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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Al-Jazeera and the Administration

A new post on the Iraq war appears below. Meanwhile, the British Observer has printed an extraordinary story relating not only to the leaked memo of an April 2004 George W. Bush-Tony Blair conversation in which the President discussed bombing Al-Jazeera, but to the US attitude towards the network more generally. It can be found at:

I highly recommend it.

Facts about Iraq

A number of books are coming out about Iraq, and following the advice of Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson, I got George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate from my library system and read it over the weekend. Packer, a New Yorker reporter, has made numerous trips to Iraq over the last three years, and his account is poignant, as well as rich in detail, because he acknowledges that he idealistically favored the war in 2002-3, largely because of contacts with an inspiring Iraqi exile. His hopes, however, seem nearly dead as one finishes the book, all the more so in light of the events of the last six months. In general, the book suggests that the Administration, having adopted a spectacularly optimistic set of assumptions, has never had the curiosity or the patience to find out what Iraq is really about. Like many original supporters of the war—of which I was not one—Packer likes to blame our current situation on planning failures. Certainly those made matters work, but much of his evidence suggests to me, at least, that our vision of a new Iraq never had much chance of coming to fruition, and that the Iraqi people are doomed to suffer even more, with our without our presence, for a long time to come.

Packer, to begin with, does the best job that I have seen of explaining the baneful intellectual effects of Leo Strauss and neoconservatism on the process that led to the war. In my experience Straussians tend to believe that they can prove they are smarter than normal people like you and me by claiming that source materials mean more or less the opposite of what they say, and Packer shows that this is related to a belief that intuition and basic insights are more important than facts. This in turn accounts for the deep distrust of Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld for the State Department and the CIA, which goes back to the 1970s when these agencies, in their view, underestimated the Soviet threat. (Nor have they been deterred by being proven wrong. Packer is no friend of Perle, but he, like every other journalist I have noticed writing about the man, never mentions that Perle in the 1970s and 1980s was certain that the Soviet Union had a second set of nuclear missiles all ready to reload into empty silos and fire after their first strike. The end of the Cold War proved this a fantasy, but no one seems to care.) Diplomats and intelligence agencies draw conclusions based on hard data, but Straussians, as Packer shows, find it more important to understand the “essence” of a regime. “A new method [of intelligence analysis] was urgently needed,” Packer writes, “starting with the higher insights of political philosophy rather than evidence from the fallen world of social science.” Because Saddam was a totalitarian, he was sure to want weapons of mass destruction to use against the US sooner or later—his lack of a stockpile is irrelevant. Such “insights” can have bizarre consequences. Packer mentions one Administration figure—unidentified—who decided that Shi’ites and Jews could work together in the Middle East after discovering that both his own Rabbi and Shi’ite clerics felt that fertility treatments did not violate religious law. He also mentions that one Administration neocons—unnamed—actually discussed a solution to the problems of the Middle East, based upon the principle of “everybody moves over one.” Israel would annex the West Bank, Jordan would become a Palestinian state, and the Hashemite dynasty would return to a new, pro-western Iraq! On such foundations, apparently, is our attempt to transform the Middle East built.

More frightening is the Administration’s failure to grasp how wrong they had been. In early June 2003, Jake Garner, who had briefly headed the American occupation, returned to Washington with a hopeful memorandum for the President, whom he met for 45 minutes of small talk. “You want to do Iran for the next one?” the President asked him as he left. “No sir,” the retired Lt. General replied, “me and the boys are holding out for Cuba.” The Administration had taken to heart the accounts of exiles, some of whom hadn’t lived in Iraq for decades, that described the most westernized, culturally relaxed nation in the region—accounts which were both exaggerated and, crucially, several decades out of date. Both Shi’ites and Sunnis had become far more religious, the latter, after 1991, with Saddam’s encouragement. Packer himself was shocked on an early visit to meet a doctor and former Ba’athist who argued that his party had initially been a force for good. When Packer reminded him that the regime had opened its tenure in 1969 by hanging seventeen Iraqis, thirteen of them Jewish, in public on trumped-up charges, the doctor replied that they were spies, and that “Any patriotic system would have done the same.” That was one of Packer’s wake-up calls. To paraphrase a postmodernist tenet, Iraqi and American reality, it turns out, never coincide and very rarely intersect.

Into this situation came the Coalition Provisional Authority, staffed in part by young Republican ideologues from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute with no knowledge of the Middle East, much less Arabic. Few of them stayed very long, and their plans for Iraq drew on elements of contemporary conservative economic though like a flat tax and rapid privatization. Meanwhile, the Americans could not (and still cannot) fix Iraq’s electrical grid or repair its water supply. The insurgency took off during 2004, and relations between American soldiers and ordinary Iraqis, Packer found, deteriorated rapidly. Trying to use tips from locals to catch insurgents, the Americans often found they had been taken advantage of, thrown into the midst of local feuds. Oddly, Packer himself shows some typically American insensitivity at times. While he likes and truly wants to understand the Iraqis, he can’t stop himself from telling sexual jokes that seem to fall very flat. Detention, to judge from recent New York Times reports, has become an even bigger part of our strategy during 2005, and no one has any idea how many of the prisoners were truly insurgents, much less what shall be done with them now.

Most serious are the divisions among the Iraqis themselves, which seem far, far more likely to lead to a three-way civil war than to any western-style pluralistic democracy. (We should, alas, not be surprised; as I plan to discuss soon in another post, we are seeing the recrudescence of ethnic and national feeling, the scourge of the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, for which, alas, humanity has found no solution.) The Iraqi people are physically and emotionally traumatized by three decades of totalitarianism, three major wars, twelve years of sanctions, and three years of post-invasion chaos. They have no trust beyond their family, their tribe, and their religious/ethnic group. Shi’ites and Kurds are determined upon concrete revenge, while Sunnis cannot grasp the idea of an Iraq in which they do not rule. This has already led, in Kirkuk, to the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Sunnis whom Saddam planted there to control the Kurds, and as the New York Times reported last Sunday, it is leading to informal population exchanges between Shi’ite and Sunni towns in the south and central regions. Today Packer’s book was finished before Iraqis adopted their new constitution, but he cannot have been surprised that it provides, essentially, for quasi-independent Kurdish and Shi’ite states in the north and south, an option which the Sunnis decisively rejected in the recent vote.

Just this morning, the secular Shi’ite Ayad Allawi, a former US protégé and Prime Minister, gave a chilling interview to the British Observer in response to the recent discovery of a packed torture chamber in Baghdad. “'People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse,' Allawi said. 'It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.'

“In a damning and wide-ranging indictment of Iraq's escalating human rights catastrophe, Allawi accused fellow Shias in the government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centers. The brutality of elements in the new security forces rivals that of Saddam's secret police, he said.” (Reproduced for non-commercial-use only.)

This is the situation within which the United States, as James Fallows discusses in the current Atlantic, is trying to build an Iraqi army. The mission, as Fallows notes, is one that the American military has never valued very highly, and our first year of efforts got us nowhere. Even now we are making no effort to set up logistical units that will allow the new Army to take care of itself, and we are unwilling to give them sophisticated weapons for fear of what might happen to them. Fallows concludes that hundreds, perhaps thousands of American soldiers would have to agree to remain in Iraq indefinitely (rather like British subalterns in India) to give the effort any chance of success, and he does not see much chance of that happening.

An excellent web site that has been counting coalition casualties since the beginning of the war-- http://icasualties.org/oif/ -- has just begun listing Iraqi military, police and civilian casualties as well. Their figures—which they acknowledge are inevitably rough—show about 2400 military and police and 5400 hundred civilians killed during 2005. The number of uniformed Iraqi deaths has actually been falling over the last four months, from a high of 304 in July to less than 200 this month, but it obviously remains high, and shows an effective insurgency. A recent New York Times story quoted US military sources to the effect that insurgent attacks were still increasing, and US killed in action this month seem likely to top 80 for the third month out of four.

Congressman John Murtha generated enormous publicity two weeks ago by calling for the withdrawal of American forces. Less noticed was his trenchant survey of the military situation in Iraq, an account apparently based upon his conversations with American military leaders.

"I just recently visited Anbar Province Iraq in order to assess the conditions on the ground. Last May 2005, as part of the Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill, the House included the Moran Amendment, which was accepted in Conference, and which required the Secretary of Defense to submit quarterly reports to Congress in order to more accurately measure stability and security in Iraq. We have now received two reports. I am disturbed by the findings in key indicator areas. Oil production and energy production are below pre-war levels. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of the $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment remains at about 60 percent. Clean water is scarce. Only $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects has been spent. And most importantly, insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to over 700 in the last year. Instead of attacks going down over time and with the addition of more troops, attacks have grown dramatically. Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled. An annual State Department report in 2004 indicated a sharp increase in global terrorism."

Teaching courses involving insurgency, I have sometimes put forth “Kaiser’s Law,” which holds that by the time an insurgency reaches the front pages of the New York Times it is probably too late to think about defeating it completely. That does not say anything about the justice of the insurgency—unfortunately, as Charles A. Beard wrote many years ago, history proves there is no correlation between the justice of a cause and men’s willingness to die for it. It simply means that an insurgency that big has mobilized a great deal of passion—often, nearly pure hatred—that it has achieved some organizational success, and that it will not easily go away in the face of a sophisticated military effort. The most important passions motivating the Iraqis, Packer’s work suggests, are ethnic vengeance, a fear of the erosion of Muslim values (independent women, it is clear, are increasingly at risk in much of Iraq), an obsession with honor fueled by the inevitable mistakes of the American occupiers, and a paranoid distrust of Israel and the United States, seen for almost 40 years as close allies. (It is another sad implication of the book that the creation of Israel was in a real sense a setback for the Arab states, whose Jewish communities were one of their most progressive elements.) Today’s newspapers confirm much of this story.

With President Bush’s approval ratings falling and Congressional Republicans showing signs of desperation, the papers also play up speculation that we will shortly start to reduce our presence. The example of Vietnam suggests that such steps will be accompanied by declarations of victory. Once the United States government has gone to war for its objectives, it never acknowledges that they might not be met. New documentation shows that when President Johnson finally halted the bombing of North Vietnam and agreed to peace talks in the first week of November 1968, he did so because Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk had convinced him that the United States had won the war and North Vietnam was ready to quit. President Nixon accompanied every withdrawal with claims that “Vietnamization” had succeeded, and after he had finally signed an agreement that gave the Viet Cong and the Saigon government equal status within South Vietnam, he called it “Peace with Honor.” Now, of course, most neoconservatives will wisely explain that we really won in Vietnam, but the Congress stabbed the South in the back. (This process, too, has already begun; various neocons have already gone on record that the real failure in Iraq took place in 1991, when the first Bush Administration lacked the nerve to go to Baghdad, or that we should have allowed our favorite Achmed Chalabi to train more troops.) This is one of the worst long-term consequences of any misadventure abroad—the increased distortion of reality occasioned by our chronic inability to admit that we had been wrong.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Evolution of American Foreign Policy

One of the great dramas of the twentieth century involved the redefinition of the United States’ role in the world. The US had isolated itself from European quarrels from 1815 to 1915—although the Northern victory in the civil war had an enormous influence upon the advent of democracy in Britain in 1867, and probably in Germany and France as well. In 1898 the US joined the imperialist scramble after the war with Spain, acquiring the Philippines and proclaiming influence over Cuba and new, special rights in Latin America. But as late as 1915, when the sinking of the Lusitania first threatened to draw the US into war with Germany, the issue remained violently controversial. When President Wilson announced that he would hold the Germans to a “strict accountability” for any further such outrages, his Secretary of State, three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, resigned. Wilson’s stance, he said, would inevitably draw America into the war, and the government should instead simply tell American citizens that henceforth they could travel to Europe at their own risk.

Already, however, as Charles A. Beard pointed out during the 1930s, some American politicians—mostly Republicans—had laid out new principles that would give the United States a kind of dominion over the entire globe, based on our economic needs. One such was Senator Albert Beveridge, a famous Progressive, who essentially adopted approvingly the same thesis that the liberal J. A. Hobson and the Bolshevik Lenin were developing from a critical perspective—that the demands of capitalism required economic expansion. Around the turn of the century Beveridge stated the case thusly:

“American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours. And we will get it as our mother [England] has told us how. We will establish trading-posts throughout the world as distributing-points for American products. We will cover the ocean with our merchant marine. We will build a navy to the measure of our greatness. Great colonies governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade. Our institutions will follow our flag on the wings of our commerce. And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.”

Interestingly enough, the idea that the spread of our economy can spread our values survives today in the belief that free markets and democracy go together. In other ways, however, our economic needs have changed. We no longer produce surpluses—indeed, we make, and grow, less and less of what we consume every year. Our trade deficit is enormous and unprecedented. Our corporations require free access to the rest of the world—and especially its poorer parts—not to sell goods, but to invest capital where wages are low, hours are long, and environmental regulations hardly exist. And meanwhile, we depend on imported oil, a dependency which has gradually led us deeper and deeper into the affairs of the Middle East, where so much of the world’s oil is located. Indeed, one could easily argue that since the 1973 embargo and the accompanying price rise, much of our foreign policy has been devoted to making sure that Middle Eastern states spent their oil revenues in ways we found congenial, such as construction contracts with American firms, investments in American debt, and weapons that they would use only to further American interests. Our long quarrel with Saddam Hussein, one might suggest, began in 1990 when he proved that we could no longer trust him, and the Bush Administration decided to overthrow him because it was becoming harder and harder to maintain sanctions and they did not believe they could prevent him from spending his revenues on support for terrorism (as he was in Palestine) and potentially on new weapons of mass destruction.

When President Wilson did decide to enter the First World War, he made the promotion of democracy his most important war aim, and endorsed the idea that a democracy in Germany would be more pacific than its existing constitutional monarchy. Not only were those hopes dashed when the Nazis eventually took power largely through democratic means, but Beveridge’s vision of an open international order collapsed during the 1920s and 1930s as well.

When the Second World War began, Franklin Roosevelt quickly identified the Axis as a worldwide threat to American values and interests. In a political master stroke, he defined American and British war aims before the United States had even entered the war, in the Atlantic Charter he issued with Winston Churchill in August, 1941.

“The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

“First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

“Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

“Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

“Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

“Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

“Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

“Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

“Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.”

In 1945 these principles became, in essence, the founding principles of the United Nations. Perhaps their most striking emphasis is the independence of various states and their right to choose their own form of government. They include economic liberalization, but they specifically link it to improved labor conditions and social security. And they propose the disarmament of the aggressors and the gradual disarmament of other states as well as the long-term solution to the problem of war and peace. Because Europe has never abandoned these principles, Europe and the United States are now on different paths. This is especially true in the economic field. The American business press routinely criticizes the European nations for failing to get with the program and use international competition to force European labor to give up the gains it has made over the last 50 years. Indeed, the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe now threatens to have that impact.

It seems to me possible that a Democratic presidential candidate might take the Atlantic Charter as a starting point for a more reasonable foreign policy of his own, but meanwhile, we have moved in quite a different direction. A tolerant world based on mutual respect is no long enough. Here, once again, is the opening of the new National Security Strategy that the Bush Administration adopted in 2002.

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.

“Today, the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence. In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty. In a world that is safe, people will be able to make their own lives better. We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”

Instead of respecting “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” we now proclaim that we know what form of government that should be. Instead of increasing social security and pushing for “improved labor standards,” we now simply endorse peoples’ right “to enjoy the benefits of their labor”—especially, if the Administration’s tax policies are any guide, better-off people. And instead of looking forward to disarmament around the world, we boast of our military superiority and the benefits it should bring, and announce that we shall simply disarm any nation that seeks weapons we do not think it should have. The phrase, “a balance of power that favors human freedom,” seems somewhat anomalous within the broader document, and probably represented a concession to the Department of State. Balance implies opposition, and the basic documents of this Administration leave little room for opposition.

In his inaugural address last January the President laid out even more sweeping goals.

“The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause.

“My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve, and have found it firm.

“We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.

“We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”

This was not simply idle rhetoric. Led by the new Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, Administration officials now travel the globe lecturing other states for failing to live up to our standards. This does not seem to be improving our standing worldwide very much. The Secretary suffered a setback this weekend, when the Egyptian government prevented a conference of Arab states from adopting a joint declaration on democracy and a plan for subsidizing democratic groups. And the President found on his trip to Latin America that anti-Americanism apparently has more resonance to the South than his own plan for extending NAFTA across the entire hemisphere. The rhetoric seems more idle, or empty, when compared to what is happening here in the United States, where the President refuses to allow anyone who might disagree with him into his public appearances and the government releases less public information than any Administration in history.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the introduction of democracy—or at least, elections—has had some paradoxical effects. The elections have allowed the Kurds and Shi’ites to take giant steps towards setting up at least semi-independent states in the north and south of Iraq—but they have done nothing to convince the Sunnis, who ruled a united Iraq for 80 years, that the country should dissolve. Civil war and ethnic cleansing have already begun. The influence of fundamentalist Islam is increasing, rather than decreasing.

In continually attempting to extend its power further and further, the United States is following in the path of nearly every great empire, including Athens, Rome, Napoleonic France, and Imperial Germany. (Britain was somewhat exceptional because of its lack of a large army—and Britain did not entertain the fantasy that it could extend its power by extending British institutions all over the world.) Each of those nations also entertained some version of the idea embodied in the National Security Strategy, that it was destined to continue expanding because it had discovered some fundamental secret of life. But each one (and here again Britain was the exception) eventually came to grief as a result of diplomatic and military catastrophe. Our own need to adjust our goals to more reasonable levels before we encounter something similar is among the greatest challenges of our entire history.

P.S. Next weekend I shall be attending a conference in Dallas on the Kennedy Assassination, the subject of my next book, and will not have an opportunity to post. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Information Warfare at the White House

As regular readers know, I almost never post during the week, but I have just been sitting here reading Scott McClellan's last two briefings, and they raise profound questions about whether America can in fact be governed by an Administration that refuses to admit basic facts both about what it is doing, and what is happening in the world. Since I know few people subject themselves to the briefings, I am going to quote at some length.

The first exchange, from yesterday, involves torture. As most people surely know, memos have been written in this Administration arguing that the President has the power to order anything, and specifically arguing that torture only involves life-threatening acts. Meanwhile, a number of prisoners have in fact died in US custody, and the New Yorker has an excellent article about one such case this week. That article points out that the Administration has refused to let the Senate see the memo that specifies what is allowed and what isn't for many months. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner himself, as secured the assent of 90 Senators for an absolute ban, but as has been reported many times, Vice President Cheney is insisting that the CIA be exempt from it.

Here is how McClellan handled questions on this topic yesterday.

Q I'd like you to clear up, once and for all, the ambiguity about torture. Can we get a straight answer? The President says we don't do torture, but Cheney --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's about as straight as it can be.
Q Yes, but Cheney has gone to the Senate and asked for an exemption on --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, he has not. Are you claiming he's asked for an exemption on torture? No, that's --
Q He did not ask for that?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- that is inaccurate.
Q Are you denying everything that came from the Hill, in terms of torture?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, you're mischaracterizing things. And I'm not going to get into discussions we have --
Q Can you give me a straight answer for once?
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me give it to you, just like the President has. We do not torture. He does not condone torture and he would never --
Q I'm asking about exemptions.
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me respond. And he would never authorize the use of torture. We have an obligation to do all that we can to protect the American people. We are engaged --
Q That's not the answer I'm asking for --
MR. McCLELLAN: It is an answer -- because the American people want to know that we are doing all within our power to prevent terrorist attacks from happening. There are people in this world who want to spread a hateful ideology that is based on killing innocent men, women and children. We saw what they can do on September 11th --
Q He didn't ask for an exemption --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we are going to --
Q -- answer that one question. I'm asking, is the administration asking for an exemption?
MR. McCLELLAN: I am answering your question. The President has made it very clear that we are going to do --
Q You're not answering -- yes or no?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, you don't want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen, and I'm going to tell them the facts.
Q -- the American people every day. I'm asking you, yes or no, did we ask for an exemption?
MR. McCLELLAN: And let me respond. You've had your opportunity to ask the question. Now I'm going to respond to it.
Q If you could answer in a straight way.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I'm going to answer it, just like the President -- I just did, and the President has answered it numerous times.
Q -- yes or no --
MR. McCLELLAN: Our most important responsibility is to protect the American people. We are engaged in a global war against Islamic radicals who are intent on spreading a hateful ideology, and intent on killing innocent men, women and children.
Q Did we ask for an exemption?
MR. McCLELLAN: We are going to do what is necessary to protect the American people.
Q Is that the answer?
MR. McCLELLAN: We are also going to do so in a way that adheres to our laws and to our values. We have made that very clear. The President directed everybody within this government that we do not engage in torture. We will not torture. He made that very clear.
Q Are you denying we asked for an exemption?
MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, we will continue to work with the Congress on the issue that you brought up. The way you characterize it, that we're asking for exemption from torture, is just flat-out false, because there are laws that are on the books that prohibit the use of torture. And we adhere to those laws.
Q We did ask for an exemption; is that right? I mean, be simple -- this is a very simple question.
MR. McCLELLAN: I just answered your question. The President answered it last week.
Q What are we asking for?
Q Would you characterize what we're asking for?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're asking to do what is necessary to protect the American people in a way that is consistent with our laws and our treaty obligations. And that's what we --
Q Why does the CIA need an exemption from the military?
MR. McCLELLAN: David, let's talk about people that you're talking about who have been brought to justice and captured. You're talking about people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad; people like Abu Zubaydah.
Q I'm asking you --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, this is facts about what you're talking about.
Q Why does the CIA need an exemption from rules that would govern the conduct of our military in interrogation practices?
MR. McCLELLAN: There are already laws and rules that are on the books, and we follow those laws and rules. What we need to make sure is that we are able to carry out the war on terrorism as effectively as possible, not only --
Q What does that mean --
MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm telling you right now -- not only to protect Americans from an attack, but to prevent an attack from happening in the first place. And, you bet, when we capture terrorist leaders, we are going to seek to find out information that will protect -- that prevent attacks from happening in the first place. But we have an obligation to do so. Our military knows this; all people within the United States government know this. We have an obligation to do so in a way that is consistent with our laws and values.
Now, the people that you are bringing up -- you're talking about in the context, and I think it's important for the American people to know, are people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh -- these are -- these are dangerous killers.
Q So they're all killers --
Q Did you ask for an exemption on torture? That's a simple question, yes or no.
MR. McCLELLAN: No. And we have not. That's what I told you at the beginning.
Q You want to reserve the ability to use tougher tactics with those individuals who you mentioned.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, obviously, you have a different view from the American people. I think the American people understand the importance of doing everything within our power and within our laws to protect the American people.
Q Scott, are you saying that Cheney did not ask --
Q What is it that you want the -- what is it that you want the CIA to be able to do that the U.S. Armed Forces are not allowed to do?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into talking about national security matters, Bill. I don't do that, because this involves --
Q This would be the exemption, in other words.
MR. McCLELLAN: This involves information that relates to doing all we can to protect the American people. And if you have a different view -- obviously, some of you on this room -- in this room have a different view, some of you on the front row have a different view.
Q We simply are asking a question.
Q What is the Vice President -- what is the Vice President asking for?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's spelled out in our statement of administration policy in terms of what our views are. That's very public information. In terms of our discussions with members of Congress --
Q -- no, it's not --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of our members -- like I said, there are already laws on the books that we have to adhere to and abide by, and we do. And we believe that those laws and those obligations address these issues.
Q So then why is the Vice President continuing to lobby on this issue? If you're very happy with the laws on the books, what needs change?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you asked me -- you want to ask questions of the Vice President's office, feel free to do that. We've made our position very clear, and it's spelled out on our website for everybody to see.
Q We don't need a website, we need you from the podium.
MR. McCLELLAN: And what I just told you is what our view is.
Q But Scott, do you see the contradiction --
MR. McCLELLAN: Jessica, go ahead.

Translating into meaningful English, one has to note that the White House already has legal opinions written by John Woo, then of the Justice Department, now a law professor, that the President isn't bound by any laws during wartime. And as I already noted, Administration memoranda have argued that anything that isn't likely to be fatal isn't torture. When McClellan says we don't do torture, he means, presumably, that we don't do murder. When he refers to famous Al Queda captives, he apparently indicates the people to whom we do everything but.

On another subject:

Q Can I ask you on a different topic, on politics -- the Democrats are looking at the results on Election Night yesterday and saying this is an indication that the President is really unpopular and is a drag on the Republican Party now, going into midterm elections.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure they're going to say a lot of things like that, but I think the facts say otherwise. I don't think any thorough analysis of the election results will show that the elections were decided on anything other than local and state issues and the candidates and their agendas. That's what I think. And I think that if you look at the facts, that bears that out.
The results in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, which I believe you're talking about, those are the same results that occurred in 2001, although I think they may have been smaller margins of victory for the Democratic candidates. And in Virginia, for instance, you had a candidate, Democratic candidate for governor who ran on a conservative platform, a platform that was very much out of line with the Democratic National Party.

. . . . . . . .

Q You're not in denial here? I mean, the President has got his lowest job approval ratings in his presidency. Do you not acknowledge that that's not, as Secretary Rumsfeld would say, not exactly helpful to Republicans?
MR. McCLELLAN: We have a proud record of accomplishment and a positive agenda for the future. And we look forward to continuing to talk about it.
Q -- the public doesn't agree with --
MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, you can get caught up in polls; we don't. Polls are snapshots in time. The President is someone who is --
Q It's quite a snapshot --
MR. McCLELLAN: But let me mention -- let's look at the facts. The President is a strong leader who addresses big challenges and who thinks long-term. That's what the American people want, someone who's going to go after the big issues facing this country, and the issues that the American people care most about, and solve those challenges.
Q So the President is not a drag on the Republican Party?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you see Republicans that are looking forward to the President coming to campaign for them. And we are going to support those who -- who share the President's vision for the future. That's what our party is about. And the President looks forward to helping people next year.

I shall leave the broader issues raised by these statements for another time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

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Dear Readers,

Thanks to a very helpful fan, you may now sign up for a bloglet email subscription to History Unfolding at the bottom of the page. (On Internet Explorer, anyway; on netscape I think it's at the top of the page. If anyone can tell me how to move the profile, etc., to the top for Explorer, I'd appreciate that, too.)

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Enjoy, and keep viewing!

David Kaiser

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Signs of a New Gilded Age

Since the dawn of the American Republic, the United States has intermittently struggled with the problem of combining political democracy with some kind of economic justice. Any success has inevitably been limited. As Communist nations have now proven, states cannot level the economic playing field for more than a generation, and the costs of even attempting to do so are too high. But during certain eras of American history we have attempted to moderate extremes of wealth and poverty and give everyone the promise of a better life. In the early Republic, expansion into the Midwest offered new land that could increase the numbers of small farmers. In the Jacksonian era, the Democratic party began, ineptly to be sure, to grapple with the power of organized finance. (Ironically, while Jackson at the time claimed to be helping the common man by killing the United States bank, and while subsequent historians blamed the panic of 1837 on him, a relatively recent book by Peter Temin showed that neither Jackson nor the Bank had much to do with that panic.) By the 1850s rising industrialization was creating new extremes of wealth and poverty, but as it turned out, the country spent decades of accumulated moral energy upon the Civil War, and did not have enough left to make emancipation and Reconstruction work, much less tackle new and more complicated issues, when the war was over. The Progressive Era put economic issues back in the forefront of political life, but the First World War killed them once again, and by 1928 corporate America seemed more securely in the saddle than ever.

Only the complete breakdown of our agricultural and industrial economy from 1929 through 1933 forced the government to take a much greater part. Franklin Roosevelt was no ideologue and did not campaign in 1932 for a vastly increased government role, but circumstances forced him to insure the national banking system, attempt to plan both agriculture (in the AAA) and industry (the NRA), and regulate the stock market with the SEC. The TVA put the government in charge of taming a great river and distributing the electric power it could generate. Meanwhile, the hardship of the depression--which struck both the working and middle classes very hard--created a constituency for wages and hours laws and social security. Most importantly of all, militant labor managed to organize the country's basic industries, laying the foundation for a prosperous working class in the postwar period. One cannot be at all sure how long any of this would have lasted, however, without the Second World War.

Ten million men were mobilized to fight that war--a figure that today staggers the imagination. Several hundred thousand of them never returned, and well over a million were wounded. Rare indeed were families untouched by this crisis. And the veterans returned home with aspirations for a good job, a new home, and a wife and healthy, well-educated children that simply could not be denied. In the late 1940s Democrats and Republicans competed to provide the veterans with new homes and 4% mortgages. The tax code treated young families with children (and the average number of children was about 2.5) very generously, and marginal tax rates for higher incomes reached 90%. (That is not a typo.) Those rates lasted until 1964, when a Democratic Administration began to roll them back on Keynesian grounds. John Kenneth Galbraith was virtually the only dissenter. Here is a table of tax rates for married couples during the 1950s:

Individual Income Tax Parameters
Married Filing Jointly

Taxable Income Rate
$0 - $4,000 20.0%
$4,000 - $8,000 22.0%
$8,000 -$12,000 26.0%
$12,000 - $16,000 30.0%
$16,000 - $20,000 34.0%
$20,000 - $24,000 38.0%
$24,000 - $28,000 43.0%
$28,000 - $32,000 47.0%
$32,000 - $36,000 50.0%
$36,000 - $40,000 53.0%
$40,000 - $44,000 56.0%
$44,000 - $52,000 59.0%
$52,000 - $64,000 62.0%
$64,000 - $76,000 65.0%
$76,000 - $88,000 69.0%
$88,000 - $100,000 72.0%
$100,000 - $120,000 75.0%
$120,000 - $140,000 78.0%
$140,000 - $160,000 81.0%
$160,000 - $180,000 84.0%
$180,000 - $200,000 87.0%
$200,000 -$300,000 89.0%
$300,000 -$400,000 90.0%
$400,000 - and over 91.0%

I have wanted to dig up those figures for many months, and now that I have, even I am stunned. Let us keep one thing in mind--these are marginal rates, not overall rates--the same system still in effect. Some controls are also in order. Since 1962 prices have increased more than sixfold, and the 22% rate at the bottom of the table applied, therefore, to incomes equivalent to $25-50,000 in today's dollars. The payroll tax was also much lower. Still, these figures are staggering. Were equivalent rates in effect today, the IRS would start picking up half our income when it reached $200,000 a year. And suppose that today $.90 of every dollar of Alex Rodriguez' salary over $2.5 million went to the federal government? Without getting too personal, on the other hand, I myself seem to be paying only slightly less than I would have then, at constant dollars. Having gotten this far, I now plan a much more detailed analysis, but I'll stop here for now.

Those who feel as I do that that era was a more economically just one--and who also remember that economic growth was probably MORE robust then, despite the supposedly negative impact of high upper-income tax rates--must ask themselves what it would take to return to a system like that one. Historically, I am afraid, the answer seems to be that nothing short of another huge war with extraordinary sacrifices would do the trick. Since today casualties are about 1% of what they were then and we have no draft, that seems most unlikely. Nor would I personally favor the drafting of 5-10 million men to try to occupy a large swathe of the Muslim world, which would be their most likely use right now. Still, if an analysis did show that overall, the middle classes were paying taxes just as high as they paid in the 1950s while the upper classes are paying perhaps 1/2 as much, one could perhaps get some political capital out of that finding.

In any case--where are we going today? A few news items have caught my eye.

The Times, to begin with, carries a long piece about Tuesday's New York mayoralty election, in which financial magnate Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected easily to defeat Democrat Fernando Ferrer. The main reason, apparently, is that Bloomberg, who can rely on his private fortune (a tactic legalized about thirty years ago by the Supreme Court), has outspent his Democratic challenger 8 to 1, about $72 million t0 $8 million--a television advantage which no amount of party loyalty or ward and precinct organizing, evidently, can any longer overcome. Money, in short, rules politics as surely as it did in the 1890s, and the consequences are apparent all over the country.

On another front, another Times story last week discussed the rebuildling of the Gulf Coast. I noted last week, I believe, that pressure had forced the Administration to back away from its attempt to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, mandating customary local wage rates for reconstruction work. The victory for Gulf coast labor was more apparent than real. The contractors cleaning up the mess are using imported workers, many of them illegal immigrants. I certainly wonder whether they are indeed receiving prevailing wages--much less any benefits. I doubt it. The Republican Congress, meanwhile, continues using the fiscal crisis occasioned by the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, and Katrina to cut more from Medicaid, legal services, student loans, food stamps, and various other programs designed to help the poor and middle class.

And lastly there is the matter of education. New Orleans Catholic schools are re-opening; New Orleans public schools have not. Already in wretched shape, they may now receive a death blow from conservative "reformers" who will not want to replace the existing structure at all. This, meanwhile, is part of a much larger struggle by the Republicans to make public education essentially vocational education under the rubric of No Child Left Behind. The new educational reforms, as I am informed by young people on the front lines--that is, teaching in schools in the Mississippi Delta--are designed to produce citizens who can simply read and count, but who will lack much educational curiosity, knowledge of recent history, or sense of control over their own destiny. Increasingly teachers attempting to introduce anything more challenging into the curriculum are warned that they must concentrate on the skills necessary to pass the dreaded tests. We are abandoning the dream of giving everyone a liberal education.

"Men fight best on death ground," the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu wrote. This essential principle of human life can be observed, as I have written elsewhere, on athletic fields, but also in history. Alas, nearly all the great historical achievements which we celebrate, from the American Revolution to the civil rights movement, from Gettysburg to Normandy, and in all the great movements for social and economic justice, occurred in response to adversity and catastrophe. Those Americans nearing 60 have been lucky to live in a relatively comfortable world--or have they?