Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bush Cranking Up the Rhetoric for a Third War

Any pretense that Bush had last spring of turning more towards diplomacy and a more sane foreign policy is pretty much dead. Condi Rice's Iran initiative, concocted in a single weekend, may have been well-meaning but without the backing of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and John Bolton, it too was dead on arrival.

Keep in mind that for nearly five years Iran has had some interest in talks with the US; Europe, Russia and China would like very much for Iran to honor nuclear nonproliferation but that's difficult given the clumsy way the United States has handled North Korea; Donald Rumsfeld's incompetence in Iraq has weakened our strategic position rather than strengthened it. Iran's leaders do not want war with the US and would like to ease tensions but in some ways they're not much brighter than Bush and yet they are rationally concerned about the military presence of the United States on three sides of their borders. If Bush had been serious about diplomacy, there are a number of steps he could have taken to assure the Iranians he meant it. Who knows? Perhaps Bush is serious about diplomacy. Given the incompetence of the Bush Administration, it's not always easy to tell, though many of the finest foreign policy experts in the world are in the United States and any of them would be willing to help our incurious president.

We are at the end of August. On Tuesday, Rumsfeld gave one of the worst speeches of his misbegotten career and is now trying to backpedal from his unhelpful smearing of his critics. But Bush has given a speech of his own and Americans are now waking up to just how delusional our president is. Here's an excerpt from a post by Glenn Greenwald of Unclaimed Territory:
The similarities between what the President said about Iraq in the months before our invasion and what he is saying about Iran now are too glaring to miss. They seem to be intentionally repeating most of their rhetoric, almost verbatim, complete with the same incoherence (if Iran is such a crazed, Nazi-like regime, how can we ever trust that they have given up nuclear weapons development? And even if they do that, they still "sponsor terrorists," and thus must be "held to account" under the "Bush doctrine"). Don't all of those premises make regime change via war not an option, but an inevitability?

All of that means one of two things (or some combination of both): (1) the President has decided already that we are going to wage some sort of military attack on Iran and is saying the same things as he said once he decided to wage war on Iraq while pretending to have not yet decided pending "diplomatic efforts"; and/or (2) the White House is trying to have its top officials, including the President, sound like Michael Ledeen because that's necessary to (a) motivate its crazed warmonger base itching for more wars and/or (b) enable Karl Rove to create the warrior/appeaser dichotomy that has worked so well electorally for Rove for two straight elections (and for Republicans for 35 years).

Personally, I think (without knowing) that the President really is committed to military action against Iran...

I suspect Bush wants military action but I don't think Bush is fully committed to military action as yet. For one thing, the military is balking. For another, the saner Republican heads in Washington are balking (it's always worth noting that not all Republicans are right wingers). For another, it's unlikely that Bush can get Congressional approval for the third war of his presidency (if one doesn't count his clumsy involvement in Israel's war against Hezbollah; count that as another of Bush's foreign policy fiascoes). But, if Bush wins another public relations battle, he might get Congressional approval. If he can trick Iran into war, he might get what he wants. A back door maneuver might be to fire generals and colonels until he gets a compliant group. Another maneuver may be getting Israel to start a war. This is why it is imperative that if Americans are tired of Bush's wars, they need to speak loud and clear that enough is enough.

According to the administration and its most avid supporters, Iraq was supposed to be a quick and cheap war. Instead, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld showed poor judgment and were wrong on a wide range of issues. They also lied their way into the war. They also make ideological assumptions about the world that don't make much sense to anyone who knows anything about foreign affairs. Therefore, one can assume fairly easily that they are making huge mistaken assumptions about Iran, including mistaken strategic assumptions. Nothing in foreign policy is more unforgiveable that making a major strategic mistake.

Bush has already made a series of strategic blunders. It's turn out unilateralism is an utter failure as a strategic assumption in the world we now live in; no country is truly powerful enough to single-handedly impose its will on the world and unilateralism in the end merely breeds enormous distrust. The preemptive strike principle is extremely dangerous because it makes the world less stable, not more stable—you risk playing a game with your opponent of trying to outguess each other to no one's benefit. The itch that Bush officials have to use nuclear weapons only lowers the threshhold for others to use nuclear weapons. The use of torture exposes our soldiers to the same treatment, and it also turns out we had ridiculous terrorist alerts based on false information developed by torture. Trying to impose democracy on others at the point of a gun or by using torture simply makes a mockery of the idea of democracy.

The biggest strategic failure of the Bush Administration is that it has badly undermined the credibility of our word, the credibility of our reputation for getting things done and our status as the leader of the free world. Already, nations are creating informal alliances to take care of themselves in the absence of real American leadership. Until the 2004 election, many nations were patient and thought Bush's excesses were a temporary aberration of American politics. After Bush won in 2004, American popularity in the world plummeted like a rock. Right wing conservatives in middle America can shrug but this will have consequences for years to come.

If none of this impacts on those wondering if Bush is right or not, there's finally this: a war with Iran, at a minimum, will drive oil to a $100/barrel but that only depends on how bad things get; a third war may be the war that ignites the entire Middle East. Our troops in Iraq also may face a real threat from Shiites who may feel betrayed by an attack on Iran just as they felt betrayed by Israel's attack on Hezbollah; three and a half years of war have eroded much of the trust that Shiites had when we first came to Iraq. The religious sects, ethnic groups and politics of the Middle East is not something our president has understood very well and we are already paying the consequences of his ignorance.

Here's an excerpt from an article in the Boston Globe by George Soros:
THE FAILURE OF Israel to subdue Hezbollah demonstrates the many weaknesses of the war-on-terror concept. One of those weaknesses is that even if the targets are terrorists, the victims are often innocent civilians, and their suffering reinforces the terrorist cause.

In response to Hezbollah's attacks, Israel was justified in attacking Hezbollah to protect itself against the threat of missiles on its border. However, Israel should have taken greater care to minimize collateral damage. The civilian casualties and material damage inflicted on Lebanon inflamed Muslims and world opinion against Israel and converted Hezbollah from aggressors to heroes of resistance for many. Weakening Lebanon has also made it more difficult to rein in Hezbollah.

Another weakness of the war-on-terror concept is that it relies on military action and rules out political approaches. Israel previously withdrew from Lebanon and then from Gaza unilaterally, rather than negotiating political settlements with the Lebanese government and the Palestinian authority. The strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas was a direct consequence of that approach. The war-on-terror concept stands in the way of recognizing this fact because it separates ``us" from ``them" and denies that our actions help shape their behavior.

A third weakness is that the war-on-terror concept lumps together different political movements that use terrorist tactics. It fails to distinguish among Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, or the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi militia in Iraq. Yet all these terrorist manifestations, being different, require different responses. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah can be treated merely as targets in the war on terror because both have deep roots in their societies; yet there are profound differences between them.

Broadening the definition of terrorism to include everyone we don't like is insane. It only leads to escalation of hatred and eventually violence. Now the war in Afghanistan made sense as a direct and rational response to 9/11; clearly, terrorism is real and people like Osama bin Laden and organizations like al Qaida have to be dealt with because of the substantial threat they can mount. But most of the people and organizations labeled terrorist can be dealt with through police work, intelligence and cooperation with other nations or they can be dealt with through negotiations and political settlements; both approaches are extraordinarily cost effective.

Sometimes, right wing Republicans treat everyone they dislike as a target worthy only of attack. There is no pragmatism or wisdom in their approach and that too is yet another strategic blunder. And if they do this to everybody they dislike outside our country, right wing Republicans sooner or later may well do this inside our country. I believe a majority of Americans finally see through years of right wing nonsense but it's going to take time to turn things around. But the first thing to do is to stop any more foreign policy blunders that can lead to wider wars and damage our country even further.

Challenging Times for Conventional Wisdom

What passes for conventional wisdom in Washington these days sat on its hands in 2002 as the president made a bogus case for war in Iraq; if this were the only failure of conventional wisdom in the last twenty-five years, I would be forgiving but the failure of conventional wisdom to challenge Bush on Iraq was only it's most spectacular failure. The list of failures is long. It begins with a twenty-five year record of failing to challenge the increasingly conservative noise machine of the American right.

I can remember a time when conventional wisdom had a reasonably accurate read on those who would presume to lead the country. Forty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that right wingers like the John Birchers were out of their ever-loving minds and that we needed to stay as far away from them as possible. Today, there's little difference between members of The John Birch Society and people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They're still out of their ever-loving minds. And they're not particularly competent and not particularly honest. But the conventional wisdom today thinks in terms of how well a photo-op was done or whether a speech was well-written (not whether such a speech was consistent with the facts or what actions were subsequently taken) or whether a candidate is consistent on the issues (never mind the inconsistencies of whoever brings up the issue in the first place).

The Washington Post has two deans on its staff: David Broder and George Will. In the 1980s, many liberals like myself read George Will to get a reasonably honest feel for conservative thinking. Unfortunately, George Will discovered Rush Limbaugh and spent too much time in the 1990s and even in recent years simply imitating Limbaugh by making things up as he went along. But Will at least seems to be finally catching on that the muddled right-wing thinking of the current era and the current administration are perhaps not in the nation's best interest and don't seem to have much to do with classic conservatism.

Broder, on the other hand, is still caught up in a way of thinking that passed for conventional wisdom in the 1990s but that hasn't been particularly relevant for twenty years. The nation is facing at least a dozen major problems at the moment, most of the problems being a byproduct of an incompetent and ideological administration; there is also the added issue of a Congress about as corrupt as anything this country has seen since the 1920s. Broder goes on vacation and the only thing he notices is that the Democrats have changed the primary schedule in 2008 and oh what a tragedy that is:
So Nevada, with a growing Hispanic population, was inserted before New Hampshire, thanks also to a boost from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator. And South Carolina was an easy choice to fill the need for a state with lots of black voters, pleasing native son and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, an unannounced contender for the nomination that eluded him last time.

This Democratic version of affirmative action leaves a lot to be desired. Unions are a major source of Democratic votes and money. Maybe Rhode Island should be rewarded for being a stronghold of union activity at a time when labor elsewhere is beleaguered. And gays vote Democratic; shouldn't the states that are home to San Francisco and Key West be allowed to vote early? And if Jewish contributors keep the party solvent, shouldn't New York be up there with the other pacesetters?

Huh? What Broder offers the reader was already a poorly considered caricature of the Democratic party ten years ago. It's a caricature, albeit with different names, that one might have written in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression when our problems far outstripped regional or ethnic concerns. It's a caricature that ignores the disaster that goes by the name of the Bush Administration. Broder goes on vacation and this is the best 'conventional wisdom' he can offer? Thirty years ago, Broder was considered a moderate who had an eye for the fulcrum of the nation and a sense of where we might be going. We're going off a cliff and Broder is dickering over a primary schedule?

Perhaps Broder should read Laura Rozen of War and Piece who, among other things, has a useful post from the Chris Nelson report on the potential problems of dealing with Iran. Is Broder aware that Bush may lead us into a third war? That Bush has no idea of what he's doing? That Bush has destroyed our foreign policy?

Or perhaps Broder could read former Bush official Flynn Leverett in The American Prospect who talks about Bush's flawed foreign policy and how we need to get back on track. He was one of those who actually worked on a serious plan to deal with Osama bin Laden. Remember Osama? He's the guy Bush let escape into Pakistan before taking the bulk of our military more than a thousand miles in the other direction! Has Broder noticed that Afghanistan is not going well these days? That it is, or at least was, a winnable war?

Or perhaps Broder could read The Oil Drum and other such sites which seem to be doing a fine job of explaining the simple fact that we have an energy problem and also an administration that doesn't seem interested in doing much about it. Does Broder understand that if Bush goes to war in Iran, we're going to be in even more of an bind when it comes to energy?

Or perhaps Broder, as is his wont, can just look at the polls and notice that Americans are not satisfied with the direction our country is taking. Or that on domestic issue after domestic issue, Americans are increasingly unhappy with Bush and his fellow Republicans. These would be useful things to notice. And useful things to write about.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann Takes On Rumsfeld's Arrogance and Incompetence

I've read several biographies of Winston Churchill. He made a lot of mistakes in his life but his shining moment was his brilliant leadership in World War Two. One of the keys to that leadership was that he was part of a true coalition government (so was Roosevelt). One of the consequences of a coalition government in an emergency is that ideology is forced to take a back seat to facts, and the Churchill of World War Two was driven by facts. The same cannot be said about the Bush presidency.

Steve Clemons of The Washington Note has the text of an editorial that Keith Olbermann gave after Rumsfeld's demagogic, we know all the answers speech the other day. Here it is:

Olberman: The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.

Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

Mr. Rumsfeld's remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands the deep analysis--and the sober contemplation--of every American.

For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence -- indeed, the loyalty -- of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land. Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants -- our employees -- with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration's track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life's blood of human freedom; and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as "his" troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq.

It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile it is right and the power to which it speaks, is wrong.

In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld's speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their time, there was another government faced with true peril--with a growing evil--powerful and remorseless.

That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld's, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the "secret information." It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld's -- questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England's, in the 1930's.

It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England.

It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords.

It knew that the hard evidence it received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions -- its own omniscience -- needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth.

Most relevant of all -- it "knew" that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused.

That critic's name was Winston Churchill.

Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill.

History -- and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England -- have taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty -- and his own confusion. A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the man, but that the office can also make the facts.

Thus, did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy.

Excepting the fact, that he has the battery plugged in backwards.

His government, absolute -- and exclusive -- in its knowledge, is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis.

It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.

But back to today's Omniscient ones.

That, about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely.

And, as such, all voices count -- not just his.

Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience -- about Osama Bin Laden's plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein's weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina's impact one year ago -- we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their "omniscience" as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris.

Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to the entire "Fog of Fear" which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies have -- inadvertently or intentionally -- profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

And yet he can stand up, in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer's New Clothes?

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

The confusion we -- as its citizens-- must now address, is stark and forbidding.

But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note -- with hope in your heart -- that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too.

The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and this administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld's other main assertion, that this country faces a "new type of fascism."

As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that -- though probably not in the way he thought he meant it.

This country faces a new type of fascism - indeed.

Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow.

But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew everything, and branded those who disagreed: "confused" or "immoral."

Thus, forgive me, for reading Murrow, in full:

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," he said, in 1954. "We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular."

And so good night, and good luck.

Let's hope for the sake of our country that we start hearing more words like this, and not just from Mr. Olberman.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bush Too Incompetent to Do Anything But Talk

With Karl Rove's help, George W. Bush is really a Madison Avenue type with a cowboy hat. It's his job, apparently, to sell the right wing nonsense of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Too bad. Our nation could have used a real president. Imagine a president with the backbone to cut Cheney and Rumsfeld down to size. Instead, we get public relations. In that vein, we can report that Bush's Katrina PR blitz fell over like a lead balloon. Now he's going to push the Iraq angle by running it up the flag to see if anyone salutes. If anyone else can remember bad cliches from Madison Avenue, feel free to add them in comments.

Bush, who isn't particularly honest or competent, is at it again; here's Deb Reichmann of AP in the Los Angeles Times:
President Bush is kicking off another series of speeches to counter opposition to the war in Iraq, impatience with the rising U.S. death toll and anxiety about possible terrorist attacks.

Bush delivers the first speech Thursday to the annual American Legion convention in Salt Lake City. The appearances will continue through the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and culminate on Sept. 19 when Bush addresses the U.N. Security Council.

It is the third time in less than a year that Bush has made a series of speeches on Iraq and terrorism. They come two months before congressional elections and at a point when Bush's approval rate is at 33 percent in the August AP-Ipsos poll. His approval on handling of Iraq also was at 33 percent in the poll.

Bush says we can't 'cut and run' in Iraq but he can't bother to say anymore why we went there in the first place. Bush says we have to finish the job in Iraq, but he ran off to Iraq without finishing the job in Afghanistan. We all remember Afghanistan, the place where Osama bin Laden was hiding? Afghanistan's a mess. And we all remember that Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11, but we're in Iraq? Bush has to finish the job in Iraq because he never caught Osama bin Laden who's in Pakistan. I agree that reasoning sounds weird but it's not my reasoning, it's the president's.

Like I said, it's too bad our nation doesn't have a real president. We're stuck with him for another two years. And it's too bad we don't have a real Congress. You know, those guys elected by the people who don't put up with any nonsense from a president who isn't competent and who isn't honest? But we can elect such a Congress this fall.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Energy Crisis Is Becoming Longterm Problem

In the last two years, there has been a growing recognition that the world has an energy problem. The problem, however, has been around for decades. In the 1970s, many oldtime oil people were shocked that the United States had reached its maximum production for the lower 48; the United States at one time had one of the world's largest reserves but we were one of the earliest countries to develop its fields and one of the first to see its oil production fall as new fields became smaller and smaller and more expensive to develop.

Some of the oldtime oil people saw the writing on the wall; they and others realized we needed alternative energy. But politics and profits got in the way of good sense and then the Middle East started supplying cheap oil for a variety of reasons, one simply being that companies had learned how to pump out the oil faster to keep pace with the world's appetite. After a heydey of a few short years, alternative energy hung around for three decades; some things, like wind power, improved and some things stagnated but alternative energy never received the full attention or research money it deserved.

After Jimmy Carter, most Democrats and Republicans neglected alternative energy over several administrations, but in recent years Republicans have specialized in doing the bidding of the oil companies, Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. But reality eventually has a way of intruding on the politics of convenience. There is talk of Peak Oil, how oil production is beginning to plateau, and may start falling in the next few years. But even if oil production manages to creep back up in the next five to ten years, there is the fact that India and China have growing economies and hence the demand for oil in the coming years is going to be greater than ever. We need alternative energy.

The oil companies and many of their political friends tell us not to worry; there's still plenty of oil. Yes, there's plenty of oil but often not in places easy to get at, and not enough to satisfy the world's demand. The oil companies tell us that they can make up the difference with oil sands, heavier grades of oil, oil shale and that they can even convert coal to oil. Yes, that's true but at what price? All these extra exotic methods of producing oil or their derivatives have problems, the biggest being that the technology is very dirty. And there is now an additional reason why we have to look at these alternative methods with skepticism: global warming. The evidence keeps growing that global warming is real and that we need to cut back on fossil fuels that are putting a huge excess of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels will continue to be pumped out of oil fields. The exotic methods of extracting fossil fuels I mentioned will also be used. The oil companies and the oil producing nations will continue to make their profits. But we need to face facts: we need to start switching to alternative fuels, clean fuels, fuels that will allow our children and grandchildren to have a future.

Even auto companies are now coming around. Micheline Maynard of The New York Times has the story:
The Chrysler Group, which depends more heavily on sales of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles than any other Detroit automaker, said Monday that it expected gasoline prices to remain at $3 to $4 a gallon for the rest of this decade.

The comments by Thomas W. LaSorda, Chrysler’s chief executive, are the first time a Detroit automaker has issued a specific forecast on gas prices since they began climbing to $3 a gallon and higher.

Ford’s chief sales analyst agreed Monday that high gas prices were not a temporary phenomenon, although he did not cite a price range. The analyst, George Pipas, said the auto company expected gas prices to remain high, volatile and unpredictable.

Together, the comments signal a recognition that the two automakers may have to fundamentally change their product mix to put more emphasis on fuel-efficient vehicles — a move General Motors says it already is making.

While the Bush Administration fights battles having more to do with the 19th century than even a strange reinvention of the Cold War, the world is changing. We are in a new era. Public relations, outright lies, and politics as usual won't get us to the future. If someone tells you we already have the solutions, they're just talking. We need action. We are still the greatest innovators in the world. It is time to innovate again and return to a pragmatism that made us great in the first place.

Note: A great resource on oil problems and other potential energy sources is The Oil Drum; they tend towards the Peak Oil view but they're very fact oriented. Some of their articles are great for general readers and some are more technical. Today, they had a technical post on oil reserves and production that's well worth reading for those who wish to look deeper into the subject of where we are when it comes to oil. They also have great discussion threads.

The PR President Versus Reality

The Potemkin presidency is still alive and well as reported in this excerpt by Anne Kornblut of The New York Times:
In an event with echoes of his prime-time speech in Jackson Square here last September, Mr. Bush spoke in a working-class neighborhood in Biloxi against a backdrop of neatly reconstructed homes. But just a few feet away, outside the scene captured by the camera, stood gutted houses with wires dangling from ceilings. A tattered piece of crime-scene tape hung from a tree in the field where Mr. Bush spoke. A toilet sat on its side in the grass.

No doubt Karl Rove made sure the cameras were focused on the best PR shots possible on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Here's more from the British newspaper, The Times:
IT STARTED with the mournful sound of a lone trumpet on a bridge overlooking the flood-ravaged landscape of New Orleans. Then came the wreaths, the tears and a jazz parade.

As America marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a national day of remembrance, survivors gathered to remember the 1,695 lives and countless communities lost along the Gulf Coast to the storm, the flood and the chaos on August 29, 2005.

An army of politicians led by President Bush arrived in the region for commemorations that began with sombre ceremonies and ended in New Orleans with a traditionally upbeat jazz funeral parade.

But it was the pain of the people that spoke the loudest. “Mr President, are you going to turn your back on me?” a waitress asked Mr Bush as he passed by during a visit to a devastated New Orleans neighbourhood.

President Bush, who may not know how to be president, but who knows how to grab a quick PR moment said, "No ma'am. Not again."

But his failed presidency is not a failed PR event, it is a failure of reality that affects many people lives all across America. Here's a story from The New York Times by Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt about one of Bush's failures that hits close to home for many Americans:
With the economy beginning to slow, the current expansion has a chance to become the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that fails to offer a prolonged increase in real wages for most workers.

That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents in this year’s midterm elections even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years.

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Republicans like to deny the role of government in the economy but we have a president who consciously favors the wealthy, opposes a minimum wage hike and is clearly anti-labor. It is no coincidence that the income of the average American is falling while wealthy Americans as a group keep taking a larger and larger slice of the pie. Born into America's economic elite but without an ounce of Franklin Roosevelt's vision, Mr Bush is still turning his back on most Americans. It's not for nothing that Bush is often compared to the lackluster Republican presidents of the 1920s. But his failures are having enormous longterm consequences and a series of PR moments cannot change that fact.

Republican Candidates Distance Themselves from Bush's Iraq Policy

As they take a good look at the polls, a growing number of Republican candidates are suddenly distancing themselves from Bush's Iraq policy. There are several different ways in which they do this. Some, like perpetual presidential candidate, John McCain, try to criticize the way in which Bush has conducted the war without criticizing the general policy. Other Republicans distance themselves from Bush but try to split the difference between themselves and their respective Democratic candidates. A few Republicans are even beginning to sound like Democrats. Bush's failed presidency is not a pretty sight these days.

The ever observant E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post has some excellent particulars on the story but here's the general picture he offers:
August 2006 will be remembered as a watershed in the politics of Iraq. It is the month in which a majority of Americans told pollsters that the struggle for Iraq was not connected to the larger war on terrorism. They thus renounced a proposition the administration has pushed relentlessly since it began making the case four years ago to invade Iraq.


The cracking of Republican solidarity in support of Bush on Iraq has short-term implications for November's elections and long-term implications for whether the administration can sustain its policies.

With a growing number of Republicans now echoing Democratic criticisms of the war, Republican strategists will have a harder time making the election a referendum on whether the United States should "cut and run" from Iraq, the administration's typical characterization of the Democrats' view.

Remember, these are the same Republicans who have been reluctant for the last four years to question Bush closely on the sources of his flawed intelligence claims, or to demand explanations for his frequently changing case for war in Iraq or to hold Bush accountable as blunder after blunder became painfully obvious. These are the same Republicans who sat on their hands month after month in the chambers of Congress giving Bush a completely free hand even through most of this summer. Now they're on recess, looking at the polls. One cannot look at the votes of many of these Republicans and say their current words on the campaign trail have anything to do with their voting record over the last four years. I have no problem with people who honestly throw in the towel and admit that Iraq has been a poorly conceived policy and a fiasco, but the time that Republicans should have shown a bit of wisdom and political courage was months ago on the floor of the House or Senate. A vote of no confidence in Donald Rumsfeld would have been one such act.

Given the nature of the current Republican party, it is likely that what we are seeing are desperate candidates putting their fingers up to see which way the wind is blowing. One might call most of them opportunists. And if all we have these days is the word of a right wing Republican without a single vote to back up that word, that's not much good, is it? And I'm not terribly sympathetic to ordinary Republican conservatives and even the handful of moderates who jumped on Bush's radical right wing bandwagon knowing full well the policies, integrity and competence of Bush and his advisers have been in doubt for a long time now. Serious damage has been done; it will take time to repair. I hope voters keep that in mind.

Monday, August 28, 2006

If the Democrats Win a House....

Bush has created such a mess in Washington—with the help of twelve years of right wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and "I can diagnose by video" Bill Frist—that it's going to take years, possible a decade or more just to clean up the damage that has been done. If the Democrats win a house, it's vital to the health of our nation that they think longterm. Eventually, the Republicans will have to wake up from their dysfunctional ideology and rebuild their party with a new attitude towards pragmatism and accountability (both have been absent far too long) but for now this country needs at least one party that can still function. Actually, there are many fine Democrats in both the House and Senate and eventually, if Americans can give them some help, they'll be able to start turning things around. For now, if Joe Lieberman is any indication of the problem, it's going to take some serious leadership to turn around a small percentage of Democrats who have drifted almost as far right as the famous arch-conservative, Barry Goldwater, who history now places to the left of most Republicans.

But if Democrats win a House this year, I believe there's a good chance they can get their act together. Stirling Newberry of TPM Cafe has some thoughts on what Democrats should do; here's an excerpt of his opening:
Chris Bowers at mydd asks - what should the Democrats do if they win one or both houses of Congress? What is the agenda? Or what should the Democratic Party pursue?

The totally out party has an easy job – oppose. Propose cutting taxes and raising spending at every turn, and oppose the big initiatives of the other side. Someday these initiatives will fall apart and people will hand power to the outs.

The dangerous moment is being slightly out of power – having one chamber of Congress for example, or even both with an executive who is head strong enough to push back. It is at this moment that the not quite outs can be in the position of taking the blame for when things go wrong, without really much of an ability to either prevent things from going wrong, or to make things go right....

And here's the part where Newberry gets to what the Democrats need to do:
So what should the Democratic House do?

The first step is one word: hearings.

The Democrats should act like outsiders who just came into town. The mantra is "The American people sent us here to get to the bottom of this mess, and we intend to." Talk as if things are a complete disaster, that money is missing, the budget is broken, the war in Iraq is a quagmire and that the economy is listing along. Since these things are all true, it won't be hard. Go after every screw up, every foul up, every f*ck up. Hound every political appointee, every Brownie, and then turn the corner on Rumsfeld by say April. The key story to tell is "While the cat was away, the mice played." And wear the constant expression of parents who come back home early to find a keg party going on.

The style is responsible and active. The story is that there is a huge mess in Washington that will take huge amounts of time and effort to sort out. The first key weapon is hearings, the second key weapon is

Press Conferences.

The best way to beat the Republicans is to play against this mismatch. Bush gives few Press Conferences. He is bad at them. The more the discomboobulated Boosh is on the screen, the better it gets. Reid gives good press conference, and Pelosi could if given room to maneuver and a clearer script. Each press conference should be in four parts.

The Pledge – take some ordinary thing that people expect government to do.

The Turn – show how the most recent Congressional investigation has shown extraordinary waste, fraud and mismanagement by the Republican executive, aided and abetted by the old Republican House.

The Prestige – Explain how what is really needed is an overhaul, but the Democratic congress is going to put in a temporary measure to get us by, warning that all it will do is slow the bleeding.

The Hook – Announce the next target of Congressional oversight and investigation.

I agree with most of this. I would particularly focus on where all the money went in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina? And where did all the money go for Homeland Security? The one important thing I would add in addition to the hearings is that there's a clear need to find out where things really are and Democrats should be loudly voicing that need. In other words, what is the real state of the nation? I don't mean so much what has happened over the last five years; I mean, what is the state of our military, Iraq, Afghanistan, our economy, our energy future, our environment and so on? Where are the jobs going, why are wages stagnant, why isn't there an energy policy, why is there so much corruption, why has our State Department become so ineffective, is the CIA really inept or has it been politicized, what has happened to America's position in the world, why has the Vice President's office become so large and powerful, etc., etc.?

There has been so much bamboozlement and spin, it's important to find out where we are. And it's important for Congress to have the tools once again to find out what's going on. One of the overlooked incompetent acts of Republicans has simply been to cut back on what Congress is able to find out in terms of how well our government is functioning and whether people are doing the jobs they're supposed to be doing.

Like I said, all of is going to take time. The modern right wing conservative movement has roots that go back more than a quarter century; whatever passed for Republican conservatism fifteen years ago is long gone. What Republicans have been offering us these days is a complete failure. It is a conservative radicalism we can no longer afford.

Bush Continues to 'Stay the Course'

Bush is back in full campaign mode. His effort to salvage his presidency with a full public relations blitz is on. But everywhere we look in the sixth year of his presidency, enormous problems remain. Signs of his failure are everywhere.

In the Bush Administration, "staying the course" means nothing more than doing the same thing over and over in foreign policy as well as domestic policy with the same incompetent advisers and cronies hoping somehow things will improve. Bush doesn't seem to get it. Nor does a Republican Congress that sits on its hands winking at the president and blocking every effort to restore competence to our government.

The war in Iraq was never supposed to go on this long. In the first six months after the fall of Baghdad, there was a lot of gloating from neoconservatives who seemed oblivious to the fact that they had opened Pandora's box with a war America did not need; the neocons weren't even bothered by the lack of WMDs after a period of effective spin; at the time, many of Bush's cronies and campaign contributors were too busy cashing in on privatization opportunities to notice that things were not well in Iraq. Those who warned about the problems coming weren't just merely lost somewhere in the bowels of the government but were chained, locked and gagged by those who didn't want to face facts or have their right-wing ideology challenged. We now have a fiasco and the mess goes on; here's Aaron Sheldrick of Bloomberg:
Seven U.S. soldiers were killed by roadside bombs and fighting in and around Baghdad yesterday, the military said, the same day as many as 60 Iraqis were killed in explosions and shootings.

Four soldiers assigned to the Multi-National Division - Baghdad were hit by an improvised explosive device about 3 p.m. local time yesterday, the military said in a statement e-mailed from the capital today. A soldier died about 11:20 p.m. last night when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb south of the capital, the military said in a later statement. Two others died earlier in the day, the military said.

Nearly 60 Iraqis were killed yesterday in suicide bombings and shootings across the country, Agence France-Presse reported, the day after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki got agreement from tribal leaders to reduce the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites. Maliki yesterday said Iraq isn't slipping into civil war.

``The violence is in decrease and our security ability is increasing,'' Maliki said on CNN's ``Late Edition'' program. ``Iraq will never be in a civil war.''

General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said on Aug. 3 fighting in Baghdad is at its highest level and threatens to push Iraq into civil war.

Members of the Bush Administration are pushing for a third war with Iran. After the incompetence that followed Katrina, after the incompetence that followed Iraq, after the incompetence that followed a once-winnable war in Afghanistan—just to name a few areas of failure—who in their right mind would trust these guys to handle a third war? Unfortunately, the answer is the current Republican leadership in Congress. We are badly in need of change.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Iraq and the Role of Sistani

The politically moderate Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered cleric among the majority Shiites in Iraq may be losing influence. That does not bode well for democracy in Iraq since the more influence Sistani loses, the more the extremists in Iraq may benefit.

Scott Johnson of Newsweek has an article on Sistani:
The plea late last week from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was an unusually modest one. With thousands of American troops sweeping through the streets of Baghdad to prevent an escalation of civil war, and Sunni and Shiite militias continuing to murder civilians every night, Sistani—Iraq's leading Shiite religious authority— had a simple request. "Desist from traveling abroad," he cautioned his country's politicians in a statement issued through a spokesman, "Come down to the streets and be in touch with the people, to feel their suffering."

It seemed a reasonable enough request. But Sistani's appeal was also striking in its limited ambition. For months, calming statements from the ayatollah held Shiites back from retaliating for killings by Sunni insurgents. But three years of insurgency, sectarian tensions and miserable living conditions have shrunk the space for temperance and given extremists plenty of room to operate. "[Sistani] doesn't have the same degree of influence," says Joost Hilterman, director of the International Crisis Group's Iraq program, based in Jordan. "He may be saying the same things, but fewer people are listening to him." As much as anything, the battle now is about which voices will shape the future of Iraq.

I'm always uneasy about articles like this that appear in major news outlets. My first question these days is this: is this a straightforward news story or is this story derived from someone in the Bush Administration trying to shape opinion about Sistani and Iraq? I don't know the answer. However, secular and now even religious moderates are not doing well in Iraq these days and so it's something of a given that Sistani's influence may be less than it was. An analogy, admittedly a flawed one perhaps, is to think of the Pope who has enormous influence among Catholics (and even beyond) but who can't stop a war he is opposed to. Sistani may not have much ability to stop a civil war, somewhat low-level though it may be at the moment.

But Juan Cole of Informed Comment noticed this about Sistani:
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called on Iraqi politicians to please stay in Iraq and take care of business. Ever since the elections of January, 2005, it has often been the case that much of the cabinet and many parliamentarians were actually in London or elsewhere abroad for much of the time. Sistani must fear that this absenteeism is part of the problem with governance in the country, which threatens everything he has worked for.

Cole also mentions that one of Sistani's spokespersons urged Iraqi politicians to get outside the Green Zone more. I don't know what the purpose of these statements are, but certainly they can't be regarded as anything more than mild calls for action and they don't particularly address any number of larger issues. If nothing else, Sistani could be biding his time, while giving the Iraqi government time to get its act together. It should be noted, however, that his criticism of the Iraqi government also applies to Americans and could be regarded as a mild criticism, if there's anyone around to notice.

Even now, it's not out of the question that Sistani knows a great deal more of what's going on in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite areas, than anyone in the Green Zone. When Americans first arrived in Iraq, the Bush Administration spent the first six months pursuing privatization opportunities far more than democracy (for those who have forgotten, there was an insane gold rush at the time with Republican cronies and even a number of administration figures quitting their jobs to reap the benefits). From the beginning, Sistani pushed for an early start to democracy, which in his view meant voting, but Americans kept postponing a vote in the hopes of installing what they hoped would be a compliant secular moderate. Sistani also warned that Iraq would probably deteriorate without such a vote. He was right.

There are some who are arguing that the Bush Administration is deliberately exploiting the growing chaos in Iraq for its own purposes. That would not surprise me since almost every blunder by the Bush Administration is quickly reframed as an 'opportunity' and Bush keeps rolling the dice on reckless double or nothing bets, losing far more often than he wins. Bush still has enormous power at his disposal (and considerable opportunity to show further incompetence) but I doubt very much that Bush and his advisers have a clear idea what they're trying to accomplish at this late date except to stay in the game (no doubt, in their usually clumsy manner) without having to admit what a dismal failure their Iraq policy is.

But I wouldn't rule out Sistani's remaining influence. He has sent us politely worded warning after warning about conditions in Iraq (as far as I can tell, they don't appear to have been threats but simply observations of what was likely to happen if certain steps weren't taken; but accurate messengers are never popular with people like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld); we have ignored some of Sistani's warnings and paid attention to some. The point is that Sistani has at times being very accurate about conditions in Iraq. Someone who can read Iraq accurately may still have something to say about its future.

A Quick Blogging Roundup

Rivka of Respectful of Otters has been back for a couple of months. I kept checking her blog every two weeks after she stopped in September of last year and then around May I stopped. But I'm glad to see her back. Here's a post of hers from two months ago called: The President as Monarch.

The Anonymous Liberal has a post from three days ago on General McCaffrey and what he thinks about Iraq and Iran. McCaffrey has a polite and professional way of saying Bush is guilty of dereliction of duty. He also says the fallout from bombing Iran would cost us more than the Iranians.

Bush keeps doing a ridiculous song and a dance on what a great job he's doing in the aftermath of Katrina. How can anyone be serious about looking to Bush for leadership these days? Mahablog takes the Vacationer-in-Chief to task.

Steve Soto of The Left Coaster thinks the Democrats need to hammer Bush on Katrina as well as Iraq. Think of it. Our president is a failure at foreign policy. And a failure on the domestic front.

S.W. Anderson, who has made many insightful comments on Donkey Path reminds us that not all Iranian ex-presidents are extremists. Here's his post at Oh!Pinion.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cautious Word on Gas Prices

I think it's great that the price of gasoline has dropped about twelve cents in my area in the last week or so. However, given the strange political environment we're in these days, the drop in prices seems rather convenient for Republican incumbents worried about the wrath of voters this year as the midterm elections approach. But our underlying energy problems have not changed and a week or even a few months of falling prices doesn't mean much.

If we have war with Iran, I would not be surprised to see $5.00/gallon or higher. If British Petroleum or other oil companies discover more pipelines that are corroding as BP did in Alaska, we could have more problems. When oil prices were low just a few years ago, it appears oil companies cut back on maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

And then there's all those high-priced oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Once again, we're in hurricane season and a substantial portion of our oil production is once again at risk. Here's the story from the Rigzone:
As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, the energy industry was watching a possibly ominous tropical storm strengthening in the Atlantic Basin, which was expected to be upgraded and named Ernesto before the end of Friday.

Many Houston-based oil and natural gas companies were taking a wait-and-see approach to the possible threat. BP plc was one of the few to officially announce it was considering an evacuation of its nonessential personnel from its rigs on Friday. None of its production was expected to be affected. Chevron Corp. and Apache Corp. also were monitoring the storm, but they announced no plans to evacuate.

At El Paso, spokesman Joe Hollier said the company was prepared to activate a storm plan if it became necessary. In any case, Hollier said El Paso has "accelerated" its evacuation plans, moving them up "a day or two for offshore and onshore as well," he said. Since last year, he said El Paso has installed new systems to improve employee safety. "Our communications have increased a bunch. We now have satellite phones on all of our helicopters, and we have an employee 1-800 tracking number. That is a big thing."

What I'm learning from articles like this is that American business, unlike the White House, is still fact driven and it still manages to learn from mistakes or to simply find better ways to do things. But to protect oil rigs from powerful hurricanes is expensive and no one is likely to build a rig that's guaranteed to survive category 5 hurricanes. Our oil from the gulf will remain vulnerable for some time to come even from category 3 and category 4 hurricanes.

Here's more from the British paper, The Independent:
The fifth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, Ernesto, could turn into a powerful hurricane once it hits the Gulf of Mexico later this week, weather forecasters have predicted.

As it passes over the warm waters of the Gulf, there is a fear that it could strengthen and become destructive, the US National Hurricane Center said. If this occurred, the hurricane would coincide with the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
And, according to Reuters, it looks like British Petroleum isn't taking any chances:
[British Petroleum] said it planned to pull 800 nonessential workers from U.S. Gulf of Mexico drilling rigs and non-producing platforms on Saturday in preparation for Tropical Storm Ernesto.

BP's Gulf liquids production, which was 214,000 barrels per day in 2005, will not be affected by the evacuations, the company said in a statement.

Saturday's evacuations will slash BP's offshore Gulf work force by a third, the company said.

Predicting the weather is tricky business and Ernesto may not become the threat that some worry that it may become. But one thing is certain: since Hurricane Katrina, we have entered a different era. And Bush still has no energy plan worthy of the name. And FEMA appears to be in as much disarray as ever. But even local government officials and agencies along the gulf coast are somewhat fact driven and have already made improvements in some areas from last year. One thing is for certain: if there are problems, they won't be looking to Bush for leadership.

Iraq: Playing with Numbers

Samuel H. Preston and Emily Buzzell have an article in The Washington Post on the statistical risks of our soldiers in Iraq; I have a number of problems with the article but here's the one paragraph I'm truly puzzled by:
Between March 21, 2003, when the first military death was recorded in Iraq, and March 31, 2006, there were 2,321 deaths among American troops in Iraq. Seventy-nine percent were a result of action by hostile forces. Troops spent a total of 592,002 "person-years" in Iraq during this period. The ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq.

If you divide 592,002 "person-years" by roughly three years (we'll ignore the extra ten days), you get an average of 197,000 American troops in Iraq at any given time. I haven't kept track of the precise numbers, but I believe the numbers reported have varied most of the time between 120,000 and 170,000 with 140,000 troops in Iraq being the most common number quoted over the last three years. How do the authors get those extra 50,000 troops per year? Although the Iraq war has been far less deadly to our soldiers than most of our other wars, I suspect that the purpose of the article, in my opinion, is to obscure the risk to our soldiers and an extra 50,000 fictional troops would do that. It's possible that they're counting Air Force and Navy personnel who are stationed in the Persian Gulf and not in Iraq or it's possible the military handed them numbers that count from the moment our troops ship out from the US to the moment they return but the risk for our troops exists while they're in Iraq. I hope the authors clarify their methods. Or do they know something the rest of us don't?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Neoconservatives: 'Trust Us One More Time'

The foreign policy batting average of the Bush Administration leaves much to be desired. A lot of the failures of Bush's policies has to be laid at the feet of Cheney and Rumsfeld who are not much interested in the neoconservative project of democracy at the point of a gun and have their own Hobbesian agenda. But neoconservatives have provided Bush with much of his intellectual cover, such as it is. Without embarrassment, neoconservatives have spent much of their time in the last three years rationalizing their failed analysis of Iraq.

As the neoconservatives make a case for yet a third war during the Bush presidency, Glenn Greenwald of Unclaimed Territory goes back to a 2003 article when neoconservative hubris was in its full bloom:
I came across this column written by Steyn on May 4, 2003, in which he laughs about the fact that the U.S. won the war in Iraq so quickly and easily and mocks those who were concerned that it would be a difficult challenge. The column was entitled "The war? That was all over two weeks ago," and here is part of what it said, conveying the prevailing "wisdom" among Bush supporters at the time. Just savor every paragraph of intense, complete wrongness:
This war is over. The only question now is whether a new provisional government is installed before the BBC and The New York Times have finished running their exhaustive series on What Went Wrong with the Pentagon's Failed War Plan. . .


...for everyone other than media naysayers, it's the Anglo-Aussie-American side who are the geniuses. Rumsfeld's view that one shouldn't do it with once-a-decade force, but with a lighter, faster touch has been vindicated, with interesting implications for other members of the axis of evil and its reserve league.

The incompetence of the neonconservatives is mind-boggling. Most neoconservatives are leftover hawks from the Cold War and fortunately, for all of us, the more right-wing neoconservatives never had a chance to show us how they would handle the Soviet Union; we can also be grateful that hardline Hobbesians like Cheney and Rumsfeld never quite had their chance in that era either.

Now, here's the irony if we allow the neoconservatives to drag us into a war with Iran: our actions may allow Russia to become a superpower once again. Clearly, we can bomb Iran back into the stone age and that is something for Iranian leaders to keep in mind as they dicker with our incompetent president. Of course, the question that neoconservatives usually fail to ask—in this case, if we launch a bombing campaign—would come into play: what then?

There are any number of scenarios where oil supplies would be cut; Iran, for example, could cut back its own supplies as a response to an attack or it could directly hit some of our suppliers in the gulf. How much and exactly where oil would be cut depends on a number of factors. But one thing is for sure: a world where oil supplies are already tight would see oil hitting a $100/barrel or more. Russia has just become the world's biggest supplier of oil; if Saudi Arabia by chance sees its supplies cut because of an Iranian response to our bombing, Russia will find itself in a dominant position, though it may be worried about all those thousands of miles of oil pipelines going through territory stirred up by such a war. I have no doubt that Russia would prefer stability to the chaos of a war with Iran, and we need to understand that, but it would indeed be a major strategic failure by their own definitions if the old Cold War hawks gave Russia too much of a helping hand.

More on the House Intelligence Report on Iran

The indispensable Laura Rozen of War and Piece is filling in for Kevin Drum over at The Washington Monthly. She has a couple of posts on the strange House Committee Intelligence Report on Iran, including this one:
Columbia University's Gary Sick, formerly an official in the National Security Councils of presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, doesn't think much of the House Intelligence Committee report (.pdf) on the strategic threat posed by Iran....

Well worth reading. You would think even campaign contributors would be concerned at the lack of professionalism in Washington these days.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Is Cheney Behind Latest War Scare?

In the 2000 election, even Republicans admitted that Bush did not have foreign policy experience but it was thought that Bush's running mate would make up for Bush's shortcomings. It's become apparent, of course, that Vice President Dick Cheney's acumen is rather flawed; he was dead wrong about Iraq, as in 2,618 American deaths, at least 50,000 Iraqi deaths (including women and children), roughly 2 million refugees, a civil war and a budget deficit as far as the eye can see.

Four years ago, as the 2002 midterm elections were approaching, Cheney's remarkable powers of analysis told him with 'absolute certainty' that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was reconstituting its nuclear program despite a lack of evidence in the intelligence community and despite years of weapons inspections; Cheney stuck to his delusions and kept adding rationalizations despite another round of inspections that discovered nothing significant from the late fall of 2002 to just days before the war. Cheney's special powers of cherry-picking saw monsters under every rock where experts failed to see much of anything. It looks like Cheney's remarkable Hobbesian powers of analysis are at it again as he beats the war drums for war with Iran. These guys really do have trouble learning from their mistakes which repeatedly have turned into fiascoes and foreign policy failures.

Dan Froomkin of The Washington Post has a roundup of the Bush Administration's latest charade with Cheney's fingerprints clearly visible:
There is a popular sentiment among the Washington elite that what went wrong in the run-up to the war in Iraq has been sufficiently examined, and that it's all water under the bridge anyway.

It's popular in the White House and among Republicans for obvious reasons. But it's also remarkably popular among top Democrats and the establishment media, because they aren't all that eager to call any more attention to the fact that they were played for suckers.

There are, however, some people who believe that what led this country to launch a war of choice under false pretenses must be examined in detail -- over and over again if necessary -- until the appropriate lessons have been learned.

Otherwise, one might argue, history is doomed to repeat itself.

Enter history, stage right.


Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post that the report was "principally written by a Republican staff member on the House intelligence committee who holds a hard-line view on Iran," and "fully backs the White House position that the Islamic republic is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States. . . . [I]it chides the intelligence community for not providing enough direct evidence to support that assertion."

Linzer writes that "the principal author was Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA officer who had been a special assistant to John R. Bolton, the administration's former point man on Iran at the State Department."

Translation: That means he's Vice President Cheney's man.

There's speculation that Frederick Fleitz may have played a small role in the outing of Valerie Plame. What's more important here is that Congressional Republicans are once again neglecting their oversight responsibilities. Allowing a Bush Administration figure to be the main author of such a report simply means that Congress is working with a carbon copy of Cheney's assessment instead of making an analysis on its own. Given Cheney's flawed analytical abilities, we cannot afford such a poor approach to such a serious issue. If Bush launches a third war, the consequences of attacking Iran will be much more serious than anything we have seen in Iraq; caught up in their own delusions, it's not clear that Bush and Cheney understand this.

I've been writing on the Iran issue for months now. For new readers, here's a short list:

Sy Hersh on Bush, Israel, Hezbollah and Iran

Bush and the Secretary of Defense

Brzezinski Weighs In on Middle East

Iran and Bush's Batting Average

Did Bush Almost Start a Third War?

Brzezinski Weighs In on Iran

Questions about Bush and Iran

Some Facts in an Era of Spin (January 21, 2006)

Stark Choices for Vacationing President Bush

What we need is this:
It is the sort of moment when peace and history could be hanging in the balance for a generation to come—the kind of tipping point when American presidents can no longer leave the negotiating to underlings. They must take the world stage themselves to find a new way out, simply because no one else has the globo-oomph to do so...


With matters flying out of control, the president can no longer merely hold occasional news conferences and utter his simple, already hoary formula that all terrorists are the same and that they all want to halt the advance of liberty. Not at a time when it's clear to everybody that the advance of liberty, messy as it is, has actually empowered Islamist parties in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, and when Hezbollah and Iran want something quite different from Al Qaeda. Even Bush's domestic audience—to which he mainly directs his comments—no longer buys the absurdly one-dimensional notion that all terrorists are the same, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll that shows a majority of Americans now separate what's happening in Iraq from the war on terror.

Nor can Bush merely rely on making the occasional phone call, as he did to Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday over the North Korea problem.

The world faces more than a security vacuum. What we are suffering is a vacuum of global leadership. That is why the "international community"—always a tenuous concept at best—seems to be coming apart at the seams, why China and Russia are going their own way, why the Europeans are clucking around like headless chickens, why the moderates in the Mideast have fallen silent. Bush must recognize that the world is not following his lead, if it ever did, and that he needs to change his tack. He needs to jump in with both feet.

But what we may get is this:
Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are voicing anger that American spy agencies have not issued more ominous warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States.

Some policy makers have accused intelligence agencies of playing down Iran’s role in Hezbollah’s recent attacks against Israel and overestimating the time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

The complaints, expressed privately in recent weeks, surfaced in a Congressional report about Iran released Wednesday. They echo the tensions that divided the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency during the prelude to the war in Iraq.

The criticisms reflect the views of some officials inside the White House and the Pentagon who advocated going to war with Iraq and now are pressing for confronting Iran directly over its nuclear program and ties to terrorism, say officials with knowledge of the debate.

Michael Hersh of Newsweek is on the right track in the first article though he makes concessions to the usual neoconservative nonsense about Iran, etc., and I doubt that Bush is even capable of being the kind of global leader we need at the moment, but Bush is capable of recalling Colin Powell and bringing along a couple of more prominent figures to a series of summits on these issues; Bush could also help himself by leaving behind the usual PR flacks who tend to slow things down. And maybe journalists around the world could stand to have their own conference to hash out some of the misconceptions flying around.

In the second article above, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times does us considerable service by reminding us that many of the incompetents who gave us the Iraq fiasco are anxious to attack a major oil-producing nation with a population nearly three times bigger than Iraq without any serious effort at diplomacy; with this group, war is never a last resort and paranoia is found under every potted plant; once again, the worse kind of thinking from the Cold War era rears its head:
The consensus of the intelligence agencies is that Iran is still years away from building a nuclear weapon. Such an assessment angers some in Washington, who say that it ignores the prospect that Iran could be aided by current nuclear powers like North Korea. “When the intelligence community says Iran is 5 to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon, I ask: ‘If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

If Gingrich is going to fantasize, he might as well go all the way and assume that Iran has already has a hundred nuclear weapons in secret locations around the world; in which case, neogotiations, not war, would make far more sense. It is astonishing that Newt Gingrich wishes to be taken seriously after his many miscues. Fantasizing about the state of world affairs without a shred of evidence is not a good qualification for president. Unfortunately, Bush has people who work for him that think like this:
“The people in the community are unwilling to make judgment calls and don’t know how to link anything together,” one senior United States official said.

“We’re not in a court of law,” he said. “When they say there is ‘no evidence,’ you have to ask them what they mean, what is the meaning of the term ‘evidence’?”

Given the dismal record of this kind of thinking so far, Bush could make a great stride towards world peace simply by firing any number of neocons and other members of the gang that can't shoot straight, and then hiring some adults with some measure of sanity. We survived the Cold War because adults were in charge; without question, the adults were not flawness, but they were far preferable to any number of characters on the far right who had an itch to nuke anybody on a feeling or a rumor without much regard for considering what the consequences might be.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ambiguous House Intelligience Report on Iran

We have irrational people in the Bush Administration and irrational supporters outside the administration anxious to create conditions for war with Iran. Bush's position, as usual, remains unclear. It appears that once again we may be considering a war without enough intelligence to justify the decision. In the meantime, sanctions are being considered against Iran if it doesn't halt its nuclear program which may not produce a nuclear bomb for some five to ten years down the road. To add more confusion, Richard Cowan of The Washington Post has an article on the House Intelligence Committee whose staff has issued a report on Iran:
The U.S. intelligence community is ill-prepared to assess Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities and its intentions for developing weapons of mass destruction, a congressional report said on Wednesday.

Noting "significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the various areas of concern about Iran," the House Intelligence Committee staff report questioned whether the United States could even effectively engage in talks with Tehran on ways to diffuse tensions.

The Bush administration said it was handling the problem.

Handling the problem? Why am I not reassured when I hear a line like that from Bush and his crew? Handling the problem implies a level of competence we haven't seen for some years from the White House. Cowan's article frankly sounds like another slap at an intelligence community that got far more right on Iraq than Bush's gut feelings or Cheney selective cherry-picking but maybe he's simply reporting the Republican view from Congress which, on first glance, doesn't know if there's too little intelligence to justify attacking Iran or too little intelligence not to attack Iran. What a wonderfully vague characterization of the report if that's the intent!

Now let's go back to the paragraph before that where we read, "the ... report questioned whether the United States could even effectively engage in talks with Tehran on ways to diffuse tension." That is a staggering assertion. I can't even excuse it on the possibility that they're just talking about Iran's nuclear program. They're talking about knowing enough to diffuse tensions. If you're trying to get the Iranians to stop their enrichment program after four and a half years of calling them members of the axis of evil and surrounding them on three sides and talking openly about using nuclear weapons, maybe you're underestimating the possibility that negotiations can lower tensions.

The current crop of Republicans in Washington seem to quickly forget their history. How much did we know about China back in 1972 when we started talking to them? How much did FDR know about the Russians when he effectively turned them into allies in World War Two? Although not a great example of effective negotiation, how much did even Oliver North know when he arranged to talk to Iranians during the Reagan Administration? In case anyone hasn't noticed, we're not doing all that well in Iraq. It's not even clear what we're doing there anymore. We need negotiations with all of Iraq's neighbors so that our blunders don't lead to a wider conflict. One of those neighbors happens to be Iran. So yes, you stop kidding yourself and you negotiate with them as well.

Maybe we'll get a satisfactory explanation of this report in the next day or two. The reality is that in 2002 we had significant intelligence on Iraq. It's just too bad nobody in the Bush inner circle bothered to read it, though neoconservatives, for their own reasons, convinced themselves fifteen years ago what it ought to say. When it comes to Iran, we cannot afford another round of 'flawed intelligence' and ideological assumptions and oops, stuff happens.

An Alternative to Bush's Foreign Policy

Steve Clemons of The Washington Note points to an article in the September issue of American Prospect by Flynt Leverett, former Bush official and later, adviser to John Kerry, and contrasts Leverett with Elliott Abrams:
My colleague Flynt Leverett has just published a stunning American Prospect article that I discuss below -- but its excellence compels me to start with concerns about the President's key advisor on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams.

Few would question that Elliott Abrams is a brilliant guy. In many ways, he's a much more sophisticated version of the bombastic John Bolton, who has been quite successful in a pugnacious way at promulgating Jesse Helms' vision of American foreign policy -- as disagreeable and alarming as most find that to be.

But Abrams is a great strategist. Many like him, but he is a shape-shifter when it comes to figuring out who he ultimately works for and collaborates with. Sometimes his boss is Stephen Hadley. Sometimes it is Cheney himself or Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington. Other times, Abrams works hard to convince Condi's people that he is on their side -- though they know not to trust him. George Bush is so unclear about the direction he wants to go that in times when Abrams needs ambiguity, Bush is saluted as his task-master.

Abrams is Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy (with a special focus on Middle East Affairs), and he is one of Israel's protectors, defenders, and key stewards in the White House. Frankly, there are many defenders of israeli security in the White House -- and I would be one as well, but not at the cost of long-term stability in the Middle East that secures 'both' Israeli and Arab interests.

If he was also concerned about America's state of relations over the long term with the Arab Middle East in addition to Israel's security, Abrams' hyper-closeness to Israel would not be a problem. But Abrams has done much to inculcate many in the White House that helping Israel ultimately means not yielding credible progress on an Israel-Palestine deal or not progressing on deal-making with other Arab neighbors.

Abrams has helpd turn the Middle East into a zero sum game between the US and Israel on one side and Arab states on the other. As Senator Chuck Hagel stated in a powerful speech at Brookings recently, juxtaposing Israel security against our interests in the Middle East is a dangerous "false choice" that must be avoided.

For new readers, I should point out that no one is questioning Israel's right to exist or defend itself but there is good reason to believe that the Bush Administration yields to Israeli right wingers on too many points in our foreign policy. I don't know that much about Elliot Abrams except to summarize him somewhat quickly as one of those neoconservative intellectuals who provide the Bush Administration with a certain amount of intellectual cover for its failed policies.

In the article quoted below, Flynt Leverett offers an alternative to Bush's foreign policy such as it is but he uses the term 'realism' in a way that I'm not comfortable with, though his actual policy suggestions are quite good in dealing with the broader Middle East. The term 'realism' for me is tied too much to negative connotations like 'realpolitik,' 'cynicism,' 'expediency,' and perhaps 'deception.' Leverett refers to Kissinger as a realist but that too carries a certain amount of negative baggage despite Kissinger's accomplishments in Russia, China and the Middle East. Then again, a progressive and pragmatic 'realism' sounds considerably better than the neoconservative fantasies we are faced with these days. Here's two excerpts from Leverett's American Prospect article:
The current Bush administration argues that 9-11 exposed the Middle Eastern “stability” provided by the realist paradigm as an illusion. The region’s radicals -- whether running “rogue” regimes or operating through non-state movements -- were too threatening to be managed through diplomatic engagement and long-term political processes. And so-called “moderate” regimes in the Arab world, while they might cooperate with the United States militarily and strategically, indirectly encouraged radical forces by refusing to liberalize internally; in some cases, these regimes seemed to directly support radicals through internal security strategies that sought to buy off domestic opponents by quietly funding their activities abroad.

To address what it perceived as the shortcomings of realism, the Bush administration articulated its alternative approach to the Middle East. The conceptual discontinuities between the Bush approach and that of its predecessors make the record of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in the five years since 9-11 as close to an “experiment” as one is likely to get in the indeterminate realm of strategic analysis. The results of this experiment so far have been devastating: Over the last five years, U.S. policy in the Middle East has emboldened radicals and weakened moderates.

The Middle East is today more unstable than at any point in the post–Cold War period, and there is no evidence to suggest that this instability will give rise to a more secure and prosperous region in the future. Look at the trends: With regard to rogue regimes, Saddam may be gone, but Iraq has become a greater source of regional instability than it was during the last years of his rule. Iran’s influence in the region is growing and the Iranian leadership is increasingly inclined to use that influence to threaten U.S. interests. Despite the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon last year, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has actually strengthened its grip on power and bolstered its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The administration’s biggest success in taming a regional rogue -- Libya’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction programs and ties to terrorists -- was achieved through traditional “carrots-and-sticks” engagement with the Quaddafi regime, an idiosyncratic exception to the broader pattern.


To repair the American position in the Middle East, the United States must reject the false premises of the Bush approach. The most dangerous illusion guiding recent U.S. policy toward the Middle East is that stability somehow “caused” 9-11.

Under current circumstances, a realist strategy for restoring American leadership in the Middle East would include at least five elements:

• The United States needs to widen its approach to defusing the current crisis to include direct engagement with both Syria and Iran. To facilitate a cease-fire and introduction of a multinational force in southern Lebanon, Washington should recognize that Hezbollah’s disarmament would come about only as part of a broader political settlement in the region.

• The United States should convey its interest in a broader strategic dialogue with the al-Assad regime in Damascus, with the aim of re-establishing U.S.-Syrian cooperation on important regional issues and with the promise of significant strategic benefits for Syria clearly on the table.

• Washington should indicate its willingness to pursue a “grand bargain” with Iran, in which the Islamic republic would accept restraints on its nuclear activities and abandon its support for the terrorist activities of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah in return for U.S. commitments not to use force to change Iran’s borders or form of government, to lift unilateral sanctions, and to normalize bilateral relations.

• The United States and key partners should articulate a more substantive vision for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question, including parameters for resolving key final-status issues that would meet the minimum requirements of both sides. This vision should incorporate the Saudi-initiated Arab League peace plan, which offers normalization of Arab states’ relations with Israel to complement peace treaties that end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory.

• While the United States should engage moderate Arab partners more systematically on economic reform and human rights, Washington should drop its insistence on early resort to open electoral processes as a litmus test for “democratization.”

These excerpts don't do full justice to Leverett's article. One thing Leverett makes clear is that if Bush continues to 'stay the course,' we can expect more problems in the near future.

I've noticed that articles on foreign policy are sometimes addressed to multiple audiences across political lines but I'm uneasy that Leverett may be giving Bush more credit than he deserves; I find it very difficult to believe that some of the Bush inner circle members such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bolton and probably Bush himself have much interest in democracy. For them, democratization may be nothing more than a public relations cover for an old-fashioned 'realpolitik' that was more about a style of regime change that was designed to install a friendlier government, whatever the style of governing turned out to be. More than likely, Bush has never put the effort into forging a consistent policy among advisers who range from a diverse group of right wing ideologues to ordinary conservative hawks to a handful of moderate Republican realists (though most moderates are now gone); it is likely Bush does not have the skills to articulate and forge such a policy beyond his vague gut-feeling generalities, hence the constant in-fighting by his advisers in an effort to shape policies. As a result, Bush Administration policies are an amalgam of ideas frequently in conflict with one another (purple thumbs in the foreground and Abu Ghraib in the background is just one example of Bush's conflicted administration).

Of course, Condi Rice is one of those who follows Bush's wishes closely (insofar as she understands them) and she has clearly pursued democratization on occassion. Still, there's signs that she's possibly being marginalized somewhat and it's possible she has misread Bush on the democracy issue. Of course, Rice's flawed performance as Secretary of State has to be a concern as well.

But clearly Leverett and others are offering real alternatives while Bush remains in his bubble swatting imaginary opposition arguments in his usual dishonest fashion. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can afford any longer to rubberstamp the president's inarticulate visions and delusions.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Bush Administration Summer Rerun

August 22, 2006, Status report:

1. Bush is on vacation except for public relations forays designed to boost his numbers; unfortunately for Bush, not many voters remember which latest reason we're in Iraq is operative at the moment. The Decider-in-Chief is still insisting on sitting on his hands inside his bubble and doing nothing about Iraq, though he's hoping to duck out of town in January 2009, leaving Iraq to the next president—or perhaps leaving behind world war three.

2. Cheney is more or less campaigning for Lieberman, except when hiding in his undisclosed location muttering delusional statements about 9/11 and Iraq, and insisting the insurgency is in its last throes and all Democrats are traitors or terrorists.

3. Donald Rumsfeld is still telling the military he knows best despite over four and a half years of blunders (going back to letting Osama bin Laden get away). Despite five and a half years of shock and awe therapy, Rumsfeld is still unable to manage a normal smile and is probably in danger of losing his job.

4. Despite an uneasy ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, Condi Rice has been on vacation buying more shoes, clothes and sunglasses, but is now reading the reply from Iran on the proposals she and other nations made many weeks ago; despite the hoopla back in early June, diplomatic efforts on the part of the United States have been almost nil. At the G8 summit, despite sniping with the Russian foreign minister, Condi was upstaged by Bush talking nonsense through a mouth full of biscuits. In an effort to make up for her lapses, Condi is trying to arrange another piano recital.

5. Our UN ambassador, John Bolton, has not read Iran's reply yet but he's sure there's no room for negotiation, no need for diplomacy, talks are a waste of time, the UN is a waste of time, sanctions are for wimps but he'll do what he's told, for now, and that he's the best man to start world war three or something of the sort (note that in a sense, he's our second ranking diplomat).

6. When not giving speeches to obscure right wing think tanks, our anonymous National Security Adviser, also known as Stephen Hadley, is either shuffling papers, sharpening his pencil or running out to Starbucks to get coffee for Dick Cheney. Or, he could be on vacation. No one can precisely tell. His real function is to make sure that Condi Rice doesn't go down in history as the worst National Security Adviser in fifty years.

7. Still reminiscing and chortling about how easily he fooled the American people in 2002 over Iraq, kingmaker Karl Rove is testing focus group after focus group on Iran looking for a magic formula (lie) that will fool the American people once again. But Americans have caught on, and so far are not biting this time around. Rove's only consolation this year was making Patrick Fitzgerald dizzy.

Here's the story from ABC News on Iran's response to the incentives package offered weeks ago (with little or no diplomatic followup from the United States to this point):
Iran handed over its formal response on Tuesday to a nuclear incentives offer from major powers and said it contained ideas that would allow serious talks about its standoff with the West to start immediately.

But Tehran gave no sign of heeding a key United Nations Security Council demand that it freeze uranium enrichment before the end of this month or face the prospect of sanctions.

Iran's response was "extensive and therefore requires a detailed and careful analysis," European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement, but gave no details of the Iranian proposals.

This is serious stuff. Will the Bush Administration suddenly rediscover a quality foreign policy with all the hours of work that goes into successful negotiations? Or will Bush insist on more disastrous short cuts based on his gut feelings while his advisers give us more painfully obvious bloopers one might associate with the Amateur Hour? Stay tuned.

The voters are ultimately the producers of this very strange show. While it's true that Bush is under contract for two more years, it's past time to redo the production number along with some important changes in the cast.