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.
Ever since the late 60's, conservatives in the US have done a brilliant job in portraying liberals as self righteous elitists who are out of touch with hard working Americans who keep the country going and defend it from its enemies
. George Wallace pioneered this approach in his two presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968 . By attacking liberals as "pointy headed intellectuals" and describing himself as the voice of the "hairdresser, the cop and the construction worker" Wallace made huge inroads into traditionally Democratic constituencies in the Northeast and the Midwest and gave conservatives a rhetorical weapon that they have used effectively ever since. From Spiro Agnew to Bill O'Reilly, conservatives have devoted so much time and energy to denouncing liberals as "tools of special interests" and themselves as the voice of "real Americans" that many liberals have become ashamed to publicly identify themselves as such.
But although some liberals live in middle class enclaves like the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, or in university towns like Cambridge, Ann Arbor or Berkeley, there has been another, less publicized group of liberals who have been anything but sheltered from the real problems of the society. Teachers, social workers and union organizers, priests and nuns in the inner city, public interest lawyers, teachers in community colleges, elected officials and ministers in minority communities, they have been there, year in, year out, when their cities and neighborhoods were buffeted by factory closings, savaged by drug epidemics and aids, and alternately revived and challenged by new waves of immigrants. While capital and resources were systematically withdrawn from their communities by banks corporations and the federal government, they were the ones who stayed to bear witness, comfort the afflicted, and set the stage for rebirth. If you didn't regularly visit Brownsville of the South Bronx, spend time in Youngstown, Baltimore or Buffalo, or go to church services in North Philadelphia or the Central Ward of Newark, you might never know they were there. But little by little, they are beginning to register successes in their work and project their voice into national politics
One of the major signs of their success has been the astonishing presidential campaign of Barack Obama, but years before George Bush self destructed and Barack Obama became a national figure, the demystification of American conservatism was undertaken, with tremendous energy and effectiveness by a fat, ugly, film maker from Flint Michigan who emerged as the nation's most effective tormenter of the National Rifle Association, the Religious Right, Corporate America, and George W Bush- Michael Moore.
What gave Moore's attacks their moral force was his unabashed use of the experiences of his hometown- one of the most decayed and battered industrial cities in the entire nation- as a reference point for judging conservative rhetoric and policies. Moore may manipulate information to get his message across, but the images of Flint's abandoned factories, ragged neighborhoods, and struggling, suffering people which he put in all his films are all too real.
In showing these images, Moore revealed conservatism's dirty little secret- when the factories closed, and people lost their jobs; when the banks redlined neighborhoods, and landlords abandoned their properties; and when millions of people were left without police protection and decent schools and adequate health care-conservatives were MIA. They weren't there in the food pantries helping families of the unemployed; they weren't there in the union halls fighting to protect workers pensions; they weren't there picketing banks to get them to reinvest in redlined neighborhoods.
Instead of rolling up their sleeves and helping deal with the consequences of deindustrialization, conservatives made a cottage industry of attacking the poor, blaming welfare, sexual immorality, and single parent families for the travails of the inner city. It is not so much that their arguments were always wrong- preaching personal responsibility is not a terrible thing- but that they didn't back up their words with actions that gave substance to their preaching.
What job programs do conservatives operate in the nation's poorest neighborhoods? What health centers do they run? What schools for poor children do they teach in? What AIDS clinics do they staff? What libraries and arts programs have they opened? What welcome centers have they opened for recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America?
Whenever real life, on the ground programs can be found to help immigrants, displaced workers, the elderly and victims of corporate greed and neglect, the people on the front lines are almost always "liberals." Not rich liberals. Not pampered liberals. But tough, resilient, hard nosed people who work day in day out to make a better life for people who have been had some tough breaks.
For more than 15 years, Michael Moore has given voice to millions of people who are sick and tired of conservatives painting themselves as the voice of practicality and patriotism when they have abandoned the nation's most vulnerable communities and done nothing to help its most vulnerable people
Now, the tide is beginning to turn An unashamed liberal named Barack Obama, who began his career as a community organizer, is making a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination and has an excellent change of being elected President of the United States.
The Conservative run is over. Thirty years of Conservative rule have brought us the world's largest prison population, the world's largest gap between rich and poor, a bloody, expensive war against a nation that never attacked us, and a recession and a credit crisis that threaten to drive millions of people out of the middle class.
In the hope of promoting economic growth, Conservatives handed control of the economy to owners of private capital, who used that power to enrich themselves to a degree unknown in modern American history. The last time that happened was during the Great Depression, and in that situation,the American people knew exactly what to do- they elected Liberals to office who used the powers of government to make sure the wealth the nation produced was distributed fairly and reached most Americans.
Despite all that is going on in this campaign- the race baiting, the attacks on Barack Obama's patriotism, the misplaced focus on the political views of Rev. Wright- I am confident that the American people will do exactly the same thing as they did during the Great Depression, and call upon a Liberal, who has both vision and compassion, to set things right..
That is why Barack Obama is going to be our next President.
Posted on: Monday, May 5, 2008 - 13:58
SOURCE: China Beat (5-3-08)
For multiple reasons, I do not subscribe to the current fad for drawing parallels between the 1936 “Hitler” Games and the 2008 Beijing Games.If one is looking for actual historical connections, then I would argue that the 104-year connection between the
The third modern Olympic Games were held in
The world’s fair was
That the Old World was not completely happy about the emerging
While the Americans were generally satisfied with the Olympic Games, even to this day European historians consider the St. Louis Games and the associated Anthropology Days to be one of the low points of Olympic history.It is often said that the 1906 Intermediate Olympic Games in
The first published calls for China to host the Olympic Games appeared in two YMCA publications: a 1908 essay in Tientsin Young Men, and an item in the report to the YMCA’s International Committee by C.H. Robertson, the director of the Tianjin [Tientsin] YMCA.Robertson stated that since 1907 a campaign had been carried on to inspire patriotism in
1. When will
2. When will
3. When will
These three questions are now famous in
Olympic sports were introduced into
One hundred four years after the
The most relevant historical lesson from 1904 is that existing powers do not necessarily welcome newcomers with open arms.As happened to the
These days, if it sometimes seems that Chinese ideas about national image contain some throwbacks to the turn of the last century, there is probably good reason.In the meantime, the West has changed the rules of the game by adding new factors such as human rights, while
Posted on: Sunday, May 4, 2008 - 23:33
Mickey Edwards is a decent and honorable man -- and not a bad writer. A Republican congressman from Oklahoma between 1976 and 1992 and a former chairman of the American Conservative Union, Edwards earned a reputation for upholding conservative principles even at the expense of party loyalty. But Edwards doesn't see much principle among today's conservatives. He doesn't even see much conservatism. "If Barry Goldwater initiated the conservative revolution," he writes, "George W. Bush may have ended it."
To Edwards, defining his beloved ideology is easy: American conservatism is constitutionalism, plain and simple. Article I establishes the duties of Congress -- which is why, Edwards points out, Congress has traditionally been called the "First Branch" of government. Directly answerable to the people, Congress protects the people -- against runaway spending, runaway executive power, runaway foreign adventurism. As Edwards thunders in his most striking formulation, "Many Americans, influenced by sloppy teaching and lazy journalism, have come to think of a president as America's leader. But . . . he is not the head of government; he is merely the head of one of three co-equal branches of government."
Back when the right was truly conservative, Edwards says, its leaders understood this in their bones. No longer. He records his horror at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's January 2007 Senate testimony defending the executive branch's authority to ignore habeas corpus: "There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there's a prohibition against taking it away." He reports goggle-eyed from a House Judiciary Committee hearing where "conservative" after "conservative" defended George Bush's extra-Constitutional signing statements. The quotation marks are Edwards's, not mine: "With every passing moment in that committee meeting it became clearer to me that it was now Republican 'conservatives,' my friends and allies for forty years, who were posing the greatest threat to the Constitution."...
Edwards maintains that conservatives recently have become obsessed with preserving traditional social behavior and morality, which he claims are not part of the true conservative ethos built on individual liberty and limited government -- "freedom and only freedom," in Goldwater's words. Pursuing "culture wars" over lifestyle differences, Edwards says, has "managed to turn modern American conservatism on its head." And he suggests that conservatives have recently begun deploying the American flag as a cudgel by, for example, subjecting opponents "to a steady dose of White House claims that criticisms of the Iraq war were 'unpatriotic.' " But every conservative coalition has included Americans who see themselves in a culture war and who question the patriotism of some of their opponents. Why does Edwards feel licensed to write people who share these views out of the fold?
In other ways, too, the former congressman's history of conservatism is exceptionally selective. Until the second Bush administration, he argues, "conservatives had always understood that a president had no more right to simply disobey the law than does the guy who cleans the windshield at the local filling station." He forgets how the right greeted Oliver North as its rock and redeemer in 1987 for unashamedly circumventing a law -- the Boland Amendment, banning U.S. funding for the Nicaraguan Contras -- that Edwards praises in this book as an admirable instance of the First Branch exerting its Constitutional power of the purse....
Edwards likes quoting popular culture. In closing, so shall I. As Bob Dylan sang, "It ain't me, babe": That's the story every conservative "reclaimer" is telling after six years of government by executive, legislative and judicial branches dominated by self-described conservatives. ·
Posted on: Sunday, May 4, 2008 - 20:45
SOURCE: Ahistoricality (Blogger) (5-2-08)
But sometimes someone says something so ... well, I'll just quote her:
"They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white-collar service jobs, and no one said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced, and nobody said anything."
(The original reportage, with a bit more context, is here)
This is, obviously, a riff on Niemoller's famous formulation. As other Jews have pointed out, this comes just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I have two reactions to this, both negative.
The first, and more obvious one, is that it is tactless, inappropriate, banal and absurd to compare global trade shifts to the Holocaust. I'm not going to say"it's offensive" because there is no objective measure of offensiveness. I will say, however, that I am offended. It is a gross dimunition of the Holocaust -- an atrocity that slaughtered Jews, Romany, political dissidents, Slavic peoples, religious minorities, and the disabled -- to use this in a speech on unemployment.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, is the historical absurdity of the statement. Niemoller's poetic formula works because it was pretty close to truth: there was very little resistance or protest in Germany as the Nazi programs were rolled out and Volk, Lebensraum, Judenrein became official policy. Trade, on the other hand, especially global competition and relocation, has been a constant political and economic topic of discussion, protest, legislation and speculation for the last thirty years or more. It may be true that classes who felt"above" globalization didn't take it seriously until the effects became obvious, but it's not at all true that there's been no cross-class unity, and"leadership" from unions, think tanks, legislators, presidents, affected businesses, the WTO, and assorted commentators.
I don't know if Hilary Clinton thought it was just a rhetorically clever move, or if she really thinks that outsourcing is some sort of economic Holocaust which justifies the equation she's made. I don't care: as an historian and as a Jew (also partially Polish, leftist and former union member, all of which would have gotten me rounded up at some point), I am offended.
Posted on: Saturday, May 3, 2008 - 10:54
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune (5-2-08)
When Al Gore unveiled a modest appeal to "working families" at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he drew a sharp response. His Republican opponent, George W. Bush, immediately counterattacked, accusing Gore of unleashing "class war" on the country.
The preferred term of address had long been "middle class"; even the AFL-CIO avoided the shoals of class rhetoric to try to co-opt the conservative family-values agenda.
Yet, today, virtually every commentator, from William Kristol to Paul Krugman, unblinkingly invokes the once-dreaded terminology in suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama cannot, as the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute put it, "penetrate working-class voters."
What gives? Has Marxist class analysis seeped in and insidiously converted our political culture away from its attachment to individualist opportunity-seekers to a society divided by rigid social-economic boundaries?
The answer is, not quite. Today, "working class" has been effectively defanged of any radical, let alone subversive, intent. In fact, today's working class looks less the modernist, rationalizing force that Marx projected than a bastion of tradition—that unmoving "sack of potatoes" he identified with the peasantry.
Whether explicit or not, today's invocation of the working class is proceeded by the word "white." And the resulting construct—white men and women who have not gone to college—are regularly presented as a mostly conservative political bloc. Defensive and narrowly materialistic in their politics, religious and intensely nationalistic in their identities, suspicious and perhaps racist in their instinctive response to an African-American candidate, the working class that Obama can't reach looks to be populated by Archie Bunker and his like-minded descendants.
Yet, surely, the working class is at least as crude as Obama's "bitter workers" caricature of small-town voters. Both generalizations fasten a condescending explanation upon a group economically under pressure but united by no single institution or interest....
Posted on: Saturday, May 3, 2008 - 10:44
SOURCE: Edge of the American West (blog) (5-2-08)
Yesterday, Ezra Klein had this to say about the uproar over Jeremiah Wright:
If Jeremiah Wright were white, it would be a very different story, but a story just the same. The comments of Wright’s that have really driven the national conversation were not particularly race-focused. Rather, they were very, very far left — strong restatements of the traditional left wing critique of American imperialism, a dismissal of the idea that America is always and everywhere motivated by virtue, and explicit sympathy for the blowback hypothesis that suggests that though 9/11 was obviously unjust, it was also a predictable eventual consequence of our actions.
So here’s the thought experiment: If in 2004, it turned out that John Kerry’s minister of 20 years — a man who had been like a father to him, who had married Kerry and Theresa Heinz, and who figured heavily into Kerry’s autobiographical book — held the same opinions as Wright, how big of a deal would it be? My sense, as we’re seeing with the furor over Obama’s laughably casual relationship with Bill Ayers, is it would still be a firestorm. Americans recoil from the Chomskyite critique, and any Democratic candidate whose personal relationships implied a sympathy for that worldview would have a tough time of it. In fact, it looks like this is the narrative Wright is really fitting into — a narrative that ranges from Ayers to lapel pins to Obama not holding his hand on his heart during the national anthem — rather than a story of racial strife. That’s not to say it hasn’t reawoken racial fears, and it’s certainly not to suggest that Wright won’t be used by racists in the election, but I think you can imagine this being a political problem if the preacher was white, too.
At first when I read this, I found myself thinking: Ezra’s high. And also: he’s parroting Republican (and Clinton camp) talking points. But then I re-read the post and realized there’s enough to what he says that I couldn’t just dismiss his argument with a wave of the hand and a “pfffft.” First, he’s not suggesting that race isn’t a factor in L’affaire Wright; he’s just claiming that Obama’s relationship with Wright still would have been a story even if Wright, and, one presumes, Obama were white. And I suspect that’s true enough. No matter Wright’s or Obama’s race, the RNC or the Clinton camp would have tried to use Obama’s “radical” preacher against him, just as they’ve recently used Obama’s “close” ties to Bill Ayers as a cudgel.
Which leads to Ezra’s second point: that the Wright brouhaha pivots on the fact that “Americans recoil from the Chomskyite critique.” Hmm. I suppose that’s partly right, too, though I’d guess that most Americans wouldn’t recognize Noam Chomsky if he showed up at their house for dinner wearing a “Linguists Rawk” t-shirt and mumbling about anarchism, hegemonic media empires, and generative grammar.
Still, what Ezra seems to be missing is that racial anxiety is driving the Wright story. The charge that Wright is “radical” is just a culturally palatable stalking horse for: “ZOMG, there’s a black man running for president! Hide the women and children! The darkies are coming to take our country!” It’s not just that Wright’s views on American foreign policy have more in common with Chomsky’s than John McCain’s, it’s also that he’s black, so likely can’t share the values of white America. And, by extension, the same must be true of Obama. Or so goes the argument. This, it seems to me, is pretty classic race-baiting, more subtle than appeals to Negrophobia used to be, perhaps, but certainly in the same vein of the American political tradition.
In “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass asked:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Extraordinary antebellum rhetoric, a powerful weapon in the arsenal of a former slave turned abolitionist. For a presidential candidate in 2008, though, not so much. It’s not that Douglass’s questions and critiques don’t still resonate; they do. There’s just not much room for such views on the capaign trail. The country is probably the poorer for it; certainly our political discourse is impoverished by a broad unwillingness to listen to neo-Douglassian voices. But that’s just the way it is.
No wonder, then, that Wright’s and Obama’s critics have tried to bind the senator, through his longstanding relationship with his pastor, to such sentiments, suggesting that neither man, because they’re black, can be patriots — despite their long service to the nation. And again, that’s the real point: African-Americans can’t be patriots. Because they hate America. As with Frederick Douglass, the Fourth of July means something different for Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright than it does for Hillary Clinton and John McCain; Independence Day must always be a day of rage rather than celebration for black people. The former point may be true; just as Christmas means different things for Jews and Protestants. But the point that follows, that black people, because of the legacy of slavery, can’t be patriots, is nonsense, especially when one realizes that Douglass loved America, that his speech was a classic example of prophecy coupled with dissent: designed to point out pathologies in the body politic so the nation could begin healing itself. But this perspective was anathema for white sumpremacists in the 1850s, who saw Frederick Douglass only as a threat.
The same is true today. Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are being cast as a threat to the social order, to the status quo, to the nation — because of their race. Which is why Obama has been working so hard to distance himself from Wright. Were Obama to be branded a Chomskyite, I think he could beat that rap. But if his critics successfully label him a neo-Douglassian, Obama can no more slip that noose than change the color of his skin. That Ezra doesn’t see this, that he doesn’t see that the Wright story first originated and now maintains its momentum because of racial anxiety, genuinely surprises me, particularly given the way that racism is shaping the primary. We don’t have to rely on thought experiments for evidence of this; we have both anecdata (via TPM) and actual data, in both cases indicating that Negrophobia is driving the electorate away from Obama. Come to think of it, maybe I was right in the first place: maybe Ezra was a bit off his game yesterday. In which case: pfffft.
Posted on: Friday, May 2, 2008 - 16:43
SOURCE: AlterNet (4-30-08)
Wilson's idealistic vision of democracy and self-determination around the world should serve as a model for the Democrats' foreign policy.
We can't do much better than reclaiming the Declaration of Independence as a fundamental foreign policy document in American history. We have a tendency to read it in a simplistic way, and to think of it only as a sort of airy declaration of what were then human rights, and a declaration of separation from England. But, in fact, the founders had a fairly well-articulated sense of what they were doing with foreign policy, and a fairly revolutionary sense of their foreign policy. So I'm quite interested in how Woodrow Wilson rediscovers the founders and makes them relevant for his time.
This thinking about Wilson began for me about ten years ago when I came to be a speechwriter in the second term of Bill Clinton's presidency. I was quite interested in which presidents were considered historically interesting to Clinton and quickly figured out it was John F. Kennedy, obviously, and Franklin D. Roosevelt a little less obviously, and Teddy Roosevelt, who was a huge influence on Bill Clinton, and always has been. It was a time in the 1990s when a lot of very favorable books were coming out about Teddy Roosevelt, and it was an attractive time to be thinking about him. At the same time, I felt Wilson was completely ignored. I don't remember Clinton ever talking about Wilson. In the collected speeches of Bill Clinton -- it's something like eighteen very fat volumes, the man enjoys speaking -- if we looked up Wilson, I'm sure we could find a few references, but very few.
As a historian, I thought that was fascinating. I looked a little into Wilson and the way people talk about him, a sort of casual dismissal of Wilsonian idealism, which is a put-down -- I don't think it's ever used favorably in the press. George Bush vigorously denies that he's a Wilsonian idealist, and it's largely an accusation leveled at him, not something he claims for himself. Henry Kissinger's book, Diplomacy, opens with a discussion of Wilson versus Theodore Roosevelt, and he states it very clearly. One is an idealist, one is a realist.
I think the tide may be about to turn for Wilson. I do think he is a pivot for all of American history before him, converting it into the twentieth century. For my research, more than anything, I read his speeches, which was a pleasure. There are a lot of Wilson's speeches, and they are fascinating. They are radically different from what came before. They are radically different from what Theodore Roosevelt was saying. We think of them as roughly equal levels of orators, but I think Wilson vastly exceeded Teddy Roosevelt, and there's nothing in the late nineteenth century like him at all. You really have to go back to Abraham Lincoln for a sense that there's a mystical power in American history that's very forceful, that is acting through Wilson and through the American people and exerting considerable force on world events....
Posted on: Friday, May 2, 2008 - 14:56
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (5-1-08)
With the explosive news surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright this week, it is even more likely that the so-called Super-Delegates are going to have an important role in resolving the Democratic presidential nomination contest. The New York Times reported that one of these delegates in Washington State said the scandal "is beginning to reflect negatively on Senator Obama's campaign. I think he's handling it very well but I think it's almost impossible to make people feel comfortable about this." On the other hand, we have seen some Super-Delegates begin to speak in favor of Obama late this week, before the primaries are even over. Today, Joe Andrew, who served as the head of the DNC from 1999 to 2001, switched his support from Clinton to Obama saying that "I am convinced that the primary process has devolved to the point that it's now bad for the Democratic Party."
Some Democrats insist that these uncommitted delegates should vote for the person who wins the most pledged delegates. Otherwise, they say, the process would be unfair. "It would be a problem," warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "for the party if the verdict would be something different than the public has decided." Other observers go so far as to warn that if the Super-Delegates make a choice that contradicts the pledged delegate count, chaos will ensue at the convention.
But according to the rules set by the Democratic Party in the 1980s, Democratic activists and journalists should back away from such arguments in order to create an environment where uncommitted delegates can make an independent choice. The choice can be to vote for the candidate with the most delegates or to vote for the other candidate. The rules say that is up to them. These might not be the best rules for the party or for our democracy--there are very good arguments supporting the critics of the Super-Delegate system--but these are the rules that the Democratic National Committee officially established.
Democrats created this group of uncommitted delegates after some members of the party were frustrated by the contentious primary fight between President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980. Kennedy's supporters did not like Carter, and Democrats remained divided going into the general election. The devastating loss of Senator George McGovern to President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election had also created concerns among Democrats as to whether the party reforms of the 1970s, which weakened the power of party bosses, needed to be modified for the electoral health of the party. Moreover, the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, lobbied for the change to give Congress a bigger role in the convention and thus avoid the gulf separating Congress and presidents who won through the post-reform nomination process. This had been a big problem when President Jimmy Carter clashed with a Democratic Congress that felt alienated from him.
Democrats established a commission in 1982 under Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina to look into the issue. Hunt's commission designed a proposal that would authorize uncommitted Democrats to participate in the convention. The number they proposed was 30% of the delegates. The commission said they wanted to preserve the "traditional" role of the party which was a "mediating institution between citizens and government, as a guide to constituent and rational electoral choice, as a bond pulling the elements of government together for the achievement of positive purposes." The commission agreed that the party reforms of the 1970s had been beneficial by eliminating "secret caucuses, unpublicized procedures, closed slate-making, racial exclusions...." But they said, (the Democratic National Committee agreed in March 1982 without almost any debate), party leaders also should have some role in the selection of the presidential nominee.
Critics warned that this new system would create a class of unaccountable elites--thus the term Super Delegates which was introduced with derision. The proposal seemed like a throwback to the older era of smoke-filled convention halls that the 1970s reforms had intended to eliminate. In the end, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro brokered a deal that lowered the number of uncommitted delegates to 14 percent. The delegates included members of Congress as well as state and local party officials. This group was expanded over the years to include members of the Democratic National Committee, Governors, distinguished party leaders and a few others. The percentage of uncommitted delegates has increased to about twenty percent.
So that's how we ended up in the current situation. The frustration regarding the uncommitted delegates is similar to the anger many of Clinton's supporters feel about the insistence of Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee to stick by the decision to discount Democratic voters in Florida and Michigan because the states violated the national party's rules on scheduling. Supporters of this decision argue that Clinton and Obama agreed to these rules, and now must live with them.
If this is the case, and the rules of the primary system are to be rigidly followed, then all Democrats should be prepared to support and encourage Super-Delegates to reach whatever decision they think best for the party. It's difficult to know which way their votes would go, although recent polls suggest a large number of Super-Delegates might stick with Obama, despite the recent week's events.
Whether we agree or disagree with the system created in 1982, this is how this game is played. Perhaps some delegates will decide to challenge those rules at the convention, as might very well happen with the Florida and Michigan delegations. That, of course, would be fair game. But unless the rules are changed, the uncommitted delegates of the party should have the opportunity to choose.
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 21:26
SOURCE: Real Clear Politics (5-1-08)
First, the good news. For all the talk of a recent Tet-like offensive in Basra, the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suffered an ignominious setback when his gunmen were routed from their enclaves.
This rout helped the constitutional - and Shiite-dominated - government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki renew its authority, and has encouraged Sunnis to re-enter government. Two great threats to Iraqi autonomy - Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and Sunni-supported al-Qaida terrorists - have both now been repulsed by an elected government and its supporters.
Our armed forces are stretched, but Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and his colonels are quietly transforming a top-heavy conventional colossus into more mobile counterinsurgency forces.
Petraeus' recent nomination to Centcom commander suggests that, like the growing influence of Gens. U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman in 1863, or of George Marshall when he reconfigured the Army in 1940, we at last are beginning to get the right officers in the right places at the right time.
The despairing enemy seems to sense this as well. The more al-Qaida mouthpiece Ayman al-Zawahiri threatens the West, the more he sounds like Hitler's shrill propagandist Joseph Goebbels in his bunker as the Third Reich was crumbling.
In his latest desperate rant, a suddenly "green" Zawahiri was reduced to appealing to environmentally conscious Muslims to fault the United States for our supposed culpability for global warming! No wonder polls across the Middle East show a sharp decline in support for his boss, Osama bin Laden.
We haven't been attacked in over six years since Sept. 11, while the FBI has arrested dozens of jihadist plotters. Our elected officials squabble over the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and the loss of constitutional liberties. Yet, the odd thing is not the nature of such a necessary debate, but the inability of critics to muster enough support to repeal post-9/11 legislation and policies -- a tacit admission that these measures have worked and saved thousands of American lives.
But is the war then nearly won? Hardly.
And that brings us to the bad news. We still censor ourselves in fears of terrorist threats, mortgaging the Enlightenment tradition of free and unfettered speech. In Europe, cartoonists, novelists, opera producers, filmmakers and even the pope are choosing their words very carefully about Islam -- in fear they will become the objects of riots and death threats....
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 21:24
SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor (5-1-08)
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a fascinating conversation with a Ghanaian colleague about the ways that people learn. As she noted, most education at universities and secondary schools in Ghana occurs via rote: the teacher says something, then the students write it down. When I suggested that Ghanaians might benefit from more interactive instruction, however, she looked skeptical.
"Ghanaians don't learn that way," she said. "They have a different style."
I thought of this exchange as I read the recent remarks by Sen. Barack Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "Black learning styles are different from European and European-American learning styles," Wright said in recent speaches, citing research on left-brain versus right-brain modes of development. "Different does not mean deficient."
But the racial learning styles that Mr. Wright invoked are the opposite of the ones that my Ghanaian friend attributed to students here. That should make us deeply skeptical of the learning-style concept when it's attached to an entire race.
And make no mistake: it is attached to an entire race. At some American schools of education, future teachers are told that black children learn more easily in groups, not alone; that they prefer to move around the classroom, rather than to sit still; that they are more emotional than cerebral; and that they tend to react impulsively, compared with their more staid white peers.
That might be true, in the United States. But Ghanaians are black, too, and they don't behave anything like the theory predicts. So it's absurd to attribute these qualities to race, or to imagine that black kids can't learn unless they're taught in a "black" way.
You might reply, Africans used to learn that way, too: they were collective, dynamic, and emotional. But then missionaries and colonial governments weaned them off their natural learning style, substituting the cold and rational individualism of the West.
That's what Peace Corps volunteers and other well-meaning Westerners said when they arrived on the continent in the 1960s, proclaiming a new gospel of "progressive" education. Associated most closely with John Dewey, this theory held that learning should be active, not passive; that it should engage children's imagination and emotion, not just their intellects; and, most of all, that it should be relevant to the rest of life. Down with rote memorization for the weekly examination; up with projects, skits, community gardens, and student councils.
Trouble is, most Africans seemed to want the rote system. "How can we learn?" Ethiopian students asked their Peace Corps instructor, after she tried several progressive techniques. "We have nothing to memorize." In three African countries, students went on strike to protest American teaching methods.
To the Americans, such resistance marked how far Africans had strayed from their "natural" learning style. "The Westerner will tend to be cerebral, whereas the African gives great play to feelings," wrote one American teacher. "The Westerner emphasizes the individual person, whereas the African will give an important place to the community." If Africans rejected progressive education, then, Westerners would remind them that collective and emotional learning were deeply rooted in their own culture.
But this strategy made Americans – not Africans – into the ultimate arbiter of what was truly "native" to the natives. And it collapsed the differences between Africans, pretending that there was one right way for all of them to learn.
In the US, the idea of a black learning style does the same thing. Without real evidence, it pretends that all African-American children will or should learn in a similar fashion. Worse, it attributes this preference to the color of their skin.
But many of the West's so-called black learning strategies aren't just good for black kids; they're good for kids, period. As I told my Ghanaian colleague, I do think the students here need instruction that is more engaged, active, and relevant. But that's not because they're black, or African.
It's because they're human. And we diminish their humanity by suggesting otherwise. As the product of a black African father and a white American mother, Barack Obama probably knows that better than anyone else. He could teach his pastor a thing or two.
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 20:08
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (5-1-08)
5 Years after George W. Bush's infamous speech aboard the USS Lincoln, the mission seems incomplete. Bush imagined that he could get rid of Saddam Hussein and install exiled businessman and bank fraudster Ahmad Chalabi in his place. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that the US would be out of Iraq, except for a division (20,000 men or so), by October of 2003. Wolfowitz and other Bush officials depicted Iraqis as secular and downplayed the possibility of ethnic violence in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Baath Party.
Here are some memorable phrases from Bush's mendacious speech half a decade ago:
' . . . major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. . .
And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country. . .
In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world. . .
Because of you our nation is more secure. . . [Note that he is trying to attribute to the poor enlisted men his policies.] . . .
In the images of fallen statues we have witnessed the arrival of a new era. . . [The statue was pulled down by the US military and the whole thing was staged before a tiny Iraqi crowd, the small size of which media close-ups disguised.] . . .
In defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. . . [The US has probably directly killed about 200,000 Iraqis and destroyed the city of Fallujah as well as damaging and repeatedly bombing others. Bush's fascist attempt to reconfigure warfare as a humanitarian gesture is the biggest lie of all] . . .
Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air. [Foreign military occupation is not generally considered 'liberty' by most people.] . . .
We've begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated. [The sites were being investigated before the war, and nothing was being found, so Bush pulled out the inspectors and went to war. Nothing ever was found.] . . .
Our coalition will stay until our work is done and then we will leave and we will leave behind a free Iraq. [When will that be exactly?] . . .
In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban . . . [ Maybe not so much; this 'mission accomplished' passage has not been sufficiently criticized] . . .
The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed an ally of Al Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding. [There was no operational connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. None. And the US occupation of Iraq gave al-Qaeda a new lease on life ] . . .
We are committed to freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and in a peaceful Palestine. . . [90% of the world fell down laughing at that point in the speech; only gullible, self-righteous Americans could even think about taking this snow job seriously] . . .
The"mission accomplished" banner was the least of it.
As for the present, the struggle between the al-Maliki government, backed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its Badr Corps militia on the one hand, and on the other the Sadr Movement with its Mahdi Army militia (all of them Shiites) made April among the deadliest months in Iraq since last September. Official figures show 1,073 Iraqis killed in political violence and 50 US soldiers killed. AFP says of Iraqis,"1,745 civilians, 159 policemen and 104 soldiers" were killed in April.
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 20:04
SOURCE: LAT (4-30-08)
... Many people assume the problem is that China remains a communist dictatorship and that abuses occur because a strong, centralized state ignores the rights of its citizens. With regard to Tibet and the suppression of the religious movement Falun Gong, this may be right. But the larger problem in today's China arises out of the fact that the central Chinese state is in certain ways too weak to defend the rights of its people.
The vast majority of abuses against the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens -- peasants who have their land taken away without just compensation, workers forced to labor under sweatshop conditions or villagers poisoned by illegal dumping of pollutants -- occur at a level far below that of the government in Beijing.
China's peculiar road toward modernization after 1978 was powered by "township and village enterprises" -- local government bodies given the freedom to establish businesses and enter into the emerging market economy. These entities were enormously successful, and many have become extraordinarily rich and powerful. In cahoots with private developers and companies, it is they that are producing conditions resembling the satanic mills of early industrial England.
The central government, by all accounts, would like to crack down on these local government bodies but is unable to do so. It both lacks the capacity to do this and depends on local governments and the private sector to produce jobs and revenue.
The Chinese Communist Party understands that it is riding a tiger. Each year, there are several thousand violent incidents of social protest, each one contained and suppressed by state authorities, who nevertheless cannot seem to get at the underlying source of the unrest.
Americans traditionally distrust strong central government and champion a federalism that distributes powers to state and local governments. The logic of wanting to move government closer to the people is strong, but we often forget that tyranny can be imposed by local oligarchies as much as by centralized ones. In the history of the Anglophone world, it is not the ability of local authorities to check the central government but rather a balance of power between local authorities and a strong central government that is the true cradle of liberty.
The 19th century British legal scholar Sir Henry Sumner Maine, in his book "Early Law and Custom," pointed to this very fact in a fine essay titled "France and England." He notes that the single most widespread complaint written in the cahiers produced on the eve of the French Revolution were complaints by peasants over encroachments of their property rights by seigneurial courts. According to Maine, judicial power in France was decentralized and under the control of the local aristocracy.
By contrast, from the time of the Norman conquest, the English monarchy had succeeded in establishing a strong, uniform and centralized system of justice. It was the king's courts that protected non-elite groups from depredations by the local aristocracy. The failure of the French monarchy to impose similar constraints on local elites was one of the reasons the peasants who sacked manor houses during the revolution went straight to the room containing the titres to property that they felt had been stolen from them.
State weakness can hurt the cause of liberty. ...
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 20:02
SOURCE: Nation (4-28-08)
To boycott or not to boycott, that is the question. Rather, that's just one of the questions activists are facing right now when it comes to China. At least four different Olympics boycott-related debates are currently taking place in print, online and broadcast media.
Since 2001, when the news first broke that Beijing would host the 2008 Olympic Games, activists have questioned whether it would be helpful or counterproductive for those concerned about China's human rights record or Beijing's ties to brutal foreign powers to pull out of this year's games.
Then there's the debate-within-this-debate that centers on the partial boycott plan. This plan, associated with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, would have world leaders go to Beijing in August, but skip the opening ceremony as an act of protest.
The third debate revolves around the Olympic torch relay and focuses on individuals skipping their turns to carry the flame to protest the crackdown in Tibet, as two South Koreans scheduled to participate did when the flame passed through Seoul.
Last but not least, there is a lively debate within China centering on Chinese citizen boycotts of certain Western companies' products. Here, the primary focus is Carrefour, the French supermarket chain that is second only to Wal-Mart in global sales.
Carrefour is being attacked for three reasons: the rough treatment a Chinese torch carrier received in Paris, critical comments Sarkozy has made about the games and rumors that Carrefour executives or investors have been offering financial support to the Dalai Lama, whom some Chinese insist was the mastermind behind the Lhasa riots that cost some Han Chinese and Hui Muslim their lives.
CNN, which has been singled out as having been particularly unfair to China in its coverage of the recent unrest in Tibet, is also being targeted for boycotts. The fact that CNN anchor Jack Cafferty recently said China was full of "goons and thugs" probably didn't help either.
But how exactly does one boycott CNN? The network doesn't sell a specific product and isn't available to most Chinese citizens. It is usually blocked except in high-end hotels.
However in Carrefour's case, crowds have already gathered outside some of the more than 100 stores the chain owns in China to discourage customers from entering. Calls have gone out on the Internet for all Chinese to refuse to shop at Carrefour either on a single day (May 1) or during the first four days of May.
There are connections between all of the boycott debates currently in play. But it is a mistake to treat the boycott of Carrefour and the criticism of CNN as simply a tit-for-tat phenomenon, a case of angry Chinese taking a purely reactive "if you take aim at our games, we'll take aim at your profits" attitude. China has a long tradition of using anti-foreign boycotts to counter everything from invasions to perceived insults to the nation's honor.
Chinese youths fired up by what they consider patriotism (but critics brand nationalism or xenophobia) have historically launched boycotts of foreign goods, sometimes on their own, sometimes in tandem with their elders. In 1905, it was cigarettes and other American products that Chinese citizens of all different ages boycotted in order to put pressure on the United States to change immigration policies that discriminated against Asians.
Between the 1910s and 1930s, several foreign powers found themselves the target of Chinese student-led boycotts. In the majority of cases, Japanese products were the ones that were shunned, in protest of Japan's encroachments into North China. One of the biggest of these took place during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the many Chinese patriotic struggles that have taken place around this time of year.
In more recent years, boycotts have remained a regular part of Chinese society. In May 1999, when I happened to be in Beijing, I saw "Don't Buy KFC" and "Don't Drink Coke" posters go up on local campuses soon after American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In spring 2005, a series of rowdy demonstrations against Japan broke out.
These protests were triggered by talk of Tokyo getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and complaints about how certain Japanese textbooks treated the history of World War II. Yet again there was a call for a boycott.
So while the dueling boycotts of 2008 are linked, calls to pull out of the games and calls to refuse to shop at Carrefour have very different historical echoes and fit into different historical traditions. They also summon up some very different historical moments.
Nineteen thirty-six and 1980 have been common touchstone years in Western debates on Olympic boycotts. Those calling for action against Beijing say it is time to do what the world should have done when the Nazis played host to the games in 1936--refuse to grant legitimacy to a brutal regime. Those opposing a full or partial boycott of the Olympics like to counter by pointing out how little good it did when the US pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games.
Another year brought into play, in this case by Chinese who oppose the boycott of Carrefour, is 1900, the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Some have cited this historical moment as an illustration of how, when nationalist fervor gets out of hand and turns "irrational," China ends up being harmed rather than helped--in that case via the invasion by a group of foreign powers that crushed the insurrection. To boycott foreign goods at this particular moment, the argument goes, is "irrational," given how important investment from abroad is to China's economic surge.
There is an irony here. Boycotts were defended in China early in the 1900s as a far more "rational" way to register anger at foreign powers than committing acts of violence again Christians, as the Boxers had done. But it is true that early in the twentieth century, rallies organized to attack foreign goods sometimes spilled over into physical assaults on foreign individuals or Chinese seen as insufficiently patriotic. The same thing sometimes happens these days.
Why is it important for Westerners to appreciate how the anti-French boycott fits into China's past? Because to overlook historical precedents and resonances, and think of the debate over shopping at Carrefour as simply a "derivative discourse" (to borrow a phrase from post-colonial theorist Partha Chatterjee), makes it impossible to understand fully what is going on in Chinese cities and in the minds of Beijing's leaders.
When rowdy demonstrations have taken place outside of Carrefour stores, China's leaders have found themselves confronted by what is in many ways a familiar dilemma. They are torn between a desire to use popular nationalist sentiment for their own purposes (as a diversion from other kinds of discontent, such as worries about inflation) and a fear of losing control once crowds take to the streets.
China's leaders, who have gone on record as opposing the Carrefour boycott, know that while they can fan or dampen the flames of popular nationalism, it has never been something they can totally control. Such protests are fueled by genuine outrage, as well as by a generational desire on the part of youths bent on proving their patriotism to express themselves in public. China's leaders also know that in the past targets of protests have shifted quickly from foreigners accused of humiliating the Chinese people to domestic officials accused of being corrupt or otherwise unfit to run the country. Still, many average Chinese citizens want the Olympics to go smoothly and stand as a symbol of China's return to global prominence.
Yet as we approach two symbolically charged dates--International Labor Day on May 1 and the anniversary of the 1919 cultural awakening of the May Fourth Movement three days later--calls for a boycott are sure to make any Chinese leader with a sense of history jittery.
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 19:20
SOURCE: TPM Cafe (4-29-08)
Now you can understand why I wrote Liberal Racism: After 20 years in inner-city Brooklyn, I'd had it watching too many black people and too many white liberals and radicals indulge self-styled"race men" like Jeremiah Wright.
Certainly I was exasperated by the race men themselves - by Johnny Cochran, Hosea Wilson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox, Vernon Mason, Leonard Jeffries, even Derrick Bell, and sometimes Cornel West, and countless other smart, brave, sometimes grand, but also wounded, raving, preening narcissists who cried"Racism Forever!" Some of them styled themselves prophets of white doom and black resurrection, reaping an adulation seldom enjoyed by real prophets, who are heard mainly after their time.
These men weren't all bad. More than once, as I recounted here recently concerning Brooklyn's Rev. William Augustus Jones, I personally gave them the benefit of the doubt and stood up for them. And, sometimes, they did not disappoint. On the contrary, their forbearance and fortitude taught me how deeply the world had disappointed them. Yes, I understood"God Damn America!," but not from those who shouted it for the roar of the crowd.
The more I understood the difference between feeling it and shouting it, the more I despised the shouters for massaging downtrodden people's broken hearts on the way to their wallets, and for drawing in still others whose bitterness, more fine-spun, sought relief in rhetoric that came with a simulacrum of erudition. Yes, watching Wright at the NAACP takes me back to the many demonstrations I witnessed of imagined racial solidarity, wallowing in collective self-doom.
Yet I would reserve a special circle in Hell for those who are gloating and smirking over Obama's pastor's self-immolation.
I had already reserved a circle for guilt-ridden white liberals and opportunistic leftists who supported the sad the politics of racial paroxysm that gripped this country in the 1980s and 1990s. These supporters' own"white" emotional and ideological effusions delivered nothing to poor, upright, faithful blacks, whose souls were rested only when their feet were tired from marching, who spent years on their knees not in church but scrubbing white people's floors to give their children a better chance.
Given the odds most blacks have faced through most of American history, it would be wrong to say that some didn't, in fact, get better chances thanks to the Wrights and even the Farrakhans - to those who ran religious institutions that provided services, solidarity in oppression, and some discipline and hope.
But sometimes this happened almost despite the iconic leaders (think of Farrakhan's Million Man March, which transcended him.) So spare me Wright's bloviations about"the prophetic tradition" of"the" black church. As the historian David Chappell, author of the remarkable A Stone of Hope, reminded me this morning,"the" black church is not"prophetic," claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
The only thing"the" black church is... is black. It has had its prophets but also its imposters and parasites, as has the Roman Catholic and every other prideful church whose supercelestial claims belie some subterranean morals.
Wright himself is a strong, smart, wounded, angry -- and, yes, now perverse -- man. He did not carry his pain very well. Who among us in similar circumstances would do better? Look at the maunderings of the sonorously judgmental, such as the worldly (and wordy) Obama-bashing Leon Wieseltier, who was caught at it and rebuked interestingly by Bernard Avishai. Or look at the historian-cum-Clinton sycophant Sean Wilentz, and others who are smirking or gloating right now over Obama's travails at Wright's hands.
Obama's"Yes we can" speeches summoned memories of those women scrubbing floors, of those scared black churchgoers marching into sunlit Southern courthouse squares, dressed in their Sunday best, shivering in the heat, assured of no safety from federal marshals or God.
Somehow, they summoned the faith-based courage to reenact the Hebrew Exodus myth against the dogs and mobs:"[T]heir very indifference to the issue of success or failure provided the stamina which made success possible," Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1952 of earlier struggles."Sometimes the heroes of the faith perished outside the promised land."
Niebuhr hadn't yet heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had recently been a student absorbing Niebuhr's own admonition that"[t]his paradoxical relation between the possible and the impossible in history proves that the frame of history is wider than the nature-time in which it is grounded. The injunction of Christ: 'Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul' (Matthew 10:28) neatly indicates the dimension of human existence which transcends the basis which human life and history have in nature."
That faith made the protests uncanny and unsettling. King and others opened the hearts of astonished Northern Protestants and Jews whose ancestors had made history of the same Exodus narrative in ages past. Suddenly, it was poor Southern blacks who knew best what the others had forgotten: that the story would unfold only across years of wandering in the wilderness, worship of golden calves, brutal conquests and other perfidies -- including sophistry and charlatanry.
Where in that epic does Jeremiah Wright stand? Even his glib detractors must grant that he would have been marching into the desert away from the fleshpots of Egypt, and it is that side of Wright that Barack Obama came seeking after college.
But even as Obama found what he came seeking, he saw the other side, the man who had become embittered in the wilderness. And now, the dead hand of that past lies like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Obama will survive those, like the tragic Wright, who now would kill the soul if not the body. But whether the rest of us and the American republic will survive those who are smirking and gloating remains to be seen. I'd like to think that since countless blacks stood up to dogs and mobs, we who support Obama can find in ourselves the faith to withstand his cankered, middling detractors.
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 19:01
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (4-27-08)
You simply can't pile up enough adjectives when it comes to the general, who, at a relatively young age, was already a runner-up for Time Magazine's Person of the Year in 2007. His record is stellar. His tactical sense extraordinary. His strategic ability, when it comes to mounting a campaign, beyond compare.
I'm speaking, of course, of General David Petraeus, the President's surge commander in Iraq and, as of last week, the newly nominated head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom) for all of the Middle East and beyond --"King David" to those of his peers who haven't exactly taken a shine to his reportedly"high self-regard." And the campaign I have in mind has been his years' long wooing and winning of the American media, in the process of which he sold himself as a true American hero, a Caesar of celebrity.
As far as can be told, there's never been a seat in his helicopter that couldn't be filled by a friendly (or adoring) reporter. This, after all, is the man who, in the summer of 2004, as a mere three-star general being sent back to Baghdad to train the Iraqi army, made Newsweek's cover under the caption,"Can This Man Save Iraq?" (The article's subtitle -- with the"yes" practically etched into it -- read:"Mission Impossible? David Petraeus Is Tasked with Rebuilding Iraq's Security Forces. An Up-close Look at the Only Real Exit Plan the United States Has -- the Man Himself").
And, oh yes, as for his actual generalship on the battlefield of Iraq… Well, the verdict may still officially be out, but the record, the tactics, and the strategic ability look like they will not stand the test of time. But by then, if all goes well, he'll once again be out of town and someone else will take the blame, while he continues to fall upwards. David Petraeus is the President's anointed general, Bush's commander of commanders, and (not surprisingly) he exhibits certain traits much admired by the Bush administration in its better days.
Launching Brand Petraeus
Recently, in an almost 8,000 word report in the New York Times, David Barstow offered an unparalleled look inside a sophisticated Pentagon campaign, spearheaded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which at least 75 retired generals and other high military officers, almost all closely tied to Pentagon contractors, were recruited as"surrogates." They were to take Pentagon"talking points" (aka"themes and messages") about the President's War on Terror and war in Iraq into every part of the media -- cable news, the television and radio networks, the major newspapers -- as their own expert"opinions." These"analysts" made"tens of thousands of media appearances" and also wrote copiously for op-ed pages (often with the aid of the Pentagon) as part of an unparalleled, five-plus year covert propaganda onslaught on the American people that lasted from 2002 until, essentially, late last night. Think of it, like a pod of whales or a gaggle of geese, as the Pentagon's equivalent of a surge of generals.
In that impressive Times report, however, one sentence has so far passed unnoticed; yet, it speaks the world of General Petraeus, and of how this administration and its chosen sons have played their cards from the moment George W. Bush mounted a pile of rubble on September 14, 2001, at Ground Zero in New York City and began to sell his incipient War on Terror (and himself as commander-in-chief). From that day on, the propaganda campaign, the selling war, on the American"home front" has never stopped.
Here, in that context, is Barstow's key sentence:"When David H. Petraeus was appointed the commanding general in Iraq in January 2007, one of his early acts was to meet with the [Pentagon's retired military] analysts." In other words, on becoming U.S. commander in Iraq, he automatically turned to the military propaganda machine the Pentagon had set up to launch his initial surge -- on the home front.
Think of the train of events this way: In January 2007, pummeled in the opinion polls, his Iraq policy in shambles and the Republican Party in electoral disarray, George W. Bush and his advisors decided to launch a last-minute home-front campaign to buy time on Iraq. It was, the President declared in an address to the American people, his"new way forward in Iraq." In Vietnam-era terms, the plan itself involved a relatively modest"escalation" of 30,000 troops, largely into the Baghdad area -- that being all the troops the overstretched U.S. military then had available. It gained, however, the resounding nickname,"the surge." (That word, strangely enough, had essentially been pilfered from the heart of"insurgent," a term previously used to designate the enemy.)
By then, of course, the President himself was a thoroughly tarnished brand, not exactly the sort of face with which to launch 1,000 ships or even 30,000 troops into a self-made hell against the urgent wishes of the American people. Instead, he pushed forward his all-American general -- the smart, bemedaled, well-spoken, Princeton PhD and counterinsurgency guru, beloved by reporters whom he had romanced for years, and already treated like a demi-god by members of both parties in both houses of Congress. He became the"face" of the administration (just as American military and civilian officials had long spoken of putting an "Iraqi face" on the American occupation of that country). In the ensuing months, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out, the surging Brand Petraeus campaign only gained traction as the President publicly cited the general more than 150 times, 53 times in May 2007 alone. Never has a President put on the"face" of a general more regularly.
Now, let's return to that single sentence from Barstow. Having been put forward by Bush as his favorite general and the savior of his Iraq policies, Petraeus seems to have promptly turned to the Pentagon's favored military"analysts" for a hand. The general's initial surge, that is, was right here at home via those figures the Pentagon had embedded in the media and liked to refer to as its"message force multipliers." Let's keep in mind that one of those figures, retired Army general Jack Keane, a "patron" to Petraeus during his rise in the ranks, was, along with Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, an "author" of, and key propagandist for, the surge strategy, as well as the head of his own consulting firm, on the board of General Dynamics, and a national security analyst for ABC News. So, in case you were wondering why the hosannas to Petraeus nearly reached the heavens and why the"success" of the surge was established so quickly in this country (despite four years of promises followed by disaster that might have called for media caution), look first to those surging retired generals and to the general who had already established himself as a military brand name.
And let's keep in mind that the Times' Barstow has pulled back the curtain on but one administration program of deception. It is unlikely to have been the only one. We don't yet fully know the full range of sources the Pentagon and this administration mustered in the service of its surge. We don't know what sort of thought and planning, for instance, went into the transformation of any Sunni insurgent who didn't join the new Awakening Movement and become a "Son of Iraq" into a member of"al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia" -- or, more recently, every Shiite rebel into an Iranian agent.
We don't know what sort of administration planning has gone into the drumbeat of well-orchestrated, ever more intense claims that Iran is the source of all our ills in Iraq, and directly responsible for a striking percentage of U.S. military deaths there. Recently, according to the New York Times,"senior officers in the American division that secures the capital said that 73 percent of fatal and other harmful attacks on American troops in the past year were caused by roadside bombs planted by so-called 'special groups'" (a euphemism for Iranian-trained groups of Shiite militiamen).
We don't have a full accounting of the many carefully guided tours of Iraq given to inside-the-Beltway think-tank figures like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, former military figures, journalists, pundits, and congressional representatives, all involving special meet-and-greet contacts with Petraeus and his top commanders, all leading to upbeat assessments of the surge. We don't have the logs of our surge commander's visitors these last months, but we know, anecdotally at least, that, during this period, no reporter, no matter how minor, seemed incapable of securing a little get-together time to experience the general's special charm.
Put everything we do know, and enough that we suspect, together and you get our last surge year-plus in the U.S. as a selling/propaganda campaign par excellence. The result has been a mix of media good news about"surge success," especially in"lowering violence," and no news at all as the Iraq story grew boringly humdrum and simply fell off the front pages of our papers and out of the TV news (as well as out of the Democratic Congress). This was, of course, a public relations bonanza for an administration that might otherwise have appeared fatally wounded. Think, in the president's terminology, of victory -- not over Shiite or Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but, once again, over the media here at home.
None of this should surprise anyone. The greatest skill of the Bush administration has always been its ability to market itself on"the home front." From September 14, 2001 on, through all those early"mission accomplished" years, it was on the home front, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, that administration officials worked hardest, pacifying the media, rolling out their own"products," and establishing the rep of their leader and"wartime" Commander-in-Chief. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card explained candidly enough to the New York Times, when it came to the launching, in September 2002, of a campaign to convince Congress and the public that an invasion of Iraq should be approved: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
As a general and a personality, Petraeus fit the particular marketing mentality of this administration perfectly. Graduating from West Point too late for Vietnam -- he wrote his doctoral thesis on that war -- he had, before the President's invasion, taken part only in"peacekeeping" operations in places like Haiti. In March 2003, a two-star general, he crossed the Kuwaiti border as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. After Baghdad fell, his troops occupied Mosul, a relative quiet city to the north, largely untouched by invasion or war. There, he gained a reputation (at least in the U.S.) for having a special affinity for Iraqis and for applying top-notch, outreach-oriented counterinsurgency tactics.
In those early months, he always seemed to have a writer in tow. In 2004-2005, for his next tour of duty -- already with the ear of the President and of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- he returned to Iraq as the Newsweek Can-He-Save-It guy. His giant task was to"stand up" Iraqi security forces. Again, he had writers in tow. The Washington Post's columnist David Ignatius, for instance, twice paid extended visits to the general during that tour, returning from helicoptering around the Iraqi countryside all aglow and writing glowingly of the job Petraeus was doing (as he would again over the years, as so many other journalists and commentators would, too).
The general himself wasn't exactly shy on the subject of his accomplishments. He wrote, for instance, a strategically well-placed op-ed in the Washington Post in September 2004, just as the administration was rolling out another"product," the President's run for a second term. In it, with just enough caveats to cover himself professionally, he waxed positive about the glories of Iraqi soldiers standing up. It was a piece filled with words like"progress" and"optimism," just the sort of thing a President trying to outrun a bunch of Iraqi insurgents to the November 4th finish line might like to see in print in his hometown paper. The general picked up his third star on this tour of duty.
Next came a stint at home where he oversaw the rewriting of the Army's counterinsurgency manual, while touting himself as the expert of experts on that subject, too. And then, of course, in February 2007, a fourth star in hand, he took charge of the U.S. command in Iraq for its surge moment.
Last week, of course, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed him head of the Pentagon's Central Command with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for our proxy war in Somalia. His duties will soon stretch from North Africa into Central Asia. The appointment, however, came after the fact. By then, as George W. Bush's personal general, he had already left the actual Centcom commander, Adm. William"Fox" Fallon in the dust. The President dealt with him directly, bypassing the Centcom commander; and, even before Fallon's ignominious resignation, Petraeus was already traveling the Middle East as, essentially, the President's personal representative, engaging in acts normally reserved for the head of Centcom. His appointment was seconded by Presidential candidate John McCain ("I think he is by far the best-qualified individual to take that job…"), signaling the degree to which the Bush administration is now preparing optimistically for McCain's war (or, alternatively, for Obama's hell).
But here's the strange thing when you look more carefully at Petraeus's record (as others have indeed done over these last years), the actual results -- in Iraq, not Washington -- for each of his previous assignments proved dismal. What the record shows is a man who, after each tour of duty, seemed to manage to make it out of town just ahead of the posse, so that someone else always took the fall.
On his time in Mosul, former ambassador Peter Galbraith offered this description:
"As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage… for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from America's Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul's local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents."
Mosul has remained a hotspot of insurgency ever since. On his next tour, when it came to all the"progress" training the Iraqi army, let Rod Nordland, the author of that"fawning" -- his retrospective adjective, not mine -- Newsweek cover piece of 2004, suggest an obituary, as he did in 2007:
"[Petraeus] rose to fame not by his achievements but by his success in selling them as achievements. He's first of all a great communicator… Training the Iraqi military and shifting responsibility to them was the mantra Petraeus sold to hundreds of credulous reporters and hundreds of even more credulous visiting CODELs (congressional delegations)… By the time he left, the training program was clearly on its way to spectacular failure. By the end of last year that had become received wisdom; it became convenient for the brass to blame the fiasco on the politically less popular and media-friendless Gen. George Casey. Entire brigades of police had to be pulled off the street and retrained because they were evidently riddled with death squads and in some cases even with insurgents. The Iraqi Army was all but useless, a feeble patient kept on life support by the American military."
Just recently, in hearings before Congress, Petraeus himself introduced two new words to describe the post-surge security situation in Iraq:"fragile and reversible." Take that as a tip for the future. Fragile indeed. The surge landscape the general helped create has, from the beginning, been flammable and unstable in the extreme. It has, in recent weeks, been threatening to break down in Shiite civil strife, even as, under an American aegis, the Sunnis have been rearming and reorganizing for the day when they can take back a Baghdad that was largely cleansed of their ethnic compatriots during the surge months. Americans are once again dying in increasing numbers (though little attention has yet been paid to this in the media), as are Iraqis. It will be a miracle if post-surge Iraq doesn't come apart before November 4, 2008, not to say the end of George Bush's term in January.
The problem is: Putting a face -- that is, a mask -- on something has nothing to do with changing it in any essential way, no matter how you brand it and no matter who's listening to you elsewhere. This August or September, when the general takes over at Centcom, he will leave behind (as he has before) the equivalent of an IED-mined stretch of Iraqi roadside ready to explode, possibly under the coming U.S. presidential election. It remains to be seen whether he will once again have made it out of town in the nick of time and relatively unscathed.
The miracle, of course, was that, so late in the game, the American media swallowed the President's (and the general's) propaganda on the surge campaign which, on the face of it, was ludicrous. Stranger still, they did so for almost a year before the situation started to fray visibly enough for our TV networks and major papers to take notice. For that year, most of them thought they saw a brass band playing fabulously when there was hardly a snare drum in sight.
That result may be a public-relations man's dream, but it was thanks to a con man's art. The question is: Can the President make it back to Texas before the bottom falls out in Iraq? And will the general continue to fall ominously upward?
Posted on: Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 18:44