January 19, 2007

Our Man in Baghdad

I think the popular myth is that Nouri al-Maliki is an American puppet installed by the Bush Administration because of Nouri's amenable, toadyist nature, and that he is simply no match for George W. Bush's artful manipulations. I wondered about this, since I am immediately suspicious of any argument that proceeds from the premise that Bush is outsmarting anyone. One would have to concede that the U.S.A. certainly has much more in the way of resources, beginning with our incomparable military ("the world's finest") which, while it has fallen into a sad state of depletion thanks to the reckless ministrations of the current Commander-in-Chief, still is the finest fighting force on earth, as its main public relations arm, the United States Congress, never fails to remind us. But men and materiel aren't everything, nor is our good credit rating, which allows us to finance our wars by borrowing from the Chinese, Japanese and Saudis.

An earlier brain-belch here at the Pond suggested that Nouri was a kind of "lunch pail" working stiff, glad to have a job and willing to play ball to keep it. But this was before I adopted the practice of actually looking stuff up before writing this thing. This has made a world of difference, I think. In the first place, I hadn't actually figured out whether Iraqis even use lunch pails. I did, as a kid, so maybe my assumption was a matter of projection. My favorite contained a picture of Kit Carson on the lid. On a gentle slope in the foreground, Kit sat on a pinto horse, and in the distance was a tableau of frontier mayhem, Indians riding around Conestoga wagons, a few saguaro cacti, mesas looming up into a blue sky. Inside the pail was a chrome rack with two semi-circular hoops which could be snapped into place to hold a thermos. The whole thing was cheap and light, and maybe cost a buck. Could Nouri have had such a pail, growing up in a small village between Najaf and Hilla in southern Iraq? I don't think so. I doubt that Kit Carson was part of Shiite iconography. Simply beyond the pail.

So maybe W was Nouri's first cowboy. My sense is that al-Maliki, far from quaking in fear at the sound of Bush's name, probably sees W as one of the simplest problems he's ever had to solve. When he sees Bush getting off Air Force One out there at Baghdad Int'l, he thinks, "Here comes easy money."

Compare Bush to some of the other hurdles in Nouri's life. He was born in 1950, was educated in local schools in the south, then left for Baghdad, where he obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees, the latter from Baghdad University in Arabic literature. I suspect this was a more demanding course of study than Bush's Harvard Biz School goofoffathon. Nouri's grandfather was a cleric and nationally recognized poet, so Nouri was following in the family trade. No doubt Maliki can write fluent prose, another point of departure from his American counterpart. After graduating, Nouri did some teaching, but his main preoccupation was in Shiite politics, with the Dawa Party. One thing led to another, and this man of letters became, as did Camus in France during World War II, a principal leader in Dawa's armed resistance to the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein. While I'm certain that running oil companies into the ground using money from Daddy's friends (Bush's career track during the same relevant time period) requires a lot of nerve, Nouri was in real, mortal danger. So much so that Hussein put out a death warrant, or fatwa, on Maliki in 1980.

Maliki hit the road, looking for a new sanctuary from which to operate. His path took him initially to Iran, then to Syria, where he carried on his organizational work of supplying guerrillas and militias with arms and materiel to take the fight to the Baathist regime in Baghdad. He stayed in Damascus, as far as we know, until 2003, and was instrumental in forming the Iraqi National Congress, the government-in-exile which stood ready to take over once Saddam was deposed. When that was accomplished (the Mission!), Nouri returned to Iraq, and found his first work with the Provisional Authority in the De-Baathification project, which he must have attacked with relish. One thing led to another, and Nouri, at 56, is the Prime Minister of Iraq. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Saddam's dispatch to Paradise was both quick and remorseless. Maliki couldn't wait to get rid of him; he showed admirable restraint in granting Hussein a trial at all, let alone one that consumed months. Had Maliki been brought to "trial" in 1980, the execution might have preceded the admission of evidence.

So that's a helluva resume. It would seem that Maliki is a man of parts, including the balls of a burglar and the aesthetics of Omar Khyyam. How easy to handle must Bush seem to Maliki, after living underground in Iraq in a police state riddled with spies and informers, after leaving his homeland and starting all over in a field removed from his educational background. If you haven't seen "Army of Shadows," the recently re-issued movie about the French Resistance, go see it if you want some sense of the harrowing world of underground resistance to tyranny. Maliki, no doubt, knew that deception and cunning were essential to survival, and sometimes dirty deeds must be done to save your own life and those in your cadre. This was powerful, street-level training in survival in a merciless world. Hazing at Skull&Bones would seem tame in comparison.

The results seem to prove it. While our Spelling Bee Champ, Condi Rice, talks tough to Congressional committees about Maliki living on "borrowed time," the other mouthpieces in the Bush Administration are always quick to assure Maliki that no deadlines will ever be set, no consequences will ever follow the failure to meet the deadlines that are never set, and that America will keep sending its military and all the money we don't have as long he needs it, because he's just that important. Forget the 70+ virgins; Maliki must think he's already died and gone to Paradise. And all he has to do is make a few noises now and then about how he'll be even-handed in "going after" Shiite militias, or that he will "crack down" on Syrians and Iranians, who gave him sanctuary for over twenty years. But our ace diplomats and strategists, Condi, Stephen Hadley, Darth Cheney and L'il Georgie himself -- in their clueless arrogance believe they've got Nouri right where they want him, and if Maliki says he'll pursue the militias of his co-religionists with the same zeal he uses to fight the Sunnis who tried to kill him -- well, that's good enough for our team, who understand absolutely nothing about the real situation they're dealing with. Sure, Maliki will "crack down" on the Shia militias of the exact kind he used to finance, arm and train, and the Bush Administration will cooperate in Nouri's real goal, which is to drive a stake through the heart of the Sunni insurgency once and for all, so there's never a danger the "democracy" will fall victim again to a Sunni despotism.

Once again, Bush is in way over his head. Our Team can't see that Nouri's quietly uttered suggestion that he doesn't really need all those troops -- just send me a lot of those hot helicopter gunships, some of the cherry Humvees with the up-armor, and leave it to me to clean house -- outflanks their "thinking" about the inevitable outcome in Iraq. Nouri is four Parcheesi moves down the board. At some point, Maliki will charm Bush even out of the oil. Another oil deal gone bad. Someone's a puppet, alright, but I don't think it's Our Man in Baghdad.

Trying to watch next Tuesday's State of the Union: a guide to controlling the gag reflex

George W. Bush presents a challenge I do not associate with any previous President. In droves, American citizens report that they can't stand to watch him on television. In very funny blogs (see Bob Cesca on Huffington Post, e.g.), in comments by friends, I hear this over and over. People just can't stand looking at the guy. Cesca refers to Bush's "pointy face" as a reason his relatives abjure the citizen's responsibility of paying heed to the press conferences and speeches of their Chief Executive. Others refer to his many nervous tics, his averted gaze, his artificial gestures of emphasis, his garbled syntax, his habit of laughing and snickering while talking about matters of macabre horror, like his dumb war in Iraq and his dumber plans for expanding it.

Surely we can rise above such ad hominem cavils and pay attention to the what the President says; he is, after all, the Decider, and what he says used to go. Or, more fun, you can read what I think is the real reason he makes his subjects nauseous when they look at him. I think this may be an original insight, and it is based on superficial research, even, beginning with my transient interest in the notion that Bush's facial characteristics may be indicative of fetal alcohol syndrome. I don't know if there's anything to that. Armchair neurologists have suggested that Bar may have hit the hooch pretty good during her first pregnancy while G.H.W. Bush was off on biz trips, trailing an oil stain behind him. Pure speculation, and the only evidence consists of anecdotal observations of how weird Bush is. Anyway, it's a cruel slur against people who genuinely do suffer from the sad affliction of FAS.

Nevertheless, FAS sufferers often lack a philtrum, "which
is the vertical groove in the upper lip, formed where the nasomedial and maxillary processes meet during embryonic development. The philtrum exists to allow a dynamic range of lip motions necessary for human vocal and non-verbal communication". (Wikipedia entry for "philtrum." I told you I had researched this blog piece.) I will say, without boasting, that I have a robust philtrum. I owe this feature, as I owe so much, to my late, beloved mother, who touched nary a drop during my gestation. It is not, of course, in the class of Angelina Jolie or John F. Kennedy, Jr., apotheoses of the well-developed philtrum. But 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Bush, by contrast, seems to lack that vertical groove. It is too much to say that the space above his upper lip is entirely ungrooved, but I think his nasomedial and maxillary processes failed to get it completely together during Bar's Scotch-soaked, Poppy-deprived pregnancy.

Until I undertook the exhaustive research for this piece (the results of which you've already read), I didn't know the philtrum was involved in vocal dynamics, but its near-total absence, in W's case, may explain an anomalous feature of Bush's speaking style. You will notice that the opening and closing of his mouth proceed not in the fluid, flexible style of normal vocalization, but resemble more the movement of a hatch. Imagine Howdy Doody for a moment. Remember? It is as if Bush's entire upper lip is stuck to his front teeth. This effect is accentuated when Bush is scared spitless, as during press conferences where he's confronted with his latest batch of lies, or (significantly) during his annual exercise in mendacity, the State of the Union Address. At such moments, Bush's upper lip probably is stuck to his front teeth, which is why you never see his teeth when he speaks (another reason, also characteristic of FAS, is that they're unusually small).

The Howdy Doody Effect, when coupled with the clumsy phrasing, neologistic solecism, and stupid logic of his actual words, combine, in total effect, to produce someone who simply can't be watched. If we think about it thus, feelings of compassion may arise. We might be able to reclassify Bush as someone philtrum-challenged. He might be eligible, retroactively, to gain admission to some of those schools he got into by dint of his name, this time as a special needs case.

A solution, of course, is at hand. A mustache. It would not need to be a full-on walrus job. Just a vertical bar, about an inch wide, covering the area where the philtrum should be. Combined with one of his trademark gestures, the right arm held high, palm facing the audience, brought down with a thump on the rostrum -- all this might be enough to make us forget our ridicule and bring us back to the fear more appropriate to his reign.

January 18, 2007

Marshall vs. Gonzales

"To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?"

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,
Marbury vs. Madison, 1803.

"WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales rapped federal judges yesterday for ruling on cases that affect national security policy. Judges, he contended, are unqualified to decide terrorism issues that he said are best settled by Congress or the president."

Admittedly, it's a tough call, a little like pitting the 1958 Baltimore Colts against the 1984 San Francisco 49ers in a Fantasty Football League game. On one side we have John Marshall, the originator of the concept of judicial review, who in one lapidary moment of legal insight deduced that the courts must have the right to decide the constitutionality of laws promulgated or enforced by other branches of government. On the other, we have Alberto "The Torque" Gonzales, chief apologist and general manager of the Torture Division of Bush's War on Civilized Standards. A tough call, and rife with the danger of subjective over-reaction. Marshall...or Gonzales? Let us examine some of the crucial data in an effort to divine a wise conclusion.

The Torque notes, with stupendous irrelevance (I try to be objective, but the bilge rises anyway), that federal judges, such as Justice Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit who ruled that Bush has been committing felonies and violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures more or less on a daily basis since 2001, do not have access to embassy communications and other "security" data. Bush does. Who better, then, to decide what's good for the USA? If Bush decides that an end-run (returning to the football analogy) around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and flipping the bird at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) helps in his all-out pursuit of al-Qaeda (other than, of course, the two head men at a-Q), who the hell are the courts to tell him he's off base?

There are two possible reactions to The Torque's denunciation of the courts:

1. He's a complete idiot (charitable interpretation).
2. He's a fully paid-up member in Satan's Kiwanis Club (realpolitik analysis).

I lean toward the second conclusion, perhaps telegraphed by (a) the limited nature of the listed options, and (b) my persistent use of the pejorative "The Torque." How can we put this in terms even Torkie might grasp?

Let us analyze by reductio ad absurdum, always apt when talking about the Bushies, since almost everything they do is tainted with the absurd. Suppose that Bush simply said that all mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service will now be routed through the office of the USPS's Inspector General, who will open and read all mail and decide what will be redacted, what will be confiscated, and what will be sent on. Admittedly, this will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and involve a wholesale invasion of privacy. Still, Bush (squinting at the camera from some heretofore unused sound stage in the White House) will point out that the military employs such censorship routinely in a time of war; the whole country is now at war; ergo, the whole country's mail will now be opened and read. Got it? Let's break for lunch.

Some troublemaking judge rules unfavorably under the First (speech), Fourth (search) and Ninth (privacy) provisions of the Bill of Rights. But really - how many embassy cables has this black-robed meddler read today? The country is safer from foreign (and domestic!) threats under the Domestic Espionage Surveillance Total Review of Your mail (DESTROY mail) program. Isn't it? Of course it is. We're at war, dammit, and always will be. Constitutions are for sissies without the stomach to do what's necessary to take on The Enemy.

There is no difference in principle whatsoever between the reductio example and Gonzales's latest mash note to the "unitary Presidency," by which he means: let's simply put all power in a new monarch and stop this silly "check & balance" bullshit. I think, however, that John Marshall is the better bet. He was deciding a simple, seemingly trivial issue involving John Adams's right to appoint Justice Marbury as justice of the peace for Washington D.C., even at the 11th hour of his term, and Thomas Jefferson's obstruction in seeking to block his appointment immediately after his oath of office. In other words, like Justice Anna Taylor Diggs, Marshall was a judge who was willing to stare down some major heavyweights, even his political patron, to make certain a Constitution, and not regal whimsy, would prevail. By 1803, the United States of America had had enough of that. Why on earth would we want it now, and from this guy in particular?

January 17, 2007

The Libby Trial

I don't exactly understand what the Libby trial is about. A long time ago, somewhere in 2005, I heard Patrick Fitzgerald explain it, at a press conference, and I had a hard time following it then, and he was taking pains to make clear why it was so important and how unambiguous the evidence was against Libby, which seems unlikely, since if it is difficult to follow the indictment even when it is explicated in meticulous detail, everything about the case is likely to be vague and ambiguous. To use legal terms. I know, from watching Fitzgerald, that the Libby indictment has something to do with Libby having originated some of the disclosures about Valerie Plame, rather than being on the receiving end of such disclosures from reporters, and that this misrepresentation on Scooter's part obstructed the investigation. Threw sand in the umpire's eyes, to use Fitz's metaphor.

It doesn't matter. At least Scooter Libby is going to trial, and at least that Prince of Darkness Dick Cheney will have to testify in court. That's more than a little something. I would pay a lot of money, more money than I would pay to hear Bruce Springsteen or Evgeny Kissin (just to name 2 hot tickets) to sit in the court room and watch Patrick Fitzgerald cross-examine Dick Cheney. Dick, as we all know, makes his way in the world by feigning a kind of imperious mastery over all matters great and small. He sits, the lump of his head joined to the larger lump of his torso by no discernible neck region, and growls out of the side of his mouth in an unflappable monotone meant to intimidate anyone within earshot. I think it's all an act, and he doesn't feel nearly as invulnerable or omniscient as he leads us to believe. For one thing, no one can match his record for being wrong about everything he talks about, particularly when it comes to the Iraq War. He's in a class by himself. He sets the standard by which all other stupidity must be measured. From "no doubt about Saddam's nuclear program" to "welcomed as liberators" to "the death throes of the insurgency," Cheney has confounded the laws of probability with his uncanny knack for being wrong. He is wrong, and then after a brief passage of time, he is wrong again. In Column 1, we can list Cheney's prognostications/analyses, and then in Column 2, we can assess accuracy. The entries in Column 2 are all the same: Wrong. Flipping a coin would yield much better results. Cheney can't admit being wrong, or course, for the simple reason that his insecurities won't let him, and his insecurities derive from his inner recognition of an evident truth: Cheney isn't all that bright.

Thus, the showdown. Fitzgerald is all that bright. He's just timid, in my opinion, in ways that Eliot Spitzer, for example, isn't. Fitgerald appears to need absolute assurance that he can prove every last element of every crime he indicts, beyond all reasonable doubt, before he will even commit himself to seeking the grand jury's affirmation. Thus, the unbelievable number of times he called key witnesses to the grand jury. Over and over, covering the same ground. Fitzgerald, to say the least, could not make it in private practice. His costs of representation, in any but the largest cases, would always exceed the amount in controversy. He is, therefore, ideal as a public sector advocate, since titanic waste is standard operating procedure.

He avoided seeking a substantive indictment on the Identities Act (disclosing an undercover operative's name) for very technical reasons which he never ventured to explain. There has even been speculation that Fitzgerald was chosen by figures in the Administration because of these hyper-cautious, Old-Lady-Like tendencies.

It may not help Cheney, however. Having come this far, I imagine that Fitzgerald is absolutely determined to win, and he has winnowed the issues down to this tiny focal point on which he can concentrate all of his energy. Nevertheless, the surrounding "context," the ways in which the Bush Administration sought to control the mounting public outcry when their lies and obfuscations about WMD in Iraq stood nakedly in the light of day, is very much in play; and if Cheney is in his way, I think he will throw caution to the wind. The momentum of a trial, the tension between prosecution and defense, ratchets steadily up as the trial progresses, so that counsel begin to lose all sense of that other "context," the "externalities" of the trial, such as whether Fitzgerald is being impolitic in pursuing Cheney doggedly till he forces him into the open.

And flushed from behind that patina of insufferable superiority (like a domesticated quail, or a lawyer hunting buddy), Cheney will have a lot to answer for. It will become apparent that Cheney was the one who fingered Joseph Wilson (that famous circled newspaper item). Cheney will become Scooter's motivation to lie: to protect his boss from the revelation that the Wilson "hit" originated in the VP's office. It is possible that Cheney will dissolve on the stand, will perjure himself, will contradict earlier testimony and statements made to Fitzgerald's investigators.

Oh yeah. It's all there. Let the games begin. Cross-examination is different from a press conference. A prosecutor is experienced in the art of boxing in his quarry. He's not only permitted follow-ups; he's got a judge who will see to it that Cheney, at long last, answers a question directly and honestly. And who knows where that might lead?