December 18, 2008

Cheney's Gambit

It has always been one of my tenets of analysis of the Bush Administration that Dick Cheney is perhaps the most overrated "intellectual" in American public life.  There's no doubt he takes himself very seriously indeed, but it's also true that he's nearly always wrong.One of the most oft-cited examples from his errata sheet is his pronouncement that the insurgency was in its "last throes" right at the moment two or three years of nonstop mayhem in Iraq were about to begin, but that's just one of his credits.  He was also dead wrong about his "no doubt" statement that Saddam had a nuclear bomb program.  On and on.  I suppose it's that growling gravitas he brings to all his nuanced utterances, all those prepositional phrases salted away in his long, intricate sentences, that give people the idea he's a trenchant thinker.  Compared to Bush, who has trouble describing coherently what day of the week it is, Cheney seems like Sir Isaac Newton, but that's damnation by faint praise.

I'm trying to figure out what he has in mind by essentially admitting his role in ordering the waterboarding torture of Muslim detainees, as he did Monday night in a television interview.  Personally, I think he was just stupid to do so.  Some analysts, who are prone perhaps to overthinking the issue, suggest that Cheney is forcing Bush's hand on a Presidential pardon.  What you might call a preemptory attack on a federal prosecution for offenses under the War Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2441.  One devilish problem for the Torture Cabal right now is that the public visibility of such prosecutions seems to be increasing, not fading away as the Advent of Obama approaches. I admit I'm somewhat surprised by that.  Maybe it has something to do with overall hard times economically; the American people are in a foul mood and are looking around for someone to take it out on.  These are very ominous signs for Bush & Co.  These developments are happening very, very close to the end of Bush's term, and at the end of his term he and Cheney will essentially have no power to control the flow of events.

The New York Times in its editorial today calls for investigation, at least, and maybe prosecution of "Pentagon insiders" for war crimes relating to detainee mistreatment.  The editors there are such good little Establishment insiders.  They just can't quite bring themselves to state the obvious: circumscribing the prosecutions in such a way simply moves the "few bad apples" approach a little farther up the chain of command.  No, if the U.S. is going to prosecute "high government officials" for war crimes, then obviously we must include George W. Bush and Richard Cheney as defendants.  They stand right at the center of the conspiracy to violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.  They enthusiastically encouraged, aided and abetted, and most importantly, set the moral tone for, the torture regime of the Bush Administration.  It was all part of the sick play-acting of a couple of lifelong noncombatants, one an ex-cheerleader who found a way to look like a hero while carefully avoiding the Vietnam War, and the other a fat chain smoker with a bum ticker who took five deferments so he could pursue his career of wrecking the body politic.  And now it's come back to haunt them, the "tough guy" stuff they never imagined would ever trouble their easy retirements.

With Cheney's admissions (even with his inaccurate historical revisions), the choice for the Obama Administration becomes pretty clear.  Since my sense about Barack is that he doesn't like unpleasant confrontation, he may secretly hope that Bush pardons everyone (using the Bush-Cheney Retirement pas-de-deux to pull it off), so he can use Cheney's Gambit as a way to finesse the whole situation.  The new Attorney General may also point to the Congress-approved retroactive exonerations in the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act as a reason such prosecutions would be futile.

One rationale for avoidance will probably not work: the "press of other business," such as the economic stimulus package.  We're in for a long, rough haul in the immediate years ahead, as an unworkable economic structure thrashes and struggles (like an apatosaurus in the La Brea Tar Pits) and attempts to adapt.  The American People might need just such a distraction for a couple of years.  It's hard to foresee all the permutations, of course; but it might just happen that the Obama Administration, taking a page from Cheney's "improvements" to the Office of the Presidency, decides to rule the pardons ineffective by Executive Order.  And those retroactive exonerations?  Same treatment.  Sure, it's unconstitutional.  But so was the suspension of habeas corpus for the Guantanamo prisoners.  So was the decision to decide that the Geneva Treaty, entitled to recognition as the supreme law of the land under the Treaty Clause, was a "quaint" relic of another time which did not apply to human beings Bush decided to treat inhumanely.  

Cry havoc! and loose the dogs of war.  Karma's a bitch, Dick, when those dogs turn around and bite you in the ass.

December 16, 2008

The Shoe Thrower

George W. Bush will remain the International Man of Mystery (how did he get where he is and why?) until the very end of his term, I suppose..  I thought his immediate reaction to having shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist was trademark bizarre: he described the size (10) and then characterized the assault as indicative of the growth of democracy in Iraq.  It's probably true that a journalist would not have thrown his shoes at Saddam Hussein, so I guess that's something.  Throwing shoes at someone, however, and not just in Arab cultures where it has a special significance, is not, strictly speaking, simply the exercise of some First Amendment right.  The guy was trying to hit Bush with his shoes, not just make a point.

Such events confirm for me that we probably don't have much of a handle on what's really gone down in Iraq.  The overall narrative, the one the Bush Administration sells at every opportunity (Bush was selling it just before he started playing Duck-the-Flying-Brogues), is that Iraq was liberated from a terrible tyrant, one who posed a threat to the peace and stability of the world.  It was confirmed within a few months of the invasion of March, 2003, that Saddam did not pose a serious threat to anyone; all such ideas were at that point at least twelve years out of date.  So we were left with the usual humanitarian fall-back position: America as the great liberator, the Big Brother who comes to the aid of oppressed peasantries, as we say we did in Vietnam.

So who was the shoe thrower?  Muntadahr al-Zeidi, a 28 year old journalist, Shiite, unmarried, who was detained once each by Iraqis and by the Americans.  So it was personal as well as political.  He keeps a poster of Che Guevara on the wall of his Baghdad apartment.  Throughout the Arab world, al-Zeidi is achieving what you might call minor cult status: the man who stood up to the Americans.  Nevertheless, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki is going to have to do something with their fellow Shiite.  

One way or another, all of this seems pretty strange, based on the Official Narrative.  We did get rid of Saddam Hussein, didn't we?A lot of soldiers died and we borrowed and spent billions we couldn't afford in the effort.  And this guy is throwing shoes at the President? This journalist is part of the majority oppressed by Saddam's Sunni minority (as was Nouri).  

Something huge is missing from the picture.  My thoughts return, as they often do, to the reluctance (actually: refusal) of the U.S. government to do an honest accounting of two vital statistics: how many Iraqis have actually died as the result of violence in Iraq since March, 2003?  And how many Iraqis have actually been displaced from their homes by ethnic violence during the same period?  I strongly suspect the real reason for al-Zeidi's cult status lies in the answers to these questions.  Iraq became such a dangerous, treacherous place after the invasion of 2003 that America really has no unbiased eyes and ears dispersed throughout Iraq who can tell us what life is really like there now, and what has happened over the last six years.  We're at the mercy of American media which are constrained by the dangers of on-the-scene reporting, and which aren't that motivated to challenge the Official Narrative in the first place.

But the Iraqis, those we set free, throwing shoes, the ultimate symbol of derision in the Arab world, at their Liberator-in-Chief. Something just doesn't add up.

December 15, 2008

This Just In from the Senate: President Bush is a War Criminal

One might have thought that the Senate Armed Services Committee's Report on Detainee Abuse, signed by Chairman Carl Levin and Ranking Member John S. McCain, might have gotten a little more play in the national media than was actually the case.Naturally, if one might have thought this, it is because one has not been paying attention to the puerile and cowardly approach of Big Media to Our Own Private Nuremberg. The Report, which included the results of examining hundreds of thousands of documents, including autopsy reports on numerous detainee deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan which were "suspicious," to say the least (such as routine findings that healthy young men died repeatedly of "heart attacks" while in custody), was more or less ignored in favor of the riveting details of the antics and hijinks of Rod Blagoevich, the clownish governor of Illinois who tried to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat.  The Senate Report rejected, once and for all, the ridiculous notion that a systematic program of torture and mistreatment, all in violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, was the work of a "few bad apples" operating roguishly and independently at Abu Ghraib.

From the Report:  

Presidential Order Opens the Door to Considering Aggressive Techniques (U)

(U) On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. While the President’s order stated that, as “a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. 

Demonstrating that if not great minds, then at least cynical minds think alike, I note that Paul Abrams, writing today on the Huffington Post, opines that President Bush will resign on January 19, 2009, in favor of Dick Cheney, who will then pardon Bush and everyone else he can think of so they can guaran-damn-tee that the retroactive immunities laced throughout the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 will not be their only line of defense against a hyper-zealous Democratic Administration & Congress.  Not that there is much chance of that.  Congress has so many other pinatas to swing at: the aformentioned tousle-haired governor, the Big 3 auto execs and their private jets - hell, who knows, maybe they can summon another panel of disgraced baseball players caught using human growth hormone.  Who's got time for war crimes?
So take it easy, W.  You won't have to dodge any shoes back home.  What's a little torture among friends?  Sure, technically a conspiracy to commit torture in violation of Common Article 3 which causes death is a capital offense, and every last element of a prima facie case has now been established by the Senate Report. But first someone would have to read it, report on it, and mention it in the news.  And that isn't going to happen, not here. W can go back to his Dallas mansion unworried and undistressed, a pleasure denied Hitler, who probably dreamed of those golden days atop Berchtesgaden in the dark days of the bunker.  But we "won" in Iraq, and to the victor go the spoils.

December 14, 2008

Globalization and other Anti-Human Conspiracies

I came rather late to Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," but it would be hard for me to recommend it too highly.  A couple of well-read friends mentioned it at Thanksgiving.  The book goes very deep; I can see why some people have suggested that Mr. Pollan should be Obama's Secretary of Agriculture, instead of the usual agribusiness shill from Monsanto or ConAgra.Perhaps there's hope. Barack's impending selection of Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy was nothing short of inspired, IMHO.  It makes me wonder whether this can actually be the same country that gave us the Pre-Enlightenment Obscurantism of George W. Bush.  The answer being, of course:  No.  As the Buddhists tell us, one can never step into the same river twice.

Pollan's theses include the idea, anticipated in the writing of Frances Moore Lappe and Wendell Berry, that industrial food production is a very sick idea.  Factory beef, factory chicken, factory corn, monoculture farming, processed food, long supply lines for delivery, fossil fuel inputs for fertilizer, nitrogen runoff, manure lagoons, massive pollution, Omega-3/Omega-6 imbalance, incompatible diets for ruminants, animal cruelty, cancer, diabetes, obesity -- hey, we've perfected it all right here in America.  Michael Pollan's book is a great public service.

I was musing this morning, while drinking a cappucino with a little too much foam (and musing out loud, because that's what happens when I'm fully caffeinated), that the USA has managed, through its mass industrialization of everything, to place itself in the degenerate condition of a kind of capitalist USSR in the depths of its senescence.  We have a sort of command economy now: highly centralized, grotesquely energy-inefficient, wasteful in the extreme, and with the great mass of our population on a downward spiral toward poverty.  We are in the process also of finishing up an eight-year experiment in Leadership by Mental Defective.  That will be one for the history books for sure.  How did the United States finally arrive at a place where half the population actually voted for a brain-damaged, emotionally unstable intellectual mediocrity as the President of the United States?  Do you ever think about it in just those terms? Because that's exactly what happened.

I have theories, because I have theories about everything.  (Beats working, as someone once said.)  The "Globalists" really love this "interconnectedness" of everything, the human mosaic pulled together by modern technologies like television and the Internet.  Thomas Friedman, for example, practically achieves orgasm when writing about Internet "platforms" that allow everyone to "plug and play" in a "flat world."  A question that never seems to get asked is fairly basic: simply because these technologies exist, and were invented by humans, does that necessarily mean that they represent the optimal means of human interaction and lifestyle?

Marshall McLuhan's use of the term "global village" is often misinterpreted, I think.  The automatic assumption is that McLuhan meant this in a positive sense.  It seems more likely to me that he meant it simply in an inevitable sense.  The interaction between electronic media and the human brain, given the way the human brain works, leads inevitably to the illusion of interconnectedness because that's simply the way the human brain operates.  The perception of the senses is accepted as Reality.  Millions of years of evolution adapted us to this literalness: if we perceive something with our senses, then we conclude it's real.  Any other way of looking at the world is just too dangerous.  There isn't time to second-guess the primary authority of our senses.

The world of advertising, including the selling of political candidates, relies heavily on this essential fact of the human-techonology interface.  People will vote in droves for a brain-damaged nincompoop if you can dress him up and give him some folksy aphorisms, resulting in an image reminiscent of some real person we encountered in non-electronic life.  George W. Bush was an amalgamation of electronic pixels and rehearsed affect.  Nothing more.  And he got elected.

As with politicians, so with our food.  All this crap we eat seems vaguely like food so we eat it. We're told it's food, it's advertised on television as food, so we believe it's food.  Is it optimal nutrionally, in terms of taste and enjoyment, all this bar-coded junk we ingest?  No, of course not.  But industrial food production is what we do now, and the cheerleaders for globalization, Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, the World Trade Organization, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agribusiness, are excited that the human race has lost touch with its localized sense of direct judgment and discernment in favor of this new "platform" of Mass Everything.

The pendulum is beginning to swing the other way now.  The big energy companies are frightened to death, as they should be, of the idea that indiviudal citizens will be able to access their own energy directly from the sun for home heating, cooling and electricity.  As Americans die off from obesity, cancer and diabetes, industrial food will give way once again to localized agriculture.  The experiment with the Total Economy, as Wendell Berry called it, will come to an end.  The Global Village will give way to the older paradigm of maximal diversity.