Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, February 27, 2006

Graduates Versus Oligarchs


Ben Bernanke's maiden Congressional testimony as chairman of the Federal Reserve was, everyone agrees, superb. He didn't put a foot wrong on monetary or fiscal policy.

But Mr. Bernanke did stumble at one point. Responding to a question from Representative Barney Frank about income inequality, he declared that "the most important factor" in rising inequality "is the rising skill premium, the increased return to education."

That's a fundamental misreading of what's happening to American society. What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

I think of Mr. Bernanke's position, which one hears all the time, as the 80-20 fallacy. It's the notion that the winners in our increasingly unequal society are a fairly large group — that the 20 percent or so of American workers who have the skills to take advantage of new technology and globalization are pulling away from the 80 percent who don't have these skills.

The truth is quite different. Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that.

A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains.

But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we're talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn't give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it's probably well over $6 million a year.

Why would someone as smart and well informed as Mr. Bernanke get the nature of growing inequality wrong? Because the fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion about income trends, not because it's true, but because it's comforting. The notion that it's all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it's just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system — and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story.

Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society? Yes, and not just because a rising economic tide has failed to lift most boats. Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project.

And I'm with Alan Greenspan, who — surprisingly, given his libertarian roots — has repeatedly warned that growing inequality poses a threat to "democratic society."

It may take some time before we muster the political will to counter that threat. But the first step toward doing something about inequality is to abandon the 80-20 fallacy. It's time to face up to the fact that rising inequality is driven by the giant income gains of a tiny elite, not the modest gains of college graduates.

Ike Saw It Coming


Early in the documentary film "Why We Fight," Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attack, describes his personal feelings in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

"Somebody had to pay for this," he says. "Somebody had to pay for 9/11. ... I wanna see their bodies stacked up for what they did. For taking my son."

Lost in the agony of his grief, Mr. Sekzer wanted revenge. He wanted the government to go after the bad guys, and when the government said the bad guys were in Iraq, he didn't argue.

For most of his life Mr. Sekzer was a patriot straight out of central casting. His view was always "If the bugle calls, you go." When he was 21 he was a gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam. He didn't question his country's motives. He was more than willing to place his trust in the leadership of the nation he loved.

"Why We Fight," a thoughtful, first-rate movie directed by Eugene Jarecki, is largely about how misplaced that trust has become. The central figure in the film is not Mr. Jarecki, but Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe in World War II, and who famously warned us at the end of his second term about the profound danger inherent in the rise of the military-industrial complex.

Ike warned us, but we didn't listen. That's the theme the movie explores.

Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to a national television and radio audience in January 1961. "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," he said. He recognized that this development was essential to the defense of the nation. But he warned that "we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications."

"The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist," he said. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes." It was as if this president, who understood war as well or better than any American who ever lived, were somehow able to peer into the future and see the tail of the military-industrial complex wagging the dog of American life, with inevitably disastrous consequences.

The endless billions to be reaped from the horrors of war are a perennial incentive to invest in the war machine and to keep those wars a-coming. "His words have unfortunately come true," says Senator John McCain in the film. "He was worried that priorities are set by what benefits corporations as opposed to what benefits the country."

The way you keep the wars coming is to keep the populace in a state of perpetual fear. That allows you to continue the insane feeding of the military-industrial complex at the expense of the rest of the nation's needs. "Before long," said Mr. Jarecki in an interview, "the military ends up so overempowered that the rest of your national life has been allowed to atrophy."

In one of the great deceptive maneuvers in U.S. history, the military-industrial complex (with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as chairman and C.E.O., respectively) took its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan and launched the pointless but far more remunerative war in Iraq.

If you want to get a chill, just consider the tragic chaos in present-day Iraq (seven G.I.'s were killed on the day I went to see "Why We Fight") and then listen to Susan Eisenhower in the film recalling a quotation attributed to her grandfather: "God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."

The military-industrial complex has become so pervasive that it is now, as one of the figures in the movie notes, all but invisible. Its missions and priorities are poorly understood by most Americans, and frequently counter to their interests.

Near the end of the movie, Mr. Sekzer, the New York cop who lost his son on Sept. 11, describes his reaction to President Bush's belated acknowledgment that "we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved" in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"What the hell did we go in there for?" Mr. Sekzer asks.

Unable to hide his bitterness, he says: "The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son. But I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Osama, Saddam and the Ports


The storm of protest over the planned takeover of some U.S. port operations by Dubai Ports World doesn't make sense viewed in isolation. The Bush administration clearly made no serious effort to ensure that the deal didn't endanger national security. But that's nothing new — the administration has spent the past four and a half years refusing to do anything serious about protecting the nation's ports.

So why did this latest case of sloppiness and indifference finally catch the public's attention? Because this time the administration has become a victim of its own campaign of fearmongering and insinuation.

Let's go back to the beginning. At 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld gave military commanders their marching orders. "Judge whether good enough hit S. H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time — not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]," read an aide's handwritten notes about his instructions. The notes were recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request. "Hard to get a good case," the notes acknowledge. Nonetheless, they say: "Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

So it literally began on Day 1. When terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration immediately looked for ways it could exploit the atrocity to pursue unrelated goals — especially, but not exclusively, a war with Iraq.

But to exploit the atrocity, President Bush had to do two things. First, he had to create a climate of fear: Al Qaeda, a real but limited threat, metamorphosed into a vast, imaginary axis of evil threatening America. Second, he had to blur the distinctions between nasty people who actually attacked us and nasty people who didn't.

The administration successfully linked Iraq and 9/11 in public perceptions through a campaign of constant insinuation and occasional outright lies. In the process, it also created a state of mind in which all Arabs were lumped together in the camp of evildoers. Osama, Saddam — what's the difference?

Now comes the ports deal. Mr. Bush assures us that "people don't need to worry about security." But after all those declarations that we're engaged in a global war on terrorism, after all the terror alerts declared whenever the national political debate seemed to be shifting to questions of cronyism, corruption and incompetence, the administration can't suddenly change its theme song to "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

The administration also tells us not to worry about having Arabs control port operations. "I want those who are questioning it," Mr. Bush said, "to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company."

He was being evasive, of course. This isn't just a Middle Eastern company; it's a company controlled by the monarchy in Dubai, which is part of the authoritarian United Arab Emirates, one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.

But more to the point, after years of systematically suggesting that Arabs who didn't attack us are the same as Arabs who did, the administration can't suddenly turn around and say, "But these are good Arabs."

Finally, the ports affair plays in a subliminal way into the public's awareness — vague but widespread — that Mr. Bush, the self-proclaimed deliverer of democracy to the Middle East, and his family have close personal and financial ties to Middle Eastern rulers. Mr. Bush was photographed holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (now King Abdullah), not the emir of Dubai. But an administration that has spent years ridiculing people who try to make such distinctions isn't going to have an easy time explaining the difference.

Mr. Bush shouldn't really be losing his credibility as a terrorism fighter over the ports deal, which, after careful examination (which hasn't happened yet), may turn out to be O.K. Instead, Mr. Bush should have lost his credibility long ago over his diversion of U.S. resources away from the pursuit of Al Qaeda and into an unnecessary war in Iraq, his bungling of that war, and his adoption of a wrongful imprisonment and torture policy that has blackened America's reputation.

But there is, nonetheless, a kind of rough justice in Mr. Bush's current predicament. After 9/11, the American people granted him a degree of trust rarely, if ever, bestowed on our leaders. He abused that trust, and now he is facing a storm of skepticism about his actions — a storm that sweeps up everything, things related and not.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

No Justice, No Peace


If you talk to Maher Arar long enough, even on the telephone, you'll get the disturbing sense that you are speaking with someone whose life has been shattered like a pane of glass.

"Sometimes I have the feeling that I want to go and live on another planet," he told me. "A completely different planet than planet Earth. You know?"

Mr. Arar, thanks to the United States government, went through the almost incomprehensible agony of being tortured. Now he is trying to live with the aftermath of torture, which is its own form of agony.

On Sept. 26, 2002, Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, was taken into custody by American authorities at Kennedy Airport in New York. He was locked in chains and shackles and accused of being "a member of a known terrorist organization."

There was no evidence to support the accusation, and no evidence has ever come to light. Nevertheless, as part of the hideous U.S. policy known as extraordinary rendition, Mr. Arar was shipped off to Syria, where he was kept in an underground rat-infested, grave-like cell, and tortured. (When I visited him in Ottawa last year, he told me how he had screamed and wept and begged both God and his captors for mercy.)

After 10 months, he was released. No charges against him were ever filed.

I called Mr. Arar last week after a federal judge in Brooklyn threw out a lawsuit in which Mr. Arar had sought damages from the U.S. government for his ordeal.

"I don't feel like I am the same person," he said. "I feel that my brain or my inner soul does not want to think about what's going on. My soul is trying to distract itself from reality."

The reality, he said, is that his life has been all but completely destroyed. He is fearful. He has become psychologically and emotionally distant from his wife and two young children. He has nightmares. He can't find a job. He spins dizzily from one bout with depression to another. And some former friends who are Muslim will no longer associate with him because "they're afraid to be the next target."

"I mean, you can tell, no one wants to hear about me," he said. "After 9/11, everyone branded with the terrorism label — they're doomed."

Mr. Arar, now 35, made a comfortable living as a software engineer before he fell into the demonic embrace of the rendition program. Now no one will hire him. "They put it in a nice way," he said. "They've said to people: 'Listen, we believe he's innocent. But, you know, we don't want to hire him.' "

Mr. Arar's own psychological difficulties have compounded the external challenges he faces. "I was invited to go and speak in Vancouver, which is west of here," he said. "But I can't take the plane anymore. Psychologically I am so scared to fly. So I couldn't go."

He said he frequently lacks the confidence or motivation to perform even minor tasks, and often feels overwhelmed by the thought of something as ordinary as a scheduled meeting with the principal at his 9-year-old daughter's school.

He said his 4-year-old son, Houd, panics whenever he thinks his father is about to go out. "He always wants to come with me," said Mr. Arar. "He insists, and he cries if I can't take him. He's afraid that if I go, I won't ever come back."

So the nightmare that began with rendition continues with no end in sight. Mr. Arar is grateful that his wife was able to land a job last year with a political party. "It's not much money," he said, "but had she not found a job we would be in a very, very miserable situation. We're just barely surviving."

Unexpected emotional support has come from ordinary Canadians; strangers frequently come up to Mr. Arar on the street and shake his hand. "They might say, "We're behind you,' or, 'We support you,' " he said. "It means a lot to me."

The rendition program is one more example of the way the United States, using the threat of terror as an excuse, has locked its ideals away in a drawer somewhere. We don't even give them lip service anymore. A person like Mr. Arar is not seen as having any rights. He's not even seen as human. He was carted away in accordance with official U.S. policy, and treated like an animal.

"They are doing this to people and it is wrong, wrong, wrong," said Mr. Arar. "This is an evil practice, and I want them to acknowledge it. I want them to acknowledge that what they did to me was wrong."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

G.O.P. to W.: You're Nuts!



It's enough to make you nostalgic for those gnarly union stevedores in "On the Waterfront," the ones who hung up rats on hooks and took away Marlon Brando's chance to be a contend-ah.

Maybe it's corporate racial profiling, but I don't want foreign companies, particularly ones with links to 9/11, running American ports.

What kind of empire are we if we have to outsource our coastline to a group of sheiks who don't recognize Israel, in a country where money was laundered for the 9/11 attacks? And that let A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, smuggle nuclear components through its port to Libya, North Korea and Iran?

It's mind-boggling that President Bush ever agreed to let an alliance of seven emirs be in charge of six of our ports. Although, as usual, Incurious George didn't even know about it until after the fact. (Neither did Rummy, even though he heads one of the agencies that green-lighted the deal.)

Same old pattern: a stupid and counterproductive national security decision is made in secret, blowing off checks and balances, and the president's out of the loop.

Was W. too busy not calling Dick Cheney to find out why he shot a guy to not be involved in a critical decision about U.S. security? What is he waiting for — a presidential daily brief warning, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack U.S. Ports?"

Our ports are already nearly naked in terms of security. Only about 5 percent of the containers coming into the country are checked. And when the White House assures us that the Homeland Security Department will oversee security at the ports, is that supposed to make us sleep better? Not after the chuckleheaded Chertoff-and-Brownie show on Capitol Hill.

"Our borders are wide open," said Jan Gadiel of 9/11 Families for a Secure America. "We don't know who's in our country right now, not a clue. And now they're giving away our ports." The "trust us" routine of W. and Dick Cheney is threadbare.

The more W. warned that he would veto legislation stopping this deal, the more lawmakers held press conferences to oppose it — even conservatives who had loyally supported W. on Iraq, the Patriot Act, torture and warrantless snooping.

Mr. Bush is hoist on his own petard. For four years, the White House has accused anyone in Congress or the press who defended civil liberties or questioned anything about the Iraq war of being soft on terrorism. Now, as Congress and the press turn that accusation back on the White House, Mr. Bush acts mystified by the orgy of xenophobia.

Lawmakers, many up for re-election, have learned well from Karl Rove. Playing the terror card works.

A bristly Bush said yesterday that scotching the deal would send "a terrible signal" to a worthy ally. He equated the "Great British" with the U.A.E. Well, maybe Britain in the 12th century.

Besides, the American people can be forgiven if they're confused about what it means in the Arab world to be a U.S. ally. Is it a nation that helps us sometimes but also addicts us to oil and then jacks up the price, refuses to recognize Israel, denies women basic rights, tolerates radical anti-American clerics, looks the other way when its citizens burn down embassies and consulates over cartoons, and often turns a blind eye when it comes to hunting down terrorists in its midst?

In our past wars, America had specific countries to demonize. But now in the "global war on terror" — GWOT, as they call it — the enemy is a faceless commodity that the administration uses whenever it wants to win a political battle. When something like this happens, it's no wonder the public does its own face transplant.

One of the real problems here is that this administration has run up such huge trade and tax-cut-and-spend budget deficits that we're in hock to the Arabs and the Chinese to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. If they just converted their bonds into cash, they would own our ports and not have to merely rent them.

Just because the wealthy foreigners who own our debt can blackmail us with their economic leverage, does that mean we should expose our security assets to them as well?

As part of the lunatic White House defense, Dan Bartlett argued that "people are trying to drive wedges and make this to be a political issue." But as the New Republic editor Peter Beinart pointed out in a recent column, W. has made the war on terror "one vast wedge issue" to divide the country.

Now, however, the president has pulled us together. We all pretty much agree: mitts off our ports.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Torturers Win


Justice? Surely you jest.

Terrible things were done to Maher Arar, and his extreme suffering was set in motion by the United States government. With the awful facts of his case carefully documented, he tried to sue for damages. But last week a federal judge waved the facts aside and told Mr. Arar, in effect, to get lost.

We're in a new world now and the all-powerful U.S. government apparently has free rein to ruin innocent lives without even a nod in the direction of due process or fair play. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen who, according to all evidence, has led an exemplary life, was seized and shackled by U.S. authorities at Kennedy Airport in 2002, and then shipped off to Syria, his native country, where he was held in a dungeon for the better part of a year. He was tormented physically and psychologically, and at times tortured.

The underground cell was tiny, about the size of a grave. According to court papers, "The cell was damp and cold, contained very little light and was infested with rats, which would enter the cell through a small aperture in the ceiling. Cats would urinate on Arar through the aperture, and sanitary facilities were nonexistent."

Mr. Arar's captors beat him savagely with an electrical cable. He was allowed to bathe in cold water once a week. He lost 40 pounds while in captivity.

This is a quintessential example of the reprehensible practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. government kidnaps individuals — presumably terror suspects — and sends them off to regimes that are skilled in the fine art of torture. In terms of vile behavior, rendition stands shoulder to shoulder with contract killing.

If the United States is going to torture people, we might as well do it ourselves. Outsourcing torture does not make it any more acceptable.

Mr. Arar's case became a world-class embarrassment when even Syria's torture professionals could elicit no evidence that he was in any way involved in terrorism. After 10 months, he was released. No charges were ever filed against him.

Mr. Arar is a 35-year-old software engineer who lives in Ottawa with his wife and their two young children. He's never been in any kind of trouble. Commenting on the case in a local newspaper, a former Canadian official dryly observed that "accidents will happen" in the war on terror. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York filed a lawsuit on Mr. Arar's behalf, seeking damages from the U.S. government for his ordeal. The government said the case could not even be dealt with because the litigation would involve the revelation of state secrets.

In other words, it wouldn't matter how hideously or egregiously Mr. Arar had been treated, or how illegally or disgustingly the government had behaved. The case would have to be dropped. Inquiries into this 21st-century Inquisition cannot be tolerated. Its activities must remain secret at all costs.

In a ruling that basically gave the green light to government barbarism, U.S. District Judge David Trager dismissed Mr. Arar's lawsuit last Thursday. Judge Trager wrote in his opinion that "Arar's claim that he faced a likelihood of torture in Syria is supported by U.S. State Department reports on Syria's human rights practices."

But in dismissing the suit, he said that the foreign policy and national security issues raised by the government were "compelling" and that such matters were the purview of the executive branch and Congress, not the courts.

He also said that "the need for secrecy can hardly be doubted."

Under that reasoning, of course, the government could literally get away with murder. With its bad actions cloaked in court-sanctioned secrecy, no one would be the wiser.

As an example of the kind of foreign policy problems that might arise if Mr. Arar were given his day in court, Judge Trager wrote:

"One need not have much imagination to contemplate the negative effect on our relations with Canada if discovery were to proceed in this case and were it to turn out that certain high Canadian officials had, despite public denials, acquiesced in Arar's removal to Syria."

Oh yes, by all means, we need the federal courts to fully protect the right of public officials to lie to their constituents.

"It's a shocking decision," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It's really saying that an individual who is sent overseas for the purpose of being tortured has no claim in a U.S. court."

If kidnapping and torturing an innocent man is O.K., what's not O.K.?

The Mensch Gap


"Be a mensch," my parents told me. Literally, a mensch is a person. But by implication, a mensch is an upstanding person who takes responsibility for his actions.

The people now running America aren't mensches.

Dick Cheney isn't a mensch. There have been many attempts to turn the shooting of Harry Whittington into a political metaphor, but the most characteristic moment was the final act — the Moscow show-trial moment in which the victim of Mr. Cheney's recklessness apologized for getting shot. Remember, Mr. Cheney, more than anyone else, misled us into the Iraq war. Then, when neither links to Al Qaeda nor W.M.D. materialized, he shifted the blame to the very intelligence agencies he bullied into inflating the threat.

Donald Rumsfeld isn't a mensch. Before the Iraq war Mr. Rumsfeld muzzled commanders who warned that we were going in with too few troops, and sidelined State Department experts who warned that we needed a plan for the invasion's aftermath. But when the war went wrong, he began talking about "unknown unknowns" and going to war with "the army you have," ducking responsibility for the failures of leadership that have turned the war into a stunning victory — for Iran.

Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, isn't a mensch. Remember his excuse for failing to respond to the drowning of New Orleans? "I remember on Tuesday morning," he said on "Meet the Press," "picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, 'New Orleans Dodged the Bullet.' " We now know that by Tuesday morning, he had received — and ignored — many warnings about the unfolding disaster.

Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, isn't a mensch. He insists that the prescription drug plan's catastrophic start doesn't reflect poorly on his department, that "no logical person" would have expected "a transition happening that is so large without some problems." In fact, Medicare's 1966 startup went very smoothly. That didn't happen this time because his department ignored outside experts who warned, months in advance, about exactly the disaster that has taken place.

I could go on. Officials in this administration never take responsibility for their actions. When something goes wrong, it's always someone else's fault.

Was it always like this? I don't want to romanticize our political history, but I don't think so. Think of Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote a letter before D-Day accepting the blame if the landings failed. His modern equivalent would probably insist that the landings were a "catastrophic success," then try to lay the blame for their failure on the editorial page of The New York Times.

Where have all the mensches gone? The character of the administration reflects the character of the man at its head. President Bush is definitely not a mensch; his inability to admit mistakes or take responsibility for failure approaches the pathological. He surrounds himself with subordinates who share his aversion to facing unpleasant realities. And as long as his appointees remain personally loyal, he defends their performance, no matter how incompetent. After all, to do otherwise would be to admit that he made a mistake in choosing them. Last week he declared that Mr. Leavitt is doing, yes, "a heck of a job."

But how did such people attain power in the first place? Maybe it's the result of our infantilized media culture, in which politicians, like celebrities, are judged by the way they look, not the reality of their achievements. Mr. Bush isn't an effective leader, but he plays one on TV, and that's all that matters.

Whatever the reason for the woeful content of our leaders' character, it has horrifying consequences. You can't learn from mistakes if you won't admit making any mistakes, an observation that explains a lot about the policy disasters of recent years — the failed occupation of Iraq, the failed response to Katrina, the failed drug plan.

Above all, the anti-mensches now ruling America are destroying our moral standing. A recent National Journal report finds that we're continuing to hold many prisoners at Guantánamo even though the supposed evidence against them has been discredited. We're even holding at least eight prisoners who are no longer designated enemy combatants. Why? Well, releasing people you've imprisoned by mistake means admitting that you made a mistake. And that's something the people now running America never do.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Hunting for a Straight Shooter



Maybe I've had Dick Cheney wrong all along.

Maybe he's not maniacally secretive, manipulative with the truth and contemptuous of democratic institutions. Perhaps he's cruelly misunderstood in his heartfelt desire to disseminate information.

It was at the end of his interview with Brit Hume, when Shooter talked about Scooter, that his eagerness to share important facts with the press and public — a well-concealed trait in recent days, years and decades — burst forth. He pronounced himself a Great Declassifier.

Asked by the Fox News anchor if a vice president had the authority to declassify secrets, Mr. Cheney replied that there's an executive order giving him that power, adding: "I've certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions." This neatly set up a defense for Scooter, who testified that "superiors" had authorized him to leak classified information on Valerie Plame.

President Bush signed Executive Order 13292 on March 25, 2003, amending a Clinton-era order, to grant the vice president the same power as the president on top-secret material. W. must have been concerned that Vice didn't have enough power to abuse.

(With the way these guys keep giving themselves extra powers, there are probably also executive orders that allow Vice-Man to turn himself into a dragon, become invisible, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.)

In return for this selfless effort to tell the world that Valerie Plame was a C.I.A. officer — and punish her husband, a critic of the phony case for war, and therefore a terrorist symp — Shooter was rewarded with an independent prosecutor and Scooter with an indictment. So when the Great Declassifier gunned down his hunting partner, he was compelled by bitter experience to override his instinct to immediately call a press conference.

The administration has been so apoplectic about leaks, I almost forget the entire Iraq war was paved by its leaks. Cheney & Co. were so busy trying to prove a mushroom cloud was emanating from Saddam's direction, they could not leak their cherry-picked stories fast enough.

Maybe I've had Rummy wrong, too. Maybe he's not an arrogant, misguided Robert McNamara clone.

In his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations yesterday, he sounded positively humble. Gone were the days when Rummy and the neocons thought a big Shock-and-Awe blaze of American might would make Islamic terrorists tremble in their Flintstones caves, never to challenge us again.

Now Rummy paints America as backward, losing the P.R. war to Al Qaeda in the first conflict in history using e-mail, blogs, BlackBerries and hand-held videocameras. "For the most part," he said, "the U.S. government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world." (Hey, didn't we invent eBay?)

Like the vice president, the defense secretary is eager to get information out. If the American press wouldn't scream, "Henny Penny, the sky is falling," every time the Pentagon tries to plant paid stories in the Iraqi press, for gosh sakes, maybe we could have some success in the P.R. battle.

After the Lincoln Group's "nontraditional means," as he delicately put it, were discovered, "the resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything, all activity, all initiative, to stop, just frozen."

"Even worse," he complained, "it leads to a chilling effect for those who are asked to serve in the military public affairs field." The press "seems to demand perfection from the government," he wailed. And why do the media focus on Abu Ghraib, perpetrated by "people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq?" he asked. Why not more stories on Saddam's mass graves?

Rummy is genuinely perplexed about why it's wrong to subvert democracy while promoting democracy.

I love it when Shooter and Rummy call us unrealistic for trying to hold them to standards that they set. They are, after all, victims of their own spin on Iraq. Mr. Cheney thought we'd be greeted with flowers; Rummy said we could do more with less.

Rummy misses the point: we're supposed to be the good guys, the beacon of freedom. Our message is supposed to work because it has moral force, not because we pay some Lincoln Group sketchballs millions to plant propaganda in Iraqi newspapers and not because the press here plays down revelations of American torture. If the Bush crew hadn't distorted the truth to get to Iraq, they wouldn't need to distort the truth to succeed there.

"Ultimately, in my view," Rummy concluded, "truth wins out."

Bad news for him, and his pal Dick.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mr. Vice President, It's Time to Go


It's time for Dick Cheney to step down — for the sake of the country and for the sake of the Bush administration.

Mr. Cheney's bumbling conduct at the upscale Armstrong Ranch in South Texas seemed hilarious at first. But when we learned that Harry Whittington had suffered a mild heart attack after being shot by the vice president in a hunting accident, it became clear that a more sober assessment of the fiasco at the ranch and, inevitably, Mr. Cheney's controversial and even bizarre behavior as vice president was in order.

There's a reason Dick Cheney is obsessive about shunning the spotlight. His record is not the kind you want to hold up for intense scrutiny.

More than anyone else, he was fanatical about massaging and distorting the intelligence that plunged us into the flaming quagmire of Iraq. He insisted that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was hot on the trail of nukes. He pounded away at the false suggestion that Iraq was somehow linked to Al Qaeda. And he spread the word that the war he wanted so badly would be a cakewalk.

"I really do believe," he told Tim Russert, "that we will be greeted as liberators."

Well, he got his war. And while the nation's brave young soldiers and marines were bouncing around Iraq in shamefully vulnerable Humvees and other vehicles, dodging bullets, bombs and improvised explosive devices, Mr. Cheney (a gold-medal winner in the acquisition of wartime deferments) felt perfectly comfortable packing his fancy 28-gauge Perazzi shotgun and heading off to Texas with a covey of fat cats to shoot quail.

Matters went haywire, of course, when he shot Mr. Whittington instead.

That was the moment when the legend of the tough, hawkish, take-no-prisoners vice president began morphing into the less-than-heroic image of a reckless, scowling incompetent who mistook his buddy for a bird.

This story is never going away. Harry Whittington is Dick Cheney's Monica. When Mr. Whittington dies (hopefully many years from now, and from natural causes), he will be remembered as the hunting companion who was shot by the vice president of the United States. This tale will stick to Mr. Cheney like Krazy Glue, and that's bad news for the Bush administration.

The shooting and Mr. Cheney's highhanded behavior in its immediate aftermath fit perfectly with the stereotype of him as a powerful but dangerous figure who is viewed by many as a dark force within the administration. He doesn't even give lip service to the idea of transparency in his public or private life. This is the man who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep his White House meetings with energy industry honchos as secret as the Manhattan Project. (Along the way he went duck hunting at a private camp in rural Louisiana with Justice Antonin Scalia.)

This is also the man whose closest and most trusted aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice as a result of the investigation into the outing of a C.I.A. undercover operative, Valerie Wilson.

Mr. Cheney is arrogant, defiant and at times blatantly vulgar. He once told Senator Patrick Leahy to perform a crude act upon himself.

A vice president who insists on writing his own rules, who shudders at the very idea of transparency in government, whose judgment on crucial policy issues has been as wildly off the mark (and infinitely more tragic) as his actions in Texas over the weekend, and who has now become an object of relentless ridicule, cannot by any reasonable measure be thought of as an asset to the nation or to the president he serves.

The Bush administration would benefit from new thinking and new perspectives on the war in Iraq, the potential threat from Iran, the nation's readiness to cope with another terror attack, the development of a comprehensive energy policy and other important issues.

President Bush's approval ratings have dropped below 40 percent in recent polls. Even Republicans are openly criticizing the administration's conduct of the war, its response to Hurricane Katrina and assorted other failures and debacles.

Dick Cheney is a constant reminder of those things the White House would most like to forget: the bullying, the intelligence failures, the inability to pacify Iraq, the misuse of classified information and the breathtaking incompetence that seems to be spread throughout the administration.

Mr. Cheney would do his nation and his president a service by packing his bags and heading back to Wyoming. He's become a joke. But not a funny one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Shooter Slips on a Silencer



Who did this old guy think he was, coming between Dick Cheney and his helpless prey?

The luckless 78-year-old Texas lawyer, Harry Whittington, is in intensive care after a heart attack, with up to 200 pellets riddling his face and body — one stuck in his heart — from Dick Cheney's designer Perazzi Brescia shotgun. And still his friend, the vice president, is Swift-BB-ing him.

Private citizens have been enlisted to blame the victim. Maybe poor Mr. Whittington put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he was, after all, behind Vice, not in front of him. And the hunter pulling the trigger is supposed to make sure he has a clear shot. Wouldn't it be, well, classy for Shooter to express just a bit of contrition and humility?

Instead, the usual sliming has begun, with the Cheney camp trying to protect the vice president by casting a veteran hunter as Elmer Dud.

Scott McClellan told the White House press corps that Katharine Armstrong, a lobbyist with government ties who owns the Texas ranch (and whose mother, Anne, was on the Halliburton board that hired Mr. Cheney as C.E.O.), "pointed out that the protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying the others that he was there."

As the story of the weekend's bizarre hunting accident is wrenched out of the White House, the picture isn't pretty: With American soldiers dying in Iraq, Five-Deferment Dick "I Had Other Priorities in the 60's Than Military Service" Cheney gets his macho kicks gunning down little birds and the occasional old man while W. rides his bike, blissfully oblivious to any collateral damage. Shouldn't these guys work on weekends until we figure out how to fix Iraq, New Orleans, Medicare and gas prices?

This version of "The Most Dangerous Game" neatly follows the four-step Bush-Cheney cycle:

Step 1: Set out to pick off what you think is an easy target, like quail this time or pen-raised and netted pheasant in the past, or a certain sanction-caged Iraqi dictator.

Step 2: In the corrupt company of lobbyist-contractor friends, botch things up. Ignore the peril at hand — as with, oh, Osama at Tora Bora, or Katrina, or the Iraq occupation — and with steely resolve, indulge your raging incompetence. (Oops.)

Step 3: Stonewall. Resist giving Congress information about 9/11 or Katrina; don't tell the public how you're tapping phones at home, setting up gulags abroad and making war and energy policy in secret. Why give the taxpayers, who are ponying up for these weekend hunting trips, the extraordinary news that Vice shot his hunting companion in the face and chest? Scott McClellan knew before yesterday's White House briefing at noon that Mr. Whittington was worse, but did not tell the reporters. He left that to Corpus Christi doctors, who spun the heart attack as "an inflammatory response to a metallic foreign BB."

Step 4: Admit no mistakes. Express sympathy. Blame the victim without leaving fingerprints by outsourcing the smear to the private sector.

Trent Lott joked in a meeting yesterday that Mr. Cheney was now the "shooter in chief," while other wags noted that Quayle was always a problem for Bushes.

Presidential staff members and lawmakers speculated yesterday about whether Shooter would resign and make room for Condi if Mr. Whittington did not survive. His death would trigger a more thorough police investigation and probably a grand jury.

"Are you crazy?" one Republican senator told a reporter. "He'd never quit." (Aaron Burr presided over the Senate after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.)

The shooter in chief can't quit because he is the administration. Who'd even tell him to quit? If necessary, he'd probably make W. take the fall.

Despite efforts by Mr. McClellan to joke and urge reporters to get back to "the pressing priorities of the American people," the hunting debacle once more showed Mr. Cheney running the imperial show.

He didn't talk to the sheriff for 14 hours, or even call the president to notify him after the 5:50 p.m. accident. Vice left that to Andy Card, who called Mr. Bush at 7:30 p.m. to say there had been a hunting accident, without mentioning that Vice was the gunman. Soon after that, Karl Rove called Mr. Bush back with that little detail.

A reporter, surprised, pressed Mr. McClellan: "The vice president did not call the president to tell him he was the shooter?"

Usually when there's a White House cover-up, the president's in on it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Destroyers


We've pretty much forgotten about Keith Maupin, an American soldier who was kidnapped near Baghdad in April 2004. He was 20 at the time. His captors released a videotape that showed him in the custody of masked gunmen. Looking nervously into the camera, he said: "My name is Keith Matthew Maupin. I am a soldier from the First Division. I am married with a 10-month-old son."

He has not been heard from since.

We've also pretty much forgotten about Marla Ruzicka, a 28-year-old humanitarian aid worker who was killed in April 2005 when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy that was passing near her car in Baghdad. There was a flurry of news coverage at the time, much of it focused on the gruesome fact that a young, fun-loving California girl had been consumed in the flames of a burning vehicle in Baghdad.

Yesterday The Times ran an extraordinary front-page article detailing the physical agony and profound emotional distress being faced by troops trying to cope with absolutely ruinous wounds suffered in Iraq. "The worst car crash is nothing in terms of what we see here," said a surgeon at an American base in Balad.

Most of the discussions in the media about the Bush administration and its allies center on how the president is doing politically. Is he up or down in the polls? Are the Democrats gaining steam, or will the Republicans make them look like wimps again when it comes to national security? How harsh is the song that Jack Abramoff is singing? And what about those pictures of Mr. Abramoff with the president?

Talk about focusing on the trees! The forest in this instance is the incredible mess that the Bush crowd has made with its policy blunders, relentless duplicity and outright incompetence. This sorry track record has resulted in, among other things, the horrible suffering and premature deaths of thousands of men, women and children.

I remember talking with Bernice Jones, a 64-year-old New Orleans woman who had to pry her way through the roof of her attic to keep from drowning in the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. "I had to use a board to hold my head above the water, 'cause it was up to my neck," she said. "So help me, I thought I was going to die."

I remember talking in Ottawa last February with a traumatized 34-year-old family man — a Canadian citizen with two children named Maher Arar — who was seized by American authorities at Kennedy Airport in the fall of 2002 as part of the reprehensible practice known as extraordinary rendition. He was flown out of the U.S. surreptitiously and handed over to Syrian authorities, who tortured him and kept him caged for a year like a nocturnal animal in an unlit, underground, rat-infested cell.

Then he was let go. No connection between Mr. Arar and terrorism has ever been made.

The litany of tragic incompetence continued unabated last week. On Wednesday we learned that the federal government has still been unable to provide the trailers it promised as temporary shelters for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes by the hurricanes that slammed the Gulf Coast last summer.

As for Iraq, James Glanz reported in The Times on Thursday that newly declassified statistics on insurgent violence "appear to portray a rebellion whose ability to mount attacks has steadily grown in the nearly three years since the invasion."

Mr. Glanz has also reported that despite an infusion of $16 billion in American taxpayer money, virtually every measure of the performance of Iraq's oil, electricity, water and sewage sectors has fallen below prewar levels, according to government witnesses who testified at a Senate committee hearing.

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Bush administration to rebuild Iraq or New Orleans. These are not the folks you'd call on to create a shining city on a hill. This is a crowd that's more comfortable with the destructive arts — squandering money, wasting lives and undermining the potential of a great nation like the U.S.

Can you imagine what Republican politicians and conservative commentators would be saying if a Democratic president — say Al Gore or Hillary Clinton — had compiled exactly the same track record over the past five years as George W. Bush?

Debt and Denial


Last year America spent 57 percent more than it earned on world markets. That is, our imports were 57 percent larger than our exports.

How did we manage to live so far beyond our means? By running up debts to Japan, China and Middle Eastern oil producers. We're as addicted to imported money as we are to imported oil.

Sometimes large-scale foreign borrowing makes sense. In the 19th century the United States borrowed vast sums from Europe, using the funds to build railroads and other industrial infrastructure. That debt-financed wave of investment left America stronger, not weaker.

But this time our overseas borrowing isn't financing an investment boom: adjusted for the size of the economy, business investment is actually low by historical standards. Instead, we're using borrowed money to build houses, buy consumer goods and, of course, finance the federal budget deficit.

In 2005 spending on home construction as a percentage of G.D.P. reached its highest level in more than 50 years. People who already own houses are treating them like A.T.M.'s, converting home equity into spending money: last year the personal savings rate fell below zero for the first time since 1933. And it's a sign of our degraded fiscal state that the Bush administration actually boasted about a 2005 budget deficit of more than $300 billion, because it was a bit lower than the 2004 deficit.

It all sounds unsustainable. And it is.

Some people insist that the U.S. economy has hidden savings that official statistics fail to capture. I won't go into the technical debate about these claims, some of which resemble arguments used not long ago to justify dot-com stock prices, except to say that the more closely one looks at the facts, the less plausible the "don't worry, be happy" hypothesis looks.

Denial takes a more systematic form within the federal government, where Dick Cheney is doing to budget analysis what he did to intelligence on Iraq. Last week Mr. Cheney announced that a newly created division within the Treasury Department would show that tax cuts increase, not reduce, federal revenue. That's the Bush-Cheney way: decide on your conclusions first, then demand that analysts produce evidence supporting those conclusions.

But serious analysts know that America's borrowing binge is unsustainable. Sooner or later the trade deficit will have to come down, the housing boom will have to end, and both American consumers and the U.S. government will have to start living within their means.

So how bad will it be? It depends on how the binge ends. If it tapers off gradually, the U.S. economy will be able to shift workers out of sectors that have benefited from the housing boom and the consumption spree into sectors that produce exports or replace imports. Given time, we could bring the trade deficit down and bring housing back to earth without a net loss in jobs.

In practice, however, a "soft landing" looks unlikely, because too many economic players have unrealistic expectations. This is true of international investors, who are still snapping up U.S. bonds at low interest rates, seemingly oblivious both to the budget deficit and to the consensus view among trade experts that the dollar will eventually have to fall 30 percent or more to eliminate the trade deficit.

It's equally true of American home buyers. Most Americans live in regions where housing remains affordable. But a detailed new study by HSBC, a multinational bank, confirms what I and others have been saying: most of the rise in housing values has taken place in a "bubble zone" along the coasts, where housing prices have risen far more than the economic fundamentals warrant. According to HSBC's estimates, houses in the bubble zone are overvalued by between 35 and 40 percent, creating trillions of dollars of illusory wealth.

So it seems all too likely that America's borrowing binge will end with a bang, not a whimper, that spending will suddenly drop off as both the bond market and the housing market experience rude awakenings. If that happens, the economic consequences will be ugly.

All in all, Alan Greenspan, who helped create this situation, can consider himself lucky that he's safely out of office, giving briefings to hedge fund managers at $250,000 a pop. And his successor may be in for a rough ride. Best wishes and good luck, Ben; you may need it.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Smoking Dutch Cleanser


Vice President Dick Cheney bitterly complains that national security leaks are endangering America.

Unless, of course, he's doing the leaking, tapping Scooter Libby to reveal national security information to punish a political critic.

President Bush says he will not talk about specific security threats to America. Unless, of course, he needs to talk about a specific threat to Los Angeles to confuse the public and gain some cheap political advantage.

The White House says it has done everything possible to protect the homeland. Unless, of course, it hasn't. Then it can lie to hide the callous portrait of Incurious George in Crawford as New Orleans drowned.

The attorney general can claim that torture and warrantless wiretapping are legal, and mislead Congress. Unless, of course, enough Republicans stand up and say, as Arlen Specter told The Washington Post, that if the lickspittle lawyer thinks all this is legal, "he's smoking Dutch Cleanser."

The president doesn't know the Indian Taker Jack Abramoff. Unless, of course, W. has met with him a dozen times, invited him to Crawford and joked with him about his kids.

The Bushies can continue to claim that the invasion of Iraq was justified because Saddam was a threat to our security. Unless, of course, he wasn't, and the Cheney cabal was simply abusing the trust of Americans to push a wild-eyed political scheme.

At the Bush White House, the mere evocation of the word "terror" justifies breaking any law, contravening any convention, despoiling any ideal, electing any Republican and brushing off any failure to govern.

Asked yesterday by Senator Susan Collins why the administration had reacted in slo-mo on Katrina, with "people dying, people waiting to be rescued," Michael Brown replied that if FEMA had confirmed that a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, "then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could."

Instead of just going after the 9/11 fiends, as W. promised with his bullhorn, the president and Vice President Strangelove have cynically played the terror card to accrue power and sidestep blame. They have twisted our values, mismanaged crises, fueled fundamentalist successes and violence around the world, and magnified a clash of civilizations.

It used to take an Israeli incursion to inflame the Arab world. Now all it takes is a cartoon in Denmark.

W. and Vice have wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, turning Iraq into a terrorist training ground, leaving the 9/11 villains at large, and letting cronies and losers botch the job of homeland security.

Brownie, one of the biggest boneheads in U.S. history, considered the homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff, so useless that he deliberately didn't call him right away about the suffering in New Orleans.

"The culture was such that I didn't think that would have been effective and would have exacerbated the problem, quite frankly," Brownie told the Republican senator Bob Bennett, who called the statement "staggering." A telephone call to his boss, Brownie said, "would have wasted my time."

The doofus who frittered away lives e-mailing colleagues about being a "fashion god" and wondering how he looked on television may have just been engaged in self-protective spin. Or has the Homeland Security Department simply created another set of paralyzing turf battles?

The most dysfunctional man in government is calling the government dysfunctional.

W.'s sophomoric "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" line makes even Brownie cringe. "Unfortunately," the former FEMA chief complained, "he called me 'Brownie' at the wrong time. Thanks a lot, sir."

In the new Foreign Affairs, Paul Pillar, who was a senior C.I.A. official overseeing Middle East intelligence assessments until October, says the obvious conclusion that should have been drawn from the intelligence on Iraq was that war was unnecessary. He says the White House "went to war without requesting — and evidently without being influenced by — any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq."

He calls the relationship between the intelligence community and the policy makers — you guessed it — politicized, damaged by bureaucratic rivalries and dysfunctional.

A final absurd junction of dysfunction was reached on Wednesday, when Republican Party leaders awarded Tom DeLay with a seat on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Justice Department, which is investigating Jack Abramoff, including his connections to Tom DeLay.


The Vanishing Future


At this point we've had six years to grow accustomed to Bush budget chicanery. (Yes, six years: George W. Bush's special mix of blatant dishonesty and gross irresponsibility was fully visible during the 2000 presidential campaign.) What still amazes me, however, is the sheer childishness of the administration's denials and deceptions.

Consider the case of the vanishing future.

The story begins in 2001, when President Bush was pushing his first tax cut through Congress. At the time, the administration insisted that its tax-cut plans wouldn't endanger the budget surplus bequeathed to Mr. Bush by Bill Clinton. But even some Republican senators were skeptical. So the Senate demanded a cap on the tax cut: it should not reduce revenue over the period from 2001 to 2011 by more than $1.35 trillion.

The administration met this requirement, but not by scaling back its tax-cutting ambitions. Instead, it created fictitious savings by "sunsetting" the tax cut, making the whole thing expire at the end of 2010.

This was obviously silly. For example, under the law as written there will be no federal tax on the estates of wealthy people who die in 2010. But the estate tax will return in 2011 with a maximum rate of 55 percent, creating some interesting incentives.

I suggested, back in 2001, that the legislation be renamed the Throw Momma From the Train Act.

It was also obvious that the administration had no intention of abiding by its concession to fiscal prudence, that it would try to eliminate the sunset clause and make the tax cuts permanent.

But it quickly became clear that the budget forecasts the administration used to justify the 2001 tax cut were wildly overoptimistic. The federal government faced a future of deficits, not surpluses, as far as the eye could see. Making the tax cut permanent would greatly worsen those future deficits. What were budget officials to do?

You almost have to admire their brazenness: they made the future disappear.

Clinton-era budgets offered 10-year projections of spending and revenues. But the Bush administration slashed the budget horizon to five years. This artificial shortsightedness greatly aided the campaign to make the 2001 tax cut permanent because it hid the costs: since budget analyses no longer covered the years after 2010, the revenue losses from extending the tax cut became invisible.

But now it's 2006, and even a five-year projection covers the period from 2007 to 2011, which means including a year in which making the Bush tax cuts permanent will cost a lot of revenue — $119.7 billion, but who's counting? Has the administration finally run out of ways to avoid budget reality?

Not quite. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, until this year budget documents contained a standard table titled "Impact of Budget Policy," which summarized the effects of the administration's tax and spending proposals on future outlays and revenues. But this year, that table is missing. So you have to do some detective work to figure out what's really going on.

Now, the administration has proposed spending cuts that are both cruel and implausible. For example, administration computer printouts obtained by the center show that the budget calls for a 13 percent cut in spending on veterans' health care, adjusted for inflation, over the next five years.

Yet even these cuts would fall far short of making up for the revenue losses from making the tax cuts permanent. The administration's own estimate, which can be deduced from its budget tables, is that extending the tax cuts would cost an average of $235 billion in each year from 2012 through 2016.

In other words, the administration has no idea how to make its tax cuts feasible in the long run. Yet it has never, as far as I can tell, allowed unfavorable facts to affect its determination to make the tax cuts permanent. Instead, it has devoted all its efforts to hiding those awkward facts from public view. (Any resemblance to, say, its Iraq strategy is no coincidence.)

At this point the administration's budget strategy seems to be simply to ignore reality. The 2007 budget makes it clear, once and for all, that the tax cuts can't be offset with spending cuts. But Bush officials have decided to ignore that unpleasant fact, and let some future administration deal with the mess they have created.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Illegal and Inept


While testifying about the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked to explain how the program had been damaged by the disclosure of its existence in the press.

Senator Joseph Biden suggested that Al Qaeda operatives have most likely been aware for some time that the government is trying to intercept their phone calls.

Mr. Gonzales agreed. "You would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance," he said. "But if they're not reminded about it all the time in newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget."

Senator Biden managed to laugh. Probably to keep from crying. This was the attorney general of the United States speaking, yet another straight man for an administration that has raised governing to new heights of witlessness. Watching the Bush administration in action would be hilarious, if its ineptitude and brutally misguided policies didn't end so often in needless suffering and sorrow.

The public should be aware of two important points about the president's domestic spying program: it's illegal, and it's not catching terrorists.

If the program were legal, there is no chance so many Republicans would be upset about it. While questioning Mr. Gonzales at Monday's Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, assailed both of the rationales used by the administration to justify the program.

Referring to the administration's repeated insistence that the Congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Al Qaeda gave the president the power to bypass restrictions on domestic surveillance imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Senator Graham said:

"I'll be the first to say, when I voted for it, I never envisioned that I was giving to this president or any other president the ability to go around FISA carte blanche."

Senator Graham then addressed the argument that the president has the inherent power under the Constitution to authorize the warrantless wiretapping. Such a view, said Senator Graham, would undermine the principle of checks and balances. "Taken to its logical conclusion," he said, "it concerns me that it could basically neuter the Congress and weaken the courts."

Moments later, he added, "And when the nation's at war, I would argue, Mr. Attorney General, you need checks and balances more than ever."

Other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who expressed skepticism or voiced serious doubts about the program included Mike DeWine and Sam Brownback, and the chairman, Arlen Specter. "You think you're right," Senator Specter told Mr. Gonzales. "But there are a lot of people who think you're wrong."

Apart from the legal issues, it's increasingly clear that the president's program is contributing little if anything to the effort to protect Americans from Qaeda-type terrorism.

Senator Biden asked Mr. Gonzales whether the program had achieved any results. Mr. Gonzales said it had helped identify "would-be terrorists here in the United States."

"Have we arrested those people?" asked Mr. Biden. "Have we arrested the people we've identified as terrorists in the United States?"

The attorney general's reply left people shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes. "When we can use our law enforcement tools to go after the bad guys," he said, "we do that."

Senator Biden tried to push the issue, but Mr. Gonzales would not elaborate. Mr. Biden finally said: "Well, I hope we arrested them — if you identified them. I mean, it kind of worries me because you all talk about how you identify these people, and I've not heard anything about anybody being arrested."

A clue to Mr. Gonzales's reluctance to discuss the achievements of the president's domestic spying program could be found on the front page of The Washington Post on Sunday. A long article about the program began as follows:

"Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use."

To laugh or to cry — that is the question as we contemplate three more years of this theater of the absurd known as the Bush administration.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Who's Hormonal? Hillary or Dick?


The Republicans succeed because they keep it simple, ruthless and mythic.

In 2000 and 2004, G.O.P. gunslingers played into the Western myth and mined images of manliness, feminizing Al Gore as a Beta Tree-Hugger, John Kerry as a Waffling War Wimp With a Hectoring Wife and John Edwards as his true bride, the Breck Girl.

Now, in the distaff version of Swift-boating, they are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies, a knife-wielding Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" and a snarling Scarlett Johansson in "Match Point." (How many pregnant mistresses does Woody Allen have to kill off in movies before he feels he's reversed Dostoyevsky and proved that if the crime is worth it, there should be no punishment?)

Republicans think that men who already have nagging, bitter women in their lives will not want for president the sort of woman who gave W. a dyspeptic smile or eye-rolling appraisal during State of the Union addresses.

In "Commander in Chief," writers were careful to make Geena Davis's chief executive calm and controlled under pressure — even when her rival, played by Donald Sutherland, made an insulting menopause crack.

The hit on Hillary may seem crude and transparent. But in the void created by dormant Democrats, crouching in what Barack Obama calls "a reactive posture," crude and transparent ploys work for the Republicans. Just look at how far the Bushies' sulfurous scaremongering on terror, and cynical linkage of Saddam and Osama, have gotten them.

The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn't speak out strongly against President Bush, she's timid and girlie. If she does, she's a witch and a shrew. That plays particularly well in the South, where it would be hard for an uppity Hillary to capture many more Bubbas than the one she already has.

It's the riddle of the Sphinx that has been floating around since the selection of Geraldine Ferraro. Betty Friedan worried then that a woman seen as a threat to men would not get to the White House. But how can a woman who's not a threat to men get there?

The G.O.P. honcho Ken Mehlman kicked off the misogynistic attack on George Stephanopoulos's Sunday show. "I don't think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates," he said. Referring to Hillary's recent taunts about Republicans, he added, "Whether it's the comments about the plantation or the worst administration in history, Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger."

Hillary did not sound angry when she made those comments — she's learned since her tea-and-cookies outburst in the '92 campaign. A man who wants to undermine a woman's arguments can ignore the substance and simply dismiss her as unstable and shrill. It's a hoary tactic: women are more mercurial than men; they get depressed more often and pop pills more often. As a top psychiatrist once told me, women are "hormonally more complicated and biologically more vulnerable."

But as the G.O.P. tars Hillary as hysterical, it is important to note that women are affected by lunar tides only once a month, while Dick Cheney has rampaging hormones every day.

Republicans have also labeled men hysterical (from the Greek for "womb"). Howard Dean was skewered on the Scream. And when John McCain was soaring in the 2000 primaries, Bush supporters viciously whispered that his fits of temper signaled that he had come back from Vietnam with snakes in his head.

Senator McCain went over the top again this week in a letter to Senator Obama. Although Mr. McCain tried to cast his "I'm the reformer — you back off, new guy" letter as "straight talk" after an Obama dis, it was snide and bitchy, more like an angry missive of a spurned lover to an ex-boyfriend than a note from a respected senior senator to a respected junior one.

Mr. McCain could take a lesson from Condi Rice, who gets hyperarticulate and bristly when she's mad, but not bitchy. Or Oprah, whose anger at James Frey had a Mosaic dignity.

Hillary's problem isn't that she's angry. It's that she's not angry enough. From Iraq to Katrina and the assault on the Constitution, from Schiavo to Alito and N.S.A. snooping to Congressional corruption, Hillary has failed to lead in voicing outrage. She's been too busy triangulating and calculating to be good at articulating.

The Republicans can't marginalize Hillary. She has already marginalized herself.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Do You Know What They Know?

Do You Know What They Know?

Has the National Security Agency referred your name to the F.B.I. as a result of information it picked up from its illegal domestic eavesdropping program?

You don't know, do you? And the Bush administration, which has linked its mania for secrecy with its fetish for collecting data on Americans, is not saying.

The big problem related to this program, as far as the administration is concerned, is not its metastasizing threat to constitutional government, the rule of law, the privacy of innocent Americans, the venerable system of checks and balances, and the American way of life as we've known it.

No, the big problem for Bush & Co. — the thing that makes the president and his apologists apoplectic — is the mere fact that this domestic spying program has come to light. Investigations are under way to determine who might have leaked information about the supersecret program to The New York Times, which disclosed its existence, and others.

This is not a time for Congress or the media to bow before the intimidation tactics of a bullying administration. This is a time to heed the words of a federal judge named Damon Keith, who reminded us back in 2002 that "democracies die behind closed doors."

The attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is scheduled to testify about the N.S.A. program today at a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here are some of the questions that need to be asked:

Who is being spied upon, and why?

How many Americans here in the United States — or others who were lawfully in the country — have had their phone conversations or e-mails intercepted without a warrant?

Who determines what calls or e-mails are to be monitored in the U.S. without warrants, and what are their guidelines?

How many of those who were spied upon were found to have been involved in terror-related activities? How many were referred to the F.B.I. or other agencies for further investigation?

Of those who were referred, how many were cleared of wrongdoing?

What kind of information is being collected about people who are spied upon without warrants but are not referred to law enforcement agencies? How is that data being used, and how is it stored?

Is the government collecting information about the political views of the people who are being spied upon? With whom is that information being shared?

What has been the nature and the extent of the objections from people inside the government to the warrantless spying?

Until recently, no one was above the law in the U.S., not even the president. Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment and run out of town for thumbing his nose at the Constitution. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his sex life.

The Bush administration, by exploiting the very real fear of terrorism, and with the connivance of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, has run roughshod over constitutional guarantees that had long been taken for granted. The prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment? Habeas corpus? The right to face one's accuser? When it suits the Bush crowd, such protections are simply ignored.

The president would have you believe that the warrantless N.S.A. spy program is a very limited operation, narrowly focused on international communications involving "people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

If that were true, there would be no reason not to get a warrant from the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The most logical reason for not getting a warrant is that the president's intelligence acolytes, who behave as though they graduated from the Laurel and Hardy school of data mining, have not been able to demonstrate that the people being spied upon are connected to Al Qaeda or any other terror organization.

The National Security Agency sent so much useless information to the F.B.I. in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that agents began to joke that the tips would result in more "calls to Pizza Hut." The Times reported that thousands of tips a month came pouring in, virtually all of them leading to dead ends or innocent Americans.

The American public needs to know what's really going on with this spy program. "Liberty," said John Adams, "cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people."

The Effectiveness Thing


We are ruled by bunglers. Every major venture by the Bush administration, from the occupation of Iraq to the Medicare drug program, has turned into an epic saga of incompetence. In retrospect, the Clinton years look like a golden era of good government.

Given the Bush administration's evident inability to govern, Democratic electoral victories should be a sure thing. But they aren't. Why?

Before I try to answer that question, let me justify my assertion — which is sure to generate a lot of angry mail — that Bill Clinton knew how to govern, while George W. Bush doesn't. All you have to do is consider the rise and fall of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Under the elder George Bush, FEMA was used as a dumping ground for political cronies, with predictable results. Descriptions of FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 sound just like the response to Katrina: for three days FEMA was nowhere to be found, and when it finally arrived its relief efforts were utterly incompetent.

Bill Clinton changed all that by choosing James Lee Witt, who knew a lot about disaster management, to run FEMA, and encouraging him to run the agency professionally. The result was a spectacular improvement in performance. FEMA, formerly considered one of the worst agencies in the federal government, won praise for its quick and effective responses to events like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

But George W. Bush restored the practice of stuffing FEMA with cronies; the ludicrous Michael Brown is gone, but others remain. And the agency has reverted to impotence and incompetence.

As FEMA went, so went government as a whole.

On one side, FEMA's rebirth under Mr. Clinton wasn't unique. For example, a similar tale of miraculous turnaround can be told about the Veterans Health Administration. And I'd argue that there was a broad improvement in the government's professionalism during the Clinton era.

On the other side, what happened to FEMA starting in 2001 is typical: politicization and cronyism have become standard operating procedure throughout the federal government, even when the need for professionalism is obvious. (Recall how unqualified political loyalists were sent to run Iraq during the crucial first year.) That's one main reason President Bush has failed at everything he's tried except cutting taxes — and winning elections.

Which brings me to the political puzzle. Our leaders' bungling hasn't escaped public notice: more than half of Americans say that the Bush administration has been a failure. Yet it's not at all clear that Democrats can translate this sentiment into large political gains — because despite the governing skill of the last Democratic administration, the public doesn't think of Democrats as being effective.

A lot of this has to do with the way the news media cover politics: they focus mainly on Washington, and many news organizations — especially the broadcast media — prefer to do horse-race stories rather than discuss policy issues. And from that point of view, the Democrats present a sorry spectacle. Not only are they a minority in Congress, shut out of power; they're an undisciplined minority constantly facing defections from their own ranks on crucial issues.

The issue of Iraq epitomizes the political paradox. The war has been a monstrous policy failure, but it remains a political asset to the Bush administration, because it divides the Democrats and makes them look ineffectual.

Yet if the Democrats could present a united front on Iraq, they'd probably have a lot of public support. You'd never know it from the range of views represented on the Sunday talk shows, but a majority of Americans believes both that the administration deliberately misled the nation about W.M.D.'s and that we should set a timetable for withdrawal.

And the public's views on other issues seem to favor the Democratic position — or, rather, what the Democratic position would probably be if the Democrats could agree on one — even more strongly. For example, the public believes by two to one that the government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans.

The point is that Democrats are largely winning the battle of ideas: on the issues, public opinion is shifting in their direction. But to take advantage of that shift, they have to overcome an image of ineffectiveness that is partly the fault of the news media, but largely the result of their own disunion.

Friday, February 03, 2006

State of Delusion


So President Bush's plan to reduce imports of Middle East oil turns out to be no more substantial than his plan — floated two years ago, then flushed down the memory hole — to send humans to Mars.

But what did you expect? After five years in power, the Bush administration is still — perhaps more than ever — run by Mayberry Machiavellis, who don't take the business of governing seriously.

Here's the story on oil: In the State of the Union address, Mr. Bush suggested that "cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol" and other technologies would allow us "to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East."

But the next day, officials explained that he didn't really mean what he said. "This was purely an example," said Samuel Bodman, the energy secretary. And the administration has actually been scaling back the very research that Mr. Bush hyped on Tuesday night: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is about to lay off staff because of cuts to its budget.

"A veteran researcher," reports The New York Times, "said the staff had been told that the cuts would be concentrated among researchers in wind and biomass, which includes ethanol."

Why announce impressive sounding goals when you have no plan to achieve them? The best guess is that the energy "plan" was hastily thrown together to give Mr. Bush something positive to say.

For weeks administration sources told reporters that the State of the Union address would focus on health care. But at the last minute the White House might have realized that its health care proposals, based on the idea that Americans have too much insurance, would suffer the same political fate as its attempt to privatize Social Security. ("Congress," Mr. Bush said, "did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security." Democrats responded with a standing ovation.)

So Mr. Bush's speechwriters were told to replace the health care proposals with fine words about energy independence, words not backed by any actual policy.

What about the rest of the speech? The State of the Union is normally an occasion for boasting about an administration's achievements. But what's a speechwriter to do when there are no achievements?

One answer is to pretend that the bad stuff never happened. The Medicare drug benefit is Mr. Bush's largest domestic initiative to date. It is also a disaster: at enormous cost, the administration has managed to make millions of elderly Americans worse off. So drugs went unmentioned in the State of the Union.

Another answer is to rely on evasive language. In Iraq, Mr. Bush said, we have "changed our approach to reconstruction."

In fact, reconstruction has failed. Almost three years after the war began, oil production is well below prewar levels, Baghdad is getting only an average of 3.2 hours of electricity a day, and more than 60 percent of water and sanitation projects have been canceled.

So now, having squandered billions in Iraqi oil revenue as well as American taxpayer dollars, we have told the Iraqis that from here on in it is their problem. America's would-be Marshall Plan in Iraq, reports The Los Angeles Times, "is drawing to a close this year with much of its promise unmet and no plans to extend its funding." I guess you can call that a change in approach.

There is a common theme underlying the botched reconstruction of Iraq, the botched response to Katrina (which Mr. Bush never mentioned), the botched drug program and the nonexistent energy program.

John DiIulio, the former White House head of faith-based policy, explained it more than three years ago. He told the reporter Ron Suskind how this administration operates: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. ... I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues."

In other words, this administration is all politics and no policy. It knows how to attain power, but has no idea how to govern. That is why the administration was caught unaware when Katrina hit, and why it was totally unprepared for the predictable problems with its drug plan. It is why Mr. Bush announced an energy plan with no substance behind it. And it is why the state of the union — the thing itself and not the speech — is so grim.

Didn't See It Coming, Again



The White House should hire an anthropologist.

Corporations have begun hiring anthropologists to help them improve product designs and interpret markets. And clearly, the Bush foreign policy team doesn't understand any of the markets where it is barging around ineptly trying to sell America and democracy.

The brand value of America has been in steady decline. The state of the union is sour but the state of the world is chilling, thanks to a hideously ham-handed Bush foreign policy crew that was once billed as a seasoned "dream team."

The more the White House tries to force-feed democracy to tempestuous parts of the world, the more it discovers that you may be able to spin and scare voters in the U.S., but the Middle East is not so easy to manipulate. W. believes in self-determination only if he's doing the determining. Fundamentalists in America like to vote for Mr. Bush, but elsewhere they're violently opposing him.

It's stunning that nearly four decades after Vietnam, our government could be even more culturally illiterate and pigheaded. The Bushies are more obsessed with snooping on Americans than fathoming how other cultures think and react.

One smart anthropologist reinforcing the idea that "mirroring" — assuming other cultures think like us — doesn't work would be a lot more helpful than all of the discredited intelligence agencies that are costing $30 billion a year to miss everything from the breakup of the Soviet Union to 9/11 to no W.M.D. to Osama's hiding place to the Hamas victory.

Bush officials keep claiming they couldn't have anticipated disasters — from the terrorist attacks to Katrina — even when they got specific warnings beforehand. Busy building up the fake nuclear threat in Iraq, they misplayed the real ones in Iran and North Korea. In London Sunday, Condi Rice admitted that all of our diplomats and spies were caught off guard by the Hamas win. "I've asked why nobody saw it coming," she said. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."

Instead of paying the Lincoln Group millions to plant fake newspaper stories in Iraq, the Bush team might try reading real newspaper stories here. Instead of simply believing any fact that makes him feel self-important, the president might try reading history.

Like many other presidential candidates I've interviewed, W. said he liked Winston Churchill. But if he really had read Churchill, he would at least have understood that the Middle East never turns out the way you expect. Churchill, who called Iraq "an ungrateful volcano," would not have been surprised by the new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll showing that close to half of Iraqis approve of attacks on American forces.

The State of the Union is a non-event. But Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, being blown up by a roadside bomb has forced the media to focus on what the Bushies try to hide — all the injured and maimed coming home from Iraq.

Mark Landler's Times piece noted that the ABC journalists came to the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, "on a military transport plane carrying 31 wounded soldiers — about a normal daily influx for this hospital."

As Denise Grady wrote in The Times, the survival rate in Iraq is higher than in other wars, but the wounds are multiple and awful: "combinations of damaged brains and spinal cords, vision and hearing loss, disfigured faces, burns, amputations, mangled limbs, and psychological ills like depression and post-traumatic stress."

The Oilman in Chief lecturing us last night, after five oblivious years, about being drunk on oil, now that Halliburton and Exxon are swimming in profits — Exxon's revenues were bigger than the gross domestic product of either Saudi Arabia or Indonesia — was rich.

A more honest TV moment was Christiane Amanpour labeling Iraq "a black hole." The "spiraling security disaster," she told Larry King, had robbed Iraqis of hope, "and by any indication whether you take the number of journalists killed or wounded, whether you take the number of American soldiers killed or wounded, whether you take the number of Iraqi soldiers killed and wounded, contractors, people working there, it just gets worse and worse."

But, hey, how could the Bushies have known that occupying a Middle East country — and flipping the balance of power from one sect to another — without enough troops to secure it could go wrong? Who on earth could predict the inevitable?

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