July 19, 2008

The Obama-Maliki Plan for Iraq

In some ways it isn't even fair. Barack, of course, has always been an ace student. George W. Bush's approach to scholastics has always been "aspirational," as in the song "Don't Know Much:"

Now I don't claim
to be an A student,
but I'm tryin' to be
I think that maybe by bein'
an A student, baby,
I could win your love - for -me-e...

Thus, George's adult continuing education, reading all those books that more diligent college students read about forty years ago. Such as books on the Middle East, where the fundamental schism between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, occurring some fourteen hundred years ago, is discussed in depth. Book learnin' is not always completely irrelevant to real life, after all. If you want to assess the probability that sectarian conflict will emerge after you remove the police state mechanism (Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party) which held it in check for a generation or so, you would first have to know that there are Sunni and Shiite sects in Islam. Extra credit on the exam could be earned by booking hard on the topic of where in Iraq you might find concentrations of Iraqis of one religious stripe or the other; say, for example, Karbala and Basra for the Shia and Tikrit and Western Iraq for the Sunni. To nail that 4.33 GPA you need these days for Harvard or Stanford, you could show off by learning that the northern Kurds are an ethnically distinct people within Iraq, non-Arab, with trans-border affiliations in Turkey and Iran, and who consider themselves a state separate from Iraq.

George looked at the map and saw one word: Iraq. In Iraq lived good, decent, hard-workin' people just like us, and they wanted freedom because Freedom is God's gift from the Almighty (slightly redundant, but the point can't be made too strongly). In other words, they wanna be free (hold hands in front of chest, thrust slightly forward). Also, because we're Good, we came with Good intentions, and we would be welcome forever because freedom-lovin' peoples the world over love havin' us around.

If Mr. Bush's historiography and ethnic analysis sound strikingly reminiscent of old ideas of your own, it's probably because such ideas were current in social studies classes in the United States in the 1950's-1960's, when in the fourth grade or so you learned about "the world." George Bush could not be immune from such ideas because at that age you're in class, you hear it, you internalize it, the teacher's an authority figure, quod erat demonstrandum. Since you read this blog from time to time and know its ideological bias, you probably moved on in life to disturb such comforting ideas about your "homeland" by reading seditious tracts by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Scheer, Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstadter, and watched such movies as "Dr. Strangelove," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Seven Days in May," "Network," and "Platoon," and therefore began to develop a more nuanced view of your patrimony. Which is another way of saying that the erstwhile purity of your patriotism became somewhat tainted by contrarian views, and you perhaps emulated Albert Camus in his assessment of France: "I love my country, but I love it in justice."

I don't think this process happened with George W. Bush. It is a somewhat established thesis in the literature of addiction treatment that emotional development is arrested at the point that serious chronic abuse begins. From late adolescence on George drank hard and often and got into other drugs as well and went through the motions of college education and graduate school while under the influence, until finally at the age of forty he gave the stuff up and began to make real progress in his life. For which he is to be commended. At that point, however, he had wasted over half his life and thrown away all the amazing advantages which his rich and powerful birth simply handed him, like all the best schools and a head start in business.

Yet an adult awakening and renaissance is not as good as diligence and perseverance early in life. You will not find many concert pianists, for example, of the very first rank who started playing the instrument at forty. Okay, you won't find any. You simply can't develop the mind-muscle coordination, the sight reading capability, the patience for repetition that are possible at six or seven years old. Ingenious people who are indifferent about school often go on to be great innovative businessmen or artists (maybe most artists, in fact), but George W. Bush is not an ingenious man, not at all. For him competence depended on diligence and discipline and he simply never learned these intellectual habits when they are best acquired. It is often said about Bush that he is not "intellectually curious." Another way of describing this phenomenon is that he never learned how to learn and he is stuck with an old bagful of tired and sterile ideas.

So then comes Barack, the academic superstar, the quick learner, the adaptive genius. Don't underestimate him for a moment. The dude is very, very, very sharp. He does know how to learn. For him reality is a source of new data, all the time, to be assessed, processed and synthesized into new ideas. When he gets back from Afghanistan and Iraq (brilliant move to go there, by the way), he will announce innovative ideas on how to move forward, ideas of his own conception and initiative.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki likes Barack Obama for more than his name. Now he has a guy he can actually work with. George Bush wears people out because of the utter tedium of his cliched approach. Nothing can penetrate his ossified conceptions; he can't see things from your perspective because he doesn't know how to adapt and he's not intellectually interested enough in your problems to think them through. The sad fact remains that, try as he might, Bush simply cannot fake his way through his intellectual inadequacies. It just isn't there, he doesn't have it in him, and more than anything else, this country needs someone who does.

July 17, 2008

Bush & Valerie, Screaming from the Gallery

It's not exactly "High Noon," but a showdown of sorts may be in the works between Bush's (true) arch-nemesis, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Los Angeles) and Bush's legal mouthpiece, Attorney General Michael Mukasey. (I have to say once again: thanks ever so much, Dianne Feinstein, for paving the way for this awful AG appointment. Who says that Californians don't elect Republicans to the Senate?)

The issue concerns Vice President Dick Cheney's FBI interview about the Valerie Plame matter, conducted during its investigation prior to the trial of Scooter Libby. The Bureau put together a report, termed a 302, on the interview. My instinct tells me that the VP probably growled a few lies during that one, and with the extraordinarily complicated matrix of evidence built by Fitzgerald during his thorough investigation (and candy-ass indictment), it seems inconceivable that Cheney could have shucked, jived and "if-you-will" -ed his way through that Q&A without (a) perjury and/or (b) obstruction of justice. Patrick Fitzgerald, the Special Prosecutor, claimed at the end of the Libby trial that "a cloud" hung over the Vice President concerning the Plame outing, but that Libby's many lies kept him from getting at the truth. (Let the record reflect that this cop-out has never made any sense. Fitzgerald proved that Libby lied because he had so much contradictory testimony and documentation demonstrating Libby's inconsistencies and was able to reconstruct a true narrative of events. How, then, could he have not seen plainly what Cheney did or did not do, despite Libby's obfuscations? His reasoning, however, sounded better than saying, "I don't want to go after the Vice President because he's too scary.")

Maybe that's for another day. Back to Cheney's 302: Chairman Pit Bull of the House Oversight Committee feels, like the Rolling Stones feel about love, that pursuit of truth is real and not fade away. He wants that 302. So Michael Mukasey (did I mention that without Feinstein's support we might have forced Bush to appoint an actual independent AG instead of another pocket consigliere for W?) wrote Bush and told him to write back telling Mukasey not to produce the 302 on grounds of "executive privilege." Bush's White House has really worn that concept down to the nub at this point. What, you may ask, is executive privilege? The most definitive statement of the concept was provided by the Supreme Court in Nixon vs. United States in 1974: It recognizes

"the valid need for protection of communications between high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their manifold duties" and that "[h]uman experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decisionmaking process."
Mukasey is obviously familiar with the case; thus, his little jewel of sophistry in his letter to Bush, imploring W to tell Mike to do the right thing, informing Bush that failure to protect Cheney's 302 from Waxman may have a "chilling effect" on future cooperation of the Executive Branch with FBI investigations. You know, how can you be "candid" if what you tell the G-Men may wind up in the hands of a Congressional committee, particularly one headed by the oppo-party?

Rest assured that Mukasey's long, case-citing letter is full of sophisticated legal arguments referring to every conceivable basis for asserting the privilege and deep-sixing the 302. You might think that because the letter is so long and makes so many arguments that there must be something to all this verbiage, and you can be excused if you think so. Having more than a passing familiarity with how such briefs are prepared, however, I can assure you this is not the case. The issue is actually pretty simple: was Elliot Ness in Dick's office to "advise and assist" him or to grill him on what he knew about blowing Valerie's cover? Kind of clarifies things, doesn't it? So Mukasey's letter is all about covering Mike's ass - he's the one defying the subpoena and a former judge knows all about the perils of contempt. He told his staff of legal eagles to write the hell out of the memo so it looks like there's something to his stonewalling besides...stonewalling.

Let's put it this way: don't "high government officials" always have a duty, a preexisting duty, to cooperate with the FBI when they're being investigated? How is their "candor" affected by subsequent House oversight? You mean, knowing that Congress might exercise its Constitutional prerogatives to look into the matter of how the Executive Branch handles serious breaches of classified information means the VP can start lying to the FBI so he doesn't look bad later?

Maybe if Obama is elected and appoints an ethical attorney general we'll get to see that 302. It will be difficult for the House to enforce its subpoena against Mukasey since ordinarily, in sane times, they would be asking for the AG's cooperation; that is, requesting Mukasey to bring a contempt action against Mukasey to compel Mukasey to produce the 302. For now the system is completely broken; a Constitutional crisis a day with this crew, and we've gotten used to it. Congress storms and splutters about the breakdown and gets nowhere, because ultimately the system needs patriots and people of good faith to function properly. And those are almost nowhere to be found anymore.

July 16, 2008

Bush in Retrospect

I try, not always with 100% success, to be a scrupulously honest man when it comes to matters of the intellect (with respect to all other forms of integrity, I concur with those who believe that when a man tells you he is completely honest about everything, immediately feel for your wallet). So when I watched President Bush yesterday at one of his rare press conferences, I had to admit that the man has made strides since his early days as chief executive. True, his eyes still dart about the room, he hunches his shoulders and stares at the podium, he mangles words with the same alacrity as ever, but his diction and even his candor seem to have improved with the passing years. He used the word "conflate" correctly, as one example. I forget the context, but he nailed it.

President Bush even makes sense if you disregard (a) all previous history of what he's talking about and (b) reality. His discussion of the energy crisis yesterday is a good example. To hear him talk, you would be hard put to identify the person who has been president for the last 7.5 years. Apparently, he "warned" us about the coming problem with gasoline and his administration has been "working hard" on alternative fuels because they've always known the remaining fossil fuels (he even used the word "hydrocarbons") are simply a transitional energy source till we get to the next paradigm (he did not use "paradigm;" let us not hope for too much too soon).

It's funny, but I don't remember President Bush, in the period between 2001 and late 2006, when the Republicans owned the government, pushing hard for higher CAFE standards for American auto manufacturers. Or seeking a repeal of the gas-guzzler tax breaks which insanely rewarded purchasers of truck-sized SUVs with accelerated depreciation while enacting enhanced tax credits for high-mpg cars. Or proposing revitalization of America's 177,000 miles of railroad right-of-way (ROW) by proposing mass electrification of freight and passenger lines powered by alternative energy. Man, imagine that! Exciting, huh? What you can do, see, is double up on the ROW (avoiding delays and freight-passenger conflict, as we have now) and then use the corridors themselves for electrical transmission lines, all powered by vast solar arrays and wind energy where conditions are favorable. We don't need to move to high speed rail right away, not yet, just inject lots of money into the rail system, which is so frigging energy-efficient. Creating millions of jobs, tons of high-tech work, transformative research.

Instead of, you know, doing what you did, Bush, and starving Amtrak from the very first days of your administration. Refusing to give it $2 billion as its new CEO requested in order just to bring passenger service up to First World standards. Nah, you'd rather spend ten or twelve billion a month in Iraq. In Iraq. So when Barack Obama gave that speech yesterday right after you finished and talked about the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars on an unnecessary war against a country with no connection to terrorism, with no connection to any American interest whatsoever except our squandered effort to grab those hydrocarbons you're now so dismissive of -- well, you see -- you got spanked. Because there's no real answer to what Barack is saying, not if you're intellectually honest, too.

History did not actually start yesterday. The President attempts to avoid all blame for the country's predicament by pretending that his very first responsibility as President, the ordering of national priorities, is not in his job description. It doesn't work that way. In modern times, I do not expect a president, any president, actually to be versed in the arcane and sophisticated detail of every scientific, legal and economic discipline which is involved in making decisions. That's impossible and probably not even desirable. But a president does have the responsibility to figure out which few of the thousands of things the government might do with the limited resources at its disposal are actually in the national interest, and to make decisions accordingly. It does not satisfy the criteria of effective job performance to become bogged down in a marginal project somewhere in the Middle East and to spend all your money, and all your time and attention, on this one dumb idea, mainly for the purpose of vindicating yourself politically (while young men die), and to obstinately refuse to admit that it isn't worth it, that it's a mistake, that it's a classic tar baby of throwing more and more good money after bad, and that the country is suffering hugely as a result of this misallocation and colossal misjudgment.

That is Bush's legacy, and it is way too late to change it. My true sense about him is that he allowed his presidency to be hijacked by a group of dedicated ideologues, led by Dick Cheney, who are fundamentally uninterested in what you might call everyday American life. Behind every scandal plaguing the Bush years, you will find them lurking - illegal spying, torture, Valerie Plame, destroyed e-mails, defiance of Congressional subpoenas, and war, war and more war. For all his bluster and feigned overconfidence, I think Bush is a very insecure and fundamentally weak man who allowed a cynical and ruthless cabal bent on military adventures and arrogation of power to achieve a coup d'etat, and it is his weakness that has been our undoing, and his own.

July 15, 2008

McCain's America: Not so Current but Right Anyway

"I was concerned about a couple of steps that the Russian government took in the last several days. One was reducing the energy supplies to Czechoslovakia. Apparently that is in reaction to the Czech's agreement with us concerning missile defense, and again some of the Russian now announcement they are now retargeting new targets, something they abandoned at the end of the Cold War, is also a concern." John McCain, speaking on July 14, 2008.

for immediate distribution

From: John McCain for President Committee
Re: Confronting the Soviet Union
Date: July 15, 2008

My friends, I want to expand and amplify some of my comments yesterday about the aggressive moves taken by the Soviet Union against some of its satellite states in the Warsaw Pact, including Czechoslovakia. The promise of the Prague Spring is now in jeopardy, and what I fear most of all is a domino effect where the democratic movements in these countries behind the Iron Curtain are nipped in the bud.

For these reasons, I have launched a new initiative to make sure that East Germany does not also come under the crushing heel of a Soviet crackdown. Planes will fly around the clock into the American Zone in West Berlin, bringing natural gas, coal and food to this island of democracy so that the Russians do not succeed in their plan to starve the West Berliners into submission. I will call this program the "Berlin Airlift" and it will continue until we win, for unlike my opponent, I know how to win wars, and this war is no exception.

We should take heart from the example set by President Tito in Yugoslavia. He has continued his brave stance of open defiance of the Soviet colossus and has held his country together, with all its different ethnic groups and religions, united in their belief that the tyranny of the U.S.S.R. must be resisted.

Premier Kruschev may believe that there are those in the West that he can bury simply by a display of force, as he has done recently with his targeting of cities in Czechoslovakia, a nation straining to resist fracturing along ethnic lines and to maintain cohesion through all its historic ups and downs. As President, I would summon the Soviet envoy Andrei Gromyko to the White House and make it plain to him that thermonuclear war is not a one-way street, and that our B-52s, circling at or near their fail-safe points, simply await the go-code to even the score.

There are those who will say, and I can probably include my opponent in their number, that this bold statement of America's strength is warmongering and out-of-date in an interconnected world. Yet I know I will have the full support of my Secretary of War and of the combined strength of the League of Nations in making clear to the Russian Bear that they cannot tread on us.

My friends, calls to action such as "Remember the Maine!" and "54-40 or Fight!" are not, to me, just empty slogans; they are recent news releases, as current in their relevance as our need, finally, to break the back of Japanese resistance by an assault on Okinawa in our pursuit of final victory.

July 14, 2008

Advantages of a McCain Presidency

UPDATED: Don't miss the comment; it's funnier than my post.

I note today that some national polls show Barack Obama's previous 15 point lead over John McCain has shrunk to about 3 points, within the statistical margin of error. Thus, although 90% (± 3%) of the American populace will not understand the concept, this means that statistically the race is now a dead heat. Translated further, this means that the twitchy, confused, borderline-insane, dull-witted senior senator from Arizona with a penchant for making nuclear war jokes has an even chance of becoming the next President of the United States.

While suicidally depressing at first glance, there are always advantages to any development on the American political scene. For those who say I sometimes strike too bitter a note in these posts, I offer this list of advantages to a McCain presidency:

#1: Continuity of shittiness in government: One very confusing recurrent theme in American politics has been the periodic interruption of extremely incompetent and promiscuously over-spending military juntas run by Republican presidents by short spasms of competence and sanity. Thus, the Reagan/Bush years of colossal government debt leading to a deep recession were stopped short, just as they were about to crash the American system, by the presidency of Bill Clinton. By using concepts known as "intelligent management" and "national priorities," Clinton's team reduced defense spending, brought the budget under control, created jobs and ushered in a period of prosperity. Disoriented, the American electorate panicked and voted for George W. Bush in huge numbers, bringing back a reign of idiotic government, unnecessary wars, gigantic deficits, unemployment, exploding defense spending and near collapse of the financial system. In return, the American Right received a veto on the stem cell research bill, thus sparing countless (well, they're easy to count, actually, because they're so few) murder victims and various negative remarks from the president about gay marriage. Given this huge head start by GWB, I think McCain will be able simply to finish us off, the lethal injection of incompetence the country has been waiting for, thus ending the boom/bust cycle and era of false hope.

#2 Eclipse of America as the World's Biggest Polluter: As President Bush left the recent G-8 meeting, he jauntily said goodbye "from the world's biggest polluter," shocking Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Great Britain and Nikolaus Sarkozy of France. Apparently, these two spoilsports don't think destruction of the Earth as a habitat suitable for humanity is all that funny, but maybe they don't get that George's somewhat nervous sense of humor is part of what makes him "special." Our ability to pollute, however, depends in large part on our ability to run an economy, which in turn depends on our ability to import oil. Since we're near the breaking point on that capability, during the McCain presidency we can expect America to fall to a status somewhere around Zimbabwe in terms of environmental impact. Leading to:

#3 Relaxation of America's Self-Image from High Maintenance to Low Maintenance: At some point shortly after McCain's inauguration, it's going to dawn on Americans, however inchoately, from the tract homes of Tustin, California to the trailer parks of Bullhead City to the sprawling megalopolis of Dallas/Fort Worth to the rusting industrial ghost towns of the Midwest and Great Lakes to the cratering financial markets of Manhattan's Wall Street, that electing imbeciles as President of a country such as this, election after election, also perforce says something about the quality of the electorate, which is to say, the American people themselves. While it is psychologically comforting to blame the incumbent dimwit for everything going wrong, a people so uneducated, uninformed, distracted, and maybe just so drunk as to keep putting up large numbers for such cretins on election day has a lot to answer for. When this sinks in, when we realize that although we're in a very, very deep hole, we nevertheless keep hiring excavators to get us out of it, we may come to terms with one of the most disabling of all American delusions, the idea we're "unique" and "exceptional," which is the narcissistic trait that has motivated our tendency to invade other countries and to fix everything so everyone can be just like us. Which has led to our (a) excessive militarization, (b) social backwardness and (c) bankruptcy.

After McCain (just a couple of years of McCain, in fact), we simply will not have the wherewithal to carry on our quixotic and messianic missions. Which will be a good thing, although it will be very painful getting there. So you see - 'tis an ill wind indeed which blows no one any good.