Browsing the blog archives for August, 2007.


Supporting the [Enemy] Troops

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

Hannah Allam writes for McClatchy Newspapers:

Iraq’s deadly insurgent groups have financed their war against U.S. troops in part with hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. rebuilding funds that they’ve extorted from Iraqi contractors in Anbar province.

The payments, in return for the insurgents’ allowing supplies to move and construction work to begin, have taken place since the earliest projects in 2003, Iraqi contractors, politicians and interpreters involved with reconstruction efforts said.

Your tax dollars at work.

A fresh round of rebuilding spurred by the U.S. military’s recent alliance with some Anbar tribes — 200 new projects are scheduled — provides another opportunity for militant groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq to siphon off more U.S. money, contractors and politicians warn.

“Now we’re back to the same old story in Anbar. The Americans are handing out contracts and jobs to terrorists, bandits and gangsters,” said Sheik Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, the deputy leader of the Dulaim, the largest and most powerful tribe in Anbar. He was involved in several U.S. rebuilding contracts in the early days of the war, but is now a harsh critic of the U.S. presence.

And we thought all that money was just going to waste.

The biggest source of, um, overruns seems to be security.

A U.S. company with a reconstruction contract hires an Iraqi sub-contractor to haul supplies along insurgent-ridden roads. The Iraqi contractor sets his price at up to four times the going rate because he’ll be forced to give 50 percent or more to gun-toting insurgents who demand cash payments in exchange for the supply convoys’ safe passage.

One Iraqi official said the arrangement makes sense for insurgents. By granting safe passage to a truck loaded with $10,000 in goods, they receive a “protection fee” that can buy more weapons and vehicles. Sometimes the insurgents take the goods, too.

Sounds a bit like the old Mafia.

One senior Iraqi politician with personal knowledge of the contracting system said the insurgents also use their cuts to pay border police in Syria “to look the other way” as they smuggle weapons and foot soldiers into Iraq.

“Every contractor in Anbar who works for the U.S. military and survives for more than a month is paying the insurgency,” the politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The contracts are inflated, all of them. The insurgents get half.”

I’d say that’s an argument for getting the bleep out.

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Taking Care of Our Own

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Bush Administration, Health Care

As you know, the Bush Administration has moved boldly to protect the insurance industry from the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or “S-chip.” The Bushies have attached tough new strings to the program to prevent states from expanding coverage to children of middle-income families. Many of these strings are designed to prevent families already covered by private insurance from dropping it and moving to the subsidized programs.

However, most of the middle-income children the Administration wants to keep out of the program are not covered by private insurance, either.

This Associated Press story from Texas explains the problem:

… The Houston teaching assistant’s 18-year-old twins were bumped in May from the state Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP in Texas. The overtime she worked pushed the household income above the program’s limit. The boys relied for six years on the program, which covers kids to age 19.

The Pacheco twins are among thousands of children whose families’ incomes are too high to qualify for CHIP but still can’t afford private insurance. While some in Texas are hoping to raise the limits to allow more coverage, President Bush and some in Congress want to keep the income ceilings intact.

This week, the administration directed states to make children wait a year before enrolling in the program, a guideline aimed at preventing families from dropping private insurance to enroll in CHIP.

About half of the estimated 1.4 million uninsured children in Texas don’t qualify for CHIP. Some are undocumented, some have pre-existing conditions that keep them from getting private coverage, and others are like the Pachecos whose incomes prevent them from enrolling in CHIP.

Children’s advocates in Texas had hoped that one day the state would raise the income limits, which in the state is 200 percent of poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four.

“The largest growth of uninsured has been in the middle class,” said Barbara Best, executive director of Texas Children’s Defense Fund. “Families earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year can’t afford private health insurance. Why can’t they benefit through the system as well?

In 2005, the average cost of life insurance in Texas was was $9,100 per family, about $760 a month. I assume it’s higher now.

Officials also said states can’t enroll children in families who earn more than the CHIP income limit until 95 percent of children who qualify for CHIP or Medicaid are enrolled in those programs.

Last year, 41,523 children covered by CHIP left because their family income exceeded CHIP income limits, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Department.

A department study found 1 percent of the 2003 average monthly new enrollees, 21,295 kids, had dropped private insurance to get CHIP coverage.

But, that 1 percent is taking bread out of the mouths of health insurance executives. BTW, via a quickie google search I learned that health insurance profits are booming.

The dwindling number of Americans still covered by employee-subsidized health care are sheltered from the realities of health insurance cost. Texas is one of the states without those nasty “regulations” righties sneer at that prevent health insurance companies from refusing to cover sick people, yet it also has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens — 27.1 percent — of any state. The high percentage of uninsured has an unfortunate impact on Texas.

Regarding S-chip, this op ed from today’s Orange County Register expresses the Bushie POV:

A Bush administration policy that would make it less easy for states to expand a children’s health insurance program well beyond the low-income children it was designed to cover has been greeted with outrage.

The most logical explanation is that some legislators really want the government to “crowd out” private insurance as a prelude to replacing it with an all-inclusive government program that covers everybody. …

… The government has already allowed states to offer the program to families above the official poverty level of $20,650 for a family of four. Most states now offer it to those at double that level, or $41,300 a year. Some states are at 250 percent ($51,625), and New York wants to offer it to families at quadruple the poverty level, up to $82,600.

At such levels, however, a subsidized government program starts to look better to people who already have private health insurance. Thus the “free” (i.e., taxpayer-paid) insurance starts to “crowd out” private insurance.

The Bush administration would make states that want to offer the program to families at more than 200 percent of the poverty level wait until 95 percent of those at or below the 200 percent figure are covered before they expand it.

That has states eager to expand a program – with “free” federal money – howling on behalf of “the children.” Enough already.

Spoken like a man who’s never had to buy private insurance for a child with a pre-existing condition. Attempt to buy, I should say.

See also: “Stiff-Arming Children’s Health

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Charity Nation

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Bush Administration, conservatism, Hurricanes

Last week I wrote that in the past two years more than a million American have volunteered to help restore the Gulf Coast, yet they aren’t making much of a dent. Today Douglas Brinkley writes in the Washington Post:

Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.

They arrive in the city’s Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.

After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.

Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city’s long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn’t President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government’s participation in the rebuilding?

And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?

Eventually, the volunteers’ altruism turns to bewilderment and finally to outrage. They’ve been hoodwinked. The stalled recovery can’t be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I’ve concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine.

This is a really good article, so please read it all. He concludes that the Bush Administration is deliberately discouraging people from re-populating New Orleans, although he doesn’t draw the conclusion that Digby and I and others have drawn — that the goal is to create a reliably Republican voting block in New Orleans by dispersing the mostly black and mostly poor parts of the population, which mostly votes for Democrats. We’ll see how that turns out in the future.

Brinkley thinks the goal is to prevent people from moving back to areas below sea level that are likely to be flooded again, especially since the feds don’t want to pay to erect better flood protection. That may be part of it, too. And it isn’t just New Orleans that’s not getting fixed. There are people still waiting for help in Alabama and Mississippi as well.

Whatever the reason for government non-action, the Katrina experience ought to put to rest the idea that private charities can replace government welfare, disaster relief and other “safety net” programs. I say ought to; empiricism hasn’t yet stopped a rightie from believing whatever he wants to believe. But for the rest of us, the Katrina experience reveals that sometimes you really do need government. It’s fine for volunteers to cook soup, clear brush, or help re-roof a house. But if electricity and sewage services are never restored to that house, what’s the point?

This web document, which appears to have been written before the Bush II Administration, asks us to imagine what might have happened had there been no federal response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Well, now we don’t have to imagine. (But speaking of Hurricane Andrew — George H.W. “Poppy” Bush was president in 1992, and the federal government was slow to respond then, also. Maybe the Bush family carries a “don’t respond to hurricanes” gene.)

Righties like private charities because they don’t want to pay taxes for “welfare.” The Bush Administration likes private charities so much, it diverts tax dollars to them. Michelle Goldberg wrote in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (pp. 107-108):

The diversion of billions of taxpayer dollars from secular social service organizations to such sectarian religious outfits has been one of the most underreported stories of the Bush presidency. Bush’s faith-based initiatives have become a spoils system for evangelical ministries, which are now involved in everything from prison programs and job training to teenage pregnancy prevention, supplanting the safety net that was supposed to catch all Americans. As a result of faith-based grants, a growing number of government-funded social service jobs explicitly refuse to hire Jews, gay people, and other undesirables; such discrimination is defended by the administration and its surrogates in the name of religious freedom. Bringing the disposed to Jesus Christ has become something very close to a domestic policy goal of the United States government. And all this has happened with far less notice or public debate than attended the removal of Terri Schaivo’s feeding tube or the halftime baring of Janet Jackson’s breast.

Goldberg writes that the term “compassionate conservative” comes from the title of a book by Marvin Olasky. This New York Times article from 2000 by Alison Mitchell explains how Olasky influenced Bush’s “thinking” on charity:

Mr. Rove also introduced Mr. Bush to Marvin Olasky—a proponent of 19th century-style charity over the entitlements of the welfare state—whom the governor calls “compassionate conservatism’s leading thinker” in a foreword to Mr. Olasky’s newest book.

Those introductions amounted to the first building blocks of the “compassionate conservative” platform Mr. Bush is running on today: tax incentives that he predicts will lead to an explosion of charitable giving; an emphasis on using religious institutions to deal with poverty, drug abuse and other social problems and a pledge to “usher in the responsibility era,” to replace the notion that “if it feels good, do it.”

The core concept of this platform is that while government has a responsibility to the needy, it does not have to provide the services itself. This approach can be seen in everything from Mr. Bush’s proposals for a tax credit to help people buy health insurance to his call to divert some Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.

I like the part about “19th century-style charity.” In early 19th century America, local laws usually made some provision to care for the indigent. Generally this worked well enough, especially in communities where everyone knew everyone else. As the nation became more urban and industrialized, and particularly with the great influx of immigrants, the old system proved inadequate. In the latter part of the 19th century private charities, most of them religious, sprang up by the tens of thousands, and for a time it was common for state and local governments to give cash grants to such charities to do social work rather than create public bureaucracies. How well this worked is debatable. African Americans often were excluded from receiving help, for example. In any event some major disasters — notably the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression — pretty much swamped the system that Olasky wants to go back to.

Although the hard-core Right vowed to dismantle the New Deal from its beginnings, as I’ve written before most Americans were fine with the New Deal, including Social Security. And in the 1950s they were fine with the GI Bill and mortgage subsidies that helped the Greatest Generation become way more affluent than their parents had been. Nor do I remember a great hue and cry from the general population against Medicare when it was created in 1965. However, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were perceived by white Americans as tax money being spent mostly on inner city blacks. (This was not the whole story, but white poverty in America tends to be rural and invisible.) All of a sudden white middle-class America swung Right and discovered the virtues of self-reliance. All those right wingers who had crusaded against the “welfare state” finally had a big enough audience to swing elections.

But in the 1960s white middle-class Americans thought of themselves as economically invincible, thanks in part to such New Deal reforms as the FSLIC (which would become insolvent during the Savings and Loan Crisis, which was brought about by right-wing faith in deregulation and free markets, but that’s getting ahead of the story). Going back to Depression conditions was unthinkable to a middle class American then.

But I’m not sure it’s quite so unthinkable now. It ain’t the 1960s any more, and I’m not just talking about patchouli oil. Middle class Americans don’t feel so invincible today. And I don’t think American whites are, on the whole, as dog-whistle racist as they were 40 years ago. I suspect Americans are less interested in shrinking government and drowning it in a bathtub than they used to be.

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Challenging the Generals

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Iraq War

Some of you might be interested in a long article by Fred Kaplan in tomorrow’s New York Times magazine. Kaplan writes that junior officers in Iraq are losing faith in the generals.

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Of Soldiers, Spooks, and Do-Gooders

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

Right wing spokespersons are dutifully picking up Bush’s “Iraq is Vietnam” theme and trudging along with it. There are a couple of examples at the Corner. Here is the reliably inane Jonah Goldberg:

The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think).

And Byron York digs up an old article by James Webb that describes the aftermath of the fall of Saigon (Webb’s full article can be found here). Webb wrote in 2000 that the antiwar view of Vietnam was oversimplified, even cartoonish, and I agree that was usually the case. But then, so was the pro-war view.

York is implying, I think, that because terrible things happened in Southeast Asia after our military left, our military should not have left. He fails to note that terrible things happened in Southeast Asia while we were still there, and that most of the really bad things that came after — such as the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — came about because of our military actions in Southeast Asia. In other words, the monster turned loose by our leaving was one of our own creation.

And who’s to say that, had we stayed longer, the monsters that eventually would have been unleashed wouldn’t have been bigger and badder?

The Right’s sudden, tender compassion for Cambodians reminds me of the concern that materialized in 2002 for the poor gassed Kurds. American right-wingers brushed off the gassing of the Kurds when it happened, in 1988. Attempts by liberals in Congress to address the issue were squelched by the Reagan administration, which continued to support the perpetrator, Saddam Hussein. Years passed without the poor Kurds being given a second thought. But suddenly, in 2002, when the Bush Administration needed to paint Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler, the Right seized upon the gassing of the Kurds as an unforgivable atrocity — which, of course, it was and always had been. And just as suddenly American wingnuts were beside themselves with anguish over the Kurds, and they insisted another second could not be lost in coming to their rescue, even though the gassing had occurred 15 years earlier and the Kurds had been protected from Saddam Hussein by U.S. flyovers since 1991.

I agree with Goldberg that there are “millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost.” In a nation of more than 300 million you can find several million people who believe just about anything. However, I doubt that remorse over what happened to southeast Asians flickered through all that many wingnut hearts. It was, as Goldberg said, all about “prestige and honor.” And when Goldberg writes —

This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer’s remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents.

he fails to understand that millions of Americans in the early 1970s wanted us to stay in Vietnam, and these are the millions who kept alive the “we could have won had we stayed” notion. It wasn’t “buyer’s remorse,” because minds didn’t change. Somewhere in America there may be a handful of people who opposed the Vietnam war at the time but came to regret ending it, but I’ve never met such a person. The hawks, on the other hand, nursed their bitterness and shame, stubbornly refusing to notice that leaving Vietnam had no bad effects on the United States. Which, IMO, amounted to big honking empirical proof that what happened to South Vietnam was not a vital interest of the United States, and we shouldn’t have sent troops there to begin with.

What Really Happened in America is that once we were out of Vietnam the whole nation dropped the subject like a hot potato. This was a bipartisan subject dropping. The terrible things happening in Southeast Asia after 1975 had no measurable political ramifications here in the U.S. that I can think of.

It may be, as Goldberg suggests, that Americans too young to remember the Vietnam War themselves have been persuaded that we could have “won” had we stayed. It’s fairly easy to support a war when you are in no danger of being drafted to fight it. But in all these years no Vietnam War hawk has ever been able to explain to me what we would have “won” had we won, except more and bigger trouble, possibly from the Soviets, or China. Hawks never think past the parade.

Vietnam and Iraq are similar in that they present the same paradox — that victory could equal defeat. By that I mean using enough military force to utterly crush the warring factions would amount to throwing away our political objectives. The operative phrase, I believe, is “Pyrrhic victory.” To those who continue to complain that we could have “won” in Vietnam, and could still “win” in Iraq, I say, of course. But this isn’t a game. Get over childish ideas about “victory” and “defeat” and see the bigger picture, for once.

Instead of talking about winning and losing, we should clearly understand what our objectives are in Iraq and then consider how those objectives might be achieved. Military “victory” and “defeat” are abstractions that don’t apply to the reality.

Vietnam and Iraq are different in that, once out of Iraq, I doubt we will be able to shove it out of our minds as we did Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The Middle East is far more strategically important to us than Southeast Asia was. How we withdraw really does need to be given serious thought and planning. Just because we Americans could ignore what happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s doesn’t mean we will be able to ignore what happens in Iraq after we leave. Matters could get worse there. On the other hand, they could get better. There are so many variables I don’t think anyone can know with certainty how events will play out. However, the argument that we can’t leave because the situation might get worse if we do does not wash.

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Politics, not ideology, will determine the future of the Middle East. That’s good news and bad news. Good news because the interests and aspirations of Arabs and non-Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis, modernizers and traditionalists will combine to prevent any one faction from gaining the upper hand. Bad news because those same factors guarantee that the Middle East will remain an unstable mess for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes people can manage their own affairs. Does the U.S. need to attend to that mess? Perhaps not.

Here the experience of Vietnam following the U.S. defeat is instructive. Once the Americans departed, the Vietnamese began getting their act together. Although not a utopia, Vietnam has become a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. It is a responsible member of the international community. In Hanoi, the communists remain in power. From an American point of view, who cares?

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.

There is much hysterical rhetoric coming from war supporters about the “cause of freedom.” I suggest the best way to support the “cause of freedom” is to let people have it.

See also Dan Froomkin’s “The Lost Year” and the Saturday cartoons.

Update: This post of Digby’s slipped my mind, but deserves to be mentioned here. A right-wing organization called Family Security Matters sent around an email, since scrubbed, advocating nuking Iraq.

The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office, if not his freedom or his life.

And this reveals the “inadequacy of democracy.” Barbara Comstock, Monica Crowley, Frank Gaffney, Laura Ingraham and James Woolsey are among the righties on the Family Security Matters board of directors.

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Pills and Politics

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abortion, Bush Administration

Via Media Matters, we find that Leslie Hanks, vice president of Colorado Right to Life, is worried about the addictive properties of birth control pills.

“Let’s face it, they’re [Planned Parenthood] in the business to kill babies for profit,” she said. “First and foremost, they get young girls hooked on their birth control pills, which don’t work,” Hanks said.

Media Matters points out that birth control pills do work to prevent conception pretty reliably; “oral contraceptives work with 92 percent efficacy for the first year of ‘[t]ypical [u]se’ and are 99.7 percent effective with ‘[p]erfect [u]se,” MM says. So if Planned Parenthood is encouraging people to use contraceptives, which it does, then it really isn’t primarily “in the business” of abortion, is it?

Further, “Planned Parenthood® Federation of America, Inc. is a tax-exempt corporation under Internal Revenue Service code section 501(c)(3) and is not a private foundation. (Tax ID #13-1644147) Contributions are tax deductible,” their web site says. Strictly speaking, they are not “in the business” for profit at all. I believe it operates mostly on donations and endowments.

Regarding the abortion question, Eleanor Clift argues that Democrats should refocus the debate on birth control.

Family planning is an issue Republicans generally like to avoid because it threatens the coalition between economic conservatives and the religious right. Business types tend to be live-and-let-live, while a segment of social conservatives oppose birth control with almost the same fervor they oppose abortion. Family planning is such an under-the-radar issue for Republicans that Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says the Right to Life organization doesn’t advertise a birth-control position. “But you find in that movement—and they’ve become much more assertive about it—if you use birth control, you are stopping a life and that’s not acceptable,” she says. Listen to right-wing talk radio and you’ll hear how making birth control available or teaching sex-ed in public schools leads to sex. That’s an argument equivalent to believing that putting air bags in cars causes accidents, says Keenan.

The American public may be ambivalent about abortion, but I’m sure a whopping majority approve of birth control as an alternative. Cristina Page pointed out recently that there’s a strong, under-the-radar anti-contraceptive movement. Further, she says elsewhere, pro-choice politicians would do well to make contraception an issue.

Americans, pro-life and pro-choice, support contraception particularly because its the only proven way to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion. (Only 11 percent of sexually active women don’t use contraception and from this 11 percent comes 50 percent of the nation’s abortions.) But very few voters are aware that not one pro-life organization in the United States supports contraception. Instead, pro-life groups lead campaigns against contraception. Ninety-one percent of the American public strongly favors contraception. When pro-choice presidential candidates make the discussion about prevention, contraception and results, they’ll win. No less than 80 percent of self-described pro-life voters strongly support contraception too.

The irony of the so-called (imagine my voice dripping with contempt) “right to life” position is that passing laws that ban abortions doesn’t stop abortions. This can be proved with solid empirical evidence; many nations that outlaw abortions have higher rates of abortion than nations with more liberal abortion laws. The one factor that, reliably, does lower abortion rates is access to and use of contraceptives. It is well documented that increasing the use of contraceptives correlates to lowering the rate of abortions within a population. You can’t say the same about passing laws prohibiting abortion.

You’ll never persuade the thick-headed Leslie Hanks of this, of course, but I think most Americans really don’t want the Morality Police to take away their contraceptives.

See also Susie at Suburban Guerrilla.

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Small and Smaller

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Bush Administration, Congress, Iraq War

Josh Marshall:

We are bigger than Iraq.

By that I do not mean we, as America, are bigger or better than Iraq as a country. I mean that that sum of our national existence is not bound up in what happens there. The country will go on. Whatever happens, we’ll recover from it. And whatever might happen, there are things that matter much more to this country’s future — like whether we have a functioning military any more, whether our economy is wrecked, whether this country tears itself apart over this catastrophe. But we’ll go on and look back at this and judge what happened.

Not so for the president. For him, this is it. He’s not bigger than this. His entire legacy as president is bound up in Iraq. Which is another way of saying that his legacy is pretty clearly an irrecoverable shambles. That is why, as the folly of the enterprise becomes more clear, he must continually puff it up into more and more melodramatic and world-historical dimensions. A century long ideological struggle and the like. For the president a one in a thousand shot at some better outcome is well worth it, no matter what the cost. Because at least that’s a one in a thousand shot at not ending his presidency with the crushing verdict history now has in store. It’s also worth just letting things keep on going as they are forever because, like Micawber, something better might turn up. Going double or nothing by expanding the war into Iran might be worth it too for the same reason. For him, how can it get worse?

And when you boil all this down what it comes down to is that the president now has very different interests than the country he purports to lead.

Ah, perspective. It’s a beautiful thing.

Josh links to a pretty good Washington Post column by Jim Hoagland, titled “Bush’s Vietnam Blunder.” Among other things, Hoagland thinks the “Vietnam” speech was a political blunder. Maybe; whether the speech makes Bush and his war more or less unpopular than they already were remains to be seen. But here is the critical point:

Some military commanders, CIA agents in Iraq, Republican members of Congress, State Department diplomats and others now make their highest priority the protection of their own reputations, careers and institutions — the three blend seamlessly into a single overriding ambition in Washington — for the post-Bush era, which thus draws closer, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The need to protect the White House, the Pentagon and both major political parties from greater Iraq fallout explains much of the blame being dumped on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at this late date — even though his deficiencies and close links to Iran and Syria were clearly visible when the administration helped install him in the job in 2006. As he has been throughout the Iraq experience, Bush is condemned to play the cards he dealt himself.

Our troops are in Iraq not to protect America, but to protect political careers.

And it’s not just Republicans, of course. Democrats are still so afraid of being labeled “soft” on communism crime terrorism that their own positions on the war are nuanced to death. Frankly, I’ve given up trying to understand precisely where some Democrats stand on the war; all over the place, it seems.

E.J. Dionne writes,

The surest sign of how bad our choices in Iraq have become is the eagerness of both of our political parties to blame the entire mess on the man American officials helped install in his job. After all, it was taken as an American victory back in April 2006 when Maliki replaced Ibrahim al-Jafari, who faced many of the same criticisms as prime minister that Maliki does today.

Now, Maliki is the problem. Among Democrats, both Sens. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton have called for replacing him with “a less divisive and more unifying figure,” as Clinton put it. …

… It’s no accident that American politicians find themselves entangled in Iraqi politics. The president’s troop surge was designed not to achieve some decisive military result but to bring about a political result — to give Iraqis “breathing room” to settle their sectarian differences.

I think the real reason for the surge was to kneecap the Iraq Study Group recommendations that would have taken control of the war away from Bush, but let’s go on …

That’s why both sides in the war debate are talking past each other. Supporters of the administration point to signs of military success and insist that we should keep at it. The administration’s opponents don’t deny some military gains — at considerable cost in American lives. But they argue that the continuing political disarray in Iraq shows that the surge has failed to achieve its primary objective and that we should begin to disentangle our troops from a civil war.

The debate as it’s currently configured puts a much higher short-term political burden on congressional Democrats than on Republicans. The president has the easier political objective: He needs only to block congressional action that would force him to alter his policy. As long as most Republicans stick with him, he wins.

He wins, notice. Not America; just Bush.

Democrats, on the other hand, are in a classic damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation.

So what else is new?

Congress, which has the constitutional authority to end the war, dithers around with halfway measures designed to encourage, but not force, the President to change his policy. Of course, this is a bit like politely asking a fox to please leave the chickens alone.

There’s more going on beneath the surface than merely scapegoating Maliki, as Glenn Greenwald explains today (must read). Politicians in Washington of both parties seem to have forgotten that We, the People, are still here.

At moments like these someone is bound to start squawking about third parties, which is another road to failure. We’re trapped into a two-party system by the way we hold elections. I still see no alternative to reforming the Democrats, eliminating “Bush Dogs” in the primaries and otherwise sending a message to the Washington elites that they really do need to reckon with us. That will take a few election cycles, unfortunately. And the war goes on.

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The Power of (Right Wing) Myth

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Bush Administration, conservatism

Regarding Bush’s Vietnam speech and other manglings of history — Glenn Greenwald wrote last week:

On a different note, is the curriculum for history classes in some American states restricted to learning about Hitler and the Nazis and 1938 and Hitler and Germany? It must be, because there are many right-wing fanatics whose entire understanding of the world is reduced in every instance to that sole historical event — as though the world began in 1937, ended in 1945, and we just re-live that moment in time over and over and over:

Love war? You are Churchill, a noble warrior. Oppose war? You’re Chamberlain, a vile appeaser. And everyone else is Hitler. That, more or less, composes the full scope of “thought” among this strain on the right.

These words gave me an epiphany: The key to understanding right-wing rhetoric can be found in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In “Darmok” (originally aired 1991) the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. “We come in peace,” say the Enterprise crew. “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra,” reply the Tamarians. “Temba, his arms wide.” The Next Generationers are baffled.

But then Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means “Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.” So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, “Bye. It’s been real.”

When I saw this episode I wondered how a people who speak only in metaphors could develop technology. I imagined them trying to fix plumbing, saying “Toona and the floods of Wippawop” to mean “who’s got the basin wrench?” It seems cumbersome. But let’s worry about that some other time. The point I want to make here is that when righties talk about history, they are not talking about what actually happened in the past. Instead, they are evoking historical persons and events as archetype and allegory.

Thus, when they speak of Winston Churchill, they are not speaking of the real Winston Churchill. They are speaking of what Winston Churchill represents in their minds, which is the stubborn refusal to back down from a fight. In fact, the real Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1922 advising him that British troops should abandon Iraq.

I think we should now put definitely, not only to Feisal but to the Constituent Assembly, the position that unless they beg us to stay and to stay on our own terms in regard to efficient control, we shall actually evacuate before the close of the financial year. I would put this issue in the most brutal way, and if they are not prepared to urge us to stay and to co-operate in every manner I would actually clear out. That at any rate would be a solution. … At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.

But instead of actually studying the life and words of Churchill for understanding, righties simply evoke the man as an archetype of bulldog, never-give-up tenacity. I’ve read that Bush keeps a bust of Churchill in the oval office, for inspiration. And perhaps there’s something like tantric identity yoga going on here; Bush imagines himself to be the great Churchill, the wrathful Archangel of Stubbornness.

Very likely righties associate Churchill with his great oratory of World War II and know little else about him. They don’t stop to consider that in his “blood, sweat, and tears” speech Churchill was talking about a major military power capable of raining bombs on London (and, in fact, preparing to do so). Hitler’s Germany and today’s Iraq are in no way equivalent — except in the minds of righties, for whom “Hitler” has become the Demon Enemy whose spirit infests the bodies of all enemies, whoever they are and whatever their capabilities and intentions.

By the same token, Neville Chamberlain is the archetype of cowardly appeasement. Righties may know little else about the man except that he “appeased” Hitler — not an uncommon practice among right wingers of the 1930s, who considered Hitler and Mussolini to be swell guys who hated communism as much as they did.

In fact, former White House correspondent Lynne Olson argued awhile back that Bush was a lot more like the real Chamberlain than the real Churchill:

Like Bush, and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. None the less, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers, and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise. In the months leading up to war, Chamberlain and his men saw little need to build a strong coalition of European allies to confront Nazi Germany – ignoring appeals from Churchill and others to fashion a “grand alliance”.

Unlike Bush and Chamberlain, Churchill was never in favour of his country going it alone. Throughout the 1930s, while urging Britain to rearm, he strongly supported using the League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations – to provide smaller countries with one-for-all and all-for-one security. After the league failed to stop fascism’s march, Churchill was adamant that Britain must form a true partnership with France and even reach agreement with the despised Soviet Union, neither of which Chamberlain was willing to do.

Like Bush, Chamberlain laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances supposed to constrain the office of prime minister. He scorned dissenting views, inside and outside government. When Chamberlain arranged his face-to-face meetings with Hitler in 1938 that ended in the catastrophic Munich conference, he did so without consulting his cabinet. He also bypassed the House of Commons, leading Harold Macmillan, a future Tory prime minister and then an anti-appeasement MP, to complain that Chamberlain was treating parliament “like a Reichstag, to meet only to hear the orations and to register the decrees of the government”.

Olson goes on in this vein for a while — really, there are a number of startling parallels between Bush and Chamberlain, so do read the whole thing. About a year ago Keith Olbermann also made some Bush-Chamberlain comparisons on Countdown.

In the rightie mind, any attempt to avoid war is “appeasement.” In his new book A Tragic Legacy, Glenn Greenwald writes (p. 177) that when Ronald Reagan signed the INF treaty with the Soviet Union in 1988, rightie editorialists everywhere evoked Neville Chamberlain and accused Reagan of “appeasement.” Earlier, in 1984, Newt Gingrich scorned Reagan’s rapprochement with Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolph Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

Got that? All “enemies” are Hitler (whatever you think of Gorbachev, he’s hardly Hitler). So much as meeting with “enemies” is Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich. So how do we deal with nations whose interests don’t harmonize with ours? Rightie mythos leaves us with no option but war.

Speaking of Reagan — this past January, conservative Ron Dreher spoke on NPR about why he became a Republican:

My first real political memory came in 1979. It was listening to Jimmy Carter tell the nation about the failed hostage rescue mission. I hated him for that. I hated him for the whole Iran mess, shaming America before our enemies with weakness and incompetence.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year, I stayed up late to hear his victory speech. America was saved. I was 13 years old, and I was a Reaganite from that moment on.

My generation came of age politically under Reagan. To me, he was strong and confident. Democrats were weak and depressed. Like so many other Gen-X’ers, I disliked people I thought of as hippies, those blame America first liberals so hung up on Vietnam. They surrendered to the communists back then, just like they want to do that. Republicans were winners, Democrats defeatists. What more did you need to know?

The point of Dreher’s essay is that the Iraq War caused him to realize, suddenly and painfully, that the dirty bleeping hippies (whose spirits infest the dark nightmares of righties, who still fear them, even though I haven’t spotted a live one since about 1974) had reasons to be opposed to the Vietnam War. This, apparently, had never dawned on him before. Dreher seems to have believed that hippies oppose war for the same reason swallows return to Capistrano — it’s just the nature of the beast.

I call today’s righties the “Reagan generation” because so many of them are Gen-X’ers whose first memories of politics and national events involved Carter and Reagan. They weren’t so much taught politics as imprinted with the Reagan mythos. For them, all Democrats are Jimmy Carter, an archetype of wimpy passivity. Reagan represents confidence, action, sunniness. The two of them together represent opposing forces that tell the entire story of American politics. Nothing more needs to be understood or thought through. Democrats bad, Republicans good, end of argument.

The actual persons Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are/were far more complicated than the Carter and Reagan archetypes, of course, and they both have/had their virtues and flaws. Today’s righties have forgotten the “Reagan and Gorbachev sign the INF treaty” story, and it has passed out of rightie mythos. They also persistently overlook Reagan’s raising of taxes after he lowered them and his quick skedaddle out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks tragedy. What’s important to them is not what Reagan actually did as President, but what he represents emotionally and mythically.

In fact, the mythical Carter/Reagan dichotomy — Carter as murky, depressed, weak, passive and Reagan as clear, sunny, strong, and active — is exactly the yin/yang dichotomy. I could write a whole ‘nother post on gender politics and the many associations of liberalism with femininity and conservatism with masculinity, never mind reality. In fact, I did write that post awhile back. But for now, I just want to point to this as another layer of the right-wing subconscious and postulate that men with gender insecurity are more likely to lean right than left.

So yesterday, after years of denying historical comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, President Bush delivered a speech comparing Iraq to Vietnam. To which much of America responded, WTF? Today America’s newspapers are peppered with complaints from historians that Bush’s speech distorted the facts of the Vietnam War. But of course; what actually happened during and after the war was not the point. He was speaking to those still inclined to support the war, and to them, Vietnam represents national disgrace. It also represents allowing the forces of darkness to scamper unhindered over the land. When Bush spoke of “killing fields,” for example, rightie listeners could relate. There was a movie about that, after all, never mind that the killing fields of Cambodia didn’t happen because America withdrew from Vietnam, but because we were bleeping there.

“It is undoubtedly true that America’s failure in Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia,” said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

“But there are a couple of further points that need weighing,” he added. “One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”

Ah, but let us not bother with facts. Facts are for wonks and women. Real men, heroic men, listen to their hearts, or perhaps something else located along the lower part of the brain stem. We need not fear actual consequences of our actions. Our quest is to re-enter the heart of darkness and slay the demon therein, even though he is probably us. And if we fail, the failure will not be ours, but will be the Democratic Party’s. Win/win.

We lefties sometimes persist in trying to reason with righties. I’ve given up, mind you, but there are those who still try. But I say this is futile. As with the encounter between the Enterprise and the Tamarians, we don’t understand each others words. “We want what’s best for America,” we say. “Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich!” they cry. “Sam Waterson and John Malkovich in Phnom Penh! FDR at Yalta!” Perhaps they would listen to us if we convinced them we were channeling the spirit of John Wayne at Iwo Jima.

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If You Can Stand It

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Bush Administration, Iraq War

There’s a video segment of today’s “Vietnam” speech at Crooks and Liars. Click here for a video of David Schuster debunking today’s “Vietnam” speech.

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Please, Make Him Stop!

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Bush Administration

I’ve written before about our president’s poor understanding of history. I’ve noted repeatedly that he will often use a historical reference that not only doesn’t actually support the point he thinks he’s making, but makes the opposite point instead.

But today he’s just gone too far. It actually hurts my brain. It’s not merely egoistic grandiosity anymore, it’s frankly aggressive, abusive treatment. It’s like he is actually trying to damage the minds of anyone who knows their 20th Century American history, or is old enough to have lived through it themselves.

How is it possible to withstand such an elemental force of bizarre rhetoric? How are we, who are limited by a lingering memory of sanity, a habit of believing in consensual reality, and an inability to wake each day and accept that everything we knew previously is wrong, to confront such an assault?

For years, Vietnam has served as the icon of American military failure. In fact, as long as Bush has been talking about invading Iraq, critics have been comparing it to Vietnam as an example of a misguided, strategically questionable, poorly planned, expensive military misadventure, where thousands of lives were lost and billions wasted for no apparent long-term value. So, what did Mr. Bush do today?

He alluded to Vietnam to support his war in Iraq.

No. Really. He did.

I know.

Sit down, it’ll begin to pass in a few moments.

Sputtering? Good, good. That’s a sign. You’re recovering. (Some can’t get over the initial catatonic shock and just dissociate.)

‘How?’ ‘Wha?’ Indeed.

It’s a frontal assault on the rational mind.

The collision of the concepts ‘George W. Bush’ and ‘Vietnam’ might lure you into recalling that Bush avoided service in Vietnam, choosing to defend the skies and bars of Alabama when his generation was called to war. Some particle of an obsolete sense of decency might make you wonder how he could dare to stand before the Veterans of Foreign Wars and make a reference to his own cowardice, and Deferment Dick’s, that way.

But before your mind can fully process that conundrum, it gets buffeted by other absurdities.

Starting at the beginning of his speech, the pummeling begins. Did he really draw an equivalence between the militarists of WWII Japan, the Communists in Korea, the Communists in Vietnam, and “the terrorists who wage war in Iraq and Afhanistan”? Yes, yes he did. Did he actually say that the “lesson of Asia’s development is that the heart’s desire for liberty will not be denied?” Yes. (He does know that North Korea is still in Asia, right? And China? Are you sure?)

Wait, what? He’s seriously suggesting the experiences of two culturally and ethnically homogeneous nations like Japan and Korea, both of whom experienced American troops in completely different contexts, hold an example for what we can expect in diverse Iraq after an unprovoked invasion? Ow. Ow. Ow. Headache!

No. He didn’t just refer to the culturally-sensitive actions of the post-war occupation forces in Japan as an example. He did. He really did. He’s going for it: he’s actually suggesting that the way the US handled Japan and Korea are comparable to the way we handled and are handling Iraq.

Wait, our sticking by South Korea taught the Communists that aggression didn’t pay? (Then what the hell was Vietnam about?)

The mind reels. He is skillful, this Bush. All this about Japan and Korea, how American involvement spread the seeds of liberty and led to the growth of vibrant Asian economies (like China? no. shut up.), it’s just a warm-up, softening the mind for the coup de grace: Vietnam.

— See, there were doubters about Vietnam, just like there are now about Iraq. You know, there were even people way back when who said we should never get involved there in the first place? And there were even people saying we were making things worse, not better. —

Then, just as reasonable minds are about to proceed to the next rational thought “And they were right”, comes the bomb: The “one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.””

Yup. That’s right. The big mistake in Vietnam wasn’t getting into a stupid, pointless war, and staying in it until the American people had finally had all they could stand. The big mistake in Vietnam was ending it. (Just like Iraq presumably. It wasn’t a mistake going in, it hasn’t been a long string of mistakes since, the mistake would be leaving.)

Brilliant. Vietnam, the war he himself wouldn’t fight, is the very war we should have continued to fight, but didn’t. We must not make that mistake again, huh?

Just before you have a moment to think things like “Wait, weren’t the killing fields in Cambodia, which was thrown into chaos by our bombing and incursions before the Khmer Rouge took power?”, there comes yet another blow, perhaps the most brutal, to the very fabric of a rational universe.

There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today’s struggle — those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”

His number two man, Zawahiri, has also invoked Vietnam. In a letter to al Qaeda’s chief of operations in Iraq, Zawahiri pointed to “the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents.”

Ai-yiii! There it is, our great failure as a nation.

If only our leaders in the 70s had understood that decades later, very bad men would take the lesson that the American people will not continue to support expensive, pointless wars for vague objectives indefinitely! And that they would taunt us after we’d gotten ourselves involved in just such a war!

Then we might have been spared our current fate, doomed to remain engaged in said expensive and pointless war, just to spite them and prove the taunts of the terrorists wrong. The American people will SO support expensive, pointless wars indefinitely! We’ll show YOU, Osama. So there!

— See, if we were to leave Iraq, the terrorists would be emboldened and gain new recruits. (Whereas, if we stay, they are emboldened and gain … oh, never mind.)

So, there you have it.

The lesson of our military involvements in Asia is that the seeds of liberty spread by American military forces grow into thriving economies. And the lesson of Vietnam is that the big mistake is to pull out of the killing too soon, because then lots of local people kill each other instead, and only after is there a thriving economy. And, just as importantly, you get a reputation as a country that’s not really up for years of pointless violence and killing in foreign lands.

Which I guess is a really bad thing, if you want the US to be involved in decades of pointless violence and killing in foreign lands.

Something like that. But he must know, since he’s like, a Vietnam veteran and all, right? Oh, yeah. Hmm.

Just to show he wasn’t at all tired, Bush wrapped up his speech with a claim that we’ve captured more al Qaeda guys in Iraq than there are al Qaeda guys in Iraq, a passage about how people across the Middle East are longing for freedom and to be treated with dignity and respect (which I guess, is why we are supporting a military ruler, several monarchies and ‘democracies’ like Egypt), and a reference to how the Japanese war machine was brought down by men who’d been ordinary folks just months before, (in case you’d forgotten that Japan attacked us, we have no draft and the Iraq war has dragged on longer than the entire war in the Pacific.)

It’s at times like this that I get most demoralized. How can such a raving loon be allowed not just to wander about his ranch in Texas, but to actually hold the reins of power in our country? I can’t take too much more of this. He’s only getting worse.

Vietnam.

Incredible.

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