Saturday, September 30, 2006

Interim report

Illness this week, from which I am now completely but slowly recovering, will make it impossible for me to do the week's events justice, but with hits running at over 1000 a week I wanted to check in with my readers, and also very quickly to summarize what may well be a pivotal moment in our history.

We are now past the point, it seems to me, where this Administration can go down in history as anything but a disaster on a wide variety of fronts. Just this week we have had the repudiation of almost 800 years of Anglo-American history, as the Bush Administration has attempted indefinitely to eliminate habeas corpus for anyone accused of aiding terrorists. (Senator Arlen Spector pointed out that we are not in the midst of a rebellion or invasion--see last week's post--but voted for the bill anway.) We also, after many months, have the release of irrefutable evidence that Jack Abramoff was in constant contact with the highest levels of the White House, starting with Karl Rove. Representative Foley of Florida, who in the past has sponsored legislation against child sexual predators, has resigned after the release of an instant messaging session he had with a former capitol hill page--an episode which once again raises the question of exactly how much Republican homophobia actually reflects guilt over its purveyors' own impulses. And Bob Woodward's book will apparently show how determinedly the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense have ignored all real information about what has been happening in Iraq for the last three years. Certainly much of this will penetrate into public consciousnes in the next five weeks, and I think there is a good chance--but far from a certainty--that the Democrats will win at least one house of Congress. Then they can at least introduce legislation to restore the U.S. Constitution, even if they cannot force the President to sign it.

We clearly remain in danger, however, of having the Iraq disaster actually benefit the right wing. President Bush's complete refusal to re-evaluate policy in Iraq--which I do not expect to change no matter what happens--means that no withdrawal will take place until after he is out of office. Conservative Republicans will then be able to attempt the same kind of public relations coup that German General Erich Ludendorff pulled off in 1918-19. Having realized in September 1918 that he had lost the war, Ludendorff demanded the appointment of a centrist government to ask President Wilson for an armistice. When he realized what the terms would be he spoke out against accepting them, forcing his dismissal. When the German Emperor refused to give up his throne, as Wilson had more or less demanded, revolution broke out in Germany and a new leftish (though not leftist) government accepted the terms. It never recovered from doing so--Ludendorff accused it of stabbing Germany in the back, and Hitler picked up the same legend. It is already happening here--and not for the first time.

I was appalled to read that Henry Kissinger has been urging the President to stay the course. Recently released taped conversations from the fall of 1972 show that Kissinger assured President Nixon that if South Vietnam fell within a couple of years after a peace agreement, he could simply blame the incompetence of the South Vietnamese. But when South Vietnam did fall in 1975, Kissinger decided to blame the American people and the Congress instead, and he has been doing so ever since. It does not seem to be going too far to say that this has become a cornerstone of Republican strategy. Launch a foreign adventure. If it works, celebrate it. If it is obviously failing, blame the Democrats who are pointing out the truth.

I shall post at greater length sometime this week.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Speeches at the UN

Readers of last week’s post will understand my enormous disappointment at the deal that appears to have been reached between the Administration and leading Republican Senators (Democrats, of course, played no role at all) over the rights of detainees seized by the CIA. It is extremely difficult to tell from the major media what is in the compromise, and I haven’t seen a text, but it seems to embody some rather frightening hypocrisy about torture, while raising questions one two of the most basic principles of US and international law over the last few centuries.

To begin with, according to the Washington Post, the compromise actually allows President Bush to decide what is legal and what is not. It bars certain practices, apparently, and, pathetically in my view, tries to distinguish between acceptable and the unacceptable levels of pain and mental distress which interrogators may apply. But it also apparently gives the President the right, explicitly, to decide what is allowed and what isn’t, although it requires him to publish his opinions. This will, of course, make another “signing statement” unnecessary, since the Congress for the first time is explicitly giving the President the right to decide what is legal and what is not, but how anyone can discount the appalling propaganda disaster that the publication of such guidelines will represent is utterly beyond me. Washington has become such a self-contained region that no one involved seems to have thought about the broader diplomatic implications (but we have good information that the Vice President, in particular, would pronounce those as “not the issue.”)

Now the Senators seem to have done a little better on the issue of trials for suspected terrorists, who will have the right to see at least summaries or redacted versions of any classified evidence against them. (While I hardly regard that as a solution of the problem, it is a step forward.) However, the law does not give that right to detainees simply asking for their release, and it forbids detainees from going to federal court to ask for a writ of habeas corpus. They must rely on a special tribunal. Here is where matters become rather interesting, because the legality of such a step under the constitution leads us into deep waters of national and international law.

Article I of the Constitution—significantly, the article defining the powers of Congress—states, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” The Congress, in short, has the power to authorize unlimited detention of suspects (although as I have noted before, during the Civil War the Congress gave detained suspects the right to an almost immediate hearing.) Thus the question, in the first instance, is whether we face a situation falling under that provision. September 11 was certainly an invasion, of a kind, but does that authorize us to detain people literally anywhere in the world, bring them to Guantanamo, and lock them up without trial? Does the public safety actually require this? Is it, rather, being endangered by the incarceration of more than a few men who just happened to be within reach of a bounty hunter at the wrong time, and whose friends and relatives will not forget? All these are critical questions but they are of the kind that the Supreme Court prefers not to address.

But in turn, they raise the issue of exactly what we are claiming to fight the so-called “war on terror,” namely, the suspension of the idea of national sovereignty. No government has the right to protect its own citizens, much less aliens within its borders, if we have decided that they are terrorists. Our “writ” runs all around the world. And indeed, under the Bush doctrine, any government that cannot, or will not, stop terrorists from operating is liable to be overthrown. In principle one can make a case that such governments are failing to carry out their international obligations. What we have found in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, is that simply overthrowing them will not extend effective and cooperative authority over their territory. In any case, I remain convinced that to arrogate the right to overthrow foreign governments to one’s self is incompatible with any concept of lasting international order.

The people and leadership of the United States desperately need to think a little harder about how we got here. However just our own institutions and goals may be (and they are never as noble as some of us believe), we have not found a recipe for ending global political conflict. In the Middle East and Latin America millions of men and women are inevitably rebelling against our power and our values. And, by outstripping the rest of the world in military capability, we and our allies have made it impossible for anyone to challenge us on a traditional battlefield. Because other face a choice of submission on the one hand or unconventional war, including terrorism, on the other, Americans seem to conclude that they should automatically submit. Unfortunately for us they do not agree.

I was struck, by the way, by a remarkable item in Israeli newspapers last week, about the impending trial of two Lebanese men accused of being Hezbollah terrorists who were seized on a Lebanon battlefield. Their attorneys are arguing that they should be treated as soldiers and prisoners of war, since they were defending their village. I emailed an Israeli human rights group to ask whether Arab terrorist suspects are tried in normal courts with full right of counsel, such as these to men seem to be enjoying. Unfortunately the group simply referred me to another group which did not answer. But it seems that Israel, which has suffered more from terror than the United States, still does not feel it necessary to eliminate all legal protections for men and women that it chooses to charge. (I would be grateful for any more information on this point.)

It has not occurred to anyone, apparently, that we really should be engaging in the broadest possible international negotiation to set generally agreed-upon rules on how to find, arrest, detain, and punish terrorist groups. This would, in my opinion, be far more effective than relying on ourselves and a few more or less savory friends, and it would allow us once again to step forward as the leading defender of international human rights, a position we have now almost totally forfeited. It would be a most promising step away from our current isolation. Perhaps some Democratic hopeful might think about it.

Our promotion of international anarchy was once again apparent in President Bush’s speech to the UN. Today my local paper had a column by Marianne Means of the Hearst chain about the speeches by Bush, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She begins by describing President Bush’s oration as “an undistinguished effort, and quickly forgotten,” and moves on to the “real fireworks.” Then she turned to Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the holocaust and pledge to go forward with Iran’s nuclear program, and Chavez’s insults against Bush.

Chavez's speech is a bit of a shock because only one year ago, he gave an address which, while certainly unwelcome to the ears of the American government, was actually an interesting attempt to set the world on a different path. He called for the reform on the United Nations, including the construction of a new headquarters somewhere in the Third World (an idea dear to the heart of American conservatives, actually, for many decades.) He specifically attacked the effects of neoliberal globalization and called for something new. This year, however, made these points more for dramatic effect, recommending Noam Chomsky to his audience, and spent a great deal of time with personal attacks on “the devil,” President Bush. And, he appealed over the head of the President to the American people:

“The president then -- and this he said himself, he said: "I have come to speak directly to the populations in the Middle East, to tell them that my country wants peace."

“That's true. If we walk in the streets of the Bronx, if we walk around New York, Washington, San Diego, in any city, San Antonio, San Francisco, and we ask individuals, the citizens of the United States, what does this country want? Does it want peace? “They'll say yes.

“But the government doesn't want peace. The government of the United States doesn't want peace. It wants to exploit its system of exploitation, of pillage, of hegemony through war.

“It wants peace. But what's happening in Iraq? What happened in Lebanon? In Palestine? What's happening? What's happened over the last 100 years in Latin America and in the world? And now threatening Venezuela -- new threats against Venezuela, against Iran?”

Chavez’s speech was insulting, as it was meant to be, and most unlikely to do anything to move the world I a more hopeful direction. It obviously is contributing to the polarization of opinion around the world. But unfortunately, President Bush, in some of his statements about Iran and Syria, did exactly the same thing.

“To the people of Iran: The United States respects you; we respect your country. We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization. You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future, an economy that rewards your intelligence and your talents, and a society that allows you to fulfill your tremendous potential. The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism, and fuel extremism, and pursue nuclear weapons. The United Nations has passed a clear resolution requiring that the regime in Tehran meet its international obligations. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program. We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom -- and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace.

“To the people of Syria: Your land is home to a great people with a proud tradition of learning and commerce. Today your rulers have allowed your country to become a crossroad for terrorism. In your midst, Hamas and Hezbollah are working to destabilize the region, and your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran. This is increasing your country's isolation from the world. Your government must choose a better way forward by ending its support for terror, and living in peace with your neighbors, and opening the way to a better life for you and your families.”

Now in my opinion it was not wise for Presidents to speak in such terms to the people of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for the simple reason that diplomacy, in my opinion, consists in protecting one’s own country and its values and interests in a world in which many people, inevitably, do not share them. But at least Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan could argue that the stakes demanded such language, since the Soviet Union was a worldwide competitor for power and influence that posed a genuine threat to the United States. It is demeaning, in my opinion, for an American President to be publicly calling to account the governments of relatively weak and poor nations like Syria and Iran—for that is what they still are. The threat we face is not in proportion to our rhetoric (and President Bush acknowledges that, in effect, by refusing to mobilize the human and financial resources, much less the diplomatic ones, that a worldwide threat would really call for.)

The collapse of the Republican center on the torture issue is a sad day, but it is an opportunity for the Democratic Party. The Administration’s policies do not merely betray our values; they do not work, either. Perhaps some one will take up this opportunity.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Where money goes, then and now

1965, as I had occasion to note in my book American Tragedy, was a pivotal year in American life. In retrospect it marked both the peak and the end of the postwar consensus, as well as the end of the last inflation-free economic expansion for a long time. The top tax rates were just starting to come down, although they were still, I believe, about twice as high as they are now. As Paul Krugman likes to point out, this was one of the peak moments for economic justice in the United States, we have had less of that ever since, with the exception of general gains for all during the 1990s.

Having turned 18 that year myself and begun my own adult life as a consumer, I have many specific memories of what things cost in those days, but I have often wondered what costs less and what costs more, relative to the total price level. According to the official consumer price index, it costs $645 today to buy what $100 bought in those days (although I, and I suspect you too, will be wondering exactly what the CPI means by the time you get to the end of this post.) Thus, if the CPI is meaningful, any good that costs 6.45 times as much today as it did 41 years ago is really equally costly. Using that rule of thumb, it turns out that making out the family budget is indeed a very, very different matter today than it was in 1965.

Has technology saved money? Yes—in a few critical areas, led by electronics. The 21-inch color tv that cost $269 in 1965 costs only $140 today—less than 10% of the 1965 price, adjusting for inflation. (That’s a simple analog tv; most people are now spending much more, but getting much more, too.) A 12 cubic foot refrigerator costs less than 1/3 of what it cost then, partly, I would guess, because Americans are much less likely to make it. But one of the most amazing bargains—and the most inexplicable to me—is air travel. A round trip ticket from New York to Los Angeles cost $290.000 in 1965, or $1870.50 in today’s dollars. You can actually buy one for just $258.00. Since energy costs have NOT dropped (see below), larger planes presumably have a lot to do with it. Of course, your ticket in 1965 almost certainly bought you a non-stop flight and a complimentary meal—but the mechanics, flight attendants and even pilots who got you there, I suspect, were far better off than they are today.

Poverty has become somewhat deceptive, I suspect, because, as I found, basic necessities cost about half what they did then, relative to other goods. A dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, or a pound of ground chuck all cost about half what they did then when inflation is taken into account. Ice cream is also cheaper, although both sugar and coffee are about 20% more expensive in terms of other goods. (That does not, however, explain how lifesavers have gone from a nickel in 1965 to at least $.75 today, and over a dollar at some airports—a relative increase of about 2.5 times.) The sugar increase has also kept the cost of coca-cola at about the same level, although beer is about 33% cheaper than it was. Clothing is also much cheaper, once again because Americans no longer make it or the cloth it comes from. A Brooks Brothers lightweight suit that retailed for $115.00 in 1965 is only $420.00 now—just over half in real terms. (This is an area where research is not easy to do.) Eating out is harder to measure. The double-hamburger special for which I used to pay $1.00 at Charlie’s kitchen now costs $4.95, a 20% drop in real terms, but the Durgin Park Prime Rib has gone from $4.00 to $33.95, a 30% increase. (Of course, it’s no longer anywhere near as popular an item.) Fast food, of course, was only in its infancy then.

Median family income, according to official statistics, has hardly risen at all. The $6,882 figure for 1965 works out to $44,389 today; the actual figure for 2005 was $46,326. I shall have to leave tax calculations for those two families to another time—the data is out there, but it would be a lot of work. The minimum wage was, I am pretty sure, $1.25 in 1965, which would mean $8.06 today, but it is only $5.50. Despite this, a minimum wage earner can eat and dress as well as a 1965 variety because those things cost less, and he could even take an occasional airplane trip. But today’s low earners face other problems.

Getting around is not substantially more expensive today. Gasoline is up now—although it wasn’t long ago that it was as cheap as ever—but it is only up about 50%. We are paying farmers less, oil companies more. No calculation is more difficult than automobiles, but a one-year old Chevy Impala, I discovered, costs almost exactly the same in constant dollars today ($13,500) as it did then ($1,900)—and it certainly provides longer life and more value. Public transportation costs more—twice as much in New York City, even adjusting for inflation, probably thanks to generous pensions. Entertainment is a mixed picture. I can’t remember what the movies cost in 1965—somewhere between $1 and $2, I think—which means that today’s prices are in the same range, and at least as cheap if you take in a matinee. (Of course, in those days your ticket often bought two movies.) Ski lift tickets are only marginally more expensive ($7 then, about $55 now in New England.) But one of the most striking increases is a bleacher seat at Fenway, which has risen from $1.00 in 1965 to $23.00, nearly a fourfold increase with inflation taken into account.

Many of you have undoubtedly already guessed the punch line. The most expensive big-ticket items are a college education and housing, especially in major urban areas. A year at Harvard in 1965 cost $2,700; today it costs almost $44,000, which works out to a 2.5 times increase. No one knows exactly where all that money is going, but a significant chunk actually lines the pockets of the endowment managers. (The endowment has increased about fourfold after adjusting for inflation, but tuition, remarkably, continues to increase as well.) As for housing. . .a ranch house in Levittown, New York could be had for $18,000 in June 1965. Today a similar-sounding house lists for $475,000. Even accounting for inflation, that is a four-fold increase in real terms—and interest rates are higher, too. Three-bedroom homes in Evanston, Illinois have gone from $25,000 to $340,000—not as bad as New York, but still twice as high, relative to inflation. Krugman has argued that housing costs in much of America have lagged substantially behind, and more data would be interesting, but it seems that the average American family is spending a much higher percentage of its income on housing than it did forty years ago, and much more on education as well. And as many people know, average working people simply can’t afford houses in several of our largest metropolitan areas anymore. We have two nations within our major cities to a much greater extent, I would suggest, than we did a half century ago.

What does this mean? Most of the money spent on housing is retiring debt, and is therefore going into the pockets of the financial industry, instead of the paychecks of farmers, industrial workers, and flight attendants as it might have 40 years ago. We are paying the most for some of the least labor-intensive work, which must be contributing a great deal to the rise in income inequality. Only the banks, one would think, are actually benefiting from this huge increase in housing costs. Meanwhile, the cost of college is forcing more and more young people to incur large debts (something almost unheard of in the 1960s) and to go into the financial industry themselves to pay them off.

Going still further back, I have just read a little campaign rhetoric from the three-way election of 1912. Two of the candidates, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, talked ceaselessly about the overweening influence of the rich, the problem of Trusts, and the need to give workers and farmers their fair share. Such ideas went into eclipse during the 1920s but the depression brought them back with a vengeance, and from the 1930s through the 1970s or so the federal government did a great deal to make life better for ordinary farmers and industrial workers. During the last 25 years their jobs have been exported at an increasing rate, replaced by lower-paying jobs in retail and service industries. The Chinese and South Americans make cheap clothing and grow cheap food for us all, but more Americans are on a treadmill, and education has never, literally never, been half so expensive as it is today. The soldiers of the Second World War bought a relatively just society with their sacrifices, and it is not clear how or if we will rebuild it now.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Civic virtue rears its head, at last

Today’s post will be a two-parter—one on events of the week, one on the changing economics of America over the last 40 years.

This week looms as a turning point in recent history, I think, because four Senators—John McCain, John Warner, Lindsay Graham, and Olympia Snow—defied the president in the Senate Armed Services committee and voted down his plan for military tribunals that could sentence suspected terrorists to death based on secret evidence or evidence obtained through torture, as well as slip the bounds of the Geneva convention. Discontent among Senate Republicans has bee a great deal higher during the last six years than many people know, and in the late summer of 2004 I heard some one in a position to know state that several of them were actively hoping that President Bush would lose. Preserving America as we know it depends upon the emergence of men of principle in times of crisis, and this, at last, is happening now. Colin Powell’s decision to weigh in—reversing a lifetime of loyalty—was another important marker, and I hope that it will be the beginning, not the end, of something. It is interesting, too, to note exactly who the dissenters are.

Two of them, to begin with, are from the older generation. Not the “greatest generation” who actually fought the Second World War—the youngest of them is now 82, and they are almost gone from our public life—but the Silent generation that remembers V-J day from their childhood (McCain and Powell) or made it into the military in the very last stages of the war and usually missed combat (Warner, I believe). They remember the Nuremberg trials, our pride in winning the war and protecting much of the world from Communism, and the postwar consensus. They remember how Vietnam shattered that consensus and earlier in their careers they (especially Powell) did a great deal to keep any more Vietnams from happening. But Powell had no influence, apparently, upon Boomer George W. Bush, whose foreign policy shows the tendency—so characteristic of his, and my, generation—of believing that righteousness enables one to get whatever one wants without paying for it.

It also seems significant that all of them except Snow have a military background. Graham was a military lawyer. Few professions have taken more public heat over the last 40 years than the military and the law, but they are, actually, among the most important in providing the glue that holds a society together. Graham, whom I quoted last week on the nature of the trials the Administration was contemplating, knows that both the nation and the world can only run on rules most people find impartial. And it is the military veterans among us, evidently, not the George W. Bushes and Dick Cheney’s, who understand that the United States will also have prisoners taken in battle—indeed, we may even lose a war once in a while—and we must worry about what is going to happen to them, too. The Boom generation developed its contempt for rules in the late 1960s and many of us have never lost it. The House of Representatives is considerably younger than the Senate, and its Republicans, as far as I can tell, have not produced a single dissenter against what the President is trying to do. (John Murtha, the leading Democratic dissenter, is also a veteran from the Silent generation.)

The Republican defection also has implications for the coming election. Democrats can now brand the Administration as extremist, pointing out that the President’s plan to throw out much of the US Constitution does not command the support of leading figures from his own party. Joe Lieberman’s vote on these proposals will also be of interest. I repeat, by the way, that I think the Democrats have a better chance of winning the Senate than the House. The excellent website electoral-vote.com, which was never far away from my screen during the fall of 2004, shows the Senate emerging as evenly divided based on the latest polls. It also lists key house races but I have not have the time to check, once again, to see how many of them seem genuinely competitive based upon their 2004 results.

Our crisis of civic virtue will not end on January 20, 2009, no matter who is elected upon that day. We are largely divided between activist Republicans who believe virtue consists of ruling the world and paying no taxes, and activist Democrats who believe that it consists in looking after the interests of women and racial and sexual minorities. The need to “bring us together” is a cliché but we are approaching the point at which it will become necessary genuinely to unite 55-60% of the electorate around some important principles, and to put them into action.

That problem will be all the more difficult because of President Bush’s rhetorical commitment to the fantastic project of transforming the Muslim world. As he restates his position again and again, several aspects of it are becoming clear. To begin with, he insists that we judge the danger posed by Islamic extremists based, frankly, upon their dreams. Such logic would have required the western world to undertake a crusade against Bolshevism in 1920 or so—the Soviets, after all, wanted world revolution—but fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. To imply that Osama Bin Laden might actually create a caliphate and eventually re-occupy the Iberian Peninsula can only help his prestige. Secondly, the President can’t avoid letting at least one cat out of the bag from time to time, as when he remarked last week how intolerable it would be to allow Islamic extremists to control oil revenues. And thirdly, the President seems to have concluded that bad news from the Middle East is really good news. Beginning with the Lebanon War, he has suggested that events like Hezbollah’s attacks, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections (although he has never, I think, actually referred to the electoral victory), and the Iraqi insurgency simply show how determined evil Middle Easterners are to stop democracy, and thus vindicate what he is trying to do. James Baker, another member of the Silent generation, has been heading a commission on Iraq policy that has been developing options for the President, reportedly including a withdrawal. The only possible way this might work, in my judgment, would be to persuade the President that we have won in Iraq. That was how his fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson was persuaded to halt the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968 and finally get peace talks going.

Please excuse me for the tease; my essay on changes in our economy since 1965 will have to wait. It involves the execution of a plan I have long thought about—finding out what has become cheaper and what has become more expensive, relatively, in the last 40 years, and trying to figure out what that means. I collected a good deal of data yesterday but I still need some more, and what is above is enough for today. Let me just preview with the statement that the results show a very mixed bag, and confirm the increasing bifurcation of America into the very rich and everyone else.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The ABC Miniseries

The forthcoming ABC documentary on 9/11 represents a turning point in American political life and a touchstone which should help resolve some long-standing controversies about media bias. It also challenges working journalists to uncover some new relationships which are reducing the idea of an independent press to a joke. Its impact upon the forthcoming elections will say a great deal about where we are as a nation, but it might also even have some beneficial legal consequences, even if those will take a great deal of time to develop.

What we have learned about the documentary makes clear that ABC has produced a piece of GOP agitprop that takes breathtaking, scandalous liberties with the facts. These extend even to the staging of incidents that never occurred, most notably, a supposed teleconference between a heroic CIA agent in Afghanistan and the leaders of the Clinton National Security team, who refuse to authorize the capture of a trapped Osama Bin Laden. The docudrama also gratuitously takes the opportunity to revive the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and even to show President Clinton talking about it. The documentary’s chief writer, Cyrus Nowrasteh, turns out to be a politically conservative Iranian-American Muslim who has given his only interview (as far as I can find) to Front Page Magazine, run by David Horowitz, who morphed from sixties radical to militant neocon without changing his essential view of the world. Somehow, Thomas Kean, the former chief of the commission—which prided itself on its bipartisanship while it was working—has been co-opted into this disgrace. ABC claims to be editing the show, but we shall only find out on Sunday and Monday how far the editing has gone.

Now the first, obvious point emerging from all this is the much-noted comparison to the 2003 CBS miniseries, The Reagans. That series drew upon a mixture of known facts (Nancy Reagan’s reliance on astrology, for instance) and Kitty Kelley-type gossip to paint a very unflattering picture of a Republican icon. In response to massive pressure, CBS did not edit the miniseries, it dropped it, showing it on its Showtime cable outlet. If ABC goes ahead and runs this one—and there is nothing to indicate that they will not—it should prove that right-wing pressure on the media is far, far more influential than left-wing pressure, and that the mainstream media, if it ever had a genuine liberal bias, no longer has any at all.

But the second issue is, how did this happen? While I would hope that my readers would know by now that I do not instinctively grasp at conspiracy theories, I do not believe that it could have been chance, absence of mind on the part of the producers, or just good Republican luck that led to the docudrama turning out this way. Disney/ABC are doing an extraordinarily valuable favor the Bush Administration and some mixture of carrots and sticks, in my opinion, must have been deployed to secure this result. Some major newspaper should create a task force of political, entertainment and business reporters to try to find out how all this came about. (P.S.--Blogger Max Blumenthal has done this, impressively. David Horowitz, it seems, is the man behind the project. See http://maxblumenthal.blogspot.com/2006/09/discover-secret-right-wing-network.html .) It is a key step in the Bush Administration’s project: to prove that a corporate media can be as effectively manipulated as an actually controlled one—more so, in fact, since an explicitly state-controlled media inevitably loses more of its credibility than a free one. Unlike major newspapers, none of which is published in a state which Republicans have any chance of carrying anyway, a tv network has a national audience, and thus becomes a key target. In the run-up to the Iraqi war the Administration succeeded in getting even the Washington Post and New York Times thoroughly on board, but now those papers have moved all the way to neutrality or mild hostility. But with ABC endorsing the views of Rush Limbaugh, why should the White House care?

The docudrama obviously plays right into the White House’s election strategy: to argue once again that despite the failure to catch Osama Bin Laden, the catastrophe in Iraq, the manipulation of intelligence (confirmed by a new Senate Committee report, whose sections on the nefarious influence of the Iraqi National Congress were released thanks to two courageous Republican Senators), and the collapse of our moral position in the world, the President deserves support, essentially, because he recognizes that the Muslim world is full of bad guys and needs every tool he can get to fight them. The Administration is firing with all its guns, implying, for instance, in presidential statements last week that we have closed down secret prisons and will no longer use abusive interrogation techniques, only to have newspapers reveal (to those few who read them) that the actual announcements and legislation submitted do no such thing, but rather confer immunity on CIA officers who use waterboarding and other such techniques, and call for trials in which the accused will never see the evidence against him. Once again I note that this is too much even for some Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said, “It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them “ ‘Trust us, you’re guilty, we’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why’? That’s not going to pass muster; that’s not necessary.” Saying one thing while doing another has become second nature. I am very concerned that these tactics, combined with some strategic terror alerts or arrest (and, every likely, a new Osama Bin Laden video, since Bin Laden knows how much good George W. Bush has done his cause), combined with the gerrymandering of the House of Representatives about which I have written before, may actually keep the Republicans in control of the Congress. (Actually, unlike most Democrats, I am more hopeful about regaining control of the Senate than the House.) As I showed a few weeks ago, historically an unpopular Administration in its sixth term would normally lose 40-50 House seats, but there simply are not 40 or 50 seats which the Democrats could possibly win given the gerrymandering that has taken place.

Lastly, however, it seems possible to me that legal action by various Clinton-era officials—which I certainly hope they are threatening and seriously preparing—could actually make the media more accountable once again. Under New York Times vs. Sullivan, law for more than 40 years, only a demonstration of actual malice, not simple falsehood, allows for a finding of libel against a public official. One certainly could argue that to present a highly critical portrayal of officials by staging a meeting that never took place is prima facie evidence of actual malice, but the courts could also go further and make the knowing publication of falsehood sufficient grounds for damages in and of itself. Someone has to do something to restore some respect for truth in our public life. We will need it to cope with real problems down the road.

Postscript: According to news accounts this morning, ABC cut most of the most offensive material, although not all. As usual, financial fears at the top of the network trumped any strong political impulses--and this time, that was a good thing. And even Tom Kean, the former co-chair of the commission who had been a paid consultant on the program, announced that blaming Bill Clinton for 9/11 would be wrong. I can't find any figures as yet on how many people actually watched.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

Preparing for the coming crisis

The current issue of the New York Review of Books, along with the day’s news, includes a great deal more evidence of the political order that has ruled the world for the last sixty years, or, in some cases, more. The process is still only beginning, and things in nearly every continent are likely to get worse, but anyone who dares to look it in the face can, perhaps, begin to grope towards a new approach to American foreign policy, in particular, that might help get through the next twenty years with relatively little dislocation, rather than to descend, once again, into global chaos.

One might begin with Mexico, which slid into a prolonged civil war about 90 years ago, and is therefore, according to Strauss and Howe’s theory, a bit overdue for drastic change. The first indication of such was the election of Vicente Fox and the downfall of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000, a sure sign that the old order was finally dead. Now, six years later, it does not seem too alarmist to suggest that civil war threatens Mexico again. Claiming fraud, narrowly defeated leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to accept his reported defeat by Felipe Calderón, and yesterday prevented Fox from delivering his farewell address in person. López Obrador is calling on his followers, who are already demonstrating in the hundreds of thousands, not to accept the result and has announced he will form a “parallel government.” If widespread violence breaks out the millions of Mexicans living in the United States will almost surely have to take sides, and the Bush Administration will have to try to something to halt the conflict, just as Bush’s fellow promoter of democracy Woodrow Wilson did on the eve of the First World War. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War and the restoration of democracy rather than military rule in most of Latin America has produced a series of leftist regimes, and Hugo Chavez is taking over from the infirm Fidel Castro in organizing a worldwide anti-American coalition. And in Brazil, the police of Sao Paulo seem to be fighting an intermittent guerrilla war with huge criminal gangs--a story that is not getting the attention it would seem to deserve.

Asia remains relatively quiet, but Ian Buruna has a remarkable essay in the New York Review about the growth of aggressive nationalism in China, South Korea, and Japan. While the Chinese are protesting Japanese atrocities that began 66 years ago more loudly than ever, a growing movement among post-war Japanese is trying to throw off the guilt of the war, and even to argue that Koreans should be more grateful for the benefits of Japanese colonialism. This seems once again to be a generational effect. Those Japanese old enough to remember the war and the atomic bombs knew at some level what their leaders had done to them, but their children, who grew up in prosperity, have lost sight of it. Of course, sixty years of coexistence have done little to reconcile India and Pakistan, either.

In Africa civil war is threatening once again to break out in the Sudan and Somalia is riven by conflicts among militias, some of them fundamentalist. Nigeria remains a dictatorship and the Congo, surely one of the most unfortunate regions of the world during the last 150 years, suffers from civil war. Since so much of Africa has been independent for less than 50 years its great crises may still lie ahead, but there is relatively little reason for optimism.

Eastern Europe, in a sense, has something to cheer about. Its new crisis begin around 1990 with the collapse of Communism, and with the major exception of the terrible civil war in Yugoslavia it has reshaped itself with remarkably little bloodshed. In the former Soviet Union itself the war in Chechnya was a great tragedy, but seldom if ever has an old and huge empire given way with so little bloodshed. Russia is, to be sure, evolving into a new kind of authoritarian state rather than a democracy, and President Putin would like to restore Russian influence in some of the new republics, but he shows no sign of going on a military crusade of which Russian forces are almost certainly incapable anyway.

In the Middle East, of course, the collapse of the old order has been accelerated by American foreign policy, which has contributed significantly to recent events in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories, and most of all, in Iraq. Washington is waging a cold war with Iran that threatens to become a hot one. Statements by world leaders over the last days, however, suggest that Washington will have to go it alone if it chooses to attack Iran. The Russians have specifically rejected sanctions against Iran because they look too much like the prelude to armed conflict, and some Europeans have been quoted along the same lines. That, no doubt, will lead to more Washington backgrounders explaining how the United States must act precisely because no one else will, but cooler heads inside the Beltway might yet prevail.

Europe remains committed to international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. That is natural. No region had risen so high, and none fell so far, as Europe during the twentieth century, and memories of the aftermath of the Second World War, if not the war itself, are still fresh among much of Europe’s leadership. There, too, however, the shibboleths of the postwar period are breaking down, as the French and Dutch rejections of the new European constitution showed last year. And Europe faces a potentially terrible problem among its Muslim populations, many of whom will almost surely side with Islam against the West if the armed clash of civilizations in the Middle East continues.

In the midst of growing instability the government of the US, tragically, is threatening to accelerate the collapse of world order by attempting to solve more and more problems by force. As I have remarked many times before, this is an extraordinarily risky step for the most globalized and richest nation in the world to take—which is why the British, during the 150 or so years when they occupied that position, tried to avoid general war as much as possible. The last six years have vastly increased our economic vulnerability, worn out our military, and devastated our standing around the world. Here as in so many areas of American life, the Boom generation has thrown out its parents’ legacy. The enormous gulf between the philosophies of the two Presidents Bush symbolizes something much bigger.

The attempt to create paradise on earth by spreading democracy and capitalism around the globe, it seems to me, is failing spectacularly, just as it did in the 1920s. It surely is not too late for the United States to reverse course, although I do not believe that will happen until a new Administration comes to power. Here are, it seems to me, a few steps it might take—some of them largely rhetorical, but potentially critical all the same—to try not only to restore our prestige, but more importantly to help the world through a difficult passage in the same way that certain European and American statesmen managed to do in the 1860-80 period, thereby avoiding a major European and world conflagration along the lines of 1791-1815 or 1914-45.

First, it seems to me, should come a reaffirmation that the international system should allow nations with different values to live together in peace—including both socialists (who are far from extinct) and Islamic fundamentalists. The fiction that we can solve the world’s problems by spreading democracy at the point of precision-guided munitions is too expensive to maintain any longer. The Muslim world needs to move towards modernity, but our attempts to force it to do so are having the opposite effect. Such a course would also allow us to reinvigorate the United Nations, whose supervision our current government has already evaded and would like permanently to escape on the grounds that so many of its members do not share our values. We should realize that differences in values are what require us to have a United Nations in the first place. Within that framework, terrorism, which ultimately threatens every constituted authority, can more successfully be fought.

Second, rather than trying to solve the non-proliferation problem by wiping out hostile regimes (and thereby accelerating nuclear programs by every government the United States opposes), we should attempt to reverse proliferation on the only possible basis: a commitment in principle to do away with nuclear weapons altogether, combined with specific proposals for deep cuts in existing arsenals. Hardly anyone one realizes this, but we have actually been committed to this course for almost 40 years under the Non-proliferation treaty which we are now accusing the Iranians of violating. The possible abolition of nuclear weapons presents great technical problems, but they would be easier to solve, surely, than the problems created by actual nuclear wars. While we may never reach that goal, it is the only basis on which international cooperation to control these weapons, in my opinion, can possibly be achieved.

Thirdly, we should once again affirm that the most desperate need of all the peoples of the world is peace to enable them to work, eat, and pursue worthwhile lives. That would mean, among other things, an end to the practice of punishing the citizens of countries whose governments we oppose by economic embargoes. The no-war, no-peace policies that the United States has pursued against Cuba for forty-five years and against Iran for twenty-seven have been much worse than useless. Economic sanctions have almost never brought about a worthwhile political result.

Fourthly—and here the news from California offers some real hope—we should reverse our position on global warming, and make a real effort to develop new renewable energy sources as an alternative to a new neo-imperialistic struggle among the major industrial powers to control the world’s petroleum reserves.

And lastly, the United States might invite other leading democratic nations to convene a panel of experts to design a cheap, reliable and totally secure system of voting, one that uses modern technology when appropriate but not in any way that will undermine confidence in the voting process. Democracy will not ultimately survive too many elections like the United States's in 2000 and 2004 and Mexico's this year.


Such proposals will not stop conflict in many areas of the world during the next twenty years. They could, however, moderate it, especially by establishing the United States as a genuine force for peace capable, as George F. Kennan once wrote, of “creat[ing] among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” Equally importantly, if a genuine military threat to the safety of critical areas of the world truly emerges, those values, like those enunciated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1940-1, could provide the foundation for the great coalition that once again would be required to meet it. The Bush Administration’s policies are losing favor not only with world opinion but also, according to polls, with the American people, but so far the Democrats have been unable to formulate any clear alternatives. Here are some suggestions.