September 18, 2008

The Ungrateful Nouri Pulls a Fast One

I think it would be quite possible to go broke underestimating the intelligence of Nouri al-Maliki. Let's just say if we were trading camels, Nouri would probably walk away with all of my animals and I would hitch a ride home in my boxer shorts.  The buttoned-up fashion plates in the White House, like Bush with his new-suit-a-day program, always wearing the chic new colors in men's neckties, probably think of Nouri as an Arab rube, what with his shlumpy attire and Nixonian five o'clock shadow.  Should be a pushover.  We're the mighty United States, with our giant red-white-and-blue foam finger thrust high into the Baghdad sky.  We stormed into Iraq, kicked ass and took names.  We're Number One!

So why's Maliki cleaning Condi Rice's clock in these 11th hour negotiation games?  Hmm?  I keep coming back to the idea this scruffy dude was schooled in a different milieu, to speak in French, the language of international diplomacy.  Nouri's a master at the asymmetrical power game.  When he was causing trouble for Saddam in his old dissident days, first in Iraq and then when the heat got too hot, in Iran and Syria, he had mainly his wits and his gift for organization. And up against this guy who literally learned cloak-and-dagger as on the job training, who played life and death games for a living, we've got a bunch of effete spoiled brats like the ex-preppie cheerleader turned faux cowboy, George W. Bush, and his anvil-haired Girl Friday, the wiz from the University of Denver who plays the piano and ice skates.  

Why did we think we had a chance?  George Bush has been sooo played by this dude.  If we were still capable of embarrassment, and I don't see how we could be, this would be humiliating. Look at the Brink's job Maliki has pulled off.  All of the money we spent to liberate Iraq, to cashier the hateful Saddam, was strictly on our tab.  Iraq has been socking money away, $79 billion at last count.  We've got 130,000 soldiers and just as many contractors there, we've spent a fortune on "permanent installations," forts and such, we're still spending $10 billion a month there even though we're going broke at home, and what does Maliki say?  "It's been real, Yanks.  Can't tell you how much we appreciate it.  Now get the hell out of here."

The United Nations mandate deadline is coming up on December 31, only about three months away.  After that, we have no legal authority to remain in Iraq.  The cocky numbskull Bush, with his usual completely unwarranted confidence, thought we could have it all.  First dibs on the oil fields, permanent bases, a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would allow our soldiers and contractors to carry on in the scofflaw way that has made the American military so popular in places like Okinawa.  So Nouri, for just a little while, just long enough to lull us into complacency and to stop watching the clock, made a few tentative agreements with American oil companies for development (but not those profit sharing agreements we lusted after) and one or two other concessions. Which he's now pulled the plug on. As to the SOFA, Nouri and his team negotiated.  And negotiated.  And negotiated.  Until finally even Clueless-in-Chief began to smell the camel droppings.  Something just wasn't right. Nouri kind of tipped his hand a little while back when he altered his starting lineup on the negotiating team, purging the pro-American Iraqis and installing hardliners.

Condi, doing what she does best, pronouncing painfully obvious and utterly empty conclusions with her trademark self-importance, told us "we would have an agreement when we agree," which, frankly, did not surprise me to learn.  Nouri picked the immunity provision as his line in the sand, but it could have been any of a number of terms of disagreement.  I think he settled on immunity because he knew how much it would bug Bush -- the idea that an American soldier caught in some impropriety in Iraq could wind up in one of those scary court rooms of the kind that Saddam was "tried" in.

Even if we ask for an extension, then we will ask for it according to our terms and we will attach conditions and the U.S. side will refuse,” he said in an interview on Wednesday with the directors of Iraqi satellite television channels. “U.S. forces would be without legal cover and will have no choice but to pull out from Iraq or stay and be in contravention of international law.”  New York Times, September 18, 2008.

What Nouri is talking about there is that beyond December 31, 2008, sans accord, the United States military can no longer occupy Iraq with any international legitimacy.  He's kind of rubbing our noses in it, isn't he?  Is that really very subtle?  Nouri and his "negotiating team" are dreaming up conditions to an extension of the 12/31 drop-dead date which they know we can't accept.  I can't wait to hear about those.  "Provided, that the extension of the UN Mandate beyond December 31, 2008, is expressly predicated and conditioned upon the agreement of Heidi Klum to a two-week vacation in Cannes with the Prime Minister, all expenses to be paid personally by the President of the United States with transportation aboard Air Force One." They're going to have fun with their sham caveats, all right.

Has the United States reached a point where we're like that obnoxious clown poised above a barrel of cold water who hurls insults at passersby, daring them to hit the target and dowse him? Does the world look at this madhouse, with the government now buying up all the investment banks and insurance companies, and running the Treasury's printing press till the currency catches fire, and think:  WTF?  Do they see that one of the major candidates for President is a guy who just announced that he thinks that Spain must be an enemy because its President has an Hispanic name, just like Hugo Chavez, and makes errors of comparable magnitude every five minutes because he's lost his marbles?  

Maybe Maliki just wants America as far from Baghdad as humanly possible.  The Arabs will take it from here.  No hard feelings.  Here, take some of this hummus with you - on the house.

September 16, 2008

The Wingnuts and Buyer's Remorse

I first noticed this tendency about a month ago while watching "This Week" with George Stepha-whatever.  He was leading his supercilious, sententious crew through another mindless exercise of in-crowd baloney, the real lowdown on the campaign which only Cokie Roberts, George Will, Patrick (Heil!) Buchanan know about.  I think it was Cokie who described some weakness in the Obama campaign, some developing vulnerability which opened the door for McCain, and Will jumped down her throat.  He was having none of it.

"Strange," I said.

"They have to live in this country after the election," a wise friend said.

"Indeed," I thought.  Maybe I said that out loud too.

Now this trickle through the dike has become a burst levee.  The conservative writers, usually so reliable for knee-jerk support for whomever, even for whatever, the Republicans nominate, are lining up to take shots at John McCain.  David Brooks in Tuesday's New York Times, in his smarmy, snooty way, has delicately pointed out that Sarah Palin doesn't have any idea what the hell she's talking about.  Of course, he words it as a deficiency in "patterns of experience."  That's the key thing, whether you realized it or not.  A presidential candidate's chief asset is his history of "patterns of experience."  Are we electing a chief executive or a maitre d'?    (Where did the Times find this guy?  Brooks has the annoying, condescending habit of beginning his various fatuous analyses with dichotomous taxonomy:  "There are two kinds of people who serve in public office.  Those who..."  Here's another bisection:  There are two kinds of writers, smart ones and David Brooks.)  Then Richard Cohen and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, all piling on mercilessly, using this Palin choice as their cudgel.  Of course, it's a delicate dance; these ultimate snobs don't want to sound like snobs, so they have to defend Palin against the charge that she's exactly like that woman at the PTA meetings who won't shut up because she knows everything.  And she knows everything with certainty because she doesn't know anything.  But that's exactly what these insider mandarins are thinking.  McCain threatens to turn the United States, in its present shape, over to a trailer park bimbo who is in way over her head.  They can't say it because they're part of the Very Serious Media, but when they meet for drinks after work that's exactly how they talk, and we all know it.  

All this reflects rather poorly on McCain's "judgment."  How could he do this to us?  He actually cares so little about the country that he puts his own election above the survivability of the nation?  Cohen called it an act of "political treason," and he's a longtime admirer of John McCain's image.

What shape is the country in?  Here's David Paul Roberts, former Assistant Treasurer in the Reagan Administration:  

"A country that had intelligent leaders would recognize its dire straits, stop its gratuitous wars, and slash its massive military budget, which exceeds that of the rest of the world combined. But a country whose foreign policy goal is world hegemony will continue on the path to destruction until the rest of the world ceases to finance its existence.

"Most Americans, including the presidential candidates and the media, are unaware that the US government today, now at this minute, is unable to finance its day-to-day operations and must rely on foreigners to purchase its bonds. The government pays the interest to foreigners by selling more bonds, and when the bonds come due, the government redeems the bonds by selling new bonds. The day the foreigners do not buy is the day the American people and their government are brought to reality."

In the law game, we used to call it "winning too much."  You were too successful at trial, creating issues of appeal for the opponent.  You won things you should have lost and now the whole case is in danger of being turned over on review.  That's where the Wingnuts are now.  They're dropping all pretense that they are dominated by an "opposition media," that fictitious entity called the Monolithic Liberal Media.  It has not existed in a long, long time.  Rush Limbaugh is heard coast to coast, Bill O'Reilly rules the evening gabfests, the weekend network shows are dominated by Establishment functionaries like George Will and Patrick Buchanan.  They have been winning for most of the last 30 years.  They got everything they wanted: huge deficits, a bloated military, wars of choice, no taxes, crushed entitlement programs, a fusion of church and State, and absolutely no regulation of Big Business.  It's led to the world Roberts describes.  And now they're scared.  Their propaganda has put John McCain in close proximity to the White House, and he's bringing along the Tootsie from Wasilla, who will rule the country if McCain strokes out from his high blood pressure, dies of a heart attack from his coronary artery disease, sinks into dementia or succumbs to a fifth bout of invasive melanoma.  Sarah Palin is going to take on that list of perils which Roberts limns above.

Kind of give you the chills?  The situation is not much better if McCain survives his first term. He's not going to cut the military, he's admitted he knows nothing about economics, or technology, or much of anything, except he's damned proud of The Surge, because that allows us to spend $10 billion a month of borrowed money on behalf of a country which doesn't even want us there anymore.

So the Wingers are in a quandary.  How do we derail this thing?  Which we created.  How do we go back to all the Fundamentalists, the NASCAR fans, the swarms of racists in Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania and convince them?  "Just kidding," they'll say.  "McCain's actually kind of a mediocre nut.  Heh-heh.  Uh, don't vote for him."

The financial system in the USA is falling apart.  The housing market is in the toilet.  The deficits are careening out of control.  All the wars have proved pointless.  People are losing their jobs by the millions.  Hell, there might not even be jobs at the New York Times, Washington Post and ABC if this keeps up.  Hey Johnny Boy, you who would be Caesar.  If Brutus Cohen and Cassius Brooks ask you to talk a walk down to the Forum, watch your back.

September 15, 2008

Cockroaches for McCain

Insects of the order Blattaria have apparently formed a 527 organization to purchase ads for the underfunded presidential campaign of John S. McCain, Republican.  Working with a worldwide network of other species of cockroach, the American branch, consisting of Periplaneta americana, have reached across international boundaries to join forces with a German group, Blattella germanica and two Asian cockroach activist organizations, Blattella asahinai and Blatta orientalis

We caught up with the leader of the American chapter, Hal Roach, as he emerged from a foraging expedition beneath a kitchen sink in Plano, Texas.  He agreed to answer a few questions on the record.

Waldenswimmer:  Hal, what's up with the insect PAC?  What motivated you?

Roach: Wally, the thing is that McCain has really fired up the base, and when I say base, I'm talking baseboard.  This selection of Sarah Palin was pure genius.

WS:  How so? Have you heard her talk?  She's hopelessly inexperienced and unqualified.

Roach:  And your point is?  No, look.  We've enjoyed our time with you on Earth, we really have. I mean, you treat us like low life, but in general we've got a good thing going with you.  You're wasteful, sloppy, you throw tons of stuff away, which is right up our alley, and when I say alley...

WS:  Yeah, I get it.  None of that's likely to change, is it?  Why the partisanship?

Roach:  It's our shot, that's all.  Why don't we just let it go at that?

WS:  You're being awfully mysterious.

Roach:  I'm a cockroach, Dude.  We own the night.

WS:  Still, I'm not following.

Roach:  (sighs [I think -WS])  Look, you've come close before.  Reagan, W. Bush.  I mean, Bush. That was hilarious.  But he was actually pretty good natured.  He only demolished countries that couldn't fight back.  There was no future in that.  What I mean is, there was a future in that. He wanted to be Vladimir Putin's pal, at the ranch, up in Maine.  They carried on like a couple of school buddies.

WS:  Really?

Roach:  I was there, Dude.  Terrrific garbage, by the way.  So us Blattarians had just about given up hope for a nuclear war.  Then...magic.  The Republicans nominate an angry ex-pilot with a short life expectancy and he picks this End Times cupcake.  And the next thing you know they're both talking out loud about a war with Russia.  And you know what that means?  

WS:  Radiation.

Roach:  Bingo.  Fiesta Periplaneta, baby.

WS:  It's a myth you'd survive.

Roach:  Don't you wish, Dude.  No, it's the real deal.  It's because we only do mitosis when we molt, which is about once a week, and that's when the radiation can get to you.  So a lot of us will buy it.  But it's a numbers game, man, and numbers we got.  We won't all be molting at the same time.

WS:  You've given this a lot of thought.

Roach:  It's a serious issue.  Life and death, something you guys never think about.  Hey, you know the difference between a hockey mom and a cockroach?

WS:  I don't feel like joking around.

Roach:  Sorry, man.

WS:  Why did you come up with something this...evil, Hal?

Roach:  Us?  Who came up with Terminix, Dude?  Give me a frigging break.

WS:  So that's it, huh?  No talking you out of it?

Roach:  'Fraid not.  Listen, I gotta skitter.  Buncha battleground states to hit.

WS:  Your own Southern Strategy?

Roach:  Prime cockroach country, Dude.


(with thanks to Dan D.)

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

To attract attention above the bawling crowd, the professional Doomsayers perforce must use each gravestone along the way to mark the end of American life as we have known it.  Thus, when Bear Stearns failed, that was it; when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were nationalized, that was the final straw.  Now Lehman Bros., Merrill Lynch, AIG and Washington Mutual have their heads on the chopping block and surely there is no tomorrow.  Even the House Liberal, Paul Krugman, has weighed in with a considered "Yikes" in today's column, wondering whether the American financial system is about to collapse.

James Kunstler, the Peak Oil Man, finds yet another in a series of apparently inexhaustible omens in today's roiling Wall Street news.  The American Economy, that sickly patient forever in extremis, with the priests of high finance always at the bedside reading Last Rites, struggles up off his death pallet to stagger through another day.

Why doesn't he just die, dammit?  It's because he's slowly starving to death, that's why, and when this period of privation began, he weighed 10,326 pounds.  It takes a long time to metabolize all of one's caloric stores.  We've been at this work for decades, but there's never going to be a final straw.

At the height of the Roman Empire, perhaps one million people lived in Rome.  10% patrician, 90% plebeian, rather similar to America's wealth distribution today.  By the time the Vandals from the north sacked Rome, there wasn't much left to conquer.  Maybe 50,000 stragglers still hanging around the Pantheon and the Forum, wondering why funny things never happened anymore.  Where did they all go?  They had died, gone insane from lead poisoning, mainly dispersed.  Rome perished of imperial overstretch.  It got too expensive to subdue all those far-off lands and the returns on investment were rapidly diminishing.  Rome, like America, was built on a growth model, and there were no new worlds left to conquer.  So the Roman Empire went into a long period of gradual decline as it lived off its accumulated largesse and its population became complacent, lazy and stupid.

The United States, a mostly agrarian country at the turn of the 20th Century, sagged into the Great Depression, a noticeable downturn, but things had not been so opulent before the Depression and so Americans rode out the storm with grit and determination.  The Second World War vaulted the United States into industrial overdrive, pulling us out of the Depression.  After the ruination of all other industrial powers by the war itself, the USA emerged as the unquestioned economic leader of the world.  While Europe and Japan struggled to rebuild their countries out of rubble, America built a huge, heavy industrial infrastructure and began selling its products to its citizens and to modernizing customers all over the globe.  The 1950s and 1960s were our true Golden Age.  Those of us now running the country (into the ground) had our consciousnesses formed during that halcyon period, including the clueless incumbent in the White House.  It was easy to believe in American Exceptionalism because it was manifested all around us.  We felt so expansive we even elected a liberal President, the last one as it turned out, Lyndon B. Johnson, and by a landslide.  A Bircherite candidate like Barry Goldwater, indistinguishable politically from his modern-day avatar (and Senate replacement) John McCain, had no chance in those days.  We didn't need to be small, mean, dishonest and highly partisan because there was enough for everybody.

There was enough for everybody because we still had the habits of hard work left over from the immediate post-Depression generation.  But let's face it: who really wants to work hard in factories and mines and on construction sites?  We certainly didn't, as we went through various incarnations as the Information, Technology and Consumer Economies.  That last national descriptor said it all: we would support ourselves by buying stuff from each other, and all the stuff would be made elsewhere.  Japanese and European cars, Asian electronics and then finally, Chinese everything.  Oil importation went from 30% of national use in 1973 (the time of the Oil Shock) to 70% today.  And while all that progressed, Americans not only did not adjust to privation and scarcity, they doubled down on their wastrel habits, buying SUVs instead of Corollas and building 12,000 square foot McMansions which required vast amounts of natural gas and fuel oil to heat.

With zero savings and tightening international competition, Americans looked around for ways to conserve their dough (freeing it up for consumer purchases) and decided to starve the public sector.  The most popular candidates and political leaders became the Republican tax-cutters and screwballs like Howard Jarvis in California, who decided that gutting the educational base with the axe of Proposition 13 represented a good investment in the future.  Americans now look around in wonder at the bridges collapsing, the dikes breaking in New Orleans, the potholed, disgraceful highways, the old, tired airports, the absence of mass transportation and wonder -- where did all the money go?  

Money, or rather the assets representing that money, have been pledged as collateral.  That was the true meaning of the final financial game the Gnomes of Wall Street could come up with to keep the merry-go-round spinning for a few more turns.  In that last spasm of putative solvency, when the money we sent abroad was being recycled to us by the people who made the stuff we bought, we lowered the effective borrowing rate to Less than Zero, and like a nation of crack addicts we binged on the easy credit.  To keep the consumerism in motion, Americans pledged the last remaining things they owned, their houses, as collateral, and those pledges were bundled up into mortgage-backed securities and sold all around the world.  It bought time, slowed the unwinding of the Empire, but it hastened our demise because we also bought the distrust of the entire world as they saw themselves conned by American fast-buck artists.

And now the Giants of Wall Street are toppling one by one.  The short view is to blame the Republican Party as the party of deregulation, as the party "that wrecked America," and certainly there is something to that.  But the long and true view is far more nuanced, and ultimately more damning, than that.  

Kevin Phillips, in a series of brilliant books, has chronicled the ascension and demise of the Dutch, Spanish and British Empires, more modern successors to the Romans of antiquity.  Great empires follow a predictable arc of triumph and dissolution, in the shape of an inverted parabola.  In the end America is not really "Exceptional."  We're just like all the other empires.  Great wealth, resting uneasily on world domination, inevitably breeds generations who begin to believe in the Cosmic Free Lunch, in the unearned incremental advantage, in the idea it's possible to prosper permanently without doing much.  These views are heard daily on the financial news channels.  There will be a "housing recovery," a turnaround, the market fundamentals suggest prosperity is just up ahead.  The housing recovery will occur when foreigners actually start buying American residences in large numbers, instead of simply buying the collateral for them.  We can count on the federal government, corrupt to its core, to assist in this process.  You might think of it as the Vandals entering Rome.  There will be no resistance.  A desperate populace will greet them as liberators.