shi'ites casually dismissing American-written pledges of fealty to the larger nation-state in favor of more narrowly drawn loyalties.

Then there is the factor of Iranian influence, which has both a geostrategic and religious component. The two dominant Shi'ite political parties are Islamist and enjoy significant support from Iran. In return, they've formally apologized for Iraq's initiation of the 1980-88 war between the two countries and have proposed paying billions in reparations, as well as construction of an oil pipeline between Basra and an Iranian city. The defense ministers of the two nations have also signed an agreement for Iran to train the Iraqi military.

This is presumably driving the Bush administration crazy, but the explanation should be transparent to a bunch of Christians consumed with "sins of the father":

[S]hould the President want to understand why the Shiites have shown so little receptivity to his version of democracy, he need only go back to his father's presidency. On February 15, 1991, the first President Bush called on the Iraqi people and military to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Shiites made the mistake of believing he meant it. Three days after the first Gulf War ended, on March 2, 1991, a Shiite rebellion began in Basra and quickly spread to the southern reaches of Baghdad. Then Saddam counterattacked with great ferocity. Three hundred thousand Shiites ultimately died. Not only did the elder President Bush not help, his administration refused even to hear the pleas of the more and more desperate Shiites. While the elder Bush's behavior may have many explanations, no Shiite I know of sees it as anything other than a calculated plan to have them slaughtered. By contrast, Iran, which backed [the political parties] SCIRI and Dawa and equipped the Badr Brigade, has long been seen as a reliable friend.

Galbraith finishes his dismal assessment by considering the fraught process of writing an Iraqi constitution. Again, the sectarian and ethnic differences play a huge role: austere Shi'ites and tolerant Kurds are not likely to accept each other's worldviews, and the way Americans set the process in motion, each holds effective veto power. While recent news coverage in the U.S. has emphasized the efforts made to engage Sunni Iraqis in the process, the enormous differences between the two parties already at the table suggest that the August 15 deadline for coming up with a draft is highly unrealistic.

In the coming constitutional battle, Kurdistan leaders—and many secular Arab Iraqis—will be drawing the line on three principles: secularism, the rights of women, and federalism. They fear that President Bush will be more interested in meeting the August 15 deadline for a constitution than in its content, and that they will be under pressure to make concessions to the Shiite majority. It may be the ultimate irony that the United States, which, among other reasons, invaded Iraq to help bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, will play a decisive role in establishing its second Shiite Islamic state.

When we went into Iraq, I couldn't totally condemn the thinking: Saddam was a brutal tyrant, one whom America had helped take and hold power in the cynical belief that trading the lives and freedoms of countless Iraqis for stability and Cold War positioning was a smart move for the U.S. Removing him from power, and helping the Iraqis toward peace, self-rule, tolerance and prosperity, would help right the historical balance. My problems were, one, the hypocrisy of an approach that targeted Iraq but not so many other repressive former or current U.S. clients; and two, the sharp fear that the Bush administration would screw up the implementation of the policy as they had most everything else, failing to accomplish the mission while imposing terrible human and economic costs on both countries.

This fear has largely been realized, and the result is starting to look like a disaster of historical significance. Perhaps the best option now is to break up Iraq, allying with Kurdistan while hoping to neutralize Shi'ite Iraq and pacify the Sunni Triangle. Will that have been worth 2,000 dead Americans, who knows how many dead Iraqis, and a cost in the hundreds of billions?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Someone Else's Army
What I think must be unprecedented about the war in Iraq is how disconnected from it most Americans seem to be. While the problems--both political and military--of the conscript army the United States fielded through the Vietnam War are well known and not to be dismissed, I think that this current conflict, the first sustained military deployment since the shift, is bringing to light a whole new set of difficulties. These issues don't pertain to the performance of the armed forces so much as the relationship of the military to society.

So I was glad to see Stanford professor David Kennedy's op-ed in Monday's New York Times, just as an indication that somebody else is thinking about this:

...the United States today has a military force that is extraordinarily lean and lethal, even while it is increasingly separated from the civil society on whose behalf it fights. This is worrisome - for reasons that go well beyond unmet recruiting targets.

One troubling aspect is obvious. By some reckonings, the Pentagon's budget is greater than the military expenditures of all other nations combined. It buys an arsenal of precision weapons for highly trained troops who can lay down a coercive footprint in the world larger and more intimidating than anything history has known. Our leaders tell us that our armed forces seek only just goals, and at the end of the day will be understood as exerting a benign influence. Yet that perspective may not come so easily to those on the receiving end of that supposedly beneficent violence.

But the modern military's disjunction from American society is even more disturbing. Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."
...thanks to something that policymakers and academic experts grandly call the "revolution in military affairs," which has wedded the newest electronic and information technologies to the destructive purposes of the second-oldest profession, we now have an active-duty military establishment that is, proportionate to population, about 4 percent of the size of the force that won World War II. And today's military budget is about 4 percent of gross domestic product, as opposed to nearly 40 percent during World War II.

The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve.

I have a few friends with siblings in the military. None, to my knowledge, have yet been called to serve in Iraq. A few kids I grew up with did pursue careers in the armed forces; I guess one or more of them might have gone or are still there. But what I know about the war, I know from news and second- or third-hand accounts, and it usually all comes with an agenda.

I guess it's possible that the remove from which we perceive the war has contributed to the positive development on the left of opposing the policy but not those charged with carrying it out. No returnee from Iraq is likely to be ostracized or demonized as some Vietnam veterans were. But the isolation of the military community--the veterans and their families--from the larger body politic poses all manner of problems that nobody is yet grappling with. Kennedy nails arguably the biggest when he writes that a wholly professionalized military is "a standing invitation to the kind of military adventurism that the founders correctly feared was the greatest danger of standing armies."

Related to this notion is the fact that, without any generalized call for service or sacrifice, the American public now looks at decisions of war and peace as abstractions more similar to low-income housing or agriculture subsidy policy, directly important to a small chunk of the population but not immediately salient for the rest of us. The immorality of engaging in combat without risk--a different kind of "asymmetrical warfare," in which one civilian population, like Iraq's, risks death and disruption every day while the other grouses about high gas prices--is Kennedy's final point, as he rightly deplores a political state of affairs in which "civilian society's deep and durable consent to the resort to arms" is no longer needed:

[I]t cannot be wise for a democracy to let such an important function grow so far removed from popular participation and accountability. It makes some supremely important things too easy - like dealing out death and destruction to others, and seeking military solutions on the assumption they will be swifter and more cheaply bought than what could be accomplished by the more vexatious business of diplomacy.

The life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death. The "revolution in military affairs" has made obsolete the kind of huge army that fought World War II, but a universal duty to service - perhaps in the form of a lottery, or of compulsory national service with military duty as one option among several - would at least ensure that the civilian and military sectors do not become dangerously separate spheres. War is too important to be left either to the generals or the politicians. It must be the people's business.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Does This Mean What I Think It Means?
While everybody is breathlessly poring over what Matt Cooper has to say in this week's Time, I'm thinking that the other newsweekly has the real story of signicance hitting the newstands Monday--and not for what it says, but for what it is.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek is the very well-known, very mainstream journalist who wrote this piece. He's always been, to my memory, as "straight down the middle" as they come in that business. (A Google search revealed accusations of conservative bias, if anything; no less than Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online praised him to the Columbia Journalism Review.) He's not William Safire; he's not Bob Herbert. And he's certainly not "Jeff Gannon" or Sidney Blumenthal (who was a transparently, at times almost embarrassingly liberal while working as a journalist, and was known as such).

But the story he's written, at least to my reading, reads with barely concealed contempt and outrage at Karl Rove... and indeed at the whole m.o. of the Bush administration.

Some prominent administration officials scurried for cover. Traveling in Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had long harbored doubts, disowned the "sixteen words" about Niger that had ended up in Bush's prewar State of the Union speech. So did CIA Director George Tenet, who said they shouldn't have been in the text. But Cheney—who tended never to give an inch on any topic—held firm. And so, therefore, did Rove, who sometimes referred to the vice president as "Leadership." Rove took foreign-policy cues from the pro-war coterie that surrounded the vice president, and was personally and operationally close to Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby.
In the World According to Karl Rove, you take the offensive, and stay there. You create a narrative that glosses over complex, mitigating facts to divide the world into friends and enemies, light and darkness, good and bad, Bush versus Saddam. You are loyal to a fault to your friends, merciless to your enemies. You keep your candidate's public rhetoric sunny and uplifting, finding others to do the attacking. You study the details, and learn more about your foes than they know about themselves. You use the jujitsu of media flow to flip the energy of your enemies against them. The Boss never discusses political mechanics in public. But in fact everything is political—and everyone is fair game.
It's unlikely that any White House officials considered that they were doing anything illegal in going after Joe Wilson. [b]Indeed, the line between national security and politics had long since been all but erased by the Bush administration[/b]. In the months after 9/11, the Republican National Committee, a part of Rove's empire, had sent out a fund-raising letter that showed the president aboard Air Force One in the hours after the attack. Democrats howled, but that was the Bush Rove was selling in the re-election campaign: commander in chief. Now Wilson was getting in the way of that glorious story, essentially accusing the administration of having blundered or lied the country into war.

... Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was sent out to trash the Wilson op-ed. "Zero, nada, nothing new here," he said. Then, on a long Bush trip to Africa, Fleischer and Bartlett prompted clusters of reporters to look into the bureaucratic origins of the Wilson trip. How did the spin doctors know to cast that lure? One possible explanation: some aides may have read the State Department intel memo, which Powell had brought with him aboard Air Force One.

Meanwhile, in transatlantic secure phone calls, the message machinery focused on a crucial topic: who should carry the freight on the following Sunday's talk shows? The message: protect Cheney by explaining that he had had nothing to do with sending Wilson to Niger, and dismiss the yellowcake issue. Powell was ruled out. He wasn't a team player, as he had proved by his dismissive comments about the "sixteen words."Donald Rumsfeld was pressed into duty, as was Condi Rice, the ultimate good soldier. She was on the Africa trip with the president, though, and wouldn't be getting back until Saturday night. To allow her to prepare on the long flight home to D.C., White House officials assembled a briefing book, which they faxed to the Bush entourage in Africa. The book was primarily prepared by her National Security Council staff. It contained classified information—perhaps including all or part of the memo from State. The entire binder was labeled TOP SECRET.

All emphases mine.

The whole thing is remarkable. He's exposing things the White House badly wants kept quiet--most notably, the culture John DiIulio talked about when he told Ron Susskind:

What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis. [They] consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."

This was by the White House Director for Faith-based Initiatives, mind you, not some left-winger blogger or Democratic operative. (He later recanted; the theory is that Rove left a figurative--or not--horse's head in his bed. Susskind's next Bush administration collaborator, ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, told much the same story in his memoir.)

Remember--I'm not talking about me here. I'm not even saying that everything Fineman writes here is true. (How would I know?) I'm saying that the fact Fineman would write such a piece suggests to me one of two things:

1) His own personal outrage at Rove, or anger at the treatment of his journalistic colleagues, has led him to a potentially career-ending mistake. If Rove survives--hell, maybe just if Bush survives (which I'm sure he will)--Fineman will never get a phone call to a Republican returned for the rest of his career. That he did this under the Newsweek aegis, no less, makes it quite possible that the magazine will force him out to ease potential White House retaliation.

2) Fineman is fairly sure that what looks like spleen on his part today will in fact be conventional wisdom tomorrow--and he wants to be the Woodward of this story, the prescient and dogged scribbler who told the world the truth.

Another piece of speculation: given the detail of what he's been told--the briefing book for Rice, the conclusion that the pushback against Wilson came from Cheney--he pretty much has to have a very inside source. The discussion of who would go on the talk shows is not something they did in front of the press corps.

Either way, this is a turning point.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Party over Country
I haven't written here yet about the Plame/Rove imbroglio, except indirectly through the entry about Judith Miller last week. Trust me, it's not for lack of thinking about it or reading about it. I've gone from wild hope to despair to a kind of numb passivity. At this point, I've been disappointed too many times by scandals that should have brought down the whole Bush house of cards, but haven't: Enron and Halliburton, fixed intelligence around the Iraq War, missing WMD, coercive tactics and administration lies around the Medicare prescription benefit, propaganda, bribed columnists and "Jeff Gannon"... it goes on and on.

The outing of Valerie Plame, coming as it did in response to the exposure of the Niger/yellowcake lie used to justify the Iraq War, always struck me as the worst one, the one that even Republicans couldn't really spin away. Obviously, I was wrong about this just as I've been wrong every time I thought the American people would finally say "No more." There are no universally accepted facts and explanations any longer; there's no shame on the part of the right wingers, and the harder they're pushed--Cheney, DeLay, Norquist and Rove, four of the five architects of the modern Republican Party (Dobson is #5; he's just a bigot), are now under ethical clouds of differing shades and sizes--the more viciously and desperately they'll fight back. Sadly, their followers put narrow party interests ahead of the national interest almost every time.

My favorite of all the attack lines tried out by the RNC and spokespeople this week was that this investigation is "a partisan issue." To them, it is; others might see things differently.

Following the September 11 attacks, Democratic leaders, and the large bulk of Democratic voters, stood staunchly behind a president most of them believed wasn't even legitimate. When Bush made his speech to the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, the Democratic leadership for the first time ever declined to use their airtime afterward. Al Gore, who had won a plurality of votes ten months earlier, went public to salute Bush as "my president." One lone Democratic House member, out of about 210, voted against authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan. Every Democratic Senator, if my memory holds, supported the use of force against the Taliban. The PATRIOT Act was also passed on near-unanimous votes, with only the principled, partially process-based dissent of Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). (Later, of course, significant numbers from both parties would sound a different tune about passing complex legislation hugely expanding government powers, that most hadn't even read.)

Even in the Iraq debate some 16 months later, I think most of the Democrats who supported the use of force ultimately were saying: We trust the President to provide for the national defense. Some felt differently, to be sure; they'd seen how triple amputee and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland had been slimed and smeared in his Georgia Senate race, and read with dismay statements like Andy Card's explicitly comparing the selling of the war to marketing efforts for new product rollout. But many--including right-wing bugaboos Kerry and Clinton--authorized force with the explicit rationale that they trusted the President to use it prudently.

Now imagine that Al Gore had been awarded the presidency, had ignored all the warning signs--including the memo dated 36 days before the attack, titled "bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."--and had suffered the catastrophe. Further suppose that he'd sat in that classroom, seemingly dazed, for long minutes after getting word, and that he'd flown around the country, delegating on the ground authority to Vice-President Lieberman, and projected a general attitude of uncertainty on the terrible day.

How long would it have taken for Tom DeLay to call for impeaching President Gore? Would Rush Limbaugh have said "We stand with our president," or would he have fulminated in rage against the Gore Administration's disgraceful dereliction of its sworn duty to protect the country? Would FOX News--and its star commentators Hannity and O'Reilly--have pledged support for the president, or joined DeLay in calling for his scalp?

What would Karl Rove have advised his Republican clients to do?

I don't consider myself a hyper-partisan. I really believe there are "good Republicans"--and I positively know there are "bad Democrats." No side has a monopoly on good intentions or even good ideas.

But it's clear to me that one party constantly puts the pursuit, retention and usage of power ahead of every other consideration, up to and including national security and the public interest. And it's not the one I'm registered with.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Sick Rick
It's no secret that Senator Rick Santorum, from my home state of Pennsylvania, habitually confounds "principle" with "idiocy." This time, having somehow decided that "Boston liberalism" is to blame for the Catholic church pedophilia scandal, it might cost him--but what really amazes me is the cultural and media context that allows him to make such a foul claim in the first place. A little background:

"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," Santorum wrote in a July 12, 2002 article for the Web site Catholic Online. "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

Since Santorum wrote those words, the scandal has spread from Boston to almost every diocese in the country, has forced three bishops to declare bankruptcy and has cost the church close to $1 billion. In a study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported last year that 4,392 priests had been accused since 1950 of abusing more than 10,600 children.

Asked by the Boston Globe this week whether he stood by his remark, Santorum said he did. "I was just saying that there's an attitude that is very open to sexual freedom that is more predominant" in Boston, the Globe quoted him as saying Tuesday.

Massachusetts Senators Kennedy and Kerry ripped into Santorum on the Senate floor yesterday, commending the patriotism of Massachusetts natives who have fought and died in Iraq and elsewhere. Santorum's spokesman responded with a disingenuous claim that the remarks were "taken out of context" and referred to the swingin', sexually liberated '60s and '70s which were somehow worse in Boston than elsewhere.

Bizarre, but probably not surprising. It's worth wondering, though, what the reaction among Santorum supporters would be if, say, Kerry or MA Rep. Barney Frank blamed the higher incidence of executions, violent crime, low educational standards, or gap between white and African-American incomes on the "political and cultural conservatism" of the southern states.

Santorum will be Democrats' number one target in 2006--okay, maybe he'll share that distinction with Tom DeLay--in a year shaping up to be dangerous for Republican incumbents. He's already trailing likely opponent Bob Casey Jr. by 50 to 39 percent in opinion polling, and obviously, every ignorant, mean-spirited statement out of his mouth is catching the notice of his opponents.

Santorum will get a lot of help from national Republicans, but he's also providing a lot of help to Casey's fundraising and opposition research efforts. It's almost enough to get me wondering if he wants to lose.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Miller's no Martyr
Today's New York Times features a double-length editorial praising its reporter Judith Miller for her decision to go to prison rather than reveal who from the White House leaked to her the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In a supreme irony, the paper all but beatifies Miller for "surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government."

Funny, because this whole story is about retaliation from government--for a Times op-ed written by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, exposing the lie of the Bush administration's tales of Nigerian yellowcake. And when the Bush team, looking to send a clear message to any other would-be Ellsbergs that speaking out against the administration would have dire personal consequences, among the first journalists they turned to was Judy Miller, who had so effectively carried water for the administration on the question of Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

It's likely that the special prosecutor in the Plame investigation, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, already knows everything that Miller could tell him. He's got phone records; he's got, or will soon have, all the information from Time magazine and its reporter Matt Cooper; and he also almost certainly has testimony from "douchebag for liberty" Robert Novak, whose silence and evident legal safety both suggests he sang like a canary.

I think that Daniel Ellsberg is one of the great Americans of modern times, and I feel that whether or not he merits the "hero" label, Mark Felt did this country a great service as well. The Times, in its effort to lionize Miller, compares her to both. But the principle in question, however noble and however worrisome its abuse might be, can't be considered in the absence of context. Ellsberg and Felt were involved in efforts to expose and curb government lies and abuses. Miller's refusal to talk serves to protect such abuses.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Religious Right, the Taliban, and the American Mainstream
I don't have much to say except: read this.

Our home-grown, faith-based crazies present the biggest threat to America, not only that we face today, but arguably that we've faced in our entire history aside from the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Civil War. And if you belive, as I do (and as I think most true conservatives do, for that matter), that character is more important than anything else, this threat probably tops the list. Foreign enemies could destroy the country; only twisted Americans can corrupt the national soul.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Long View
I don't think it's just that I've been sick all weekend, or that the Phils suffered one of the more painful losses I can remember against the Braves last night, or even that between the O'Connor retirement and the Plame/Rove Affair, it feels like some truly heavy shit is about to go down in this country--but whatever the reason, it seems to me like this Fourth of July has brought out a lot of introspection about where our country is, where it might be going, and where we should try to steer it.

The New York Times has a moving op-ed about how the meaning of freedom and liberty is arguably starting to get away from us, perhaps because of the relentless politicization those concepts have had to withstand over the years. Another Times piece, perhaps of greater importance, notes that last week's Supreme Court decisions on church/state questions offer two future roads for jurisprudence on these questions--and expresses fear, which I think unfortunately is justified, that the Court will take the more dangerous one.

The Carpetbagger offers a terrific and funny reminder that the Pledge of Allegience has always been something of a political football--and asks, "[if] we added "under God" at the height of the Cold War because our enemies were godless communists, should we take the phrase out now because our enemies are religious fanatics?"

And on the Daily Kos site, a poster opines that progressives should take a moment on this holiday to give quiet thanks that Bush won the 2004 presidential election.

It's not a trollish piece, and in fact it's an argument I've entertained off and on ever since I got my mind out of the depressed post-election sludge it wallowed in for the first week or so after the voting. Summed up, his argument is that Bush's misrule will end the threat of conservative Republican power for a generation, because they're "trashing the brand."

I'm still not sure whether or not I agree. On the one hand, the reign of Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Rove/Norquist/Dobson presents the total unchecked id of what the Republican Party has come to: ignorance, arrogance, self-righteousness, malice, dishonesty, greed, and prejudice. These are not only the personal characteristics of the principals, but of the government they inform and/or lead.

These aren't good traits on which to govern a great country, and the U.S. is already seeing some of the results: terror, interminable war, international disrepute, economic stagnation, cultural division, the codification of inequity. Other consequences--mostly in the realm of missed opportunities--won't be fully evident for awhile: how we've squandered most of the "human capital" advantage we've had since the end of WWII, just what it means to have lost the respect of the world, the gathering storm of simultaneous demographic (aging/retirement of the Baby Boomers) and economic transformation (switch to a knowledge economy). And there are no counterveiling positives, at least none everyone could agree upon (e.g., whether or not you hated Reagan and Bush I, the end of the Cold War was certainly a good thing).

So that's the "for" argument. Two things are unknowable at this point, though: 1) whether the benefits of this signal failure of Republican governance will outweigh the very real human damage done; and 2) if American voters remain sufficiently "reality-based" to understand that the dismal prospects they see are directly connected to the leadership they've chosen.

This last one is what really gives me pause. Last year I thought Bush couldn't possibly win because so much of this was already apparent. 9/11 shouldn't have been a political benefit for him: HE FUCKED IT UP, focusing on missile defense while his own CIA and anti-terror advisers screamed at him to focus on the threat they saw. And then he exploited the tragedy to push through a partisan agenda and a war started under false pretenses. The economy was, and is, a stagnant mess, with real wages declining while corporate profits skyrocket; Iraq was already clearly a problem, if not the running sore we now realize it to be.

And yet, we lost--because Bush, his advisors, and their media enablers somehow made the election not about his record in office, but about the character of his opponent, and the emotions the two candidates triggered.

I won't say that the country "deserves" Bush; Americans are too good a people for that. But unless you buy into the various "stolen election" scenarios that have circulated in some left circles (and I don't; even if Ohio itself was stolen, I just don't see how a three-million vote popular margin can be faked), "we the people" brought this shitstorm upon ourselves--and there's no guarantee that we're going to wise up in 2006, or 2008, or anytime.

I can certainly see the thinking that it's for the best that this bunch of criminals, liars and sociopaths so undeniably "owns" the mess they've made. But I'm not yet convinced, and I won't be until they're gone from power and we can start the work of digging out.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Supreme Beings
News of Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement from the Supreme Court is being received as significant on the level of the first shots at Lexington and Concord 230 years ago, and prefatory to a conflict of roughly equal ferocity and importance.

While I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop--my theory for awhile has been that two Supremes would hang up their robes at once, giving the White House great flexibility and Democrats great agita--and I'm certain that we'll be banging on this topic all summer and quite possibly beyond, one thought at the outset. In addition to all the substantive bewilderment and disgust progressives feel about the Bush administration and their Congressional helpmeets, they have a process tendency that both reinforces those bad concrete results and is arguably as bad or worse on its own: every decision is subservient to politics. Every single one.

This is bad enough when the specific issue at hand is, say, trade policy, or whether or not the federal government will support potentially life-saving stem cell research. But it's far worse when the policy implications of the decision will endure, and harm, long beyond when Bush goes back to his made-for-TV ranch, Cheney is cryogenically frozen, and Rumsfeld has his persona transferred into the body of a genetically enhanced wolf, the better to enjoy the hunt. Such is the case with the Supreme Court. Whoever ascends to the high bench is likely to get there with the imprimateur of Radical Cleric James Dobson and other "Christians" of the Dominionist stripe, interested above all else in advancing their vicious and divisive social agenda and punishing all those who disagree, as well as that of the rabidly anti-government Federalist Society, which desires above all to unmake the New Deal and move the country down a path we might fairly call neo-feudalism. The extent to which Bush shares either worldview can be questioned, but the next time he goes against the wishes of these two factions on an appointment of such tremendous importance will be the first.

Senate Democrats are already saying the expected things about a willingness to fight and their hopes--which they must know are entirely unrealistic--that Bush will consult with them on his choice. But this too goes against everything we've ever seen from this president and his political team: they yearn for conflict and thrive on polarization. Add in that this is the moment "the base"--particularly the Dobsonite social reactionaries who won the election for Bush last year--has been waiting for, and there is next to no chance the pick will be anyone to the left of, say, Genghis Khan. Gird yourselves.