Saturday, November 12, 2005

How Bush Defiled Veterans Day

President Bush on Veterans Day reminded me of Brazil in the 1980s.

Brazil’s foreign debt by 1980 had become staggering: $54 billion ($140 billion in today’s dollars), fully one-third the equivalent of Brazil’s GDP. That’s as if the United States were running a $4 trillion trade deficit in a $12 trillion economy. (We’re not that far behind: Our annual trade deficit will break the $700 billion mark this year, and as of June, foreigners held $2 trillion of the nation’s $7.83 trillion debt). So what did Brazil do? Adopt the pile-it-on philosophy, familiar to any American with a credit card (the average credit card debt per household these days is $8,650): Spend more, as Brazil indeed did (the 1980s were called her "lost decade"), as Americans indeed do every day, reveling under the self-delusion that more of the same makes no difference. The gusher of self-deception has become as American as gas-guzzling, war-worship and public professions of faith, now that Republican have so successfully recast the national religion as a loyalty oath to gas, guns, God and guillibility.

Which brings me to our Lord and Savior President and his pile-it-on strategy on Veterans Day: The deficit of truth about the war in Iraq and the ever-vaguer war on terror has become so staggering that it really makes no difference anymore how many naked lies are gushed out, piled on, stacked up (say, in the manner of an Abu Ghraib human pyramid), and of course spat out for the networks’ gaping and abetting cameras: Never let it be said of our “liberal” media that they don’t function as the president’s most effective, uncritical flack machine. (On Sunday Tim Russert, Washington’s flacker-in-chief, will provide the icing on the spinners’ cake by once again disparaging dissenters, merely by omitting them from the screen, while giving the established order an hour to more explicitly disparage, propagandize, evade, insult.) For the president today, it doesn’t matter who your audience is anymore, doesn’t matter if you’re bloodying veterans who for the most part have already paid their dues sustaining lies and witnessing human sacrifices to unnecessary wars past and present (Vietnam and Iraq of course, but also the many little interventions in between from Grenada to Lebanon to Haiti to Panama). At the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania on Friday the veterans were like so many munitions crate stacked up tight so the president could step on them and level his lies and parries above the din of truths crashing in all around him. He used the veterans. The veterans let themselves be used, sadly enough, though let’s not romanticize them too much: No matter what the political truths and circumstances of their wars, “[m]ost veterans tend to recall their youth as one of perpetual high-blooming summer” (as someone or other says in Vidal’s Burr). They should be excused for wanting as few chills as possible rattling their autumn and winter bones even as the president glorified the rattling before their eyes.

“Our strategy is to clear, hold, and build,” he said, repeating the new favored catch-phrase of Operation Iraqi Screw-up (the phrase was unveiled on October 19 by Condoleezza Rice on the administration’s stand-up comedy circuit that Senate and House committee hearings have become). To clear what isn't clear; to hold has yet to succeed given that the insurgents' strategy is run, hide and reclaim as soon as the U.S. military's "hold" packs up to clear and hold another Iraqi neighborhood that it had cleared and held a half dozen times in the past (Ramadi, Fallujah, the archipelago of unholdable towns on the western edge of the Iraqi desert). And build? Difficult to do when the occupation continues to mangle the hearts and minds of the population with a strategy Bull Connor would have been proud of (and Alabamans, judging from theit 63 percent re-election endorsement of Bush in 2004, are still proud of). Instead of dogs and fire hoses of course, it's Bradleys and F18s.

But slogans are minor fibs compared with the president’s tsunami of lies and totalitarian rhetoric: That critics of the war are hurting the war effort; that Democrats saw the same intelligence as everybody else when they voted to approve the use of force; that the United Nations had established that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; that no one cooked up intelligence before the war. That’s if you believe the official story, the unfinished Senate investigation, the closed-book version of the White House’s history of the war (which still awaits its Pentagon Papers), if you ignore the Downing Street Memo or a still rising little mountain of evidence showing that the administration was planning its little Iraqi war from its earliest days: "Ten days in, and it was about Iraq," as Ron Suskind reported in The Price of Loyalty, based on Paul O'Neill's witnessing of that early cabinet meeting with that single "grainy picture, perhaps misleading, but visceral," that Dick Cheney spread out before them supposedly showing WMD factories in Iraq. Knowing this administration's dalliance with faith over fact, nothing says the pictures weren't themselves cooked up pixels from old Death Valley photo albums or (if anyone in this administration had a sense of humor) Area 51. There's also that strangely unheralded revelation in the new book by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon (The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right) that "the move to war" came "faster than has been reported," that the invasion was being planned in January 2002 and "the original idea was to go to war by Tax Day [April 15]'02." The United Nations of course was begging for more time in Iraq in 2003, but the administration had turned Taliban on Hans Blix, stoning his credibility and running his inspectors out of town to make way for Bush's gut instinct and Cheney's snarly, selective intelligence.

It keeps being said that nothing was cooked up. But plenty was cherry-picked, little was examined by the usual norms of rigor, and plenty was accepted at face value because it fit the fateful narrative of the administration's fait accompli, like the Niger yellowcake story the president ate whole and fed to the nation in the 2003 State of the Union. When his administration says Congress saw the same intelligence the president asked for, chose to see, and chose not to question, the administration is right about one thing: Congress was misled by the same package deal of misinformation, trusting that this president was up to the task (and responsibility) of being taken at his word over something as momentous as a war.

But he lied. And if he was lied to, then he failed in his responsibility to parse, rather than uncritically accept, the lies. And now he's lying about the lies. As the Washington Post reports this morning, "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material. And the commissions cited by officials, though concluding that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, were not authorized to determine whether the administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions."

None of this is really surprising, and to rattle it all off again insults one's intelligence and sense of the obvious, on Veterans Day of all days: 2,062 American soldiers and who knows how many tens of thousands of Iraqis dead for reason as grainy as those pictures Cheney laid out in that conspiratorial cabinet meeting, and a future as obscure, as uncertain, as frightening as the last three years. But when the state holds most of the weapons of deception in its hands, and when most media play along (playing up the speech, for example, and writing headlines like "Bush Blasts Critics" that make Bush look like Rambo reclaiming truth and justice against armies of evildoers), the visceral takes over--not to believe still more grainy talk from the deceiver in chief, but to say: Enough.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Reason's Re-Run Predators

We’re in the thick of November sweeps, when the television networks trot out their most original—and usually most unoriginally sex-addled, typically child-sex-centered—programming. (Tonight’s fare on NBC’s Dateline: “To Catch a Predator: Undercover cameras capture men trying to meet children,” following up of course on Dateline’s Nov. 4 piece on computer predators). But it’s rerun season in Washington: There’s a barn-full of French bashing going on, enough to make you think the United States was readying another invasion (Syria anyone?) and de Villepin was again standing in the way. There’s plenty of bashing to go around, to be sure. Jacques Chirac continues to pull a Bush-de-Katrina on the riots, barely appearing anywhere since the fires began. De Villepin and Sarkozy don’t want that luxury. They need the glow of publicity, even the glow of flames, to advance their presidential hopes in 2007. But both could just as convincingly contend for the FEMA Fumbler of the Year award.

There’s an Abu Ghraib sequel with the revelation of the CIA’s secret-prison “black sites” around the world, with a minor but nevertheless obscene twist: Congress, which never independently investigated the torture scandal and still has never accounted for the more than one hundred deaths in American custody in Iraqi and Afghan prisons, doesn’t want any kind of investigation of the prison sites. It wants an investigation of the leaker to the Washington Post (whose Dana Priest broke the story last week). The president, now pathologically codependent on deception and self-delusion (it may be the only thing between him and a renewed affair with Jim Beam), continues his carnival declarations of “we don’t torture” (but still need to torture lurkers if necessary, if not leakers) even as his vice president keeps gnarling around House and Senate offices, torturing legislators, unsuccessfully so far, into granting his torture exemption for CIA employees.

And of course there’s the “return” of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi fraud on whose lies the Bush administration based so much of its faith in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and on whose promise of rice and flowers Donald Rumsfeld did so much to convince the Pentagon not to send in more than a bare-bones invasion force. Chalabi was in Teheran earlier this week, meeting with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s not yet finished clearing his throat of the bile he scudded at Israel a few weeks ago (Chalabi’s friend thinks Israel should be “wiped off the map”). But there was Chalabi this week, his hand still odorized with Mahmoud’s, shaking hands with Condoleezza Rice, our rising nebulae of cluelessness at the Department of State; with Dick Cheney, because the like-minded attract; with Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, who must like his old friends better than his new responsibilities. Now that the bones have been bared, literally and figuratively—in Chalabi’s closet-full of skeletons, in the US military’s growing mass grave of GI bones, in the skeletal remains of any hope for peace or purpose behind the American occupation—one might have reasonably believed in the administration’s capacity at least to pay lip service to lessons learned.

The reasonable: Talk about a circus animal on the loose in Washington, with an administration-full of predators after it. On camera, too. And the public loves it: Catch the bastard. Lynch the bastard. Eliminate the bastard. Americans want reason about as much as they want a sexual predator next door.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Fly Me to Hong Kong

Responding to my column yesterday on Health Savings Accounts, the latest crock to come out of the health-industrial complex's laboratories of shams, a friend from Hong Kong writes:

When advocates of market-based healthcare pitch their agenda, they treat healthcare as a commodity rather than a social need. They are certain that a market-based system will work, and it may - as long as you stop covering those who can't afford it.

My parents recently visited me in Hong Kong. My father said that his health coverage, which he is currently getting through my mother's job, will expire next year because her insurer announced that it could no longer afford to cover spouses. I told him to strongly consider returning to Hong Kong, getting a Hong Kong Identity Card (which he is eligible for, since he had grown up here), and using our government hospitals. Even our private doctors are relatively affordable.

This is not an ideal solution, but something to fall back on. It says something about America's broken healthcare system when some of its citizens have to consider getting treatment halfway around the world, and if this were ten years earlier, my father would have scoffed at the idea. But much has changed in the last ten years, and little of it for the better, so my father said that he would consider it.

Hong Kong's public healthcare system is operating in the red, mainly because it has been too successful. During the SARS outbreak two years ago, government hospitals were overflowing (and still are), while private hospitals were screaming for government assistance. Uh, what happened to the "free market"? It doesn't look so free when you're not getting any patients.

[With thanks to CC]


The Times finally gets it. No soft pedaling, no equivocations. Today’s lead editorial on the Bush presidency was a belated shock of directness and conviction. Maybe the Times is discovering that compulsive moderation isn’t the right antidote to the reactionaries in conservative garb. Maybe the Times is sensing a shift in moods. Maybe it knew the outcome of the Virginia gubernatorial race ahead of time (a Democrat pulled it off, against odds). You’d think the late great John Oakes was back at the editorial helm, from where he was summarily fired in 1977 (in that Times way of not quite firing those it wants pastured) after fifteen years on the job, along with most of his editorial board, when Punch Sulzberger decreed him too shrill for the times, and the Times. “John was staying liberal and I was getting older, growing more conservative,” Sulzberger says in The Trust, the 2000 biography of the Times. “We just drifted apart.” Actually, the Times didn’t want to drift too far from the levers of power. The country was moving right. Instead of standing in its way, the Times moved right with it. Oakes was out. The likes of A.M. Rosenthal were in. Oakes was nevertheless granted the occasional op-ed, which became my favorite but too-rare surprises on those morning commutes on the Number 7 train. Here’s one, headlined “The Reagan Hoax,” from November 1, 1981:

Ronald Reagan is proving every day that his bite is worse than his bark.

His warm and casual style mesmerizes voters who still don't realize what hit them last January. What hit them was a harshly reactionary revolution that in no way fits the endearing image of ''nice guy'' Ronald Reagan. While a bemused public and a leaderless Congress look on, foreign and domestic policies that are classic throwbacks to Hoover, Harding, and McKinley are now being locked into place - with a dash of secretive, imperious Nixonism tossed in.

President Reagan has substituted a mindless militarism for a foreign policy, rattling arms from El Salvador to Saudi Arabia, frightening our friends from Japan to West Germany. He proposes a 50 percent increase in ''defense expenditures.'' Much of it will be dissipated in the self-defeating spiral of an open-ended nuclear-arms race that poses a greater threat to our own internal and external security than all the Communist propaganda that ever emanated from Moscow. Already, the cost of Reagan policies is devastating to our country in economic strength, in diplomatic influence, in national security, in moral stature.

On the domestic front, needed budget-cutting has devolved into shameful budget-gutting. It affects the health, the safety, and the well-being of every American. Combined with skewed tax reductions favoring the rich, it has turned the war against poverty into a war against the poor. It is altering the relationship of government to the people and of the people to each other. Behind Ronald's Reagan's disarming smile, the ethical role of American democracy as balancer of conflicting forces is being coolly subverted. But somehow Mr. Reagan is not held responsible.

And so on. If the Times hadn’t so idiotically gone “select,” I’d have linked to the full article. But for lack of Oakes, here’s today’s full editorial. It’s worth the completeness. Finally:

President Bush's Walkabout

After President Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his presidency still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with on the domestic front. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long.

In Argentina, Mr. Bush, who prides himself on his ability to relate to world leaders face to face, could barely summon the energy to chat with the 33 other leaders there, almost all of whom would be considered friendly to the United States under normal circumstances. He and his delegation failed to get even a minimally face-saving outcome at the collapsed trade talks and allowed a loudmouthed opportunist like the president of Venezuela to steal the show.

It's amazing to remember that when Mr. Bush first ran for president, he bragged about his understanding of Latin America, his ability to speak Spanish and his friendship with Mexico. But he also made fun of Al Gore for believing that nation-building was a job for the United States military.

The White House is in an uproar over the future of Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and spinning off rumors that some top cabinet members may be asked to walk the plank. Mr. Bush could certainly afford to replace some of his top advisers. But the central problem is not Karl Rove or Treasury Secretary John Snow or even Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. It is President Bush himself.

Second terms may be difficult, but the chief executive still has the power to shape what happens. Ronald Reagan managed to turn his messy second term around and deliver - in great part through his own powers of leadership - a historic series of agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire. Mr. Bush has never demonstrated the capacity for such a comeback. Nevertheless, every American has a stake in hoping that he can surprise us.

The place to begin is with Dick Cheney, the dark force behind many of the administration's most disastrous policies, like the Iraq invasion and the stubborn resistance to energy conservation. Right now, the vice president is devoting himself to beating back Congressional legislation that would prohibit the torture of prisoners. This is truly a remarkable set of priorities: his former chief aide was indicted, Mr. Cheney's back is against the wall, and he's declared war on the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Bush cannot fire Mr. Cheney, but he could do what other presidents have done to vice presidents: keep him too busy attending funerals and acting as the chairman of studies to do more harm. Mr. Bush would still have to turn his administration around, but it would at least send a signal to the nation and the world that he was in charge, and the next three years might not be as dreadful as they threaten to be right now.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Flaming France

From one extreme to another in France. For those rim-cities of concrete and post-colonial flotsam (as the French in their eternally closeted racism see it), it’s either total indulgence and indifference or curfews and cracked heads. De Villepin, last seen in the United States (and on Saturday Night Live) as a caricature of the French résistance to an Iraqi invasion, is proposing curfews for the rim cities. The CRS, France’s shock troops of public order, can’t be far behind. They call them “Compagnie républicaines de sécurité,” like the state’s left-over head-smashers from the Commune in 1871, though they were actually created in 1944 and used to smashing effect in 1968 (remember the slogan, CRS=SS?). All this for the Quartiers sensibles (the “sensitive neighborhoods”), as the state and the media so incongruously call those places in flames. You can see the bien-pensants Socialists and socialites of Paris put on the verbal gloves, as if even talking about those neighborhoods is distasteful; you can hear the patronizing disdain (le dédain) in the word sensible for the banlieu (suburbia), usually disdained even in quieter days, you can sense the inability, or maybe the unwillingness, to understand how else to see these people but as la racaille—scum, hoodlums, trash—in the now eternal words of Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, whom I’ve seen described as “an ambitious little upstart with the manner of a ferret on cocaine” (by a New Zealand commentator, of all places). Sarkozy has the prime ministership or the presidency in mind. But first, a few stepping stones of African and Arab grain. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not excusing the fire-bombers. Their targets—cars, buses, child care centers—show them to be what they are. But the State is inexcusable. They don’t have gated communities there yet, that I know of. What they have is communities invisibly gated, classes, nationalities, immigrants walled off from the rest of society like scum. This sort of thing isn’t new. It happened in 1990 in the Lyon region, and it took a multi-week occupation by the CRS to quiet everything down. It happens periodically. It’ll happen again. The French didn’t know how to do colonialism. How can you expect them to know how to do immigration? As with colonialism, they swing from indifference to violence, from disdain to terror, from patronizing idealism to outright disdain. La belle et douce France mon derrière. Or in language Sarkozy might understand: mon cul.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Liberty by Cudgel

Democracy is in itself—in its institutions, its pluralist traditions, its humanist assumptions—the embodiment of the Enlightenment. It doesn’t depend on one man. Its parts are greater than any single leader, than any single personality can be or has the right to be. Lincoln may be the exception because it took his presidency to prevent those institutions’ dissolution. It took a giant. We’re grateful it was that giant. Another would have wrecked them just as easily. We do not believe in cults of personality because we don’t need them. Our institutions are too strong, and require our leaders to be too humble, to tolerate cults of personality, to tolerate the sort of leadership that begins to consider itself above the law or worse, the sort of leadership that begins to ape the language of divine right. We need leaders whose greatness derives from their ability to reinforce and expand on those institutions, on their ability to bulk up the Bill on Rights and the Constitution, not on their political skill to make themselves great at the expense of our rights and our Constitution, and through the cheapening of the language of freedom and liberty.

Remember the President’s second Inaugural address in January. He mentioned the words freedom or liberty or their derivatives no less than fifty times in that 20-minute address. I played a little game the other day. I counted the number of presidents and inauguration addresses it took from George Washington’s time on to add up to 50 uses of the two words. It took six president and ten addresses, and those included two by Washington, one by John Adams, two each by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and one by John Quincy Adams. Those were the founders of liberty, and they didn’t find it so necessary to preach it so loudly as our latter day saint and preacher of liberty. He doth protest too much. What we’re seeing here is not a call back to our Enlightenment ideals, but the transformation of freedom from an ideal into a dogma, of America from an example into condition, even a cudgel. Two things as different as the Roman Republic in its best days, and the Roman Empire as the Ceasars brandished it.