September 15, 2007

The Iraq of a Grasshopper's Dream

It's one theory of reality: nothing actually exists as we imagine it. We and everything else in the Universe are simply artifacts in the dream of a grasshopper sleeping in a warm meadow in another universe. We move through his dream, live our lives within his dream, perish when his dream says it is time for us to go, and vanish into the nothingness we were before he began dreaming us. It might seem unlikely, but you cannot disprove it. We have no way, in considering an ontological argument, to transcend the severe limits of our own consciousness. Cogito, ergo sum? Or I am only to the extent I think I am?

I don't know whether Bush really believes what he is saying about Iraq because I can't inhabit his consciousness. I would say that he seems an unusually obdurate man; it would be good, just once, to see him abandon the staged situations, the Q&A with handpicked interlocutors, and really engage in an argument with someone, maybe on the floor of the Senate, where the conversation goes back and forth and we actually have an opportunity to gauge the empirical basis for these things he says. Bush is so relentlessly controlled in format. No one ever has the chance to delve deeply into his premises or analysis. Is he afraid and insecure? Does he buy that far into his own arrogance?

I'm not trying to be arch or condescending here. I sometimes feel for the guy, I have to say. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was not the worst thing a world leader has ever done. Hussein was an immensely cruel and insanely barbaric tyrant. Despite pictures of Saddam shaking hands with Rumsfeld in the early Eighties, Hussein should always have been our natural enemy. We should not have countenanced his despotism, and it is too bad that our addiction to oil forced us to do business with him. Yet Bush ordered an invasion into a culture that is vastly different from America, and about which he knew little. He operated on the basis of naive assumptions about the essential similarities among people everywhere, an insular and provincial ignorance which typifies many American attitudes about the rest of the world. Maybe he was right to hope the Shia would not only forgive the Sunni for the depredations of the Saddam years, but would let the disputes about the rightful place of Ali in the line of caliphates dating from the 600's go too, all for the sake of peace and prosperity in Iraq. Wishing didn't make it so. He needed to understand that clearly in 2003 and he didn't. He unleashed an unrelenting Hell in Iraq.

I wonder if he understands that this Iraq he talks about, from all reports, must be in a state of near anarchy. Extrapolations of the 2006 Lancet study, undertaken with the assistance of epidemiologists and statisticians at Johns Hopkins, place the number of violent deaths in Iraq, over and above baseline expectations, at more than one million Iraqis. Add to this number the two million internally displaced Iraqis (victims of sectarian and ethnic cleansing and refugees from violence) and two million Iraqis who have left the country (many of whom were the country's professional, business and economic elite) and you reach a number which represents 20% of the Iraqi population at the time of the invasion. If the same thing happened, proportionally, in the United States, a total of sixty million people would be displaced, driven out of the country or murdered. Then consider the well-documented stories that chronic shortages of electricity, gasoline, water and basic services, such as garbage collection and medical treatment, torment those who are still there, and that unemployment affects at least half the populace.

How can Bush talk about Iraq, give a speech on national TV, without mentioning any of these incontrovertible facts? How can he possibly talk about "success" in Iraq? His Iraq may exist in the dream of a grasshopper, or in the reverie of a boll weevil chewing away on cotton on a farm somewhere in central Texas, but it doesn't exist in the Middle East.

September 13, 2007

President Drymouth Advances to the Podium

I'll certainly tune in tonight to listen to George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States of America, lay it out for us on this whole Iraq situation. I'm a loyal citizen, after all, taught in my civics or social studies or whatever we called them classes in elementary school about the demands of citizenship. I need to be informed, and the man who is briefed daily on this obviously critical situation in Iraq is clearly the guy who can fill me in. So I'll watch, trying my best to ignore all the incredibly irritating tics, mannerisms, mispronunciations and affected sincerity which we've come to expect from our Chief Executive.

My main question is probably also your question: why is he giving this speech? Put another way, who is the audience? It can't be the American people, as I usually think about those 300 million souls. George W. Bush long ago stopped caring about the American people, if he ever cared. If you think about his life, its main focus is to avoid all real contact with us. He lives inside multiple layers of insulation, and his announced goals, upon retirement, are to retreat inside various fortresses, such as the Crawford "ranch," and to reduce his interaction with the American people to the vanishing point. People bug George. He doesn't like them. He likes riding his bike and going fishing with Barney. All his "friends" have left the White House now, and it must seem increasingly bizarre to him that he goes on being President, month after month, year after year, with the end still so far away.

So he's not talking to us. We all know what he's going to say anyway. The surge has begun to work, but there is still much to be done. President Maliki is making slow but steady progress toward political cooperation, but he needs more breathing room to put together a functional coalition government. Conditions have improved, and if they remain on this track, he can foresee a draw-down of perhaps 30,000 American troops by next spring. He'll remind us that he's aware of the pain and sacrifice endured by America's brave men and women in Iraq, that he's grateful for their service, but that we must be patient while we complete the mission in Iraq, the central front in the global war on terror. We must not forget that the world is a dangerous place and America has many enemies who would do us harm if we are not vigilant...I wonder if at about this point, his own mind wanders off and he finds, on coming to, that he has been reading from the TelePrompter for 5 or 10 minutes without realizing it. You've had that happen to you many times, right? You're in a conversation, or in class, and you realize you haven't been consciously present long has it been? It's weird, isn't it? I'll bet it can happen during a Presidential address too. I'll bet it happens tonight. Let's look for it!

I don't think Bush is addressing his fellow Republicans. This war could be the end of their political careers, and they don't believe his Panglossian evaluations for a minute. The Saudis? There's a chance, but he talks to them privately all the time. He doesn't need TV for that. So it's not us, it's not the Republicans, it's not the Saudis. The Iraqis? No, I don't think so; why would they listen to this guy who's never really been to Iraq?

Okay, so is there is no audience. Why's he doing this? Because it's what Presidents do? Because he's bored? Because he's....? Okay, so we've reached a new milestone in George's presidency. He's now doing things for no reason whatsoever. He's doing them to do them. It makes the time go faster. Something is solipsistic about this, isn't it? George has completely personalized the office. He's going to do things now, not to get anything done, not to accomplish missions (he can't get anything done anymore), but to pass the time. To get from here to sometime in January, 2009. He can't spend the whole time on vacation; he's already broken the record for that. At a certain point, a President who is always on vacation begins to disconcert an already very nervous populace, even if we're glad he's away. When he's in a foreign country, though, really weird things start happening, such as calling the Australians Austrians. Early in his Presidency, he thought the Swiss Guard were Swedish. He walks into doors, or off the sheer drop of a stage, or runs his bicycle into a group of Scottish policemen. So we need to keep him around where we can keep an eye on him. So that's the answer to tonight's riddle: we'll know where he is, what he's doing, and it won't do any harm because it doesn't mean anything at all. That's why I'll watch: to relax.

September 12, 2007

Comrades, Let's Not Get Hysterical Here

"Two officials at leading Communist Party bodies have given interviews in recent days warning - for the first time - that Beijing may use its $1.33 trillion (£658bn) of foreign reserves as a political weapon to counter pressure from the US Congress. Shifts in Chinese policy are often announced through key think tanks and academies. Described as China's 'nuclear option' in the state media, such action could trigger a dollar crash at a time when the US currency is already breaking down through historic support levels." Telegraph (UK), September 8, 2007.

[the following is a transcript of telephone call from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson's office, intercepted by the NSA as part of its routine monitoring of overseas calls]

Hi? Mr. Hu? No, it's a terrific connection! Huh? Heck no, no one's listening in! That's just for terrorists.

I'm saying your name right, aren't I? It's Hu Jin-Tao, I know, but you put your first names...oh never mind, even the President got it right. How tough can it be? Ha ha. He's a card, isn't he? What will he do next? Like that whole dust-up about melamine in the pet food. Sheesh. Okay, so Rover's evening meal tastes a little like IKEA furniture. Is that so bad? And everybody's little darling Tiffany curled up next to her lead-based Barbie -- maybe ten or fifteen IQ points, tops. Who's counting? If an American loses IQ points, can you even tell? Ha ha! We elected Bush! Ha ha ha!

No seriously, Mr. Hu, and I mean this sincerely...hey, do you know that Abbott & Costello routine? It's hilarious! Hu's on first? Get it? Oh, they would kill you with that, Mr. President. Really, I can find a CD for you...what am I talking about? You guys have already bootlegged it! No, that's another lousy joke. But on this nuclear option thing, Mr. Hu. You know...this is starting to make people nervous. Now I know, I know -- Congress likes to talk awful tough about fair trade and exporting jobs and labor standards and environmental stuff and blah blah blah. Even putting a tariff of 27% on Chinese imports because you guys won't let the yuan float up against the poor old hammered dollar! You know, so the things we make and sell to you will be cheaper, you know, things, you know, stuff we make. Okay, so we make all of "our" stuff in factories in your country. Still, the idea is...huh? No, I'm not babbling! I don't think so, anyway.

Look, can I be honest for a minute? Just between us "comrades." Get it? Oh yeah, we love to laugh here in the States. Yeah, I know, I know - when I laugh these days it sounds like I'm strangling. You've got us a little on edge with this "dump-the-T-bills" stuff. That's getting way out there, right? I mean, come on. Sure, maybe we shouldn't have put a couple of wars on our Chinese credit card over the last six years or so, and maybe, when a country's standard of living is going downhill, that's the wrong time to double the size of the houses and buy cars the size of a Sherman tank, using all that money you send back to us after we send it to you to buy all the stuff that you make and we make in your country...huh? The tinkling noise? Oh, I guess I can tell you, Mr. President, I poured myself a little snort from the office bottle. I'm feeling a little nerved-up. Huh? Sure, he used to drink a lot. Not anymore. What? Yeah, he was running businesses while he was drunk, I'm sure... No, I see what you're driving at. Sure. Couldn't agree with you more. It looks like he's been running the country the same way. But that's all in the past. Tell you something else that's in the past, Mr. Hu. All this "trade sanction" talk, and tariffs and complaining about a little pesticide in the Meow Mix. We're friends, and friends cut each other some slack. So forget about all that. And that 1.3 trillion in Treasury bills you guys own? Why not leave it right here, where it's safe and sound. I'm sure you guys feel right at home here. It's almost like you own the place. What's that? Gotta go? Sure, you've got a big country to run, I understand. But I'll tell you who's on first for me, Mr. Hu. You, comrade. My pal! So just between us, Mr. President, no rude surprises, okay? You stay in touch...

[line went dead at this point in transcript]

September 11, 2007

David Vitter, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A former New Orleans prostitute who will be featured in Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine appeared at his office Tuesday to accuse Sen. David Vitter of having a sexual relationship with her in 1999. Wendy Ellis told reporters that Vitter visited her two to three times a week for sexual relations between July and November 1999.

Abstinence education is a public health strategy focused on risk avoidance that aims to help young people avoid exposure to harm. These programs have been shown to effectively reduce the risks of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by teaching teenagers that saving sex until marriage and remaining faithful afterwards is the best choice for health and happiness." from Sen. Vitter's letter of June 21, 2007, to Sen. Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Committe on Finance.

Dear Senator Vitter,

Not to worry, David. Noted political commentator and sex impresario Larry Flynt has accurately doped out your situation. While your Republican colleague Larry Craig was quickly and mercilessly shown the door because of his wide stance and restless leg syndrome, your situation is very different. You're a freshman senator from a state with a Democratic governor. Craig, by contrast, represents the reddest of red states, Idaho. Moral censure of Senator Craig, therefore, is appropriate because his replacement will be named by a Republican governor. In a senate where the margins are so razor thin, where there are Republicans, Democrats and Joseph Lieberman, there has to be a limit to all this tiresome moralizing, right, Senator McConnell?
Personally, I would hate to see you go, David. Whenever the American political scene gets a little too dreary, out clatters another skeleton from your voluminous closet.

Maybe you don't personally make all those best choices for health and happiness, but you're faithful in your own way. The latest ho to blow the whistle on you, who apparently just passed a lie detector test and appeared on the Dan Abrams Show with that rascal Larry Flynt, uses the name Wendy. That's so...sweet, because that's your wife's name. Maybe it was a cry for help, or you were just being sentimental. However, I have to raise a delicate question, which you may know the answer to better than I, given your extensive work in the Abstinence Program. It Depends (I'm sorry about the lousy pun) on the precautions you took, but the ho says you were dropping by "to do your business" (sure, cold and mercantile, but what do you expect from a ho?, Senator) two to three times a week for four months. So if she's telling the truth, you were unfaithful to Wendy with Wendy perhaps as many as 50 times. Might there be an element of...risk there, Senator, of the kind you want the nation's youth to avoid? Could you unwittingly have been bringing a little of Wendy Ellis home to Wendy Vitter?

My guess is that Wendy Ellis, as opposed to Wendy Vitter, is not an adherent of the Abstinence Program, and paid no attention to your sound advice about monogamy. I guess what I'm saying, Senator, is that it's unlikely you were her only john, although, in fairness to you, I would wager that you were her most distinguished john - not only a United States Senator, but a major proponent of the Abstinence Education Program, Section 510 of the Social Security Act, which your almost unbelievably sanctimonious letter to Senator Baucus describes as "critical in supporting communities who wish to promote good and healthy choices for our nation's adolescents."

When I was one of the nation's adolescents fumbling around in the back seat of a 1965 Mercury Comet, I didn't have an Abstinence Program to steer me right. I'm not absolutely certain it would have done the trick, tell the truth. There is only so much that education can do when confronted by the forces of nature. I sense you know what I mean. Maybe this latest embarrassment will blow over soon. This gal could be an opportunist, despite the passing grade on Flynt's lie detector test. She's going to do a spread in Hustler, of course, and she'll be paid. That looks better for you, as you fend off another round of sordid accusations. I'd say your chances of keeping your seat are excellent, unless too many more revelations hit the airwaves. What might finally do you in is if Larry can get enough gals together to do a Girls of Senator Vitter issue. That probably wouldn't help a lot with Wendy #1, either. Anyway, go back and read your June 21 letter one more time. If it can stop a horny nineteen year old boy from making a serious mistake, it just might work for you.

Senator Diaper Weighs in at the Petraeus Hearings

I thought General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker showed admirable restraint when Senator David Vitter asked them for a "bottom up" analysis of the pacification of Anbar Province in America's 51st and most important state, Iraq. Petraeus, in particular, seems like a classic alpha male, a man among men, a natural leader, and I suspect he fought hard to suppress images of Vitter, as the Senator asked questions in his lisping, simpering fashion, lying swaddled on a bed, kicking his chubby legs in the air while a team of ho's slapped the Johnson's Baby Powder off their hands. Say what you will about the General's political ambitions and his aim-to-please-Bush approach to analysis of Iraq, he showed a lot of class in keeping a straight face despite the contempt that must have roiled his otherwise highly disciplined thinking. The General's name will not be found on the D.C. Madame's list, and I am confident Petraeus changes his own shorts.

So America's strategic defense seems to be in good hands as long as we have real men like General Petraeus willing to serve the country, and his willingness, furthermore, to submit politely to softball questions from Senator Diaper, while causing me to snort coffee out my nose while I watched, assures me that the continuity of this great Republic is a mortal lock. I guess. Of course, we have to keep in mind that the Iraq War has nothing to do with anything, and that General Petraeus presides (by default, since Bush has deputized his Commander in Chief role to his newest favorite guy) over the stupidest, most wasteful, most suicidal adventure in American history. And Congress just cannot stop talking about it.

I suppose Marshall McLuhan had a bead on this a long time ago. We can't even see "Iraq" anymore in its proper context. The constant repetition of the words "Iraq" and "Iraq War," and the endless train of images on television, together with the barrage of news in the big dailies and on the Internet, have created an Entity (The Iraq War) that dwarfs our capacity to conceptualize it. The important subtext of the message in the media is simply that, that Iraq is something we must talk about, all the time, it must dominate all discussions, it must set all our priorities, that regardless of its actual importance to the reality of America, we must continue, for years and years, to live under its tyrannical reign of dominance.

And Iraq, really? It's a country somewhere in the Middle East, east of Syria, west of Iran, north of Saudi Arabia, sharing a border with Jordan. It has a lot of petroleum under the ground. The population is less than the state of California, and seems to be declining steadily. It is a country now in the process of accelerating dissolution. It has evolved, with American intervention, from a police state with basic functionality to an anarchic shooting gallery. If I were an Iraqi, I'm not sure which state of being I would prefer. It's entirely possible I would choose the present over the Saddam years, but I would not see either life course as a lucky accident of birth. But we could leave Iraq tomorrow and the only effects for us would be completely positive. We all know that. We would immediately begin saving money, lives, our sanity. We would lessen the international threat of terrorism. Even the Great American Booboisie know that, which is why 70% of us want it to end. Congress could end it. And it won't. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, prefer the political calculations of maintaining power and winning the Iraq game, the game called "level of violence" in Iraq. That is what everyone now talks about, what Petraeus testifies about, what the analysts write about. Everything in the United States, the collapse of the housing market, the tanking economy, the falling bridges, the ruined city of New Orleans, the gargantuan national debt and trade deficits, the declining standard of living for about 90% of the populace -- all this is subordinate to whether in fact the monthly body count of Shia and Sunni in four provinces of Iraq is higher this month than during the same period in 2006.