Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Unpopular Historian (blog) (10-31-06)
"Recognizing the difficulties, the fact remains that lacking success in meeting the economic, social, and political problems, the US effort, with thousands dead and billions spent and precious time lost, could be completely wasted.
"If there is a single lesson to be drawn thus far from our experience in Iraq, it is that the United States, and, indeed, the free world, have failed thus far to develop strategies, programs, and techniques to meet the fundamentalist pressures which exist in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, point to point, early.
"We have failed to develop the capability to assist a nation requesting our aid in developing political, economic, and social stability. We have found that the today crude, World War II type responses to these new and more subtle pressures are inadequate, often ineffective, and frequently inapplicable. Without political and economic stability, without a sense of nationhood, without the forms of citizen action and responsibility, which we in this country take for granted and which have been the source of our progress, the Iraqi people will be unable to retain any measure of freedom which the United States might be able to help them achieve.
"While the committee report points out specific shortcomings in the administration and audit of current programs, it fails to point out that a complete review of US policies and programs with respect to the nonmilitary side of the effort must be undertaken if we are to reverse this trend.
"It is essential, therefore, that the United States establish policies and priorities which will meet the political, social, and economic situation as it exists. It is also essential that the United States develop the necessary management tools and administrative skills to carry out such policies and programs effectively.
"The committee investigation pointed up serious problems relating to the administration of programs of the United States in Iraq. The administration has demonstrated a willingness, although belatedly, to undertake many changes to implement many of the recommendations in this report. But this is not enough. The administration has failed thus far to undertake a broader reevaluation of our policies and approaches. No matter how efficiently the present policies are administered, the real problem is the development by the United States, preferably working in cooperation with other free nations rather than alone or almost alone at present, of programs and techniques and approaches more suitable to meeting the pressures as they exist in Iraq."
Just replace "Iraq" with "South Vietnam," "the Middle East" with "Southeast Asia," and "fundamentalist" with "Communist," and you have the words of Representative Donald Rumsfeld, October 12, 1966.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 21:17
SOURCE: New York Magazine (10-23-06)
My sons, ages 7 and 12, play these games compulsively. For a while, their GameCube favorite was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Then they discovered Call of Duty. The latest fad is Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, which they play online on their PCs.
To say that I’m interested in World War II would be an understatement. For the past few years, I have been toiling to write its history, skulking in my study and neglecting my children in the process. In theory, games like Medal of Honor ought to have helped our family to reconnect when I finally emerged from my books. But no. Unfortunately—and to the disappointment of my sons—I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history.
I’ll go further. There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games. For the last five years, politicians from the president down have been recycling the rhetoric of that conflict. September 11 was “a day of infamy.” Saddam/Ahmadinejad/Kim Jong Il is the new Hitler. And yet few of these politicians seem to have any real understanding of the strategic risks involved in global conflict.
So why do I hate Medal of Honor? The trouble is—and the same could be said of nearly all its competitors—it’s profoundly unhistorical. It’s what’s known in the games trade as a first-person shooter (FPS) game. As a player, you take on the role of Lieutenant Mike Powell of the U.S. Army Rangers. You see the battlefield—a Normandy beach, for instance—from his vantage point. As Lieutenant Powell, you do pretty much what you feel like—which is to bag as many Germans as you can. In reality, an officer’s principal concern on Omaha Beach was somehow to maintain the cohesion of his unit in the face of a lethal storm of steel.
Second, the cost of a miscalculation is low. Wounds merely deduct points from your “health.” Death—usually and rather grotesquely signaled by a grunt and the descent of a red mist over the screen—simply means the end of one game and the start of the next.
In fairness, games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Soldiers have taught my sons an amazing amount about World War II hardware. But at root, they’re just playing Space Invaders—make that Beach Invaders—with fancy graphics.
Part of the problem may be the games’ unconscious anachronism—many of them are inspired, if not directly based, on software recently developed by the U.S. military for training purposes....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 21:03
SOURCE: NY Sun (10-31-06)
As the Iranian government announced last week a doubling of its uranium enrichment program, the United Nations Security Council bickered over a feeble European draft resolution. It would do no more than prohibit Iranian students from studying nuclear physics abroad, deny visas for Iranians working in the nuclear area, and end foreign assistance for Iran's nuclear program, oh, except from Russia.
Where, one wonders, will the desultory, perpetual efforts to avert a crisis with Iran end? With a dramatic calling of the vote at the Security Council in New York? Around-the-clock negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna? A special envoy from the European Union hammering out a compromise in Tehran?
None of the above, I predict, for all these scenarios presume that Tehran will ultimately forego its dream of nuclear weaponry. Recent evidence suggests otherwise:
Hostile statements provoking the West. Perhaps the most notable of these was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's warning to Europe not to support Israel: "We have advised the Europeans that … the [Muslim] nations are like an ocean that is welling up, and if a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt." Yet more outrageously, the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, threatened the United States that it stands "on the threshold of annihilation."
A mood of messianism in the upper reaches of the government. In addition to the general enthusiasm for mahdaviat (belief in and efforts to prepare for the mahdi, a figure to appear in the End of Days), reliable sources report that Ahmadinejad believes he is in direct contact with the Hidden Imam, another key figure of Shi'ite eschatology.
The urgent nuclear program. Bolstered by the economic windfall from oil and gas sales, the regime since mid-2005 has at almost every turn adopted the most aggressive steps to join the nuclear club, notably by beginning nuclear enrichment in February.
A focused, defiant, and determined Tehran contrasts with the muddled, feckless Russians, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans. A half year ago, a concerted external effort could still have prompted effective pressure from within Iranian society to halt the nuclear program, but that possibility now appears defunct. As the powers have mumbled, shuffled, and procrastinated, Iranians see their leadership effectively permitted to barrel ahead.
Nonetheless, new ideas keep being floated to finesse war with Iran. Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot, for example, dismisses an American invasion of Iran as "out of the question" and proffers three alternatives: threatening an economic embargo, rewarding Tehran for suspending its nuclear program, or helping Iranian anti-regime militias invade the country.
Admittedly, these no-war, no-nukes scenarios are creative. But they no longer offer have a prospect of success, for the situation has become crude and binary: either the U.S. government deploys force to prevent Tehran from acquiring nukes, or Tehran acquires them.
This key decision – war or acquiescence – will take place in Washington, not in New York, Vienna, or Tehran. (Or Tel Aviv.) The critical moment will arrive when the president of the United States confronts the choice whether or not to permit the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire the Bomb. The timetable of the Iranian nuclear program being murky, that might be either George W. Bush or his successor.
It will be a remarkable moment. The United States glories in the full flower of public opinion with regard to taxes, schools, and property zoning. Activists organize voluntary associations, citizens turn up at town hall meetings, associations lobby elected representatives.
But when it comes to the fateful decision of going to war, the American apparatus of participation fades away, leaving the president on his own to make this difficult call, driven by his temperament, inspired by his vision, surrounded only by a close circle of advisors, insulated from the vicissitudes of politics. His decision will be so intensely personal, which way he will go depends mostly on his character and psychology.
Should he allow a malevolently mystical leadership to build a doomsday weapon that it might well deploy? Or should he take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure, despite the resulting economic, military, and diplomatic costs.
Until the U.S. president decides, everything amounts to a mere re-arranging of deck chairs on the Titanic, acts of futility and of little relevance.
This article is reprinted with permission by Daniel Pipes. This article first appeared in the New York Sun.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 18:21
SOURCE: WSJ (10-30-06)
The war began for Americans with the disaster at Pearl Harbor, followed by the tragic horror of the Bataan death march, the debacle at the Kasserine Pass and, even on the eve of victory, being caught completely by surprise by a devastating German counterattack that almost succeeded at the Battle of the Bulge.
Other wars -- our own and other nations' -- have likewise been full of nasty surprises and mistakes that led to bloodbaths. Nevertheless, the Iraq war has some special lessons for our time, lessons that both the left and the right need to acknowledge, whether or not they will.
What is it that has made Iraq so hard to pacify, even after a swift and decisive military victory? In one word: diversity.
That word has become a sacred mantra, endlessly repeated for years on end, without a speck of evidence being asked for or given to verify the wonderful benefits it is assumed to produce.
Worse yet, Iraq is only the latest in a long series of catastrophes growing out of diversity. These include "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan, the million lives destroyed in intercommunal violence when India became independent in 1947 and the even larger number of Armenians slaughtered by Turks during World War I.
Despite much gushing about how we should "celebrate diversity," America's great achievement has not been in having diversity but in taming its dangers that have run amok in many other countries. Americans have by no means escaped diversity's oppressions and violence, but we have reined them in.
Another concept whose bitter falsity has been painfully revealed in Iraq is "nation-building." People are not building blocks, however much some may flatter themselves that they can arrange their fellow human beings' lives the way you can arrange pieces on a chess board.
The biggest and most fatuous example of nation-building occurred right after World War I, when the allied victors dismembered the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Woodrow Wilson assigned a young Walter Lippman to sit down with maps and population statistics and start drawing lines that would define new nations.
Iraq is one of those new nations. Like other artificial creations in the Balkans, Africa and elsewhere, it has never had the cohesion of nations that evolved over the centuries out of the experiences of peoples who worked out their own modi vivendi in one way or another....
However we got into Iraq, we cannot undo history -- even recent history -- by simply pulling out and leaving events to take their course in that strife-torn country. Whether or not we "stay the course," terrorists are certainly going to stay the course in Iraq and around the world....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - 02:29
SOURCE: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (10-24-06)
[David K. Johnson teaches history at the University of South Florida, is the author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: 2004), and is an associate scholar at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.]
Conservative Republicans are scapegoating gay Americans again. Though their outrage over Rep. Mark Foley is recent, it employs tactics they honed during the McCarthy-era “purge of the perverts.”
Only a few days after Foley resigned in disgrace and news spread of a possible high- level congressional cover-up, Gloria Borger of CBS News reported that Republicans blamed “a network of gay staffers and gay members who protect each other and did the Speaker a disservice.” Though Borger initially said it was a story that “rank and file Republicans [would] only talk about privately,” they grew bold quickly. Before long, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was asking, “Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and or [sic] staffers? When we look over events of this Congress, we have to wonder.” Even the New York Times ran a front-page article revealing that “the presence of homosexuals, particularly gay men, in crucial staff positions has been an enduring if largely hidden staple of Republican life for decades, and particularly in recent years.” Underscoring their alleged power and influence, the Times noted how gay Republicans “have played decisive roles in passing legislation, running campaigns and advancing careers.” Members of this “Velvet Mafia,” the Times noted ominously, were “holding their breath” in anticipation of more fallout from the Foley scandal.
The resignation of Kirk Fordham, openly gay former chief of staff to Foley and current chief of staff to Rep. Reynolds, seemed only to whet conservatives’ appetites. Labeling them “operatives” who had managed to “infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus,” right-wing author Cliff Kincaid demanded that “the secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must be exposed and dismantled.” Calling them “subversives” thwarting the will of the people, the American Family Association’s Rev. Don Wildmon told The Nation, “they oughta fire every one of ’em.” The Traditional Values Coalition issued an ultimatum to their party: “Republicans need to make a simple choice between the [sic] innocent children and radical homosexuals who prey on them.”
Charges of a powerful gay network, a subversive fifth column that has “infiltrated” the party, are nothing new. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that Harry Truman’s State Department had been “infiltrated” by subversives, a category that initially included both communists and homosexuals. However, McCarthy quickly discovered that the charges of homosexual infiltration were more effective at stirring up indignation among voters. Though histories of the McCarthy era rarely mention it, three-quarters of McCarthy’s mail expressed outrage at his disclosures of “sex depravity.” Truman’s advisors warned that “the country is really much more disturbed over the picture which has been presented so far of the Government being loaded with homosexuals than it is over the clamor about Communists in the Government,” and the State Department’s admission that it had fired 91 homosexuals seemed to substantiate McCarthy’s charges. With a midterm election approaching, Republicans attacked the Democrats for “harboring” homosexuals. They followed the advice of New York Daily News editors, who wrote, “If we were writing Republican campaign speeches, we’d use the word ‘queer’ at every opportunity.”
When a Washington, D.C., official testified that 5,000 homosexuals lived in the nation’s capital and three-quarters worked for the federal government, headlines throughout the nation warned of a perversion menace. Local police began a crackdown on gay bars and cruising areas and the FBI investigated federal workers and job seekers. The State Department alone fired one suspected homosexual per day, more than twice the rate at which they fired suspected communists. In the government-wide purge that followed, thousands of civil servants suspected of homosexuality lost their jobs.
Just as today’s conservatives speak of an elite cabal of gay staffers, McCarthy spoke of “nests” of homosexual civil servants. During the Cold War, politicians feared that the bonds of loyalty between homosexuals were so strong—a sort of freemasonry—that those in sensitive government positions might betray national security secrets. A 1950 congressional committee that investigated McCarthy’s charges concluded that “the homosexual tends to surround himself with other homosexuals.... if a homosexual attains a position in Government where he can influence the hiring of personnel, it is almost inevitable that he will attempt to place other homosexuals in Government jobs.” Frank Kameny was one civil servant who lost his job in 1957 for suspected homosexuality. Despite his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard, the civil service commission fired him at the height of the space race with the Soviet Union. One of the few to fight his dismissal, Kameny went on to become a gay rights activists and founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, leading the first gay picket in front of the White House in 1965. (In an ironic twist of fate, his personal papers were accepted into the Library of Congress last week, and his 1965 picket signs pleading “Homosexual Americans Demand their Civil Rights“ will soon be on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.)
In an ominous parallel with the McCarthy era, federal prosecutors in Arizona announced in the midst of the Foley scandal their investigation of Rep. Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican congressperson, for a camping trip he took a decade ago with a group that included former pages. Though the details varied markedly from the Foley scandal—Kolbe was not in the closet, and the men were neither still in the congressional program nor underage—the story served to further the connection in the public mind between gay politicians and sexual predators. And because Kolbe had come forward with early knowledge of Foley’s misconduct, it further raised the specter of gays “protecting each other.” Pointing to the trip, conservative journalist and media commentator Cliff Kincaid even warned of a “homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill.”
In the 1950s, conservative Republicans used the charge that the administration was “honeycombed with homosexuals” to take back the White House from the Democrats. Their campaign slogan was “Let’s Clean House.” This time, instead of Republicans competing with Democrats, it’s a struggle between the more moderate pro-business wing of the G.O.P. and the strident moralists of the Christian right –– a group that includes Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, who has warned that “putting a homosexual in charge of AIDS policy is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” as well as those who can’t bear to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refer affectionately to the new openly gay global AIDS coordinator’s same-sex partner. No matter who wins, the new rush to “clean house” victimizes the same people it did decades ago: gay men and women who serve their country in the federal and congressional bureaucracies.
Posted on: Monday, October 30, 2006 - 01:21
SOURCE: Tabsir (blog) (10-28-06)
Many non-Muslims assume that Islam is a far more sexist religion than Judaism or Christianity, usually under the assumption that only the latter two faiths have been secularized into acceptable moral modernity. Media images of women covered in full-length chadors or wearing a solid niqab (face covering) with only slits for eyeholes, the legality of having four wives, Quranic passages torn out of context, misogynist traditions and medieval male musings: all of these suggest that Muslim women have few if any rights. Muslim women in most cases feel otherwise. Many are bemused that their sisters from other faiths are so unaware of the rights Muslim women have enjoyed (at least in legal theory) since the very beginning of Islam. But a problem still remains and that is the unflinching, culturally-induced male chauvanism that crosses the boundaries of established religions. A prime example from down under has recently surrounded a major Muslim figure in Australia.
The man in question is Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, Grand Mufti of Australia, who is no stranger to controversy in the Australian media. In a recent Ramadan sermon the sheikh decided to discuss the moral problem of adultery. As quoted in The Australian his remarks are less than uplifting:
In the religious address on adultery to about 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, Sheik Hilali said: “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?
“The uncovered meat is the problem.”
The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.
“It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa).”
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of fasting, reflecting on Allah and his creation, but Sheikh al-Hilali apparently thought his congregation needed a lesson on fast-and-loose women. The problem is that he makes the victims into the instigators, suggesting that women who do not wear hijab are asking to be raped and in league with Satan. Theologian, heal thyself.
Some background is important here. In 2000 a gang of callous youths, led by a Lebanese “Muslim” named Bilal Skaf along with his brother, brutally gang-raped a number of women in Sydney. Bilal is currently serving a 32-year prison sentence for his role. Sheikh al-Hilali is not condoning rape, and he has spoken out against the criminal actions of Bilal and his cohort, but his embarrassing rhetoric from the minbar perpetuates an attitude that some men cannot stop themselves from raping when they see female flesh. Was his purpose to frighten women into wearing hijab and staying home whenever possible or does he really think some men should have a reason to excuse sexual predation?
The mufti’s ignorance of what psychology has to say about the motivations for the crime of rape is only confounded by his selective reading of the Quran. I did not hear his sermon and at this point what he actually said has become a moot point. The fact is that many Australians, no matter what their faith, are shaking their heads at yet another incident that makes Islam look like it does not belong in any contemporary society.
Beyond shaking heads, it is better to go back and read the Quran in context. There are several relevant Quranic passages on the subject of the “veil” (ably analyzed by Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, Berg, 1999) and these have been widely interpreted over time and across cultures. The overall point of wearing clothing, stemming back to the Garden of Eden, is modesty. For example, both men and women, following the example of Adam and Eve, are commanded to cover their private parts:
“Children of Adam, We have given you garments to cover your nakedness — and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all garments — this is one of God’s signs, so that people can take heed.” (Surat al-A‘râf 7:26)
As the passage makes clear, it is not Godly to go around naked, but no instructions are given as to how much of the body needs to be hidden from view. The Arabic word here for “nakedness” is ‘awrât, which literally refers to the genitalia. Indeed many of the traditions on the subject are concerned with men who expose their genitals during prayer due to the type of clothing or the way they are sitting. As a mundane rule for going about in society the idea of covering certain private parts would hardly be a novel revelation at the time. The devout might go beyond the obvious to a deeper spiritual meaning. Rather than arguing about what can be shown in public apart from the sex organs, the emphasis in the verse is on the best kind of clothing and this is being wrapped in a constant awareness of Allah. If a man or woman wears this figurative leaf, there will be no thought of sexual allurement, nor of rape. We might say that the Quran teaches rape is in the eye of the beholder not in the flesh of the victim.
There are other Quranic passages that go beyond the basics. Probably the most cited is a long passage in Surat al-Nur on what believing men and women should do when faced with the possibility of sexual excitement. Here is part of this, but it is best to go and read the entire surah.
“[Prophet], tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do. And tell believing women that they should lower their gaze, guard their private parts, and not flaunt their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal…” Surat al-Nur 24:30, first part of 31.
That issue of what is acceptable for view is open to wide debate and is always determined from cultural hindsight. Some translators, like M.A.S. Abdel Halim (whose recent and readable version I am using here) proceed to talk about letting a headscarf fall to cover the neckline. But older translations tend to say something like “cover their bosoms.” The debate is over what the Arabic term for the covering, which is the plural khumur here, meant at the time of the Prophet and deciding what is the English equivalent more than 14 centuries later for Arabic juyûb, which in classical Arabic could mean several things, from bosom and breast to the neckline of a piece of clothing.
Fashion questions aside, a major theme in the passage is that both men and women are given the same advice. Yes, it is important not to flaunt one’s beauty, but the bottom line is that Muslim men or women should simply avert their eyes if they see more flesh than they think they should. If a woman sporting a bikini is walking down the street or across the stage of a beauty pageant, no matter what her religion or lack thereof, she is not rape bait. Nor is she catnip-style raw meat setting a trap for men who will resort to any flimsey excuse to uncover their private parts. If you as a male (or female) think too much is being revealed, stop looking.
Sheikh al-Hilali claims he was offering advice to Muslim women on how to avoid rape or leading men astray, but his words betray a deeper problem with his almost pathological view of gender differences. Men rape for different reasons, but they are still men, not cats or dogs, no matter how much they may act like animals. To claim that women are 90% to blame in adultery or illicit sex is pure bull—-, not the red meat at all. This is like saying that we should not blame the car thief, but only the car, or let the jewel thief go because how could anyone not be enticed by diamonds and rubies.
Sheikh al-Hilali might do better to remind his flock what the prophet Muhammad did when he came upon his adopted son’s wife Zaynab not properly covered. The Prophet did not jump on the beautiful woman, but turned and went away asking for God’s help. And the next time the Australian mufti reminds women that they should cover their head-to-toe bosoms, he should first back up a few verses in Surat al-Nur to the following warning”
“Those who accuse hounourable but unwary believing women are rejected by God, in this life and the next.” Surat al-Nur, 7:23
Let Muslim women wear what they decide Allah wants them to wear and cover the body parts that they believe the Quran tells them to cover. If a man of any faith thinks human flesh is red meat, I suggest he consider becoming a vegetarian for his spiritual health’s sake.
[Note: There are many fine resources on the issue of veiling in islam, but a good place to start is “The Veil and Veiling” by Judith Barr, India Clark, and Melissa Marsh at Skidmore College.]
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006 - 12:17
SOURCE: Wa Po (10-22-06)
But what's most impressive about Obama, 45, is an intelligence that his new book displays in abundance. He articulates a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral. The Audacity of Hope -- the title comes from a sermon by his Chicago pastor -- trumpets no unifying theme or grand theory about how the American dream will be reclaimed and by whom. Chapters bear such prosaic titles as "Values," "Opportunity" and "Faith." But in a disarmingly modest way, Obama offers a more sensible perspective on "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life" than his more seasoned Capitol Hill colleagues have provided.
Take the problem of the big money that is indispensable to winning a statewide or national campaign. Unlike most Democrats, Obama does not dwell on the corrupt antics of the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his friends. His concern is about a more serious and enduring threat to democracy: class inequality. During his own Senate race in 2004, Obama had to spend a good deal of time with "law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists." Most of these donors, he acknowledges, were "smart, interesting people" who asked for no specific favors. Still, they couldn't help but express "the perspectives of their class." Their wealth prevented them from understanding loyal members of labor unions, evangelical churches or the NRA. As firm believers in a meritocracy, the donors implicitly denied that "there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score." Lawmakers who routinely move in such circles, Obama adds, tend to neglect "the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population -- that is, the people that I'd entered public life to serve."
That willingness to criticize his own well-heeled supporters stems partly from Obama's years of work with the working poor. It reflects a desire to transcend accusations and talking points and to offer a fresh look at undeniable but seemingly insoluble problems. Thus Obama agrees with conservatives who argue that teen motherhood and the glorification of "gangsta life" help keep young blacks from escaping the ghetto. But as an African American, he also recognizes each violent criminal as a cousin or brother who was not preordained to go wrong. "African Americans understand that culture matters but that culture is shaped by circumstance," he observes, and the longer policymakers and the middle-class public ignore inner-city poverty or try to explain it away, the more endemic it becomes. To address the problem, Obama recommends a bundle of pragmatic policies that would draw both on public funds and the initiative of local businesses: low-cost child-care centers, neighborhood health clinics, job programs for ex-felons.
Obama's own experiences also help him illuminate the root causes of anti-Americanism abroad. During his time in Indonesia, the archipelago was at the beginning of an oil-generated boom that spread prosperity, unevenly, throughout the islands. The United States had helped install Sukarno, a military dictator, after a bloodbath that claimed at least an estimated 500,000 lives. But once the Indonesian economy collapsed in the 1990s, militant Islamists were able to gain a hearing for their diatribes against modernist culture and American power. For Obama, this new "land of strangers" serves as a lesson about the way that U.S. influence -- cultural, economic and military -- has both uplifted and angered the world, in roughly equal measure. He also points out that most Americans can't find Indonesia on a map....
Posted on: Friday, October 27, 2006 - 18:56
SOURCE: Open Democracy (10-27-06)
This is an "only in America" story that takes place in the small, conservative state of South Dakota. A few months ago, the national media were obsessed with this state's effort to ban all abortions. Recently, the story has faded, eclipsed by other electoral news, most notably the sharply worsening situation in Iraq and domestic scandals. But the effort to forbid all abortions is far from an insignificant matter. It is a strategic battle in the nation's endless cultural wars and could have a lasting impact on every American woman's reproductive rights in the United States.
In February 2006, the legislature in South Dakota voted to prohibit all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The only exception was to save the life of a pregnant woman. A doctor who violated the ban could be sentenced to five years in prison.
Those who passed the ban - signed into law by South Dakota's governor on 5 March, and in effect from 1 July - purposefully set out to directly challenge Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's constitutional right to abortion in the United States. They assumed their opponents would sue and that the law would force the Supreme Court to reconsider its original 1973 decision.
Instead, a coalition of women's-rights advocates, reproductive-rights and civil-liberties groups outflanked anti-abortion legislators and took the debate directly to the people, rather than to the courts. They collected sufficient signatures to place a referendum on the 7 November ballot, asking South Dakotan voters whether they really wanted to ban all abortions. If approved, the ban against abortion will remain in effect, unless it is declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If defeated, the South Dakotan legislature will have been repudiated by the voters.
Right now, the battle over the referendum is still too close to call. The people in South Dakota are known for their politeness, conservatism, privacy, and avoidance of confrontation. Many good friends won't even discuss the subject with each other, even though activists in the abortion wars, all over the country, eagerly await the results.
By July, 47% of South Dakotan voters opposed the ban, but 59% said they would support it if it had permitted abortion in the case of rape and incest. If the ban passes, thirteen other states are poised to pass similar laws. And if the Supreme Court upholds the South Dakota ban by superseding Roe vs Wade, the right to abortion would be left up to each individual state.
A ripple effect
This political battle, however, is more than part of the endless national debate over abortion. It is also a struggle within the Republican Party itself. The ban on all abortions is the inevitable result of President Bush's success in enlisting the religious right as an important part of his political base. But many Republicans are also moderates or libertarians, not just social conservatives. In a state where 48% of the voters are registered as Republicans, moderates in the party rightly fear negative political fallout if all abortions are banned.
South Dakotans are also famous for avoiding government intrusion into their lives. "We're kind of independent folks here, and we like to keep our business private," Casey Murschel, a Republican state lawmaker, who is fighting against the ban, told the news media.
The battle-lines are clearly drawn. Anti-abortion activists broadcast the stories of women who have been raped but now blissfully cuddle their children. Abortion-rights groups televise ads that dramatise the trauma of women victimised by rape or incest who would be forced to carry the child of a criminal.
If the abortion ban is approved "there will be a ripple effect nationwide," says Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, a major reproductive-rights organisation. "It will be part of the presidential debate, congressional debates, governors' debates and state legislative races." Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. Magazine, adds that "If they strike down Roe, all abortion is at risk in this country, we estimate about thirty states would ban it."
They're both right, but at the moment, the attention of the nation is not particularly focused on South Dakota, even though the mid-term elections are just two weeks away. Come election-day, however, that will almost certainly change.
The missing threads
Instead, the news publicises the country's growing disillusionment with how the Bush presidency has deceived the American people, manipulated their fears of terrorism, launched a catastrophic war in Iraq with cherry-picked intelligence, failed to respond to the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina, and smeared itself with corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of government.
Then there is the great scandal involving congressional representative Tom Foley, whose overtly sexual emails to 16-year old congressional pages have turned the public's mind to what it most enjoys reading in tabloids and watching on television's so-called news programmes. After five years of deferential indifference towards weapons of mass destruction, the torture of Iraqi detainees, or the erosion of American civil liberties, investigative journalists are suddenly asking the tough questions: what did the Republican leadership know about Foley's behaviour? And when did they know it?
True, the Foley scandal is far more titillating than South Dakota's referendum on abortion. Yet Tom Foley is just one more politician, in a long and dishonorable tradition, who has abused his political power to seek sexual pleasure.
Alongside this sexual scandal is the rising expectation that Democrats might actually take back either the House of Representatives or the Senate, or even both. This growing drumbeat is accompanied by teasing speculations about the ability of charismatic Senator Barack Obama (Illinois) or frontrunner Hillary Clinton (New York) to win the presidency in 2008.
What's missing in all this electoral chatter are domestic issues that could actually change the lives of minorities and women in the United States. It has become a cliché that Democrats need a spine transplant. Despite the South Dakota referendum, they barely mention the word abortion. Nor do they talk about working families who need child and elder care, flexible working hours, universal health coverage, or a higher minimum wage that could lift many low-wage workers above "the working poor."
The stressful, hectic lives of working mothers are all but ignored by those who are running for elective office, even though American women could, if they all voted, easily sway an election in the United States. This is because women who have never married, or are divorced, or widowed, experience greater economic insecurity and tend to vote for Democrats. But too many never bother to vote at all.
For much of the nation, as well the rest of the world, the most important issue is whether or not the Democrats regain political power in both houses of Congress. If that should happen, then they could break the Bush's administration's stranglehold on expanded executive power. There might even be investigations of war crimes, questions of who knew what and when, and relief around the world that the United States is showing even provisional signs of rejoining the international community with greater humility and diplomatic decency.
For now, the referendum over abortion in South Dakota is a sleeper issue, as are many other policies that affect the daily lives of women, minorities and working families. Yet the consequences of this vote may well have a lasting impact on the reproductive choices and lives of all women in the United States.
Copyright © Ruth Rosen, Published by openDemocracy Ltd. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.
Posted on: Friday, October 27, 2006 - 15:36
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-26-06)
Are we now officially out of our minds? On Tuesday, General George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador to Iraq, gave a joint press conference in Baghdad that was all for home consumption. By home, I mean Washington DC. I mean Indiana. I mean Texas. Baghdad's Green Zone was essentially a stage set for a political defense of the Bush presidency.
If the news hadn't been quite so grim, this tandem's act might have qualified as an Abbott and Costello comedy routine, including the moment when the lights went out -- while"gunfire and bomb blasts echoed around the city" -- thanks to our inability to resuscitate Iraqi electricity production. In fact, the New York Times just reported that, on some projects, more than 50% of U.S. reconstruction dollars are being spent on"overhead" as, for months at a time, whole reconstruction teams sit idly with the meter going waiting to begin work.
Some Democratic critics had been calling on the Bush administration for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Well, a timetable they got (though Ambassador Khalilzad preferred to call it a"timeline"). The catch was: The hopeless, essentially powerless Iraqi"government" inside Baghdad's Green Zone was to deliver that timeline as a pre-election present to a disgruntled American public. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself would produce it with genuine"benchmarks" for upping oil production and splitting oil revenues, for disarming and dismantling Shiite militias and police death squads, and for negotiating with Sunni rebels.
Not only that, Maliki would have his"plan" in place (perhaps for the Iraqis to withdraw from their own country)"before the end of the year" -- and this was just one of a welter of mini-schedules offered by the ambassador and general that would shove Iraqi matters at least beyond November 7th, if not into the relatively distant future. The ambassador, for instance, assured Americans that all those benchmarks would be met and"significant progress" achieved"in the course of the next twelve months" -- the slight catch being:"assuming that the Iraqi leaders deliver on the commitments that they have made."
General Casey chimed in with his own timeline:"And it's going to take another 12 to 18 months or so until I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security." ("Still probably with some level of support from us.") Probably? These are the same forces some of whose battalions"demobilized" rather than accept transfer assignments to work with Americans in the dangerous streets of distant Baghdad. These are battalions that can have 30-50% of their troops either on leave, AWOL, or perhaps as ghost soldiers for whom commanders receive pay?
Ambassador Khalilzad finished off his Arabian Nights version of a press conference introduction with assurances that"victory" was possible and"success" achievable in the foreseeable future. The solution was simple:"Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they have agreed." (There's a new ad-jingle-style line to replace our President's"As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down":"As the Iraqi leaders step up, we will…")
Like some genie from a bottle, Prime Minister Maliki, our recalcitrant"partner," who only the previous week had to check with George Bush to make sure he still held his job, promptly stood up at a rival news conference and"slammed" American officials for demanding a timeline. ("I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it.") Still, he seemed to grasp the essence of the message the ambassador and general were sending out:"Al-Maliki said he believed the U.S. talk of timelines was driven by the upcoming U.S. midterm election. ‘We are not much concerned with it.'" Once all those American purple fingers fade, look for a new spike in coup rumors in Baghdad.
The only evidence General Casey offered of Iraqi fortitude was the news that 300 members of their security forces had died over the Ramadan holiday"in defense of their country." (In a gesture of American cross-cultural sensitivity, he referred to them as"martyrs.") In the meantime, while waiting for that miracle moment when the Iraqi non-Army and militia-infiltrated police would truly"stand up" for Maliki's non-government, the general hinted at a familiar solution: Bring in more U.S. troops. Gen. Casey put it this way:"Now, do we need more troops to do that? Maybe. And as I've said all along, if we do, I will ask for the troops I need, both coalition and Iraqis." Expect that"maybe" to turn into various stop-loss orders and reservist call-ups soon after November 7th.
So think of Tuesday's dog-and-pony show as"the light at the end of the tunnel" news conference. And think of Prime Minister Maliki as a poor stand-in for the recalcitrant-to-American-wishes South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, assassinated in a U.S.-backed military coup in 1963, after which it was all downhill.
Meanwhile, our chameleon President was in Florida visiting a company that produces devices to detect roadside bombs. No longer was he the plodding, "stay the course" George Bush; now, he was the maestro of" change," a darting, dashing Wile E. Coyote of a president, zipping off a cliff while saying things like:"We're constantly changing. The enemy changes, and we change. The enemy adapts to our strategies and tactics, and we adapt to theirs. We're constantly changing to defeat this enemy."
Unlike the President, Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey undoubtedly know that they are putting on an act for the TV screens back home, that this is a moment to say whatever a desperate administration considers necessary to bring voters back into the fold. This is policy as vaudeville, a farce for everyone except those"martyrs," the Americans dying in Iraq, and, of course, millions of Iraqi civilians who are unlikely to feel mollified by General Casey's lame reassurance"that 90 percent of the sectarian violence in Iraq takes place in about a 30-mile radius from the center of Baghdad."
The Vietnam Analogy
In the most hallucinatory moment of a news conference in which everyone must have been inhaling something, Gen. Casey offered this summary of the Iraqi War thus far:
"The American people already know what a magnificent job the men and women of their armed forces are doing here, and we continue to be grateful for their continuing support. But they should also know that the men and women of the armed forces here have never lost a battle in over three years of war. That is a fact unprecedented in military history."
For old Vietnam-era hands, this had a ringingly familiar (and hollow) sound to it. From the beginning, the Bush administration has had a knack for highlighting how unfinished America's Vietnam business still is. In planning their war, they had the"mistakes" of Vietnam on the brain and attempted to reverse them rather systematically (no body counts, no body bags, etc.) It didn't matter. The Vietnam War returned to American consciousness (along with all the familiar Vietnam-era terms) within days of the invasion of Iraq and has never gone away again, not because Vietnam and Iraq are interchangeable pieces of a historical puzzle, but because that almost four-decade-old war remains an American obsession.
Now, the Vietnam analogy is front and center again, thanks to the President's response to a question about the Tet Offensive. But as General Casey's comment indicates, many top U.S. officials remain on Vietnam auto-pilot. Perhaps the commonest claim of American commanders in Vietnam was exactly the one the general brought up Tuesday."Unprecedented in history"? Hardly, according to Vietnam-era commanders who insisted that they had never lost a battle in those years of endless war. Such a claim has all the advantages of rolling cluelessness about the nature of guerrilla warfare and a stab-in-the-back theory into a single package.
This brings to mind a story from the Vietnam era, as written up in the March-April 2005 Military Review:"While negotiating in Hanoi a few days before Saigon fell, U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers, Jr. [later author of On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War], said to a North Vietnamese colonel, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.' The Vietnamese colonel replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'"
Think of it this way: With the help of the Vietnam experience, our top generals are already beginning to create their own exit-strategies from this war. Along Vietnam lines, their tale will be simple enough: We won. They (still to be defined but leading candidates include Donald Rumsfeld and Pentagon civilian bosses, the media, and the American public) lost. We wuz betrayed! Talk about incipient"martyrs."
Let me suggest to the non-generals among us, two Vietnam analogies that have yet to arise but couldn't be more relevant. Think of them as"the bloodbath" and"the non-withdrawal withdrawal" analogies.
The bloodbath was a constant companion of Americans in the later Vietnam years. Vietnamese civilians had, by then, died by the hundreds of thousands. Huge swaths of the Vietnamese (as well as Cambodian and Laotian) countryside were bombed and napalmed as well as shelled into a state of near uninhabitability."Free fire zones" were declared in rural areas of a largely peasant land and treated exactly as the term indicates."The bloodbath" as an image referred to none of this, but to something that had not yet arrived.
In his memoirs, Richard Nixon tells how Alexander Haig informed him of intelligence information indicating that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the Vietcong) had"instructed their cadres the moment a cease-fire is announced to kill all of the opponents in the area that they control. This would be a murderous bloodbath." This sea of blood to come, constantly thrown in the collective faces of those who wanted the U.S. out of Vietnam, deflected attention from the nature of the struggle at hand. As an image, it was certainly both a projection of American fears and American wishes, for the bloodbath-to-come promised to cleanse those involved in the bloodbath then in progress (as"victory" too would have done, had it ever arrived, and as the unpredicted Cambodian genocide would do in the years to come).
We find ourselves in a surprisingly comparable situation today. As the recent Lancet study figures (or even the more"modest" ones at Iraq Body Count) indicate, there is a bloodbath of staggering proportions underway in Iraq with no end in sight. Now, as then,"victory" -- despite Ambassador Khalilzad's use of the word and our President's love for it -- is inconceivable. Now, as then, a future bloodbath deflects attention from the present one and from withdrawal possibilities.
The Iraqi future bloodbath happens to go by the name of" civil war." Of course, an actual civil war is underway there, but the claim has long been that, whatever blood is now being spilled, it will be nothing compared to what might happen if the U.S. military, the last bulwark between bloody-minded Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enemies, were withdrawn. That would mean, as Sen. John McCain put it back in 2004,"all-out civil war… and the violence [we] see today will pale in comparison to the bloodletting." As Robert Kaplan wrote in a recent Atlantic Magazine while arguing against any kind of withdrawal,"Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know. An odd event, or the announcement of pulling 20,000 American troops out, might trigger it."
Of course, this is but one possible scenario we humans, who hardly have flawless records when it comes to prediction, can project into the future and yet there is no way to disprove such a possibility because it has yet to happen. The problem is that it stands not as one possibility among many (or even among many gradations of bloodletting), but as a (capital F) Fact, a given, a sure thing, and so as a powerful way to disarm all serious discussion of withdrawal.
The non-withdrawal withdrawal plan was a commonplace of the Vietnam years. Then,"withdrawal" regularly involved not departure but all sorts of departure-like maneuvers -- from bombing pauses that led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a Nixon-era"Vietnamization" plan in which American ground troops were actually withdrawn, but only as our air war was intensified. Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer, to hope a little longer for some glimmer of"success" to emerge.
As the pressure for timetables and some form of phased withdrawal ratchets up in Iraq, you will certainly see the same sort of thing --"withdrawal" plans, like the one former State Department official Richard Armitage recently suggested, that will take endless (reversible) years to complete. A five-year withdrawal plan is not a withdrawal plan. It's a pacification plan for the"home front," a way to keep on keeping on.
These are among the possible endgame Vietnam analogies that are likely to arise. Unfortunately, that endgame could take a while. After all, if the Tet Offensive was the"turning point" in the Vietnam War, the war itself lasted almost as long after Tet as before, with almost as many American casualties.
How Long Has Baghdad Been Burning?
In that press conference, Ambassador Khalilzad said:"My message today is straightforward: Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable." By"we," he meant"the American people," but at this late date what exactly can"success" mean for an Iraqi? Or, to put it another way, with the likelihood of somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000+"excess deaths" since the invasion of 2003 (and with morgues, urban killing fields, and rivers still filling with bodies), what is the value of one Iraqi life?
This question has been on my mind these last weeks because one Iraqi life had come to mean something to me. And I wasn't alone.
She arrived online on Sunday, August 17, 2003, just over four months after Baghdad was occupied by American troops."So this is the beginning for me, I guess," was her first sentence."I never thought I'd start my own weblog… I'm female, Iraqi, and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway." Reading that passage over now still gives me a little chill.
She took the pseudonym Riverbend, called her blog Baghdad Burning, and we did learn a bit more about her over the years: that, like many Iraqi women, she had worked -- as a computer programmer, a self-styled"geek"; that she had lost her job soon after the war ended as hostility toward women in the workplace grew; that she was a Sunni (though for a long time she clung to the hope that Iraqis would not make religious affiliations their identity) and believed in God; that she did not wear a hijab or headscarf; that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad with her beloved younger brother"E" (who would soon be sporting a pistol for protection) and her parents in a world that was slowly, slowly slipping away. We learned that she had spent some years of her youth abroad, though not where.
We know, from a rare e-interview she did with Lakshmi Chaudhry at Alternet, that she started her"girlblog from Iraq" at the suggestion of Salam Pax, a well known male Iraqi blogger and wrote it in English -- stunning, American-style English -- because she didn't want to"preach to the choir" in Arabic. We learned a little about her life as a young reader (Jane Austen to John LeCarré) and about the limitations her parents put on her TV watching as a child. Bits and pieces slipped out. But, in the end, she was generally as good as her word. Signing off on each post as"river," she offered remarkably little more in the way of biographical information -- but so unimaginably much more about everything else.
About what it felt like over several years, for instance, to have the lights of civilization literally blink off; about how it felt to lose the things city dwellers normally take for granted: the water in your house (and hence the ability to bathe or wash your clothes), your electricity (and so the ability to turn on the air conditioning in 120 degree heat or even post the blog entry you just wrote); the telephone, and so the ability to speak to friends and relatives, especially as your house became something close to your prison. She taught us what it was like to retreat to the roof in the heat of the evening and watch the explosions going off in your own city; what it was like to become an expert in telling one kind of weapons fire from another.
It took Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks until this year to produce his bestseller Fiasco. Riverbend has produced her version of fiasco then (as well as fiasco now) on the fly and if you read her online, you generally learned about the disasters of the moment first there, not in our papers: the first deaths of those she knew; the first brutal, humiliating U.S. house searches and arrests of neighbors; the first kidnappings; the first mentions of the rise of fundamentalism; the first signs of an incipient civil war and ethnic cleansing campaign; the first mention of horrors at Abu Ghraib prison; the first suicide bombs and car bombs; on and on. On the fiasco of L. Paul Bremer, then our viceroy in Baghdad, disbanding the Iraqi Army, she wrote on August 24th, 2003:"The first major decision [Bremer] made was to dissolve the Iraqi army. That may make sense in Washington, but here, we were left speechless."
Hers were often the quietest of descriptions -- of the comings and goings inside a single house, but they were also war reports. By the nature of things, as the explosions and chaos crept ever closer, as they morphed into the familiar wallpaper of her life, she became, even inside her own home, a war correspondent on the frontlines of some unnamed conflict. ("When Bush ‘brought the war to the terrorists,' he failed to mention he wouldn't be fighting it in some distant mountains or barren deserts: the frontline is our homes… the ‘collateral damage' are our friends and families.") Her prize-winning blog entries, gathered into two books, Baghdad Burning, Girl Blog from Iraq, and more recently Baghdad Burning II, More Girl Blog from Iraq, add up to the best account we have of what it's been like to live through the American"liberation" of Iraq -- and, though it's a terrible thing to say, her work was beautiful to read because she wrote her English like an angel.
I'm a 62 year-old book editor, so it's not unknown for me to fall in love with someone through their words and I now realize that, when it came to Riverbend, I did so. Then, on August 5th of this year, she posted a blog eerily entitled, "Summer of Goodbyes" which began:"Residents of Baghdad are systematically being pushed out of the city. Some families are waking up to find a Klashnikov bullet and a letter in an envelope with the words ‘Leave your area or else.'" Telling us that she no longer dared go out without wearing a hijab, she signed off this way:"I sometimes wonder if we'll ever know just how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country this bleak summer. I wonder how many of them will actually return. Where will they go? What will they do with themselves? Is it time to follow? Is it time to wash our hands of the country and try to find a stable life somewhere else?"
And then she blogged no more. Those of us who regularly read her waited. She had been gone before, the first time in early September 2003 ("I haven't been writing these last few days because I simply haven't felt inspired"); once for a month and a half. Sometimes family crises, simple lack of electricity, and the heat kept her away; sometimes, clearly, it was depression and perhaps a sense of her own insignificance -- this fierce, yet gentle young woman whose blog had links to both Iraq Body Count and Dilbert, Iraq Occupation Watch and the Onion -- given the magnitude of the catastrophe happening around her. ("The war was brought to us here, and now we have to watch the country disintegrate before our very eyes.")
As time passed and nothing appeared, readers began writing in to Tomdispatch, asking if I knew anything about her fate. No, I knew nothing. I had written her a couple of times and once even gotten an e-line back, so I went to her site, found her email address, and wrote again. No answer, no entries. More days, then weeks passed. Months passed, two of them, and I found myself at odd moments wondering, whether she had been among the estimated one and a half million Iraqis who had fled the country for almost anywhere else. Or had she, like the neighbors down the street been taken in a U.S. raid and imprisoned, or like one of her relatives kidnapped, or had she even… and here I would hesitate… become victim 655,001? And would we ever find out?
How can you care for someone you don't know? What does that caring even mean? I'm honestly not sure. But I found I did care in a way that was impossible when it came to Iraqis en masse, no matter the fact that my own country, the place where I grew up and to which I'm deeply and undeniably attached, has been so central to those hundreds of thousands of wasted lives and all the other ones to come.
I called Riverbend's publisher, the Feminist Press at CUNY, and talked to a couple of worried souls there. They, too, had heard nothing. Finally, I decided to do something about her absence -- the one small thing I could actually do -- write a dispatch. So I got my hands on those two books of hers and was just beginning to relive her Baghdad experiences when, on October 18, readers started emailing me that she had just blogged, that she was back. She had written a new entry on the Lancet casualty study. In it, she admitted that she had stopped writing, in part, due to"a certain hopelessness that can't be put into words and that I suspect other Iraqis feel also."
On the Lancet figures themselves, she found nothing strange. ("There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.") Nor was she surprised that American war supporters were not about to embrace the study's figures:"Admitting a number like that would be the equivalent of admitting they had endorsed, say, a tsunami, or an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, or the occupation of a developing country by a ruthless superpower… oh wait -– that one actually happened."
So amid the carnage, Riverbend has returned to us, though only once thus far. Given the world she inhabits, once already seems like a small miracle.
Truths of a Lost War (or Why Baghdad Will Keep Burning)
If someone could protect the polls and there were a plebiscite tomorrow, there seems little question what the majority of Iraqis would vote for: The withdrawal of American troops, the end of the occupation. And these are people who know that things could get a lot worse. Like Riverbend, they are there to witness or experience the present bloodbath. Like Riverbend, like most human beings, among their fondest wishes is surely not to die, nor to live without water or electricity, without easy access to fuel in one of the energy-richest lands on the planet; to be secure from car bombs, death squads, assassins, kidnappers, and criminals in a land that is losing its educators, its engineers, its doctors, its middle class, in a land where so much has been deconstructed, where women are being sent home, where ever more extreme theologies are gaining the upper hand, where militias rule the streets, killing grounds dot cities, bodies float in the rivers, and anarchy rules. That is how we have liberated and protected the Iraqi people thus far.
In this case, if the history of the last few years is our guide, until we decide that we are at the heart of the problem and begin to draw back and out, things will only get exponentially worse in Iraq. Shoring up Maliki will make no difference. A coup is only likely to destabilize the situation further. Even the return of a Saddam-style Baathist strongman under our aegis would be unlikely to restore order. After all, along with doing more than our fair share of the killing -- only the other day, for instance, four firemen in Falluja mistaken for"insurgents" were gunned down by American troops -- we have also destroyed an intangible of every state that wants to establish some version of law and order: sovereignty. It's gone and, no matter what James Baker's Iraq Study Group or any other group in Washington may suggest, we are incapable of restoring it.
Had the United States left Iraq in 2003, the country would certainly have been a mess and there would have been explosive tensions waiting to be relieved, but it's unlikely such a bloodbath as has already happened would have occurred. Time, as I wrote in October of that year, was never on our side.
It was always going to get worse as long as American forces remained an occupying power in an alien land. If such things were possible for imperial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are no longer possible in our world. That is the simplest -- and most truthful -- analogy you can make between the otherwise disparate Iraqi and Vietnamese situations. It seems such an obvious conclusion today. It seemed obvious enough before the invasion of Iraq ever began. It is, after all, a large part of the history of the previous century.
The longer we stayed, the worse it was always going to be. When we finally do leave -- one year, two years, five years from now -- it's likely to be even worse, possibly far worse than the"all-out civil war" predicted if we left tomorrow.
Here, to my mind, is the deepest truth of the present situation, and the hardest for Americans to grasp: We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The neocons and other top Bush officials were dazzled by American military power. They believed that, as the leaders of the planet's only"hyperpower," its last imperial superpower, its New Rome, they could do just about anything. Now, having attacked two weak countries, one among the poorest on the planet, and finding that they can achieve nothing they want, they -- and others in Washington -- are sitting around desperately dreaming up further hopeless solutions to the Iraqi catastrophe. Should the country be divided into three parts? Should the Iraqis share oil revenues in a certain way? Should the Iraqi constitution be amended? And on and on.
The deep belief that, even at this late date, the United States can somehow"solve" the problem of Iraq is part delusional self-regard, part leftover goodwill, and part a greedy desire to remain, as well as a total fantasy. But as long as we believe that the problem is ours to solve, we will only continue to rev up the motor that is actually making it worse, no matter what"tactics" we turn on or off.
Withdrawal from Iraq is no longer a good path. Long ago, in fact, any good path may have been drowned in a sea of blood and suffering. It is, however, the only path that has any hope of relieving the situation. Don't believe otherwise. Exactly how we get out, on what timetable, and under what conditions are important but secondary matters. First, we have to decide that leaving is what we're about; second, we have to declare that we have no future interest in retaining permanent bases in Iraq or permanent control over Iraqi energy resources; third, we should offer genuine reconstruction help to a future Iraq -- help not bound to the hiring of corporate looters like Halliburton's KBR. (Let me not even mention offering apologies for what we've done. That's not in the American grain.)
Unfortunately, we continue to build the largest, most permanent embassy in the universe inside Baghdad's Green Zone; we continue to upgrade our vast bases in Iraq (and are reputedly building a "massive" new one in Kurdistan, undoubtedly a fallback position for keeping our hand in a future Iraq). On Wednesday, at his surprise news conference, the President managed once again not to repudiate the permanent basing of American forces in Iraq. As of now, whatever tactics are changing, whatever supposedly strategic decisions may be made after the elections, the top officials of the Bush administration have by no means made up their minds to leave Iraq.
To write all this, I'm aware, is to consign Riverbend, the girl blogger of Baghdad, to hell on Earth. But I don't have to tell her that. She's already there and knows it all too well.
This is the impasse we are presently in. But our impasse is just a formula for more deaths in Iraq, a formula guaranteed to keep Baghdad burning.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt
Posted on: Friday, October 27, 2006 - 15:21
SOURCE: Jewish World Review (10-26-06)
Students of history are sickened when they read of the long-ago, gruesome practice of beheading. How brutal were those societies that chopped off the heads of Cicero, Sir Thomas More and Marie Antoinette. And how lucky we thought we were to have evolved from such elemental barbarity.
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates was executed for unpopular speech. The 18th-century European Enlightenment gave people freedom to express views formerly censored by clerics and the state. Just imagine what life was like once upon a time when no one could write music, compose fiction or paint without court or church approval?
Ancient Greek literary characters, from Lysistrata to Antigone, reflected the struggle for sexual equality. The subsequent notion that women could vote, divorce, dress or marry as they pleased was a millennia-long struggle.
It is almost surreal now to read about the elemental hatred of Jews in the Spanish Inquisition, 19th-century Russian pogroms or the Holocaust. Yet here we are revisiting the old horrors of the savage past.
Beheading? As we saw with Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl, our Neanderthal enemies in the Middle East have resurrected that ancient barbarity — and married it with 21st-century technology to beam the resulting gore instantaneously onto our computer screens. Xerxes and Attila, who stuck their victims' heads on poles for public display, would've been thrilled by such a gruesome show.
Who would have thought centuries after the Enlightenment that sophisticated Europeans — in fear of radical Islamists — would be afraid to write a novel, put on an opera, draw a cartoon, film a documentary or have their pope discuss comparative theology?
The astonishing fact is not just that millions of women worldwide in 2006 are still veiled from head-to-toe, trapped in arranged marriages, subject to polygamy, honor killings and forced circumcision, or are without the right to vote or appear alone in public. What is more baffling is that in the West, liberal Europeans are often wary of protecting female citizens from the excesses of Sharia law — sometimes even fearful of asking women to unveil their faces for purposes of simple identification and official conversation.
Who these days is shocked that Israel is hated by Arab nations and threatened with annihilation by radical Iran? Instead, the surprise is that even in places like Paris or Seattle, Jews are singled out and killed for the apparent crime of being Jewish.
Since Sept. 11, the West has fought enemies who are determined to bring back the nightmarish world that we thought was long past. And there are lessons Westerners can learn from radical Islamists' ghastly efforts.
First, the Western liberal tradition is fragile and can still disappear. Just because we have sophisticated cell phones, CAT scanners and jets does not ensure that we are permanently civilized or safe. Technology used by the civilized for positive purposes can easily be manipulated by barbarians for destruction.
Second, the Enlightenment is not always lost on the battlefield. It can be surrendered through either fear or indifference as well. Westerners fearful of terrorist reprisals themselves shut down a production of a Mozart opera in Berlin deemed offensive to Muslims. Few came to the aid of a Salman Rushdie or Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh when their unpopular expression earned death threats from Islamists. Van Gogh, of course, was ultimately killed....
Posted on: Thursday, October 26, 2006 - 15:53
SOURCE: Austin American-Statesman (10-25-06)
The ancient Athenians used public dramas, known as tragedies, to look at problems they had to face. These plays were the centerpieces of yearly festivals that all citizens received payment to attend. They could see one another as they watched the performances in a big open-air theater. They could share their reactions afterward.
In spring 415 BCE, right after the Athenian citizenry had ordered their soldiers to commit genocide, the citizen soldiers of Athens watched "The Trojan Women," a play about Greeks committing genocide after the fall of Troy. We have no record of what they thought and felt.
Two movies just opened that pose questions we all need to think about. Clint Eastwood's version of James Bradley's "Flags of Our Fathers" (2000) recreates the battle of Iwo Jima and how a single action there by simple men was heroized for Americans back home. In Kevin Macdonald's version of Giles Foden's 1998 novel "The Last King of Scotland," Forest Whitaker portrays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. We see Amin through the eyes of a simple everyman character, a young Scottish doctor who has come to Africa haphazardly to do humanitarian medical work and accidentally becomes Amin's personal physician.
I did not use here any adjectives to describe genocide or what American and Axis soldiers did to each other during the Second World War. Movies such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List" and "Hotel Rwanda" have shown us these things. Film images and descriptive terms such as brutal, hellish, monstrous, barbaric can be multiplied forever. They do no good unless we understand what we are confronting: an old-fashioned thing called evil.
We either use the term evil without thinking or think we shouldn't use it at all. What did our president accomplish when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "axis of evil"? He trivialized evil.
Compared to the real axis powers two generations ago, the bad things done by these countries are feeble. Just contemplate the magnitude of the crimes against humanity of the 11 major Nuremberg defendants sentenced to be hanged 60 years ago this month.
My University of Texas colleague Philip Bobbitt once wrote to me expressing his understandable disgust for comparisons made between civilian casualties during our war in Vietnam and the number of innocent people who died on 9/11. Yet evil operates on a sliding scale. This is a fact even if we are uncomfortable thinking or talking about it.
In "The War of the World," historian Niall Ferguson remarks, "The Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time." As for genocide, it took many Germans to build and run an efficient system to murder 6 million Jews and about 3 million human beings from other social and ethnic groups. We know these things. Iran, Iraq and North Korea are far away. So, comedians use "axis of evil" as a joke, and our laughter isn't even nervous.
But evil is no joke. According to a contemporary news report, "just mentioning the name Idi Amin" in Uganda in 2002 was "enough to cause fear to both the old and young." Amin was then nearly 80 years old and had been in exile for 23 years.
Many of us shy away from calling things evil on intellectual grounds. We associate good and evil with categorical religious beliefs. Moreover, looking at war or genocide tarnishes the good guys. Former British foreign office minister David Owen thought it disgraceful that we did not act to remove Amin from power. Owen had proposed assassinating him.
When we debate estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties, we see that war in any form makes even the good side complicit in harming innocents. This knowledge is so disturbing to us that we use the euphemism "collateral damage" to soften its impact.
It is also hard to call people and what they do evil because we are so used to compromising in our daily lives. Compromise, in its good sense of meeting people halfway, is arguably the chief (and now forgotten) art citizens and leaders in a democracy must know and use. But evil is uncompromising.
In Vietnam, My Lai was evil. Of all the soldiers at My Lai on March 16, 1968, few had the uncompromising moral courage of Hugh Thompson. Thompson, who died in January, forcefully intervened to stop his fellow soldiers from massacring old men, women, children, babies. He later explained, "I didn't want to be part of that. It wasn't war."
Others, however, succumbed to a mode of thinking that William Eckhardt, chief military prosecutor of William Calley in the My Lai courts martial, came to know too well: "Evil doesn't come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear. 'Think about your career. I'm not sure what's going on. We'll muddle through.' "
If and when you see "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Last King of Scotland," or read the books on which they were based, contemplate evil, and consider what it means that Calley, after spending three years in house arrest, one month for every 10 villagers he killed, at last report was married and working at a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 14:56
SOURCE: Portside (10-23-06)
'Military Blunders' (Constable) and 'Victoria's Wars'
(Viking). His television series include 'Time
Commanders' for BBC2. He was educated at Ampleforth College and studied history at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities (MA and Ph.D).]
President George W Bush's acknowledgement that the
current fighting in Iraq is comparable to the 1968 Tet
Offensive in the Vietnam War is an extraordinary
admission. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of
violence," he told ABC News, "and we're heading into an
election." It was, after all, the Tet Offensive that
helped to turn US public opinion against a war which
still exerts a powerful hold on American consciousness.
Bush, moreover, has for the first time conceded that
the Iraq war has a historical context. And he's
absolutely right. The refusal by the President and Tony
Blair to admit the failure of their Iraq policy by
ordering a speedy withdrawal is entirely consistent
with the history of similar foreign interventions.
Take Vietnam. The Tet Offensive was a military defeat
for the Vietcong, but so severe was the fighting and so
high the number of US casualties that many American
commentators predicted the beginning of the end. The
most influential was Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening
News, who told his viewers that the US was "mired in a
stalemate" and needed to get out. And yet a further
five years elapsed before all US troops were withdrawn
from Vietnam. Why? Because President Richard Nixon was
determined not to leave until his South Vietnamese
allies were strong enough to fight the war on their own
(a policy known as "Vietnamisation", and one not
dissimilar to the current building up of Iraqi security
forces). It never happened, but the US left anyway,
condemning the South Vietnamese army to eventual defeat
Not that the Americans have a monopoly on tardy troop
withdrawals after ill-judged wars. The unprovoked and
ultimately disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan
in 1839 was undertaken, like Iraq, with regime change
in mind: to replace a seemingly anti-British and
pro-Russian ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a pro-British
one, Shah Shuja. There, too, the plan was to withdraw
British bayonets as soon as the country was pacified.
It never happened, and tens of thousands of British,
Indian and Afghan lives were lost in the ensuing three
years of conventional and guerrilla war. The end
result: British troops finally withdrew with their
tails between their legs, having first blown-up Kabul's
magnificent covered bazaar, and Dost Mohammed resumed
his rule. Yet the lesson was not heeded, and three
times since Afghanistan has been invaded by foreign
troops: twice by the British and once by the Russians.
Now we're back again, ostensibly at the request of a
pro-Western Kabul government trying to find its feet.
And once again, as in Iraq, the very presence of
foreign troops is making the security situation worse.
It could be argued that British troops were withdrawn
too quickly from India in 1947, and that many Hindu,
Muslim and Sikh lives were lost as a result. And
certainly the removal of British garrisons from former
colonies in the 1950s and 1960s was largely well-timed
and violence free. Yet in Iraq, like Afghanistan, there
was ample warning from history. It was Britain, after
all, which effectively created modern Iraq when it
demanded a mandate over the former Ottoman provinces of
Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the aftermath of the First
World War. This was partly because of Iraq's strategic
importance at the head of the Persian Gulf , but
chiefly because of oil: huge reserves had been
discovered in both Iraq and Persia (modern Iran).
Within months, angry at the imposition of direct
British rule, the Iraqis rebelled in Mosul and along
the Euphrates. Railways lines were cut, towns besieged
and British officers murdered. The British reacted
harshly, dispatching punitive expeditions to burn
villages and exact fines. They also used planes to bomb
and strafe strongholds. By the end of 1920 a shaky
peace had been restored, and by mid-1921 the throne of
Iraq had been offered to Emir Feisal, son of the sharif
of Mecca, who had fought with Lawrence of Arabia. But
Feisal proved less pliant than Britain had hoped, and
in 1932 Iraq joined the League of Nations as an
independent state. In 1958, Feisal's grandson was
ousted in a coup that established a republic. And there
Britain's interference in the internal affairs of Iraq
came to an end.
Until, that is, the 2003 invasion. Many have argued
that the US and Britain missed a golden opportunity to
oust Saddam Hussein in 1991. In truth, the decision not
to march on Baghdad after the liberation of Kuwait was
not only considered but correct. "We would have been
there in another day and a half," wrote General Sir
Peter de la Billiere, the British commander. "But in
pressing on to the Iraqi capital we would have moved
outside the remit of the United Nations authority,
within which we had worked so far. We would have split
the Coalition physically, since the Islamic forces
would not have come with us... The Americans, British
and French would have been presented as the foreign
invaders of Iraq... The whole of Desert Storm would
have been seen purely as an operation to further
Western interests in the Middle East."
There was also a realisation that toppling Saddam was
one thing, replacing him with a stable, pro-Western
regime quite another. "If our soldiers depose him, or
our special forces assassinate him," wrote the then US
Assistant Secretary of State, John zKelly, "we risk
losing American lives, bringing chaos and revolution to
the region, jeopardising the oil and, after all, his
successor could be even worse."
Nothing much had changed by 2003, which might explain
why it's now being suggested that former President
George Bush, who took the decision not to march on
Baghdad in 1991, is so determined to reverse his son's
disastrous Iraq policy. The omens from history suggest
he is right to do so.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 14:32
SOURCE: Inside Higher Ed (10-24-06)
We’ve heard this before. Our schools are failing. International competitors are gaining on us. Our economic future is in jeopardy. This time, however, the educational institutions examined and found wanting are our colleges and universities.
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence and Education declared that we were “A Nation at Risk.” The report asserted that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 education was putting America at an economic disadvantage in global competition. Now the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the Spellings Commission) has delivered a similar message.
While acknowledging that “higher education in the United States is one of our greatest success stories,” the commission claims that “a lot of other countries have followed our lead and are “passing us by at a time when education is more important to our prosperity than ever.” The report warns that “[h]istory is littered with industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to — or even to notice — changes in the world around them ... institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap.” Apparently, we are at risk again.
What have we learned from our experience in K-12 education reform that would help us in evaluating the Spellings Commission report? That history warns against putting too much emphasis on the economic context of higher education. It also shows that quick, “top-down” fixes for reforming education at any level are unlikely to work.
The dire prediction in “A Nation at Risk” of economic decline without educational transformation was simply wrong. Despite the fact that the public schools have improved minimally, if at all, since 1983, the American economy has outstripped its international competitors. The performance of our schools has not been a primary factor in either our economic woes or our successes. There are many more important and proximate causes for our economic performance such as technology, management, and government regulatory and monetary policy. Emphasizing the economic role of colleges and universities and asking, as the Spellings Commission does, that higher education “serve the educational needs of a knowledge economy,” overstates the economic impact of education and misstates the role of colleges and universities.....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 21:30
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-24-06)
Recently, speaking of his war in Iraq, George Bush put the Vietnam analogy back in the public eye. He was asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was on the mark in suggesting that what"we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive."
The President's reply:"Mm-hmm. He could be right. There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence. And we're heading into an election."
The nationwide Tet Offensive has, of course, long been seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War, the moment when the American political establishment lost both the media and the American public in its Vietnam venture. That's what the President is certainly alluding to, though the present chaos in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq hardly qualifies as a"Tet Offensive" and, as the polls indicate, the American public had already been lost to his war.
Nonetheless, for Bush, who (like the rest of his administration) had previously avoided Vietnam-analogy admissions like the plague, it was certainly a sign that he feared the loss of the war he had fought most fiercely since September 12, 2001 -- the war to pacify the American public and the media. No administration in memory has devoted more time to thinking out and polishing its language, its signature phrases and images, in the pursuit of that war; so, for instance, the announcement that the President is now " cutting and running" from his own signature phrase"stay the course" -- one-half of the linguistic duo (the other being, of course," cut and run") on which he and Karl Rove had clearly planned drive the Democrats into retreat in the midterm election period -- is no small matter. (White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow:"[Stay the course] left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it's just the opposite.")
If this is, in any sense, a turning-point moment, then it's important to take another look at aspects of the war on the home front that this administration has fought so relentlessly these last years and is now losing -- the first being its image wars in regard to Iraq and the second, the numbers games it's played when it came to deaths in that country.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
When it finally began to penetrate the Bush administration that things were going badly in Iraq, the imagery came fast and furious on the home front. First there were those"tipping points," along with the"landmarks of progress," like the official turning over of sovereignty to the Iraqis in June 2004 or the various elections, especially the purple-finger one of January 2005. The"landmarks" have by now crumbled."Progress" is a word largely restricted to the hallucinatory world of Dick Cheney, and as for those"tipping points," it's not that they're gone, it's just that these days they're all tipping the other way.
Former Bush State Department official Richard Haas, for instance, claimed only the other day that"we are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also in the political debate in the United States... about Iraq. We are reaching the point... where simply more of essentially the same is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support." Similarly, Chris Wallace asked Senators John Warner and Joe Biden on Fox News Sunday,"[H]ave we now reached a tipping point in Iraq where President Bush's open-ended commitment to creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq has to be reconsidered?" (Time Magazine caught the irony of an administration image switching teams this way in a headline:"A Tipping Point for Iraq -- Here at Home.") Gary Samore, Haas's colleague on the Council on Foreign Relations, tipped the image even further:"We are now way past the tipping point on the ground in Iraq. But it is doubtful there will be any change of course until we see the results of the mid-term elections." Think of us, then, as at a blowback tipping point.
For a while, in 2004-2005, administration officials and U.S. military officers also spoke of"turning the corner" in Iraq -- an image that edged, however unconsciously, right up to the dark entrance to the Vietnam era's infamous"tunnel" at whose end, it was always hoped, you would see"the light." All such imagery was invariably linked to mini-schedules of progress. It was usually said that the next three to six months or even a year, would be crucial in determining whether the tipping point had truly tipped or the corner had actually been turned. But when the allotted time passed -- sometimes far earlier -- and around each corner proved to be but another armed disaster, all these images wore out their welcome.
Then, in late 2005, the Bush administration suddenly began falling back to new, far more alarming, far less optimistic images (though with the same mini-schedules attached). As panic spread after the blowing up of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February and an internecine struggle already long underway at a low level suddenly ratcheted up, they began to insist, defensively, that Iraq had not yet reached the point of civil war. And yet they found themselves at, or near, or heading for"the precipice" (or"the brink") from which you could stare down into the ominous Iraqi"abyss" (or the" chasm") of full-scale civil war. In those months, if we had indeed reached that precipice and glanced down, we were also reassured that we had"stepped back," and that time -- those same coming months -- would only tell whether we had stepped back for good.
Of course, the months passed and it turned out that, if we had stepped back, the Iraqis hadn't. So, in the spring of 2006, a new administration image arrived on the scene. With the installing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, we had, it was said, a"last chance" in Iraq, a brief window of opportunity -- call it six months -- to turn things around. Condoleezza Rice's party, on visiting Baghdad last April to pressure the new prime minister, was caught by a New York Times reporter, making exactly this point. Now, six months later at the brink of our own"tipping point" midterm elections, with the Battle of Baghdad, the"key" to the President's"victory strategy," suddenly proclaimed a failure by a U.S. military spokesman in that capital, another fallback position in the endless war of images has been reached.
Journalist John Burns of the New York Times quoted some of those anonymous military men who seem to swarm the corridors of Washington and Green-Zone Baghdad this way:"Senior officers have spoken of the [Baghdad] campaign in ?make or break' terms, saying that there would be little hope of prevailing in the wider war if the bid to retake Baghdad's streets failed."
So we're now at the make-or-break moment. Here's Kenneth Pollack, former CIA official and a leading proponent of toppling Saddam:"My real fear is that we've already passed the make-or-break point and just don't realize it. Historians in five or 10 years may look back and say 2006 was the year we lost Iraq. That's my nightmare." Another right-winger, John Hawkins, in urging conservatives not to desert the President on foreign policy, writes:"2007 will be the make or break year in Iraq."
Given that we've been breaking things in Iraq for some years now, this isn't the first time the image of breaking has arisen. Most famously, even before the 2003 invasion, there was Colin Powell's warning to the President that came to be known as "the Pottery Barn rule":"If you break it, you own it." As it turned out, it wasn't true -- neither of the Pottery Barn, nor of Iraq.
The Bush administration has essentially succeeded in breaking Iraq and yet, as events of recent weeks have shown, to the eternal frustration of its top officials they don't own any of it except Baghdad's heavily fortified city-within-a-city, the Green Zone. The rest of Iraq seems to own them and, in the end, may destroy both Rovian dreams of a generation-long Republican lock on American politics and Bushian dreams of dominating the world for at least as long.
In frustration, some influential officials are giving serious thought to officially busting up Iraq. Like ancient Gaul, it is to be divided into three parts. As Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison put it recently, she is willing to" consider the wisdom of somehow breaking up Iraq." No one, of course, finds it strange here that Hutchison or Senator Biden or any other American official should feel so free to suggest the dividing of Iraq into Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunnistan. No one asks whether it's"ours" to divide. Whatever, as they say. In any case, rest assured that, if breaking Iraq was relatively easy, breaking it up will be, as the old song goes, hard to do.
There oughta be a law, of course. But as long as the Bush administration has no intention of setting a serious date for, or timetable for, departure from Iraq, the shadow war of images will only continue from fallback position to fallback position with no enemy in sight.
The latest administration shuck is to present not itself, but the less than functional Iraqi"government" with a timetable -- in the form of a set of"benchmarks" for confronting the militias running rampart in Iraq and deeply embedded in the police. That will, theoretically, offer another few months of delay before the results -- already foreordained -- officially come in.
In the meantime, it just continues. This Monday, for instance, Michael R. Gordon, author of the bestselling Cobra II, had a front-page piece in the New York Times,"To Stand or Fall in Baghdad." In it he quotes Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, senior commander of American forces in Baghdad, this way:"It is a decisive period. [The Maliki government] either seize[s] the opportunity or they don't. If they don't, then our government is going to have to readjust what we are going to do, and that is not my call." According to"American commanders," however,"the viability of the strategy [of focusing military efforts on pacifying Baghdad] could not be properly assessed before the year's end." Thus, thanks to yet another bogus mini-schedule, the final testing of administration hopes always stays just beyond reach in the future. And without a genuine change of course, it always will; while the breaking, the burning, the torturing, the looting, the killing go on.
Playing the Numbers Game with the Dead
From the first, the issue of the Iraqi dead has been part and parcel of the Bush administration's image wars. For a long time (even after they started counting), administration and military officials, along with the President, remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during the early phases of the Afghan War."We don't do body counts," the general said. We officially didn't do them, any more than we did"body bags" or returned the American dead from Iraq in the light of day on camera. This was all part of the administration's anti-Vietnam-War approach to Afghanistan and Iraq. We would not make those mistakes again. Instead, we would ensure success on the home front, where Vietnam-era officials were believed to have lost their war, by playing an opposites game.
On December 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a reporter's question:"Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators."
To the surprise of many, the President responded for the first time with an actual number:"How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." When asked for the President's sourcing, Press Spokesman Tony Snow responded two days later with"media reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed."
As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, in the President's State of the Union Address, he used that very number for Saddam's mythical stock of"munitions capable of delivering chemical agents"; and, post-invasion, for police put back on patrol in the streets of Iraq. In 2005, that number was cited both for "new businesses" started in Iraq and new teachers trained since the fall of Baghdad. In 2006, in the President's"Strategy for Victory," that was the number of square miles of their country that Iraqi forces were then primarily responsible for patrolling.
Last week, the President was challenged again at his news conference because of a recently published study in the respected British medical journal the Lancet that offered up a staggering set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on an actual (and dangerous) door-to-door survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people, the rigorous study estimated that perhaps 655,000"excess deaths" had occurred in Iraq since the invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the U.S. cared to deal with at all.)
When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number he had previously cited of 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the President responded,"You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life -- 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just -- it's not credible." The reporter answered,"Thank you, Mr. President" and all and sundry turned to other matters.
And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. Start with the fact that, by last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war. Early on, to give but one example of a study completely ignored in the U.S. press, a group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues, and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and October 2003, when they stopped due to the dangers involved. The cautious website Iraq Body Count, which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of 49,610, was at that time in the 27,000-30,000+ range, but that was only for"media-reported" civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October 2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.
Then, consider that between December 12, 2005 and his news conference last week, even the President has admitted that Iraq has been going through an exceedingly violent period. We know, for instance, that in just July and August, according to a UN report based on counts from the Baghdad central morgue and various hospitals, 5,106 Iraqis died, almost totally by violent means, often torture of the most hideous sort followed by execution on the killing grounds of the 23 or more militias U.S. officials have counted in the capital. For the rest of Iraq add another 1,493 dead souls (while noting that the July count lacks a single death from al-Anbar province, the very heartland of the Sunni insurgency, where assumedly there simply were no officials willing to report them). All over the country, it's evident that bodies go officially unreported. As the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer recently pointed out, for example,"Bodies are increasingly being dumped in and around Baghdad in fields staked out by individual Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. Iraqi security forces often refuse to go to the dumping grounds, leaving the precise number of bodies in those sites unknown."
So for the President to"stand by" his almost year-old figure in the casualty wars -- especially after this particular almost-year -- while claiming that the Lancet study's figures weren't" credible," is, on the face of it, absurd. It's hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media, that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.
The President said something else striking, while taking up the banner for 30,000 dead Iraqis. He certainly meant it to be the highest compliment he could bestow."I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence," he commented at his press conference."I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- that there's a level of violence that they tolerate."
In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that Iraqis"tolerate" levels of violence that would horrify any society. For most Iraqis, life under such conditions is obviously hell on Earth. It's our President who"tolerates" such levels of violence in the pursuit of his policies, so perhaps he should simply applaud himself.
The fact is that the Lancet figures have largely been avoided because most Americans, including most reporters, can't entertain the possibility that our country might actually be responsible for a situation in which almost 400,000, or around 655,000, or possibly 900,000+"excess" Iraqis have died. At the top end of that continuum, you would have to think of the recent wars and serial slaughters in the Congo or the Rwandan genocide. At 655,000, you're talking about slightly more than the dead of the American Civil War. With the bottom figure, you're already at well over one hundred times the dead of September 11, 2001, almost seven times the American dead of either the Korean or Vietnam Wars, and over three times the dead of atomized Hiroshima. And let's keep in mind that any of these figures are purely provisional, since George Bush has over two years to go in office and has sworn not to pull American forces out of Iraq before he departs, even if, according to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, only his wife and dog still back him on the subject.
The Vietnam analogy, never far from American consciousness, has been back in the press recently, but here's an apt Vietnam quote that seldom seems to rise to memory any more. General William Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, offered the following explanation for similarly staggering Vietnamese body counts (an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died in that country's French and American wars):"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
It's hard to avoid the thought that a similar attitude toward Iraqi lives and deaths is at work in our government and in the media. After all, the kinds of denatured discussions now taking place about Iraqi deaths would be inconceivable if American deaths were at stake. Just consider, for instance, that the recent discovery of scattered human remains ("some as large as arm or leg bones") overlooked at Ground Zero in New York City has raised a furor and demands that all construction at the site be halted while it is thoroughly searched. Try to put that sort of concern for the dead back into the Iraqi situation or into perfunctory, daily, inside-the-newspaper passages like:
"In addition, about 50 bodies were collected Sunday around Baghdad, the capital, a figure considered high weeks ago but now routine. An Interior Ministry official said many of the victims had apparently been shot at close range and bore signs of torture."
How, then, do you even begin to grasp such losses in a war of"liberation" launched by your own country? How do you even begin to imagine such levels of suffering, death, and destruction, or the increasingly chaotic and degraded conditions in which so many Iraqis now live and for which we are certainly responsible?
[Part 2 of"Losing the Home Front,""Truths of a Lost War" will appear on Thursday.]
Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2006
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 21:07
SOURCE: Jacksonville Journal-Courier (10-21-06)
at Bates College for 27 years. He now teaches at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL.]
I believe in traditional values. I think that values from our heritage as Americans need to be more powerfully expressed in our society. On those aspects of social life in America where I feel like I stand outside today’s norms, people call me conservative.
I was raised in the 1950s, when traditional values dominated in America. We were taught to respect teachers and government, that families should eat together, and that being a good sport was more important than winning.
I married a conservative. Elizabeth Tobin’s values come from deep within her family: regular family gatherings, staying close to family members that other people call distant, emphasis on the Christian holidays, and ways of behaving at the table. There is no line between inlaws and outlaws. Instead family friends become family, creating long explanations about how we are not actually related. All blood kin are important, but being related goes beyond blood. My family was more scattered and much more narrowly focused, like other immigrants and refugees. I love being part of the large warm family my wife’s values create.
We had no trouble agreeing to be strict in the lines we drew for our children and our unwillingness to abandon them. Our children called us conservative, and complained mightily by comparing us to more liberal families they knew. That prompted heated but ultimately useful exchanges about our values and their belief that we were enforcing outrageous discipline. Since I am heavily influenced by my children’s ideas, I was happy when their arguments became half-hearted, because they came to share our family values. We could all agree that Dr. Spock screwed up by encouraging permissiveness at every crisis.
Our family attitudes toward television were considered so neanderthal, we had trouble finding babysitters in our working-class city. Our children had to learn by hearsay what was going on in the popular shows so they could pretend to have a normal home life. Now they laugh at us for having bought a large-screen TV so we can watch sports.
I feel very protective of my family. I get steamed up when people try to get inside my family circle to promote their own interests. I just think that my family is nobody else’s business. It seems like every day somebody I don’t know asks for my home phone number. I know that my response is unusual, because so many of those people get confused when I refuse to provide it. Of course, my children are pleased to point out each way that I lag behind in contemporary telecommunications. It doesn’t bother me a bit to be so unmodern.
I believe in regulation. My natural response to bad behavior is to think about better rules. Rules are the opposite of freedom, but I want to make rules for children, for students, and for employees. Good rules protect society. Unregulated freedom encourages selfishness.
I like old things. We live in an old house which we are restoring to its old look. It is filled with old furniture. I keep old tools in the basement, and save used nails and screws in case they come in handy later. My father-in-law’s favorite phrase has become our family’s byword: waste not, want not.
I like the one Latin phrase I know, although the habit of quoting Latin has gone out of fashion: “de gustibus non est disputandum”. There is no disputing taste. I can’t defend my taste for old things and it’s far better not to argue about it. I know that because my arguments with my children about revealing clothing, low slung pants, and contemporary music accomplish nothing. I do draw the line, though, on things that some people want to say are about taste. I think some men’s taste for children is criminal. I think Hollywood’s taste for violence is sickening. People with illegal tastes should be put in jail. I don’t think our society’s penalties for stealing, lying, conspiring, or abusing are severe enough. I don’t accept the defense that we just have different tastes. How conservative is that?
I smile when someone calls me a conservative, to show me how wrong I am. I like that. I have come to my principles over a lifetime and I’m proud of them. What I miss are more people who call me a conservative to show how right I am. I don’t seem to get any conservative credit for my traditional values. Our very public citizens who have decided they represent conservatives don’t talk to me. I hear them talk about traditional values, but I don’t see them stand behind them.
Family values are supposedly a conservative idea, but today’s conservatives are not protecting my family. They refuse to keep poisons out of our food or our air, which could ruin the health of my children or grandchildren. They shut their eyes and ears to the reality of global warming, which could devastate my children’s world. They are always talking about the right to life, but have done nothing to protect women’s lives from the men who brutalize them.
I want to conserve the beauty that makes America unique, but that doesn’t qualify as conservative today. Every effort to preserve our national parks, to limit suburban sprawl, or to save endangered species is labeled liberal by today’s conservatives.
I want to limit government, but that’s no longer a conservative value, either. Today’s conservatives want to listen to my phone calls, look at my bank account, and read my email. But they sure don’t want me to know what they are doing, hiding behind the kind of government secrecy that our founders hated. Maybe it’s because they are so busy spending my tax dollars to support their private interests rather than the public good.
Today’s conservatives try to keep those without power or money quiet, but where are their values when it comes to the rich and powerful? Every effort to get giant corporations to follow our laws is labeled liberal. Why do the biggest crooks in history, stealers of billions of dollars from private citizens and public coffers, seem to be buddies with today’s conservatives?
Probably the most traditional value of all is my feeling about the truth. I hate lies and the liars who tell them. Public lies are the worst lies, for they are meant to deceive the most people. Honesty no longer seems like a traditional value, just an inconvenience when the truth is hard to take. Today’s conservatives have brought our political standards of honesty to a new low. Can we even imagine one of our current leaders voluntarily telling us an inconvenient truth before everybody already knows about it?
I feel nameless. When they harken back to simpler times, I feel a kinship with intellectual and political leaders who name themselves conservative. But they spend much more time attacking me, not just when I take positions they call liberal, but when I try to defend my conservative values.
Not all my values are traditional. The founders were heroes of their time, but I’m not a principled strict constructionist because I don’t like all of their principles. Racism in public life, sexism and paternalism in private life are values I reject. The founders were far ahead of their time, but also products of it. The popular forces for equality have won great victories since then, often relying on the underlying ideas of the founders, but then going further than they were willing to.
One of the things I learned in the fifties was that homosexuality was bad. Eventually I found out that the evidence for this idea was made up, that many of its most vocal proponents were hypocrites, and that homophobia was just a nasty prejudice with deadly consequences.
So I support a mixture of values, traditional and liberal. I don’t think that makes me middle-of-the-road, however. People who know me remark on my strong opinions and the strong way I express them.
I am not a moderate.
Now I have to vote. That is both a responsibility and a privilege, which I am grateful to use. Out of all those mathematically conceivable combinations of values here in America, there seem to be only two choices in every race, sometimes with a dark-horse third. Often there is really just one choice, the incumbent, whose powers to influence elections would astound our founders.
This year, wherever I have a real choice, I’m voting for the candidate who is called most liberal. I don’t agree with everything liberal politicians do. I wish they would pay more attention to some of my traditional values. But if I want to insure my family’s health and future, preserve the principles that make America unique, and solve the real problems that modern life creates, then conservatives don’t offer me anything except loud talk.
It was scary during those years when liberal became a curse word. Liberals ran away from being liberal, and found other words, or just kept running. People with the most unpleasant manners and least willingness to change their minds have been screaming at me for years that liberalism is a sickness. Fortunately I can regulate what I hear on the radio, and by now you should be able to guess where I turn the dial: oldies stations.
Now liberal is making a comeback. It turns out the party that prides itself on being conservative, led by its most self-congratulatory of conservatives, is not even competent to do most things that a government should do. Liberals will make gains, and some will even dare to embrace the word.
I want to rescue the good human values packed into that word: generous, open, free-spirited.
I am a liberal.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 20:49
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (10-19-06)
In his interview with George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday evening, George W. Bush accepted that there might be a parallel between the spike in killings of US troops in Iraq and the Tet offensive in Vietnam. Many commentators are saying that he finally admitted that Iraq is a quagmire like Vietnam, but this is a complete misreading of what Bush is saying.
Bush's position is that things are going just great in Iraq, and that a few trouble-makers have managed to hijack the US media with a small number of limited bombings and other sabotage, and have made it look like the US isn't making progress. Bush believes that the media and Americans are falling for a get-up job. So he is is trying to say to the American public that just as the Tet offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong but a propaganda defeat for Washington, so the October offensive of the Sunni Arab guerrillas is so much smoke and mirrors, a mere propaganda stunt with no substantive importance for Iraq.
But in fact, the current guerrilla war against US troops and the new Iraqi government isn't at all like the Tet offensive. It is deadly serious. Because the US military is not defeating the guerrillas militarily any more. They have succeeded in provoking an unconventional, hot civil war, which was their "poison pill" strategy for getting the US out. The US has alienated the Sunni Arab population decisively. In summer of 2003, only 14 percent of them supported violent attacks on US troops. In a recent poll, 70 percent supported such attacks. And, the guerrilla movement is well-heeled, well-trained, and adaptive. Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN for Wednesday presented videotape showing well-trained snipers shooting down US troops in Baghdad. The guerrilla war is real, not just a political show put on to weaken the will of the fickle American public.
What is delicious is that the general American public does not hold the view of the Vietnam War popular among far-right politicians like Bush, and so no one but the true believers will catch his drift here. In fact, most Americans will assume that Bush has admitted that we are in an unwinnable quagmire in Iraq, just as in Vietnam. And the Iraq=Vietnam identification is likely to stick. Of all his misstatements and malapropisms over the years, any one of which would have robbed most people of credibility or made them a laughing-stock, it is ironic that this miscalculation, uttered coolly and with no stutter, may have been his biggest gaffe of all.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 17:35
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (10-22-06)
You would have thought that 300 million Americans would be enough to rule the world, or at least a couple of medium-sized failed states. The population of Iraq is 27 million, that of Afghanistan 31 million. Yet the same week that the population of the United States officially passed the 300 million mark, we heard two startling admissions that testify to the scale of crisis facing America's unspoken empire.
The first admission came on Wednesday from George W. Bush himself. Asked by reporters if the situation in Iraq was comparable with that in Vietnam at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive — an event popularly (though wrongly) perceived as the beginning of the end for the American defence of South Vietnam — the President conceded the comparison "could be right".
The very next day, the spokesman for the US military command in Iraq confessed that the army's latest effort to quell the escalating civil war in central Iraq "has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence" (military-speak for "has totally failed").
A year ago these admissions would have been headline news. Today, people just shrug. That Iraq is America's new "quagmire" has become conventional wisdom.
But why should this be so? Less than a century ago, before the First World War, the population of Britain was 46 million, barely 2.5 per cent of humanity. And yet the British were able to govern a vast empire that encompassed an additional 375 million people, more than a fifth of the world's population. Why can't 300 million Americans control fewer than 30 million Iraqis?
Three years ago, as the United States swept into Iraq, I wrote a book entitled Colossus that offered a sombre prediction, summed up in its subtitle: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. My argument was that the United States was unlikely to be as successful or as enduring an imperial power as its British predecessor for three reasons: its financial deficit, its attention deficit and, perhaps most surprisingly, its manpower deficit. Rather cruelly, I compared the American empire to a "strategic couch-potato… consuming on credit, reluctant to go to the front line [and] inclined to lose interest in protracted undertakings".
I wish I'd been proved wrong. Sadly, events in Iraq have borne out that analysis. No Marshall Plan for the Middle East materialised to revive the Iraqi economy. And domestic support for the enterprise proved short-lived.
I have spent much of the past month on the road, talking to readers in bookstores and lecture halls from downtown Manhattan to suburban California to rural Arizona. Practically everyone I have talked to, including many a Republican, yearns for their country to get out of Iraq. (One email I received this week summed up the mood: "We are sick of him [Bush] and his war.")...
[Ed. Ferguson goes on to argue that American foreign policy is being driven by domestic considerations, dooming ikts impeerial ventures in Iraq and possibly elsewhere.]
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 16:45
Paracelsus thought Luther should take care of his own affairs, and I think the pope would ask Muslims to take care of their own. Meanwhile, one might find it interesting that in the same week(s), Luther and the pope were invoked as the two models for solutions to a Muslim problem. The great antagonists had so little in common; to Luther the pope was "Antichrist," and he was replied to in kind.
Kristof does well to point to anti-misogynist Islamic traditions and contemporary expressions in Islam. He focuses only on women here. Muslim feminists quote chapter and verse in the Qur'an and later writings to show that the ruling parties and persons in most of Islamdom call for reform, and they find texts to back them.
Friedman is frustrated that we do not hear "honest dialogue between Muslims and Muslims" to counter current activities in which Muslims blow up Muslim buildings. "Part of the problem ... is that Islam has no hierarchy. There is no Muslim pope defining the faith," and in the chaos of competing and usually irresponsible voices, Friedman sees only catastrophe ahead. More stridently, Jonah Goldberg reveals a real hunger for authority. He accuses those who wish for a "Muslim Martin Luther" of being left-leaners, which is not the direction in which Goldberg leans. He also says Luther was not a liberator but someone who wanted a more reactionary pope, not a freeing one.
Goldberg swings and swipes so far that those might take note who worry that someone somewhere is hinting that there are any kind of equivalencies between some Muslim and some non-Muslim movements. "While enormous theological and historical differences shouldn't be overlooked, today's Islamic fundamentalists have quite a lot in common with [Protestant types]." Lutherans and other Protestants did not bother to challenge Goldberg as he implied that there are equivalencies between Lutherans and Muslim fundamentalists.
Goldberg's rewriting of sixteenth-century history properly notes that often Protestants did beat up Protestants, but he does not list the papal forces among the slaughterers. Goldberg's is a bizarre history that minimizes medieval and Reformation impulses to kill in the name of papal authority. We have kinder, gentler popes now, but Goldberg seeks authority, someone who can "clamp down." Ouch.
How ecumenical: a call for Lutheran Papists or Papal Lutherans for Muslims.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 16:41
SOURCE: NYT (10-23-06)
IF a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, will trial lawyers smell better with a new one? That’s the question posed by the impending self-reinvention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. After Election Day, the 65,000-member outfit whose lawyers brought us multibillion dollar settlements in cigarette cases, millions of asbestos injury claims and lawsuits over McDonald’s coffee will change its name to the American Association for Justice.
There’s already been much wry snickering about the organization’s vaguely Orwellian new banner. But it’s not the first time the kings of torts have changed their name, and it probably won’t be the last. For a half-century now, trial lawyer identity crises have been exquisitely sensitive barometers of American politics.
In the late 1940’s, a cadre of poorly paid and status-starved lawyers representing injured workers (the claimants) in the workers’ compensation system banded together to form a lobby dedicated to the advancement of their own and their clients’ interests. They called their group the National Association of Claimants’ Compensation Attorneys.
That name worked for only a few short years. The problem was that the workers’ compensation system was designed to streamline the resolution of worker injury cases by eliminating (or at least minimizing) lawyers’ fees. Lawyers in the system therefore had little hope of gaining wealth or prestige. With the assistance of early association leaders like the flamboyant San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, the group’s lawyers began to extend their expertise to personal injury cases in the courts, where the fees ran much higher and where their Perry Mason-like trial techniques might earn them a measure of respect.
In 1960, the association formalized its new outlook by changing its name to the National Association of Claimants’ Counsel of America, a moniker that repositioned the group as one of lawyers for victims not just in the compensation system but also in the courts. Four years later, the organization renamed itself the American Trial Lawyers Association. By then its transformation was complete: the lawyers had left the compensation system behind altogether for the free-wheeling, high-risk and high-return world later made famous by Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” and John Travolta in “A Civil Action.”
But the 1964 name stuck for less than a decade. Another lawyer organization — the American College of Trial Lawyers — complained that the names were too similar. The defense lawyers in the college apparently worried that it would be tainted by nominal association with the lowly lawyers’ group. In 1972, the American Trial Lawyers Association gave in to the litigation by the college and altered its name to the current (and now soon to be abandoned) Association of Trial Lawyers of America....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 14:52
SOURCE: NY Sun (10-24-06)
As coalition policy reaches a crisis, may I resurrect an idea I have been flogging since April 2003? It offers a way out of the current debate over staying the course (as President George W. Bush has long advocated) or withdrawing troops on a short timetable (as his critics demand).
My solution splits the difference,"Stay the course – but change the course." I suggest pulling coalition forces out of the inhabited areas of Iraq and redeploying them to the desert.
This way, the troops remain indefinitely in Iraq, but remote from the urban carnage. It permits the American-led troops to carry out essential tasks (protecting borders, keeping the oil and gas flowing, ensuring that no Saddam-like monster takes power) while ending their non-essential work (maintaining street-level order, guarding their own barracks).
Beyond these specifics, such a troop redeployment would imply a profound and improved change of course. It means:
Letting Iraqis run Iraq: Wish the Iraqis well but recognize that they are responsible for their own country. Or, in the words of a Times of London headline,"Bush to Iraqis: you take over." The coalition can help but Iraqis are adults, not wards, and need to assume responsibility for their country, from internal security to writing their constitution, with all due urgency.
Seeing violence in Iraq as an Iraqi problem: The now-constant violence verging on civil war is a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one, an Iraqi problem, not a coalition one. The coalition should realize it has no more responsibility for keeping the peace between Iraqis than it does among Liberians or Somalis.
Terminating the mammoth U.S. embassy in Baghdad: The American-created"Green Zone" in Baghdad is too high profile already, but work now underway to build the biggest embassy in the history of mankind, a 4,000-employee fortress in the heart of Baghdad, will make matters significantly worse. Its looming centrality will antagonize Iraqis for years or decades to come, even as it offers a vulnerable target for rocket-wielding enemies. Scheduled to open in June 2007, this gargantuan complex should be handed back to Iraqis, the over US$1 billion spent on it written off as a mistake of war, and a new, normal-sized, embassy built in its stead.
Ending the coddle: The inept, corrupt, and Islamist leadership in Baghdad discredits the Bush administration's integrity; conversely, Washington's embrace makes it look like a stooge. Other Iraqi institutions – my pet peeve is the National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad – also suffer from the patronizing embrace of American politicians. Muslim sensitivities about rule by non-Muslims makes these rankling offenses.
Reducing coalition ambitions for Iraq: From the start,"Operation Iraqi Freedom" was too ambitious and too remote from American interests ("Operation Coalition Security" would have been a better moniker). Give up on the unattainable goal of a democratic, free, and prosperous Iraq, a beacon to the region, and instead accept a stable and decent Iraq, one where conditions are comparable to Egypt or Tunisia.
The situation in Iraq has become a source of deep domestic antagonism in the coalition countries, especially the United States and Great Britain, but it can be finessed by noting that the stakes there are actually quite minor, then adjusting means and goals on this basis. Do you, dear non-Iraqi reader, have strong feelings about the future of Iraq? I strongly suspect not.
Iraqis want possession of their country; and peoples in countries providing troops serving in Iraq have wearied of the hopeless effort to transform it into something better than it is. Both aspirations can be satisfied by redeploying coalition troops to the desert, where they can focus on the essential tasks of maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity, keeping the fossil fuels flowing, and preventing humanitarian disasters.
The idea has developed since World War II that when the United States protects its interests by invading a country, it then has a moral obligation to rehabilitate it. This"mouse that roared" or"Pottery Barn rule" assumption is wrong and needs to be re-evaluated. Yes, there are times and places where rehabilitation is appropriate, but this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, keeping feasibility and American interests strictly in mind. Iraq – an endemically violent country – fails on both counts.
This article is reprinted with permission by Daniel Pipes. This article first appeared in the New York Sun.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 14:01