August 03, 2007

Life Back Home on Maple Street

Our induction into Rod Serling's black, white and macabre world happened on a weekly basis, often beginning with a disturbingly ordinary scene of a suburban neighborhood in Somewhere, U.S.A. It wasn't until we saw Rod Serling's wraith-like figure standing to one side, and the sign post up ahead that read "Twilight Zone," that we realized we'd arrived once again in Weirdsville. I wonder if this discombobulation seeped into the unconscious of David Lynch and affected his noir-style of depicting the very strange in ordinary surroundings.

Among the entire oeuvre, I would say my favorite episode (that is to say: the one that freaked me out the most) was "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." People in a simple American neighborhood suddenly experience strange mishaps. Beginning at 6:43 p.m. on a Saturday evening, the lights don't work in some houses, but they do in others. Power tools fire up of their own accord. Telephones mysteriously ring, or fail to work at all. The residents of Maple Street begin to wonder what's going on, they become fearful. And then they begin to suspect each other. What is that radio set the old man is working on down in his basement? Who is he communicating with? Why hasn't that family lost its electrical power throughout this entire strange episode? By the end of the half hour, the houses are on fire, the once-civilized people are running amok, and Maple Street is in ruins. The camera pans back to a hill above the neighborhood. A few extraterrestrials calmly observe the carnage down below. The leader explains the modus operandi in tones that are less gloating than sympathetic:

Alien #1: Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines, and radios, and telephones, and lawnmowers, throw them into darkness for a few hours and then, sit back and watch the pattern. Alien #2: And this pattern is always the same? Alien #1: With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find. And it's themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch. Alien #2: Then I take it that this place- This "Maple Street" is not unique? Alien #1: By no means. The world is full of Maple Streets. And we'll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other...One to the other...One to the other..

I thought about this episode after reading that 77,000 bridges in the United States are "structurally deficient," the rating applied to the bridge in Minneapolis just before it fell, and the estimate of the American Society of Civil Engineers that America has about $1.5 trillion in deferred maintenance on highways, bridges and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, every few months the United States Congress takes up a defense appropriations bill of some amount or another, or an "emergency supplemental" to keep the Iraq and Afghan wars going all-out, and then reflexively grants George Bush whatever amount he asks for (and then some) for his desert folly, which, even if "successful," will have no discernible effect on the quality or security of life in the United States. The low estimate of $1 trillion if averaged with the high estimate of $2 trillion as the cost of the Iraq War (by the Congressional Budget Office) is neatly congruent with the cost of repairing the country's essential infrastructure. So we can say that we're fixing and destroying stuff over there so we can't fix it here.

At this point the war continues so that Bush doesn't have to admit that he lost and so the Democrats don't have to defend themselves against the charge that they made Bush lose. In some ways it has become a war without an external referent. It is about itself, but built into itself is this fatal opportunity cost.

I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden is a canny and intelligent guy, but it's hard to invest him with the clairvoyance of those aliens standing on the hill above Maple Street. Isn't it? Could he have seen that one dramatic and horrific act of violence against the United States would so obsess the country that it would descend completely into irrationality, neglect its own priorities and throw everything it has into the pursuit of phantoms? Did he know that George W. Bush, a career failure in business, would pay no attention to the country's bottom line, that he could not order and prioritize the nation's resources to take care of necessary business here, and that the country would fall literally apart under his leadership? We lost New Orleans under Bush. Now bridges in the federal interstate highway system are collapsing while under normal use. The military is broken and debilitated. The national debt and the external debt to foreign countries have soared out of control. Was it a coincidence that Osama wanted to strike early in Bush's presidency so the Decider would have as much time to work with as bin Laden could give him?

Certain things seem obvious. In living memory, partisanship has never been so strident. The momentary cohesion in the country immediately after 9/11 has given way to a divisiveness that weakens the country profoundly. The essential civil liberties of American citizens are under assault. We have, in other words, turned on each other, and if bin Laden was the instigator, the devolution now proceeds without any further input from him. Down here on Maple Street, we're taking care of the destruction all by ourselves.

August 02, 2007

The Iraq War as a Spectator Sport

A couple of Brookings Institution think tankers, Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack, recently op-ed'ed a piece in the New York Times in which they cautiously described signs of progress in Iraq. This created quite a stir throughout the punditocracy. I have trouble, I confess, keeping the various think tanks straight, vis-a-vis their political leanings. I think the Heritage and Brookings outfits are on the conservative, neo-con side of things, whereas the Cato Institute is famous for simply being weird. Whatever, the two analysts were trashed by anti-war opinion-makers for daring to suggest anything could be going right, and the Right wing sound machine had a field day chortling about the vindication of the Decider's steadfast adherence to The Course.

O'Hanlon and Pollack pointed out, among their admittedly "anecdotal evidence and impressions," that the U.S. military sustained only 73 combat deaths during July, 2007. Naturally, thinkers from other tanks with a deeper grasp of statistics uncharitably pointed out that confining a data point to any 31-day period might produce an anomaly unrelated to general overall trends. For example, as if to mock the Heritage Twins, yesterday 6 GI's were boxed up and flown to Dover Air Force Base for their nocturnal appointment with oblivion. I can extrapolate from this that 31x6=186 GI's will die in Iraq during August, and my "analysis" is only slightly more flawed than these two important thinkers from the D.C. tank. Still, it's possible that things are quieter in some parts of Baghdad and Western Iraq, where such carnage and mayhem have prevailed before. I don't know, I doubt that these two war tourists really know, I doubt that anyone really has a composite picture of the situation in Iraq because it's simply too dangerous to try to compose one.

Yesterday the main Sunni bloc left al-Maliki's Iraq cabinet. Since the whole government is on vacation anyway, the effects of this defection probably won't be felt for a while. Anecdotal reports from Baghdad indicate that the citizenry can rely now upon about one hour of electricity a day. Given the mid-summer temperatures of 130 degrees, I imagine this is hellish. I once was in 116 degree heat in Phoenix, and it felt like living on a planet too close to the sun. Yet we had access to air conditioned theatres and malls which were chilled to Arctic conditions. I can't imagine what it's like to live in an inferno 14 degrees hotter without any relief possible. The women and children sleep outside at night, but the men must "sleep" inside, drenched in their own sweat, because of the fear of sectarian violence. The killing, the explosions, the torture, the mayhem, the fear all go on, maybe a little bit less some days, but always just around the corner.

So it seems a little hardhearted to begrudge the Iraqis some progress just because so many of us want Bush to be wrong about this as he has been wrong just about everything else. So we can win and he can lose. Although, in truth, how would he define a win at this point? We will spend, according to the Congressional Budget Office, at least $1 trillion because of this war. It seems probable that 5,000 GI's will be killed before we withdraw, and the number of wounded, many seriously, is obscured by the Bush Administration but is probably 5 times the number of killed. We don't know how many Iraqis have died, but no one has rigorously refuted the Johns Hopkins Lancet study which suggested, by extrapolation to the present, that probably 800,000 Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of the war. At least 10% of its former population of 25 million have been forced into exile in Syria, Jordan and other Arab states, or to other parts of Iraq.

So Iraq is a kind of game at this point. It's a spectator sport. Even if we've wrecked the country, shattered all hope of its eventual cohesion, killed or displaced millions of its people, what the liberals are worried about is that Iraq will calm down. And Bush is pouring in more troops and $250,000 every minute of every day in an effort to get Iraq to do just that. That's all that's left in America's monochromatic take on this nightmare. Will Iraq calm down? Not will it coalesce into a Jeffersonian democracy, not will it become a bulwark against Islamic extremism, not will it become a reliable oil partner for America -- those things have gone by the boards. They were FUBAR'ed years ago. Will Iraq calm down enough for America to declare victory, and for Bush to trumpet that his persistence paid off? I think that's where we are. That's how nuts it has all become.

July 30, 2007

The Sticky Problem of Being a Mob Lawyer

During a conversation I had with a friend recently, he brought up the interesting point that lawyers for scandal-ridden Presidents frequently get it caught in a wringer themselves. Many of us are old enough to remember John Mitchell, Nixon's avuncular, pipe-smoking attorney general (and we remember too his batshit crazy wife), and of course John Dean (who now operates in his post-Extreme Makeover Mode), who was Nixon's White House counsel before turning rat fink. They both were convicted of multiple felonies and both did federal time. And now we watch Alberto Gonzales twist and turn in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, up to his eyeballs in Bushian misprision and illegality, shucking and jiving his way through one hearing after another as he tries to extricate himself from perjury, illegal spying, conspiracy charges and God knows what else. Just on a professional-peer note: I wonder what the hell Gonzo is thinking. What makes him believe he can go in front of a panel full of ex-prosecutors and wing it, making up answers that can easily be checked against other, live witnesses and voluminous documentation? One must conclude that this little datum, all by itself, probably indicates that Alberto is in way over his head.

I think anyone who wants to take on the job of Attorney General for George W. Bush should probably consult first with Bruce Cutler, noted mouthpiece for many New York Mafia figures, including John Gotti. I would imagine that Mr. Cutler is a virtual gold mine of useful, practical information on safely representing the compulsive criminal mentality. The first thing that Cutler would have told Gonzo is that while a lawyer definitely represents a client, first and foremost he is engaged to resolve the client's problem. There is a real difference. Failure to maintain that professional distance is the path to certain ruin, especially when representing clients, like the principal members of the Bush Administration, who obviously have an inclination toward breaking the law. I doubt that Bruce Cutler ever has any illusions about the personalities he represents; if he did, he'd be in jail too, and his career, of course, has been marked by efforts of the prosecutors to go after him personally. Because of Bruce, and his withering cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses (which the New York papers took to calling "Brucifying" the witness), Gotti beat three federal raps. He acquired the moniker the "Teflon Don" because of Cutler's skill. Finally, the New York prosecutors succeeded in getting Cutler disqualified from the fourth (and last) Gotti trial on the ground he was effectively the "house counsel" to the Gambino crime family, and then the Teflon got scratched and the Don went down hard.

Gonzo doesn't see that his patron, George W. Bush, is a dangerous client. That's where Cutler's tutelage could have been so instructive. Bush, when confronted with two paths which lead to the same result, one legal and one illegal, will compulsively choose the illegal way. I don't think this is an exaggeration. Consider the FISA law, which Bush began routinely, and feloniously, violating in late 2001. His private opinion of this quaint federal statute banning wiretapping on a domestic basis without the rubber-stamp approval of the FISA court was that it was too "onerous" and antiquated for modern high-speed communications. Maybe there was something to this; if so, the submissive Congress, dominated at the time with Republicans and Democrats who were willing to agree to anything that looked anti-terrorist, would gladly have amended the statute (Bush is now seeking, in 2007, just such an amendment). Instead, Bush simply went ahead with illegal wiretapping. He gave Alberto the thankless job of coming up with a rationale, and the best Gonzo could do was to say that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (passed in a sweaty panic on September 18, 2001) must have made it OK. The AUMF stated, in relevant part, "(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons." Well, I think Representative Jerry Nadler was on to something when he called this reasoning "specious." Indeed, "specious" is a pretty tame word. And the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan pretty much finished off this line of "reasoning;" the AUMF was not a blank check for violations of the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment, or for that matter, torture and Bush's abolition of due process for anyone of Muslim faith. And don't forget, Gonzo, that when your amigo Bush desperately rammed through the Military Commissions Act in 2006, as the Republican train was leaving the station, he included that little gem, incorporated from the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which provided “good faith reliance on advice of counsel that interrogation practices were not unlawful could serve as an affirmative defense in a criminal prosecution for abuse of detainees." Suh-weet, huh? Yeah, sweet. For everybody except you, Gonzo. You're the counsel. You and John Yoo and Bruce Bybee and Addington and the rest of Torquemada's Law Firm. See how clients can hang you out to dry when you don't maintain that distance?

So, now you're really in a jam. Bruce Cutler had to endure a little punishment for contempt because of some intemperate remarks he hurled at a judge, but you can't say he ever got snared in the same net as the Gambinos. They were the RICO defendants; he was the lawyer. Nice, clear lines of demarcation. That's quite an accomplishment; after all, he had to get paid, and that money came from somewhere (places he probably didn't want to think about). But you, Alberto, you don't have the drill down. No one from the White House will even go on Fox News now to defend you. On Fox News. The House wants to impeach you, the Senate wants to try you for perjury. All because, dutiful soldier that you are, you tried to hide the shenanigans about the U.S. Attorney firings from the Senate. You tried to conceal the palace revolt at Justice caused by the "Terrrorist Surveillance Program" (aka, "illegal wiretapping").

Gonzo, look: in case you're Googling for a lifeline and you come across this, take this advice. Get away from those people. They're using you. They've been using you. You don't really seem like a bad guy. You're just too malleable, too trusting, too certain of Bush's good intentions. Do what a man considerably smarter than you, John Dean, did. Turn state's evidence. Cooperate with your tormentors. Otherwise, after they take your belt and shoelaces, you're going to have to use your last dime to call Bruce Cutler.

July 29, 2007

As good as it gets

I sometimes wonder why George W. Bush doesn't simply do a few things that would make him more popular with the American people. His level of unpopularity is reaching absurd depths. Given that previous comparable lows were achieved only by Presidents in the throes of transient crises (Nixon with Watergate; Truman and the cashiering of the national hero General Douglas MacArthur), it seems that the revulsion of the public, where Bush is concerned, is somehow more fundamental. It isn't any one thing; it's everything. Yet it isn't difficult to read the polls, and a few gestures in the right direction could obviously alter things in his favor. For example, on an issue like global warming, Bush could simply accede to the express recommendations of the G-8; since the implementation of its largely hortatory goals is spaced out over the next forty-two years, they would hardly cause a ripple in Bush's remaining 540 days in office, while providing him with a modest bump in popularity. The same might be said about the Iraq War. Bush could short-circuit some of the criticism, and the damage to the Republican Party, simply by accomplishing some of the same things with different rhetoric. He could freely acknowledge that the early phases of the war were mishandled; everyone knows this already, and entire shelves of the library are occupied by heavily documented books detailing the screwups in excruciating detail. He could stop insulting the intelligence of the average American by claiming now that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror" and that the main foe in Iraq is Al-Qaeda, and focus instead on the necessity of a phased withdrawal to protect Iraqis who will be in grave danger when we leave. This sounds more responsible and compassionate, and even some war critics would have the wind taken out of their sails by this more honest approach.

He doesn't do any of this. He doesn't come close to doing any of this. His poll numbers appear to be in an irreversible nosedive, and he doesn't appear to care or even motivated to undertake simple fixes. I find, indeed, that this quality of Bush's, his complete unwillingness or incapacity for conciliatory gestures or remedial action, is the scariest thing about him. It's the clearest indication to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with him. When it comes to the Bush/Cheney cabal, and their designs upon the Constitutional integrity of the United States, it appears to me that yesterday's paranoid raving has a way of becoming today's realistic fear. I read a lot of stuff about Bush and Cheney, and very rational people, from various points on the political spectrum, seem to be converging around a single salient point. That while Bush & Cheney appear to have 540 days left in office, the deathly fear, which is now being articulated, is that a major terrorist attack on the United States during that period could afford Bush the excuse he's been looking for to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law in the United States.

One can line up the train of abuses beginning with the systematic violations of the FISA law in late 2001; the use of signing statements to ignore Congressional enactments; the systematic misrepresentation of the reasons for invading Iraq; the establishment of a secret gulag of CIA prisons to circumvent the Geneva Conventions and the federal War Crimes Act; the establishment of a prison in Cuba as an end-run around the habeas corpus provisions in the Constitution; the Executive Orders providing for the seizure of assets of Americans found to be complicit by the Secretary of the Treasury (and who might Henry Paulson consult before confiscating every dime you own?), directly or indirectly, or through contributions of money directly or through third parties (witting? accidental?), in acts of violence aimed at, or reasonably likely to be aimed at, the destabilization of the Iraqi government; the amendment of the Insurrection Act itself to allow Bush to determine when a "national emergency" has arisen, under a broader definition than under the prior act, so that he can call out the national guard to quell domestic disorder; Bush's declaration that the United States is itself a "battlefield," allowing the seizure of Americans such as Jose Padilla and their incarceration without legal counsel, without communication, without the right to a speedy trial, on the theory that such people are "enemy combatants" --

You can place different matrices above all these developments, of course. Maybe Bush and Cheney's supporters would simply say they're realists and take the problem of terrorism more seriously than the liberal camp. Their goal is not the overthrow of the American democracy, per se; it's simply that the world changed on 9-11, as they incessantly repeat, and the niceties of due process and search warrants and legal representation and habeas corpus for terrorists simply have to take a back seat to the critical problem of survival. You certainly could look at everything that's happened and see Cheney's "dark side" strategy as simply a philosophical difference in approach. That would be, in its own way, immensely comforting, and that's a strange thing to say. For what I'm saying is that I would be relieved that Bush and Cheney are directing their attack on America's external enemies and not on American democracy itself.

That's the most sickening part for me: that's as good as it gets.