Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, July 31, 2006

Shock and Awe


For Americans who care deeply about Israel, one of the truly nightmarish things about the war in Lebanon has been watching Israel repeat the same mistakes the United States made in Iraq. It’s as if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been possessed by the deranged spirit of Donald Rumsfeld.

Yes, I know that there are big differences in the origins of the two wars. There’s no question of this war having been sold on false pretenses; unlike America in Iraq, Israel is clearly acting in self-defense.

But both Clausewitz and Sherman were right: war is both a continuation of policy by other means, and all hell. It’s a terrible mistake to start a major military operation, regardless of the moral justification, unless you have very good reason to believe that the action will improve matters.

The most compelling argument against an invasion of Iraq wasn’t the suspicion many of us had, which turned out to be correct, that the administration’s case for war was fraudulent. It was the fact that the real reason government officials and many pundits wanted a war — their belief that if the United States used its military might to “hit someone” in the Arab world, never mind exactly who, it would shock and awe Islamic radicals into giving up terrorism — was, all too obviously, a childish fantasy.

And the results of going to war on the basis of that fantasy were predictably disastrous: the fiasco in Iraq has ended up demonstrating the limits of U.S. power, strengthening radical Islam — especially radical Shiites allied with Iran, a group that includes Hezbollah — and losing America the moral high ground.

What I never expected was that Israel — a nation that has unfortunately had plenty of experience with both war and insurgency — would be susceptible to similar fantasies. Yet that’s what seems to have happened.

There is a case for a full-scale Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah. It may yet come to that, if Israel can’t find any other way to protect itself. There is also a case for restraint — limited counterstrikes combined with diplomacy, an effort to get other players to rein Hezbollah in, with the option of that full-scale offensive always in the background.

But the actual course Israel has chosen — a bombing campaign that clearly isn’t crippling Hezbollah, but is destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure and killing lots of civilians — achieves the worst of both worlds. Presumably there were people in the Israeli government who assured the political leadership that a rain of smart bombs would smash and/or intimidate Hezbollah into submission. Those people should be fired.

Israel’s decision to rely on shock and awe rather than either diplomacy or boots on the ground, like the U.S. decision to order the U.N. inspectors out and invade Iraq without sufficient troops or a plan to stabilize the country, is having the opposite of its intended effect. Hezbollah has acquired heroic status, while Israel has both damaged its reputation as a regional superpower and made itself a villain in the eyes of the world.

Complaining that this is unfair does no good, just as repeating “but Saddam was evil” does nothing to improve the situation in Iraq. What Israel needs now is a way out of the quagmire. And since Israel doesn’t appear ready to reoccupy southern Lebanon, that means doing what it should have done from the beginning: try restraint and diplomacy. And Israel will negotiate from a far weaker position than seemed possible just three weeks ago.

And what about the role of the United States, which should be trying to contain the crisis? Our response has been both hapless and malign.

For the moment, U.S. policy seems to be to stall and divert efforts to negotiate a cease-fire as long as possible, so as to give Israel a chance to dig its hole even deeper. Also, we aren’t talking to Syria, which might hold the key to resolving the crisis, because President Bush doesn’t believe in talking to bad people, and anyway that’s the kind of thing Bill Clinton did. Did I mention that these people are childish?

Again, Israel has the right to protect itself. If all-out war with Hezbollah becomes impossible to avoid, so be it. But bombing Lebanon isn’t making Israel more secure.

As this column was going to press, Israel — responding to the horror at Qana, where missiles killed dozens of civilians, many of them children — announced a 48-hour suspension of aerial bombardment. But why resume that bombardment when the 48 hours are up? The hard truth is that Israel needs, for its own sake, to stop a bombing campaign that is making its enemies stronger, not weaker.

A World Gone Mad


As if the war in Iraq and the battles between Israel and its neighbors were not frightening enough, now comes word of a development in Pakistan that may well be the harbinger of a much greater catastrophe.

Over the past few years, Pakistan has been hard at work building a powerful new plutonium reactor that when completed will be able to produce enough fuel to make 40 to 50 nuclear weapons a year.

This is happening at the same time that the Bush administration is pushing hard for final Congressional approval of a nonmilitary nuclear cooperation deal with Pakistan’s rival, India, that would in fact enhance India’s bomb-making capacity. The deal would enable India to free up its own stocks of nuclear fuel to the extent that it could expand its nuclear weapons production from about seven warheads a year to perhaps 50.

Yes, Virginia, the world is going mad.

Pakistan’s initiative, which in a few years could increase its bomb-making capacity twentyfold, was first reported last week by The Washington Post. Experts at the Institute for Science and International Security, after analyzing the program, concluded that “South Asia may be heading for a nuclear arms race that could lead to arsenals growing into the hundreds of nuclear weapons or, at minimum, vastly expanded stockpiles of military fissile material.”

There is no way to overstate the potential danger of an accelerated nuclear arms race in South Asia. Breeding nukes willy-nilly is an invitation to Armageddon. Pakistan, for those who need to be reminded, is where Osama bin Laden and his henchmen are thought to be hiding. It’s also the home of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the pied piper of proliferation (now under house arrest) who provided crucial nuclear materials and expertise to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Representative Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who led the opposition to the deal with India, told me he was surprised by the subdued reaction to the news about Pakistan’s reactor.

“You would have thought that a firestorm would break out,” he said. “As a nation, we should be very afraid if Pakistan can come up with a twentyfold increase in the amount of nuclear weapons materials that it can manufacture. The greatest fear we have is of a bomb slipping into the hands of a terrorist group — and we know that Al Qaeda is in Pakistan — and then having it moved toward the Middle East, or put on a ship headed to an American port.”

Mr. Markey, who is co-chairman of a bipartisan House task force on nonproliferation, noted that the White House had long been aware of Pakistan’s plutonium-production reactor but had kept that knowledge from Congress and the American public. Why? To what end? Does the administration not understand the truly horrifying stakes involved in this deplorable spread of nuclear adventurism?

“This is not just about Pakistan, or Pakistan and India,” said Mr. Markey. “What impact will this have on China, which is looking at what India might do? What impact will it have on Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, being put on trial at the U.N., with sanctions being asked by the United States?”

(Neither India nor Pakistan are signers of the treaty.)

Common sense should tell you that thundering along the road to ever more nuclear weapons in ever shakier hands is madness, the global equivalent to driving drunk at ever higher speeds. Does anyone think China will sit quietly by as India and Pakistan develop the capacity to outpace it in the production of nukes?

Does anyone doubt that at some point, if the spread of nuclear weapons is not vigorously suppressed, a bomb will end up in the hands of a freak who has no other intention in the world than to use it?

John F. Kennedy, in a televised address to the nation in July 1963, said: “I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world. There would be no rest for anyone then, no stability, no real security, and no chance of effective disarmament.”

There was a time when the top leaders of the United States understood that we should be moving toward fewer nukes on the planet, not an exponential, suicidal increase in these worst of all weapons.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Senate Race in Connecticut

Earlier this year, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s seat seemed so secure that — legend has it — some people at the Republican nominating convention in Connecticut started making bleating noises when the party picked a presumed sacrificial lamb to run against the three-term senator, who has been a fixture in Connecticut politics for more than 35 years.

But Mr. Lieberman is now in a tough Democratic primary against a little-known challenger, Ned Lamont. The race has taken on a national character. Mr. Lieberman’s friends see it as an attempt by hysterical antiwar bloggers to oust a giant of the Senate for the crime of bipartisanship. Lamont backers — most of whom seem more passionate about being Lieberman opponents — say that as one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war, Mr. Lieberman has betrayed his party by cozying up to President Bush.

This primary would never have happened absent Iraq. It’s true that Mr. Lieberman has fallen in love with his image as the nation’s moral compass. But if pomposity were a disqualification, the Senate would never be able to call a quorum. He has voted with his party in opposing the destructive Bush tax cuts, and despite some unappealing rhetoric in the Terri Schiavo case, he has strongly supported a woman’s right to choose. He has been one of the Senate’s most creative thinkers about the environment and energy conservation.

But this race is not about résumés. The United States is at a critical point in its history, and Mr. Lieberman has chosen a controversial role to play. The voters in Connecticut will have to judge whether it is the right one.

As Mr. Lieberman sees it, this is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party — his moderate fair-mindedness against a partisan radicalism that alienates most Americans. “What kind of Democratic Party are we going to have?” he asked in an interview with New York magazine. “You’ve got to agree 100 percent, or you’re not a good Democrat?”

That’s far from the issue. Mr. Lieberman is not just a senator who works well with members of the other party. And there is a reason that while other Democrats supported the war, he has become the only target. In his effort to appear above the partisan fray, he has become one of the Bush administration’s most useful allies as the president tries to turn the war on terror into an excuse for radical changes in how this country operates.

Citing national security, Mr. Bush continually tries to undermine restraints on the executive branch: the system of checks and balances, international accords on the treatment of prisoners, the nation’s longtime principles of justice. His administration has depicted any questions or criticism of his policies as giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. And Mr. Lieberman has helped that effort. He once denounced Democrats who were “more focused on how President Bush took America into the war in Iraq” than on supporting the war’s progress.

At this moment, with a Republican president intent on drastically expanding his powers with the support of the Republican House and Senate, it is critical that the minority party serve as a responsible, but vigorous, watchdog. That does not require shrillness or absolutism. But this is no time for a man with Mr. Lieberman’s ability to command Republicans’ attention to become their enabler, and embrace a role as the president’s defender.

On the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Lieberman has left it to Republicans like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to investigate the administration’s actions. In 2004, Mr. Lieberman praised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for expressing regret about Abu Ghraib, then added: “I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized.” To suggest even rhetorically that the American military could be held to the same standard of behavior as terrorists is outrageous, and a good example of how avidly the senator has adopted the Bush spin and helped the administration avoid accounting for Abu Ghraib.

Mr. Lieberman prides himself on being a legal thinker and a champion of civil liberties. But he appointed himself defender of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the administration’s policy of holding hundreds of foreign citizens in prison without any due process. He seconded Mr. Gonzales’s sneering reference to the “quaint” provisions of the Geneva Conventions. He has shown no interest in prodding his Republican friends into investigating how the administration misled the nation about Iraq’s weapons. There is no use having a senator famous for getting along with Republicans if he never challenges them on issues of profound importance.

If Mr. Lieberman had once stood up and taken the lead in saying that there were some places a president had no right to take his country even during a time of war, neither he nor this page would be where we are today. But by suggesting that there is no principled space for that kind of opposition, he has forfeited his role as a conscience of his party, and has forfeited our support.

Mr. Lamont, a wealthy businessman from Greenwich, seems smart and moderate, and he showed spine in challenging the senator while other Democrats groused privately. He does not have his opponent’s grasp of policy yet. But this primary is not about Mr. Lieberman’s legislative record. Instead it has become a referendum on his warped version of bipartisanship, in which the never-ending war on terror becomes an excuse for silence and inaction. We endorse Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary for Senate in Connecticut.

The Peculiar Disappearance of the War in Iraq


AS America fell into the quagmire of Vietnam, the comedian Milton Berle joked that the fastest way to end the war would be to put it on the last-place network, ABC, where it was certain to be canceled. Berle’s gallows humor lives on in the quagmire in Iraq. Americans want this war canceled too, and first- and last-place networks alike are more than happy to oblige.

CNN will surely remind us today that it is Day 19 of the Israel-Hezbollah war — now branded as Crisis in the Middle East — but you won’t catch anyone saying it’s Day 1,229 of the war in Iraq. On the Big Three networks’ evening newscasts, the time devoted to Iraq has fallen 60 percent between 2003 and this spring, as clocked by the television monitor, the Tyndall Report. On Thursday, Brian Williams of NBC read aloud a “shame on you” e-mail complaint from the parents of two military sons anguished that his broadcast had so little news about the war.

This is happening even as the casualties in Iraq, averaging more than 100 a day, easily surpass those in Israel and Lebanon combined. When Nouri al-Maliki, the latest Iraqi prime minister, visited Washington last week to address Congress, he too got short TV shrift — a mere five sentences about the speech on ABC’s “World News.” The networks know a rerun when they see it. Only 22 months earlier, one of Mr. Maliki’s short-lived predecessors, Ayad Allawi, had come to town during the 2004 campaign to give a similarly empty Congressional address laced with White House-scripted talking points about the war’s progress. Propaganda stunts, unlike “Law & Order” episodes, don’t hold up on a second viewing.

The steady falloff in Iraq coverage isn’t happenstance. It’s a barometer of the scope of the tragedy. For reporters, the already apocalyptic security situation in Baghdad keeps getting worse, simply making the war more difficult to cover than ever. The audience has its own phobia: Iraq is a bummer. “It is depressing to pay attention to this war on terror,” said Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly on July 18. “I mean, it’s summertime.” Americans don’t like to lose, whatever the season. They know defeat when they see it, no matter how many new plans for victory are trotted out to obscure that reality.

The specter of defeat is not the only reason Americans have switched off Iraq. The larger issue is that we don’t know what we — or, more specifically, 135,000 brave and vulnerable American troops — are fighting for. In contrast to the Israel-Hezbollah war, where the stakes for the combatants and American interests are clear, the war in Iraq has no rationale to keep it afloat on television or anywhere else. It’s a big, nightmarish story, all right, but one that lacks the thread of a coherent plot.

Certainly there has been no shortage of retrofitted explanations for the war in the three-plus years since the administration’s initial casus belli, to fend off Saddam’s mushroom clouds and vanquish Al Qaeda, proved to be frauds. We’ve been told that the war would promote democracy in the Arab world. And make the region safer for Israel. And secure the flow of cheap oil. If any of these justifications retained any credibility, they have been obliterated by Crisis in the Middle East. The new war is a grueling daily object lesson in just how much the American blunders in Iraq have undermined the one robust democracy that already existed in the region, Israel, while emboldening terrorists and strengthening the hand of Iran.

But it’s the collapse of the one remaining (and unassailable) motivation that still might justify staying the course in Iraq — as a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people — that is most revealing of what a moral catastrophe this misadventure has been for our country. The sad truth is that the war’s architects always cared more about their own grandiose political and ideological ambitions than they did about the Iraqis, and they communicated that indifference from the start to Iraqis and Americans alike. The legacy of that attitude is that the American public cannot be rallied to the Iraqi cause today, as the war reaches its treacherous endgame.

The Bush administration constantly congratulates itself for liberating Iraq from Saddam’s genocidal regime. But regime change was never billed as a primary motivation for the war; the White House instead appealed to American fears and narcissism — we had to be saved from Saddam’s W.M.D. From “Shock and Awe” on, the fate of Iraqis was an afterthought. They would greet our troops with flowers and go about their business.

Donald Rumsfeld boasted that “the care” and “the humanity” that went into our precision assaults on military targets would minimize any civilian deaths. Such casualties were merely “collateral damage,” unworthy of quantification. “We don’t do body counts,” said Gen. Tommy Franks. President Bush at last started counting those Iraqi bodies publicly — with an estimate of 30,000 — some seven months ago. (More recently, The Los Angeles Times put the figure at, conservatively, 50,000.) By then, Americans had tuned out.

The contempt our government showed for Iraqis was not just to be found in our cavalier stance toward their casualties, or in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. There was a cultural condescension toward the Iraqi people from the get-go as well, as if they were schoolchildren in a compassionate-conservatism campaign ad. This attitude was epitomized by Mr. Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” response to the looting of Baghdad at the dawn of the American occupation. In “Fiasco,” his stunning new book about the American failure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks, The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent, captures the meaning of that pivotal moment perfectly: “The message sent to Iraqis was far more troubling than Americans understood. It was that the U.S. government didn’t care — or, even more troubling for the future security of Iraq, that it did care but was incapable of acting effectively.”

As it turned out, it was the worst of both worlds: we didn’t care, and we were incapable of acting effectively. Nowhere is this seen more explicitly than in the subsequent American failure to follow through on our promise to reconstruct the Iraqi infrastructure we helped to smash. “There’s some little part of my brain that simply doesn’t understand how the most powerful country on earth just can’t get electricity back in Baghdad,” said Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile and prominent proponent of the war, in a recent Washington Post interview.

The simple answer is that the war planners didn’t care enough to provide the number of troops needed to secure the country so that reconstruction could proceed. The coalition authority isolated in its Green Zone bubble didn’t care enough to police the cronyism and corruption that squandered billions of dollars on abandoned projects. The latest monument to this humanitarian disaster was reported by James Glanz of The New York Times on Friday: a high-tech children’s hospital planned for Basra, repeatedly publicized by Laura Bush and Condi Rice, is now in serious jeopardy because of cost overruns and delays.

This history can’t be undone; there’s neither the American money nor the manpower to fulfill the mission left unaccomplished. The Iraqi people, whose collateral damage was so successfully hidden for so long by the Rumsfeld war plan, remain a sentimental abstraction to most Americans. Whether they are seen in agony after another Baghdad bombing or waving their inked fingers after an election or being used as props to frame Mrs. Bush during the State of the Union address, they have little more specificity than movie extras. Chalabi, Allawi, Jaafari, Maliki come and go, all graced with the same indistinguishable praise from the American president, all blurring into an endless loop of instability and crisis. We feel badly ... and change the channel.

Given that the violence in Iraq has only increased in the weeks since the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist portrayed by the White House as the fount of Iraqi troubles, any Americans still paying attention to the war must now confront the reality that the administration is desperately trying to hide. “The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists,” President Bush said in December when branding Zarqawi Public Enemy No. 1. But Iraq’s exploding sectarian warfare cannot be pinned on Al Qaeda or Baathist dead-enders.

The most dangerous figure in Iraq, the home-grown radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is an acolyte of neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam but an ally of Iran who has sworn solidarity to both Hezbollah and Hamas. He commands more than 30 seats in Mr. Maliki’s governing coalition in Parliament and 5 cabinet positions. He is also linked to death squads that have slaughtered Iraqis and Americans with impunity since the April 2004 uprising that killed, among others, Cindy Sheehan’s son, Casey. Since then, Mr. Sadr’s power has only grown, enabled by Iraqi “democracy.”

That the latest American plan for victory is to reposition our forces by putting more of them in the crossfire of Baghdad’s civil war is tantamount to treating our troops as if they were deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if the networks led with the story every night, what Americans would have the stomach to watch?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Fetch, Heel, Stall


Oops, they did it again. That pesky microphone problem that plagued George W. Bush and Tony Blair in St. Petersburg struck again at their White House news conference yesterday. The president told technicians to make sure his real thoughts would not be overheard this time, but somehow someone forgot to turn off the feed to my office. As a public service, I’d like to reprint the candid under-their-breath mutterings they exchanged in between their public utterances.

THE PRESIDENT: “The prime minister and I have committed our governments to a plan to make every effort to achieve a lasting peace out of this crisis.”

“Actually, we talked about our plan to keep using fancy phrases like ‘lasting peace’ and ‘sustainable cease-fire,’ so we don’t actually have to cease the fire. Condi had a great one! Didya hear it, Tony? She said, ‘The fields of the Middle East are littered with broken cease-fires.’ Man, can she talk, and she plays piano, too!”

THE PRIME MINISTER: “The question is now how to get it stopped and get it stopped with the urgency that the situation demands. ... I welcome very much the fact that Secretary Rice will go back to the region tomorrow. She will have with her the package of proposals in order to get agreement both from the government of Israel and the government of Lebanon on what is necessary to happen in order for this crisis to stop.”

“I thought it was quite clever, George, to stall by sending Condi to Kuala Lumpur for that imminently skippable meeting of marginal Asian powers. And her decision to tickle the ivories while Beirut burns was inspired. The Asians love a good Brahms sonata. And she called it a ‘prayer for peace’! Just brilliant. But her idea of a series of Rachmaninoff concerts at every layover on the way to the Middle East could look too conspicuously like dawdling.”

THE PRESIDENT: “Hezbollah’s not a state. They’re a, you know, supposed political party that happens to be armed. Now what kind of state is it that’s got a political party that has got a militia?”

“Uh-oh! I mean, besides all those Shiite leaders we set up in Iraq who have THEIR own militias. Oh, man, this is complicated. What about those Republican Minutemen patrolling the Mexican border? Or Vice on a hunting trip?”

THE PRIME MINISTER: “Of course the U.N. resolution, the passing of it, the agreeing of it, can be the occasion for the end of hostilities if it’s acted upon, and agreed upon. And that requires not just the government of Israel and the government of Lebanon, obviously, to abide by it, but also for the whole of the international community to exert the necessary pressure so that there is the cessation of hostilities on both sides.”

“And the whole of the cosmos! We can call for an intergalactic study group to act upon and agree upon and adjudicate — George, I can keep the verbs, adjectives and conditional phrases going until these reporters keel over.”

THE PRESIDENT: “My message is, give up your nuclear weapon and your nuclear weapon ambitions. That’s my message to Syria — I mean, to Iran. And my message to Syria is, you know, become an active participant in the neighborhood for peace.”

“It’s so hard to keep all these countries straight! And which ones are in the Axis? I hate it when Condi leaves town. Tony Baloney, just blink twice when I mention a bad country and once when I mention one we like and sell arms to. And while you’re at it, heel, poodle! Har-har. Play dead! You crack me up.”

THE PRIME MINISTER: “I’ve spoken to President Chirac, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, the president of the European Union, the prime minister of Finland and many, many others.”

“See? I’m no poodle. I’m here to keep the names of our allies straight. And I can stand up straight. Bush, old boy, that’s not posture. That’s Paleolithic Man.”

THE PRESIDENT: “And so what you’re seeing is, you know, a clash of governing styles. For example, you know, you know, the, the, the notion of democracy beginning to emerge — emerge — scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, and those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them, and so they respond. They’ve always been violent. ... There’s this kind of almost, you know, kind of weird kind of elitism that says: well, maybe — maybe — certain people in certain parts of the world shouldn’t be free.”

“Tony, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

John Tierney is on vacation. Amen.

Reign of Error


Amid everything else that’s going wrong in the world, here’s one more piece of depressing news: a few days ago the Harris Poll reported that 50 percent of Americans now believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded, up from 36 percent in February 2005. Meanwhile, 64 percent still believe that Saddam had strong links with Al Qaeda.

At one level, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. The people now running America never accept inconvenient truths. Long after facts they don’t like have been established, whether it’s the absence of any wrongdoing by the Clintons in the Whitewater affair or the absence of W.M.D. in Iraq, the propaganda machine that supports the current administration is still at work, seeking to flush those facts down the memory hole.

But it’s dismaying to realize that the machine remains so effective.

Here’s how the process works.

First, if the facts fail to support the administration position on an issue — stem cells, global warming, tax cuts, income inequality, Iraq — officials refuse to acknowledge the facts.

Sometimes the officials simply lie. “The tax cuts have made the tax code more progressive and reduced income inequality,” Edward Lazear, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, declared a couple of months ago. More often, however, they bob and weave.

Consider, for example, Condoleezza Rice’s response a few months ago, when pressed to explain why the administration always links the Iraq war to 9/11. She admitted that Saddam, “as far as we know, did not order Sept. 11, may not have even known of Sept. 11.” (Notice how her statement, while literally true, nonetheless seems to imply both that it’s still possible that Saddam ordered 9/11, and that he probably did know about it.) “But,” she went on, “that’s a very narrow definition of what caused Sept. 11.”

Meanwhile, apparatchiks in the media spread disinformation. It’s hard to imagine what the world looks like to the large number of Americans who get their news by watching Fox and listening to Rush Limbaugh, but I get a pretty good sense from my mailbag.

Many of my correspondents are living in a world in which the economy is better than it ever was under Bill Clinton, newly released documents show that Saddam really was in cahoots with Osama, and the discovery of some decayed 1980’s-vintage chemical munitions vindicates everything the administration said about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. (Hyping of the munitions find may partly explain why public belief that Saddam had W.M.D. has made a comeback.)

Some of my correspondents have even picked up on claims, mostly disseminated on right-wing blogs, that the Bush administration actually did a heck of a job after Katrina.

And what about the perceptions of those who get their news from sources that aren’t de facto branches of the Republican National Committee?

The climate of media intimidation that prevailed for several years after 9/11, which made news organizations very cautious about reporting facts that put the administration in a bad light, has abated. But it’s not entirely gone. Just a few months ago major news organizations were under fierce attack from the right over their supposed failure to report the “good news” from Iraq — and my sense is that this attack did lead to a temporary softening of news coverage, until the extent of the carnage became undeniable. And the conventions of he-said-she-said reporting, under which lies and truth get equal billing, continue to work in the administration’s favor.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that the Bush administration continues to be remarkably successful at rewriting history. For example, Mr. Bush has repeatedly suggested that the United States had to invade Iraq because Saddam wouldn’t let U.N. inspectors in. His most recent statement to that effect was only a few weeks ago. And he gets away with it. If there have been reports by major news organizations pointing out that that’s not at all what happened, I’ve missed them.

It’s all very Orwellian, of course. But when Orwell wrote of “a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past,” he was thinking of totalitarian states. Who would have imagined that history would prove so easy to rewrite in a democratic nation with a free press?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Failure Upon Failure


Imagine a surgeon who is completely clueless, who has no idea what he or she is doing.

Imagine a pilot who is equally incompetent.

Now imagine a president.

The Middle East is in flames. Iraq has become a charnel house, a crucible of horror with no end to the agony in sight. Lebanon is in danger of going down for the count. And the crazies in Iran, empowered by the actions of their enemies, are salivating like vultures. They can’t wait to feast on the remains of U.S. policies and tactics spawned by a sophomoric neoconservative fantasy — that democracy imposed at gunpoint in Iraq would spread peace and freedom, like the flowers of spring, throughout the Middle East.

If a Democratic president had pursued exactly the same policies, and achieved exactly the same tragic results as George W. Bush, that president would have been the target of a ferocious drive for impeachment by the G.O.P.

Mr. Bush spent a fair amount of time this week with the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. There was plenty to talk about, nearly all of it hideous. Over the past couple of months Iraqi civilians have been getting blown away at the stunning rate of four or five an hour. Even Karl Rove had a tough time drawing a smiley face on that picture.

“Obviously the violence in Baghdad is still terrible,” said Mr. Bush, “and therefore there needs to be more troops.”

One did not get the sense, listening to this assessment from the commander in chief, that things would soon be well in hand. There was, instead, a disturbing sense of déjà vu. A sense of the president at a complete loss, not really knowing what to do. I recalled the image of Mr. Bush sitting in a Sarasota, Fla., classroom after being informed of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead of reacting instantly, commandingly, he just sat there for long wasted moments, with a bewildered look on his face, holding a second-grade story called “The Pet Goat.”

And then there was the famous picture of Mr. Bush, on his way back from a monthlong vacation, looking out the window of Air Force One as it flew low over the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. “It’s devastating,” Mr. Bush was quoted as saying. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”

I’ll tell you what’s devastating. The monumental and mind-numbing toll of Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq, which is being documented in a series of important books, the latest being Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco.” Mr. Ricks gives us more disturbing details about the administration’s “flawed plan for war” and “worse approach to occupation.”

Near the end of his book, he writes:

“In January 2005, the C.I.A.’s internal think tank, the National Intelligence Council, concluded that Iraq had replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for a new generation of jihadist terrorists. The country had become ‘a magnet for international terrorist activity,’ said the council’s chairman, Robert Hutchings.”

Saddled with one failure after another, the administration seems paralyzed, completely unable to shape the big issues facing the U.S. and the world today. Condoleezza Rice is in charge of the diplomatic effort regarding Lebanon. She’s been about as effective at that as the president was in his response to Katrina.

But Dr. Rice is still quick with the scary imagery. Her comment, “I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib,” recalls her famous, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

It might help if she spent less time giving us provocative metaphors and more time on the very difficult nuts and bolts of trying to maintain or bring about peace.

It may be that a hamstrung Bush administration is a better bet than the same crew being free to act as it pleases. Imagine how much better off we’d have been if Congress had found the wisdom and the courage to prevent the president from invading Iraq.

In two years and a few months Americans will vote again for president. I hope the long list of tragic failures by Bush & Co. prompts people to take that election more seriously than some in the past. If you were about to be lifted onto an operating table, you’d be more interested in the competence of the surgeon than in his or her personality.

Mr. Bush’s record reminds us that similarly careful consideration should be given to those who would be president.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Immutable President



It’s too bad President Bush spurns evolution — both in his view of the universe and his view of himself.

Scientists see more and more evidence that human evolution not only exists but is ongoing, as people adapt to changing circumstances with shifts in everything from skin color to the protein structure of sperm.

But with W., it’s more a matter of survival of the stubbornist.

If you turn on TV, you see missiles flying, bodies lying, nuclear missiles unleashed and a slaughterhouse in Iraq. But don’t despair, because yesterday President Bush announced the establishment of “a joint committee to achieve Iraqi self-reliance.” He called it a “new partnership,” as if it were some small business.

Isn’t it a little late, in July 2006, to be launching a new partnership for such an old mess? Isn’t it a little late to realize that Baghdad, a city where 300 garbage collectors have been killed in the last six months, according to press reports, has spun out of control?

In a press conference at the White House with his rogue puppet, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Mr. Bush explained that “our strategy is to remain on the offense, including in Baghdad.” Then why, after three and a half years, does our offense look so much like a defense?

The president sounded like a Jon Stewart imitation of himself when he assured reporters that Mr. Maliki had “a comprehensive plan” to pacify Iraq. “That’s what leaders do,” W. lectured, in a familiar refrain. “They see problems, they address problems, and they lay out a plan to solve the problems.”

If only the plan were a little less robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul, and a little more road-to-Damascus epiphany. Taking troops out of Anbar Province, where the insurgency is thriving, to quell violence in Baghdad doesn’t inspire confidence that the plan is truly “comprehensive.”

And despite W.’s praise of Mr. Maliki’s leadership, the plan to start from scratch, in essence, stabilizing neighborhood by neighborhood in Baghdad is, as The Times’s Michael Gordon writes, “an implicit acknowledgment of what every Iraqi in Baghdad already knows”: the prime minister’s “original Baghdad security plan has failed. In the past two weeks, more Iraqi civilians have been killed than have died in Lebanon and Israel.”

Mr. Bush also sent Condi Rice to lay out a plan to the Arabs and Europeans about the destruction and refugee flight in Lebanon, but the plan turns out to be a plan to do nothing until Israel has more time to kick the Hezb out of Hezbollah.

W. says he supports more diplomacy, but it’s the diplomacy of sanctimony. He now grudgingly notes that “the violence in Baghdad is still terrible,” but doesn’t seem to grasp the tragic enormity of an occupation that is sliding into civil war and constricting his leverage to deal with all the other crises crackling around the world. The U.N. reported last week that in May and June no less than 5,818 Iraqi civilians were killed.

Although he talked about whether America could be “facile” and “nimble” enough to change with the circumstances in the Middle East, in fundamental ways, he has not changed his attitude at all.

Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe says he conducted four “freewheeling” interviews with the president last week, and concluded: “Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region’s struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism. He still believes that when it comes to war and terror, leaders need to decide whose side they are on.”

The president sees Lebanon as a test of macho mettle rather than the latest chapter in a fratricidal free-for-all that’s been going on for centuries. “I view this as the forces of instability probing weakness,” he said. “I think they’re testing resolve.”

The more things get complicated, the more W. feels vindicated in his own simplified vision. The more people try to tell him that it’s not easy, that this is a region of shifting alliances and interests, the less he seems inclined to develop an adroit policy to win people over to our side instead of trying to annihilate them.

Bill Clinton, the Mutable Man par excellence, evolved four times a day; he had a tactical and even recreational attitude toward personal change. But W. prides himself on his changelessness and regards his immutability as the surest sign of his virtue. Facing a map on fire, he sees any inkling of change as the slippery slope to failure.

That’s what’s so frustrating about watching him deal — or not deal — with Iraq and Lebanon. There’s almost nothing to watch.

It’s not even like watching paint dry, since that, too, is a passage from one state to another. It’s like watching dry paint.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Black and Blue


According to the White House transcript, here’s how it went last week, when President Bush addressed the N.A.A.C.P. for the first time:

THE PRESIDENT: “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.”

AUDIENCE: “Yes! (Applause.)”

But Mr. Bush didn’t talk about why African-Americans don’t trust his party, and black districts are always blue on election maps. So let me fill in the blanks.

First, G.O.P. policies consistently help those who are already doing extremely well, not those lagging behind — a group that includes the vast majority of African-Americans. And both the relative and absolute economic status of blacks, after improving substantially during the Clinton years, have worsened since 2000.

The G.O.P. obsession with helping the haves and have-mores, and lack of concern for everyone else, was evident even in Mr. Bush’s speech to the N.A.A.C.P. Mr. Bush never mentioned wages, which have been falling behind inflation for most workers. And he certainly didn’t mention the minimum wage, which disproportionately affects African-American workers, and which he has allowed to fall to its lowest real level since 1955.

Mr. Bush also never used the word “poverty,” a condition that afflicts almost one in four blacks.

But he found time to call for repeal of the estate tax, even though African-Americans are more than a thousand times as likely to live below the poverty line as they are to be rich enough to leave a taxable estate.

Economic issues alone, then, partially explain African-American disdain for the G.O.P.

But even more important is the way Republicans win elections.

The problem with policies that favor the economic elite is that by themselves they’re not a winning electoral strategy, because there aren’t enough elite voters. So how did the Republicans rise to their current position of political dominance? It’s hard to deny that barely concealed appeals to racism, which drove a wedge between blacks and relatively poor whites who share the same economic interests, played a crucial role.

Don’t forget that in 1980, the sainted Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

These days the racist appeals have been toned down; Trent Lott was demoted, though not drummed out of the party, when he declared that if Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign had succeeded “we wouldn’t have had all these problems.” Meanwhile, the G.O.P. has found other ways to obscure its economic elitism. The Bush administration has proved utterly incompetent in fighting terrorists, but it has skillfully exploited the terrorist threat for domestic political gain. And there are also the “values” issues: abortion, stem cells, gay marriage.

But the nasty racial roots of the G.O.P.’s triumph live on in public policy and election strategy.

A revelatory article in yesterday’s Boston Globe described how the Bush administration has politicized the Justice Department’s civil rights division, “filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights.”

Not surprisingly, there has been a shift in priorities: “The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans, and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians.”

Above all, there’s the continuing effort of the G.O.P. to suppress black voting.

The Supreme Court probably wouldn’t have been able to put Mr. Bush in the White House in 2000 if the administration of his brother, the governor of Florida, hadn’t misidentified large numbers of African-Americans as felons ineligible to vote. In 2004, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state tried to impose a ludicrous rule on the paper weight of voter registration applications; last year, Georgia Republicans tried to impose an onerous “voter ID” rule. In each case, the obvious intent was to disenfranchise blacks.

And if the Republicans hold on to the House this fall, it will probably only be because of a redistricting plan in Texas that a panel of Justice Department lawyers unanimously concluded violated the Voting Rights Act — only to be overruled by their politically appointed superiors.

So yes, African-Americans distrust Mr. Bush’s party — with good reason.

Find a Better Way


It’s too late now, but Israel could have used a friend in the early stages of its war with Hezbollah — a friend who could have tugged at its sleeve and said: “O.K. We understand. But enough.”

That friend should have been the United States.

It is not difficult to understand both Israel’s obligation to lash back at the unprovoked attacks of Hezbollah, and the longstanding rage and frustration that have led the Israelis to attempt to obliterate, once and for all, this unrelenting terrorist threat. Israelis are always targets for terror — whether they are minding their own business in their homes, or shopping at the mall, or taking a bus to work, or celebrating the wedding of loved ones.

(A quick example from a seemingly endless list: An Israeli security guard prevented a Palestinian suicide bomber from entering a mall in the seaside town of Netanya last December. The bomber detonated his explosives anyway, killing himself, the guard and four others.)

But the unnecessary slaughter of innocents, whether by Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, American forces in Iraq or the Israeli defense forces, is always wrong, and should never be tolerated. So civilized people cannot in good conscience stand by and silently watch as hundreds of innocents are killed and thousands more threatened by the spasm of destruction unleashed by Israel in Lebanon.

Going after Hezbollah is one thing. The murderous rocket attacks into Israel must be stopped. But the wanton killing of innocent civilians, including babies and children, who had no connection at all to Hezbollah is something else.

The United States should have whispered into Israel’s ear, the message being: “The carnage has to cease. We’ll find a better way.”

Instead, the Bush crowd nodded in acquiescence as Israel plowed headlong into a situation that can’t possibly end any other way than badly. Lebanon, which had been one of the few bright spots in the Middle East, is now a mess. Even if Hezbollah is brought to its knees, the circumstances will ensure that there will be legions of newly radicalized young men anxious to take up arms and step into the vacuum.

(When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, its strongest resistance enemy was the Palestinian guerrilla group Fatah. When it withdrew 18 years later, it left behind a stronger, more extreme guerrilla movement in Hezbollah, a force that didn’t exist at the time of the invasion.)

Joseph Cirincione, an expert on national security matters (and a supporter of Israel) at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said last week: “There is no question that Hezbollah provoked this current crisis, and that it was right for Israel to respond, even if that meant crossing the Lebanon border to strike back at those who had attacked it. But this operation has gone too far. It’s striking back at those who had nothing to do with Hezbollah.”

As a true friend of Israel, the task of the United States is to work as strenuously as possible to find real solutions to Israel’s security. The first step in that process, as far as the current crisis is concerned, would logically have been to try and broker a cease-fire.

But the compulsive muscle-flexers in the Bush crowd were contemptuous of that idea. Always hot for war, and astonishingly indifferent to its consequences, they egged Israel on.

That was not the behavior of a friend.

Neither Israel nor the United States can kill enough Muslims to win the struggle against terror. What Israel needs are stable, moderate governments in the region. (This is one of the reasons why it made no sense to cripple the Lebanese government.) What the United States needs is as much serious diplomatic engagement on all fronts as possible, and an end to the Bush administration’s insane addiction to war — ever more war — as the answer to the world’s ills.

The U.S. especially needs to be deeply involved in the effort to establish peace between Israel and its neighbors.

There is no grand solution to the centuries-old problems of the Middle East. As with the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, you try to keep things as cool as possible, step by sometimes agonizing step. It may not be pretty, and it will surely be frustrating. But if the conflict, however aggravating, can be kept cold, as opposed to hot, you’re ahead of the game.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Passion of the Embryos


HOW time flies when democracy is on the march in the Middle East! Five whole years have passed since ominous Qaeda chatter reached its pre-9/11 fever pitch, culminating in the President’s Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

History has since condemned President Bush for ignoring that intelligence. But to say that he did nothing that summer is a bum rap. Just three days later, on Aug. 9, he took a break from clearing brush in Crawford to reveal the real priority of his presidency, which had nothing to do with a nuisance like terrorism. His first prime-time address after more than six months in office was devoted to embryonic stem-cell research instead. Placing his profound religious convictions above the pagan narcissism of Americans hoping for cures to diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, he decreed restrictions to shackle the advance of medical science.

Whatever else is to be said about the Decider, he’s consistent. Having dallied again this summer while terrorism upends the world, he has once more roused himself to take action — on stem cells. His first presidential veto may be bad news for the critically ill, but it was a twofer for the White House. It not only flattered the president’s base. It also drowned out some awkward news: the prime minister he installed in Baghdad, Nuri al-Maliki, and the fractious Parliament of Iraq’s marvelous new democracy had called a brief timeout from their civil war to endorse the sole cause that unites them, the condemnation of Israel.

The news is not all dire, however. While Mr. Bush’s Iraq project threatens to deliver the entire region to Iran’s ayatollahs, this month may also be remembered as a turning point in America’s own religious wars. The president’s politically self-destructive stem-cell veto and the simultaneous undoing of the religious right’s former golden boy, Ralph Reed, in a Republican primary for lieutenant governor in Georgia are landmark defeats for the faith-based politics enshrined by Mr. Bush’s presidency. If we can’t beat the ayatollahs over there, maybe we’re at least starting to rout them here.

That the administration’s stem-cell policy is a political fiasco for its proponents is evident from a single fact: Bill Frist, the most craven politician in Washington, ditched the president. In past pandering to his party’s far-right fringe, Mr. Frist, who calls himself a doctor, misdiagnosed the comatose Terri Schiavo’s condition after watching her on videotape and, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, refused to dispute an abstinence program’s canard that tears and sweat could transmit AIDS. If Senator Frist is belatedly standing up for stem-cell research, you can bet he’s read some eye-popping polls. His ignorance about H.I.V. notwithstanding, he also knows that the facts about stem cells are not on Mr. Bush’s side.

The voting public has learned this, too. Back in 2001, many Americans gave the president the benefit of the doubt when he said that his stem-cell “compromise” could make “more than 60” cell lines available for federally financed study. Those lines turned out to be as illusory as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction: there were only 22, possibly all of them now contaminated or otherwise useless. Fittingly, the only medical authority to endorse the Bush policy at the time, the Houston cancer doctor John Mendelsohn, was a Bush family friend. He would later become notorious for lending his empirical skills to the Enron board’s audit committee.

This time around, with the administration’s credibility ruined by Iraq, official lies about science didn’t fly. When Karl Rove said that embryonic stem cells weren’t required because there was “far more promise from adult stem cells,” The Chicago Tribune investigated and found that the White House couldn’t produce a single stem-cell researcher who agreed. (Ahmad Chalabi, alas, has no medical degree.) In the journal Science, three researchers summed up the consensus of the reality-based scientific community: misleading promises about adult stem cells “cruelly deceive patients.”

No less cruelly deceptive was the photo op staged to sell Mr. Bush’s veto: television imagery of the president cradling so-called Snowflake babies, born via in vitro fertilization from frozen embryos that had been “adopted.” As Senator Arlen Specter has pointed out, only 128 of the 400,000 or so rejected embryos languishing in deep freeze in fertility clinics have been adopted. Many of the rest are destined to be tossed in the garbage.

If you believe, as Mr. Bush says he does, that either discarding or conducting research with I.V.F. embryos is murder, then fertility clinic doctors, like stem-cell researchers, belong on death row. But the president, so proud of drawing a firm “moral” line, will no sooner crack down on I.V.F. than he did on Kim Jong Il: The second-term Bush has been downsized to a paper tiger. His party’s base won’t be so shy. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who led the Senate anti-stem-cell offensive and sees himself as the religious right’s presidential candidate, has praised the idea of limiting the number of eggs fertilized in vitro to “one or two at a time.” A Kentucky state legislator offered a preview of coming attractions, writing a bill making the fertilization of multiple eggs in I.V.F. treatments a felony.

Tacticians in both political parties have long theorized that if a conservative Supreme Court actually struck down Roe v. Wade, it would set Republicans back at the polls for years. Mr. Bush’s canonization of clumps of frozen cells over potential cancer cures may jump-start that backlash. We’ll see this fall. Already one Republican senatorial candidate, Michael Steele of Maryland, has stepped in Mr. Bush’s moral morass by egregiously comparing stem-cell research to Nazi experiments on Jews during the Holocaust.

Mr. Reed’s primary defeat is as much a blow to religious-right political clout as the White House embrace of stem-cell fanaticism. The man who revolutionized the face of theocratic politics in the 1990’s with a telegenic choirboy’s star power has now changed his movement’s face again, this time to mud.

The humiliating Reed defeat — by 12 points against a lackluster rival in a conservative primary in a conservative state — is being pinned on his association with the felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also tainted that other exemplar of old-time religion, Tom DeLay. True enough, but it’s what Mr. Reed did for Mr. Abramoff’s clients that is most damning, far more so than the golf junkets and money-grubbing. The causes Mr. Reed enabled through manufactured grass-roots campaigns (unwittingly, he maintains) were everything he was supposedly against: Indian casinos and legal loopholes that allowed forced abortions and sexual slavery in the work force of an American commonwealth, the Northern Mariana Islands.

Hypocrisy among self-aggrandizing evangelists is as old as Elmer Gantry — older, actually. But Mr. Reed wasn’t some campfire charlatan. He was the religious right’s most effective poster boy in mainstream America. He had been recruited for precisely that mission by Pat Robertson, who made him the frontman for the Christian Coalition in 1989, knowing full well that Mr. Reed’s smarts and youth could do P.R. wonders that Mr. Robertson and the rest of the baggage-laden Falwell generation of Moral Majority demagogues could not. And it worked. In 1995, Mr. Reed was rewarded with the cover of Time, for representing “the most thorough penetration of the secular world of American politics by an essentially religious organization in this century.”

Actually, the Christian Coalition was soon to be accused of inflating its membership, Enron-accounting style, and was careening into debt. Only three years after his Time cover, Mr. Reed, having ditched the coalition to set up shop as a political consultant, sent his self-incriminating e-mail to Mr. Abramoff: “I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” He also humped in noncorporate accounts, like the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

By 2005 Mr. Reed had become so toxic that Mr. Bush wouldn’t be caught on camera with him in Georgia. But the Bush-Rove machine was nonetheless yoked to Mr. Reed in their crusades: the demonization of gay couples as boogeymen (and women) in election years, the many assaults on health (not just in stem-cell laboratories but in federal agencies dealing with birth control and sex education), the undermining of the science of evolution. The beauty of Mr. Reed’s unmasking is the ideological impact: the radical agenda to which he lent an ersatz respectability has lost a big fig leaf, and all the president’s men, tied down like Gulliver in Iraq, cannot put it together again to bamboozle suburban voters.

It’s possible that even Joe Lieberman, a fellow traveler in the religious right’s Schiavo and indecency jeremiads, could be swept out with Rick Santorum in the 2006 wave. Mr. Lieberman is hardly the only Democrat in the Senate who signed on to the war in Iraq, but he’s surely the most sanctimonious. He is also the only Democrat whose incessant Bible thumping (while running for vice president in 2000) was deemed “inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours” by the Anti-Defamation League. As Ralph Reed used to say: amen.

Last Sunday’s column misstated the location of a children’s lemonade stand patronized by President Bush last month. It was in Columbus, Ohio, not Raleigh, N.C.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Condi’s Flying Dutchman



As USA Today noted about summer movies, the hot trend in heroines “is not the damsel in distress. It’s the damsel who causes distress.”

Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Condi.

The more W. and his tough, by-any-means-necessary superbabe have tried to tame the Middle East, the more inflamed the Middle East has become. Now the secretary of state is leaving, reluctantly and belatedly, to do some shuttle diplomacy that entails little diplomacy and no shuttling. It’s more like air-guitar diplomacy.

Condi doesn’t want to talk to Hezbollah or its sponsors, Syria and Iran — “Syria knows what it needs to do,’’ she says with asperity — and she doesn’t want a cease-fire. She wants “a sustainable cease-fire,’’ which means she wants to give the Israelis more time to decimate Hezbollah bunkers with the precision-guided bombs that the Bush administration is racing to deliver.

“I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling, and it wouldn’t have been clear what I was shuttling to do,” she said.

Keep more civilians from being killed? Or at least keep America from being even more despised in the Middle East and around the globe?

Like Davy Jones, the octopus-headed creature who had to keep sailing Flying Dutchman-like without getting to land in the new “Pirates of the Caribbean,’’ Condi had a hard time finding an Arab port in which to dock.

The Arab street, declared prematurely dead by the neocons after the Iraq invasion, is so incensed over scenes of mass graves, homeless children and Israeli ground incursions into Lebanon that Egypt spurned Ms. Rice’s bid to meet next week in Cairo. (Her only consolation is that at least the autocratic Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, is listening to the Arab street as she has been harping on him to do for more than a year.)

The Arab allies, who agreed to meet her and European envoys in Rome, clearly did not want to be used as a stalling tactic on Arab turf, with Condi miming diplomacy to buy time for Israel. Maybe, like Jack Sparrow, they can at least bring a jar of Arab turf with them.

In a twist that illustrated the growing power of Shiites and Iranians, even the Shiite Iraqi prime minister broke with the Bush stance and denounced Israeli attacks on Lebanon. Is there no honor among puppets?

Condi was as cool as ever in the State Department briefing room yesterday, perfectly groomed in a camel-colored suit with an athletic white stripe. Like her boss, she does not show any sign of tension over the fact that all of their schemes to democratize the Middle East ended up creating more fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism and anti-Americanism. Having ginned up the idea that Al Qaeda was state-sponsored terrorism backed by Saddam, now W. and Condi have to contend with the specter of real state-sponsored terrorism.

Like a professor who has grown so frustrated with one misbehaving student that she turns her focus on another, Condi put aside the sulfurous distraction of Iraq and enthused over the need to make the fragile democracy in Lebanon a centerpiece of the “new Middle East.”

She said that the carnage there represented the “birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.” Yet everything in the Middle East seems to be reeling backward in a scary way, and neocons are once more mocking W. as a wimp who should blow off the State Department and blow up Syria and Iran.

Having inadvertently built up Iran with his failures in Iraq, W. is eager now to send Iran a shock-and-awe message through Israel.

The Bush counselor Dan Bartlett told The Washington Post that the president “mourns the loss of every life, yet out of this tragic development he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.”

W. continues to present simplicity as clarity. When will he ever learn that clarity is the last thing you’re going to find in the Middle East, and that trying to superimpose it with force usually makes things worse? That’s what both the Israelis and Ronald Reagan learned in the early 1980’s when they tried disastrously to remake Lebanon.

The cowboy president bet the ranch on Iraq, and that war has made almost any other American action in the Arab world, and any Pax Americana that might have been created there, impossible. It’s fitting that Condi is the Flying Dutchman, since Lebanon represents the shipwreck of our Middle East policy.

The Price of Fantasy


Today we call them neoconservatives, but when the first George Bush was president, those who believed that America could remake the world to its liking with a series of splendid little wars — people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — were known within the administration as “the crazies.” Grown-ups in both parties rejected their vision as a dangerous fantasy.

But in 2000 the Supreme Court delivered the White House to a man who, although he may be 60, doesn’t act like a grown-up. The second President Bush obviously confuses swagger with strength, and prefers tough talkers like the crazies to people who actually think things through. He got the chance to implement the crazies’ vision after 9/11, which created a climate in which few people in Congress or the news media dared to ask hard questions. And the result is the bloody mess we’re now in.

This isn’t a case of 20-20 hindsight. It was clear from the beginning that the United States didn’t have remotely enough troops to carry out the crazies’ agenda — and Mr. Bush never asked for a bigger army.

As I wrote back in January 2003, this meant that the “Bush doctrine” of preventive war was, in practice, a plan to “talk trash and carry a small stick.” It was obvious even then that the administration was preparing to invade Iraq not because it posed a real threat, but because it looked like a soft target.

The message to North Korea, which really did have an active nuclear program, was clear: “The Bush administration,” I wrote, putting myself in Kim Jong Il’s shoes, “says you’re evil. It won’t offer you aid, even if you cancel your nuclear program, because that would be rewarding evil. It won’t even promise not to attack you, because it believes it has a mission to destroy evil regimes, whether or not they actually pose any threat to the U.S. But for all its belligerence, the Bush administration seems willing to confront only regimes that are militarily weak.” So “the best self-preservation strategy ... is to be dangerous.”

With a few modifications, the same logic applies to Iran. And it’s easier than ever for Iran to be dangerous, now that U.S. forces are bogged down in Iraq.

Would the current crisis on the Israel-Lebanon border have happened even if the Bush administration had actually concentrated on fighting terrorism, rather than using 9/11 as an excuse to pursue the crazies’ agenda? Nobody knows. But it’s clear that the United States would have more options, more ability to influence the situation, if Mr. Bush hadn’t squandered both the nation’s credibility and its military might on his war of choice.

So what happens next?

Few if any of the crazies have the moral courage to admit that they were wrong. Vice President Cheney continues to insist that his two most famous pronouncements about Iraq — his declaration before the invasion that we would be “greeted as liberators” and his assertion a year ago that the insurgency was in its “last throes” — were “basically accurate.”

But if the premise of the Bush doctrine was right, why are things going so badly?

The crazies respond by retreating even further into their fantasies of omnipotence. The only problem, they assert, is a lack of will.

Thus William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, has called for a military strike — an airstrike, since we don’t have any spare ground troops — against Iran.

“Yes, there would be repercussions,” he wrote in his magazine, “and they would be healthy ones.” What would these healthy repercussions be? On Fox News he argued that “the right use of targeted military force” could cause the Iranian people “to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power.” Oh, boy.

Mr. Kristol is, of course, a pundit rather than a policymaker. But there’s every reason to suspect that what Mr. Kristol says in public is what Mr. Cheney says in private.

And what about The Decider himself?

For years the self-proclaimed “war president” basked in the adulation of the crazies. Now they’re accusing him of being a wimp. “We have been too weak,” writes Mr. Kristol, “and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Does Mr. Bush have the maturity to stand up to this kind of pressure? I report, you decide.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Leading to Low Ground


“We are different from our enemy and we must remain so.”

— Elisa Massimino

The United States had complete command of the moral and ethical high ground in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of the world was with us.

For some reason, the Bush administration deliberately abandoned those heights to pursue policies that were not just morally questionable, but reprehensible. Administration officials have fought like tigers to retain the right to torture. They have imprisoned people willy-nilly, without regard to whether they had actually committed offenses against the United States. They set up a system of kangaroo courts at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that was such an affront to the idea of justice that it should have sent shudders of shame down the spines of decent Americans.

In fact, most Americans never bothered to notice.

The administration’s descent into barbarism hit a speed bump last month when the Supreme Court ruled that the kangaroo courts, otherwise known as military commissions, were an unmitigated outrage. They were patently illegal. They had not been authorized by Congress. They violated the Geneva Conventions. They stomped all over the rights of the defendant.

The inquisitors of the Middle Ages would have smiled knowingly at Guantánamo.

Elisa Massimino is the Washington director of Human Rights First. She testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has held hearings as part of the effort by Congress and the White House to come up with a system for trying prisoners at Guantánamo that would replace the outlawed commissions.

“Part of the problem,” she told me in an interview, “is that we’ve got these detainees in custody, and the rhetoric about them for four years now has been so elevated that people want to create a system that will guarantee their conviction. But that’s not worthy of this country. That’s not how justice is done. That may be how other countries do it, but that’s never been how we’ve done it.”

In her testimony, Ms. Massimino discussed some of the requirements of the Supreme Court ruling. Among other things, she said, “We cannot have rules permitting one person or branch of government to be the judge, jury and prosecutor.” She said, “Defendants must have the right to be present at trial.” She said, “A defendant must have the right to know the evidence being used against him, to respond to it, and to challenge its credibility or authenticity.”

Americans are used to taking these sorts of things for granted. How is it possible that the president of the United States could set up a system in which these kinds of fundamental rights were held in complete contempt?

But there’s more. The administration was not satisfied with rigging the system against the defendant. As she continued discussing the requirements of the Supreme Court ruling, Ms. Massimino said: “Testimony cannot be compelled. ... This means not only that a person cannot be forced to testify, but also that information or witness statements obtained through torture, cruelty or other coercion cannot be used as evidence.”

That rumbling you hear is the sound of the founding fathers spinning in their graves. Incredibly, under the trials originally authorized by President Bush, prosecutors would have been allowed to introduce evidence obtained through torture and other forms of coercion. The Bush administration didn’t just leave the moral and ethical high ground. It sped away with great enthusiasm.

What is interesting is the common ground on this issue that is being found by human rights groups and the highest-ranking lawyers of America’s armed forces. Testifying last week before the same committee that Ms. Massimino addressed yesterday, top lawyers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all endorsed proceedings that would give more rights and protections to detainees than the administration had been willing to give.

In her testimony, Ms. Massimino urged the committee to use the existing Uniform Code of Military Justice as the basic system for trying detainees. In his appearance before the committee last week, Brig. Gen. Kevin Sandkuhler, the top lawyer for the Marines, described that code as “the gold standard.”

After a while you get the sense that real progress could be made, if only the Bush administration would get out of the way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Animal House Summit


Reporters who covered W.’s 2000 campaign often wondered whether the Bush scion would give up acting the fool if he got to be the king.

Would he stop playing peekaboo with his pre-meal moist towels during airplane interviews? Would he quit scrunching up his face and wiggling his eyebrows at memorial services? Would he replace levity and inanity with gravity?

“In many regards, the Bush I knew did not seem to be built for what lay ahead,’’ wrote Frank Bruni, the Times writer who covered W.’s ascent, in his book “Ambling Into History.” “The Bush I knew was part scamp and part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and weekend napster, an adult with an inner child that often brimmed to the surface or burst through.”

The open-microphone incident at the G-8 lunch in St. Petersburg on Monday illustrated once more that W. never made any effort to adapt. The president has enshrined his immaturity and insularity, turning every environment he inhabits — no matter how decorous or serious — into a comfortable frat house.

No matter what the trappings or the ceremonies require of the leader of the free world, he brings the same DKE bearing and cadences, the same insouciance and smart-alecky attitude, the same simplistic approach — swearing, swaggering, talking to Tony Blair with his mouth full of buttered roll, and giving a startled Angela Merkel an impromptu shoulder rub. He can make even a global summit meeting seem like a kegger.

Catching W. off-guard, the really weird thing is his sense of victimization. He’s strangely resentful about the actual core of his job. Even after the debacles of Iraq and Katrina, he continues to treat the presidency as a colossal interference with his desire to mountain bike and clear brush.

In snippets of overheard conversation, Mr. Bush says he has not bothered to prepare any closing remarks and grouses about having to listen to other world leaders talk too long. What did he think being president was about?

The world may be blowing up, and the president may have a rare opportunity to jaw-jaw about bang-bang with his peers, but that pales in comparison with his burning desire to return to his feather pillow and gym back at the White House.

“Gotta go home,’’ he tells the guy next to him. “Got something to do tonight. Go to the airport, get on the airplane and go home.” A White House spokesman said Mr. Bush had nothing on his schedule after he returned to Washington on Monday about 4 p.m.

When he began meandering about how big Russia was, you expected him to yell, “Yo, Condi!’’ and ask his secretary of state: “Hey, what’s the name of that other big country that has more people than any other country in the world? It begins with a ‘C.’ Dad spent some time there.’’

Perhaps it’s that anti-patrician chip on his shoulder, his rebellion against a family that prized manners and diplomacy above all. But when bored or frustrated, W. reserves the right to be boorish — no matter if the setting is a gilded palace or a Texas gorge.

He treated Tony “As It Were” Blair like the servant in “The Remains of the Day,’’ blowing off his offer to help with the Israel-Lebanon crisis, and changing the subject from substance to fluff at one point, noting about his 60th-birthday Burberry gift: “Thanks for the sweater. Awfully thoughtful of you.’’ Then he razzed the British prime minister, who was hovering and wheedling like an abused wife: “I know you picked it out yourself.”

After doing his best to undermine the U.N. and Kofi Annan, W. talked about the secretary general like a fraternity pledge he wanted to send out for more beer or a keg of Diet Coke: “I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen.’’

His loosey-goosey confidence that everything could be fixed with a phone call — and not even a phone call made by him, and not even a phone call made to the Iranians, who have more control over Hezbollah — was striking. He seems to have no clue that his own headlong, heedless actions in the Middle East have contributed to the deepening chaos there, and to Iran’s growing influence and America’s diminished leverage.

Mr. Bush may resent the sophistication required of a president. But when the world is going to hell, he should stop chewing and start thinking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

March of Folly


Since those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it — and since the cast of characters making pronouncements on the crisis in the Middle East is very much the same as it was three or four years ago — it seems like a good idea to travel down memory lane. Here’s what they said and when they said it:

“The greatest thing to come out of [invading Iraq] for the world economy ... would be $20 a barrel for oil.” Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation (which owns Fox News), February 2003

“Oil Touches Record $78 on Mideast Conflict.” Headline on www.foxnews.com, July 14, 2006

“The administration’s top budget official estimated today that the cost of a war with Iraq could be in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion,” saying that “earlier estimates of $100 billion to $200 billion in Iraq war costs by Lawrence B. Lindsey, Mr. Bush’s former chief economic adviser, were too high.” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2002

“According to C.B.O.’s estimates, from the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, $290 billion has been allocated for activities in Iraq. ... Additional costs over the 2007-2016 period would total an estimated $202 billion under the first [optimistic] scenario, and $406 billion under the second one.” Congressional Budget Office, July 13, 2006

“Peacekeeping requirements in Iraq might be much lower than historical experience in the Balkans suggests. There’s been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another that produced so much bloodshed and permanent scars in Bosnia.” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and now president of the World Bank, Feb. 27, 2003

“West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighborhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.” The Times of London, July 14, 2006

“Earlier this week, I traveled to Baghdad to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq.” President Bush, June 17, 2006

“People are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse. ... These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.” Ayad Allawi, Mr. Bush’s choice as Iraq’s first post-Saddam prime minister, November 2005

“Iraq’s new government has another able leader in Speaker Mashhadani. ... He rejects the use of violence for political ends. And by agreeing to serve in a prominent role in this new unity government, he’s demonstrating leadership and courage.” President Bush, May 22, 2006

“Some people say ‘we saw you beheading, kidnappings and killing. In the end we even started kidnapping women who are our honor.’ These acts are not the work of Iraqis. I am sure that he who does this is a Jew and the son of a Jew.” Mahmoud Mashhadani, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, July 13, 2006

“My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.” President Bush, Dec. 18, 2005

“I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, when asked whether we’re winning in Iraq, July 14, 2006

“Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits for the region. ...Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart, and our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced.” Vice President Dick Cheney, Aug. 26, 2002

“Bush — The world is coming unglued before his eyes. His naïve dreams are a Wilsonian disaster.” Newsweek Conventional Wisdom Watch, July 24, 2006 edition

“It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, Dec. 6, 2005

“I cannot support a failed foreign policy. History teaches us that it is often easier to make war than peace. This administration is just learning that lesson right now.” Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, on the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, April 28, 1999

The Definition of Tyranny


Congress is dithering and the American public doesn’t even seem particularly concerned as the administration of George W. Bush systematically trashes such fundamental American values as justice, due process, respect for human rights and submission to the rule of law.

In the kangaroo courts that the administration concocted to try detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a defendant could be prevented from seeing the evidence against him, would not have the right to attend his own trial and would not have the right to appeal the sentence to a civilian court.

That’s slapstick justice, a process worthy of the Marx Brothers.

“You have been accused of being a terrorist.”

“Where is the evidence?”

“We can’t show it to you.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“So is this court. We find you guilty. Take him away.”

The Supreme Court now says, in a vote that was closer than it should have been, that this sort of madness cannot be permitted. In its recent decision striking down the tribunals for terror suspects at Guantánamo, the court said of the defendant, Salim Ahmed Hamdan: “He will be, and indeed already has been, excluded from his own trial.”

The court said, in effect, that this is not the American way, that ours is not a Marx Brothers republic. Not yet, anyway. (It most likely will be if Mr. Bush gets to appoint one or two more justices to the court.)

The Bush-Cheney regime believes it can do whatever outlandish things it wants, including torturing people and keeping them incarcerated for life without even the semblance of due process. And it’s not giving up. The administration now wants Congress to authorize what the Supreme Court has plainly said was wrong. White House lawyers, in a torturous (pun intended) interpretation of the court’s ruling, seem to be arguing that the kangaroo courts, otherwise known as military commissions, will be quite all right if only Congress will say so.

They’re not all right. They’re an abomination (like the secret C.I.A. prisons and the practice of extraordinary rendition) that spits in the face of the idea that the United States is a great and civilized nation.

“Can you imagine if the Hamdan decision, among others, had gone the other way?” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been waging an extraordinary fight to secure basic legal protections for prisoners at Guantánamo. “I mean we’d be looking at a dark nightmare.”

The court’s decision brought into sharp relief the importance of one of the most fundamental aspects of American government, the separation of powers. Checks and balances. The judicial branch put a halt — a check — on a gruesomely illegal practice by the executive.

Mr. Bush has tried to scrap the very idea of checks and balances. The Republican-controlled Congress has, for the most part, rolled over like trained seals for the president. And Mr. Bush is trying mightily to pack the courts with right-wingers who will do the same. Under those circumstances, his will becomes law.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in the Hamdan case, referred to a seminal quote from James Madison. The entire quote is as follows: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

As the center noted in a recent report, “The U.S. government has employed every possible tactic to evade judicial review of its detention and interrogation practices in the ‘war on terror,’ including allegations that U.S. personnel subject prisoners to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

There is every reason to be alarmed about the wretched road that Bush, Cheney et al. are speeding along. It is as if they were following a route deliberately designed to undermine a great nation.

A lot of Americans are like spoiled rich kids who take their wealth for granted. Too many of us have forgotten — or never learned — the real value of the great American ideals. Too many are standing silently by as Mr. Bush and his cronies engage in the kind of tyrannical and uncivilized behavior that has brought so much misery — and ultimately ruin — to previous societies.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You ‘Axis of Evil’


AS American foreign policy lies in ruins from Pyongyang to Baghdad to Beirut, its epitaph is already being written in Washington. Last week’s Time cover, “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy,” lays out the conventional wisdom: the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, upended by chaos in Iraq and the nuclear intransigence of North Korea and Iran, is now officially kaput. In its stead, a sadder but more patient White House, under the sway of Condi Rice, is embracing the fine art of multilateral diplomacy and dumping the “bring ’em on” gun-slinging that got the world into this jam.

The only flaw in this narrative — a big one — is that it understates the administration’s failure by assuming that President Bush actually had a grand, if misguided, vision in the first place. Would that this were so. But in truth this presidency never had a vision for the world. It instead had an idée fixe about one country, Iraq, and in pursuit of that obsession recklessly harnessed American power to gut-driven improvisation and P.R. strategies, not doctrine. This has not changed, even now.

Only if we remember that the core values of this White House are marketing and political expediency, not principle and substance, can we fully grasp its past errors and, more important, decipher the endgame to come. The Bush era has not been defined by big government or small government but by virtual government. Its enduring shrine will be a hollow Department of Homeland Security that finds more potential terrorist targets in Indiana than in New York.

Like his father, George W. Bush always disdained the vision thing. He rode into office on the heels of a boom, preaching minimalist ambitions reminiscent of the 1920’s boom Republicanism of Harding and Coolidge. Mr. Bush’s most fervent missions were to cut taxes, pass a placebo patients’ bill of rights and institute the education program he sold as No Child Left Behind. His agenda was largely exhausted by the time of his fateful Crawford vacation in August 2001, so he talked vaguely of immigration reform and announced a stem-cell research “compromise.” But he failed to seriously lead on either issue, both of which remain subjects of toxic debate today. To appear busy once he returned to Washington after Labor Day, he cooked up a typically alliterative “program” called Communities of Character, a grab bag of “values” initiatives inspired by polling data. That was forgotten after the Qaeda attacks. But the day that changed everything didn’t change the fundamental character of the Bush presidency. The so-called doctrine of pre-emption, a repackaging of the long-held Cheney-Rumsfeld post-cold-war mantra of unilateralism, was just another gaudy float in the propaganda parade ginned up to take America to war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. As the president’s chief of staff then, Andrew Card, famously said of the Iraq war just after Labor Day 2002, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” The Bush doctrine was rolled out officially two weeks later, just days after the administration’s brass had fanned out en masse on the Sunday-morning talk shows to warn that Saddam’s smoking gun would soon come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

The Bush doctrine was a doctrine in name only, a sales strategy contrived to dress up the single mission of regime change in Iraq with philosophical grandiosity worthy of F.D.R. There was never any serious intention of militarily pre-empting either Iran or North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions were as naked then as they are now, or of striking the countries that unlike Iraq were major enablers of Islamic terrorism. Axis of Evil was merely a clever brand name from the same sloganeering folks who gave us “compassionate conservatism” and “a uniter, not a divider” — so clever that the wife of a presidential speechwriter, David Frum, sent e-mails around Washington boasting that her husband was the “Axis of Evil” author. (Actually, only “axis” was his.)

Since then, the administration has fiddled in Iraq while Islamic radicalism has burned brighter and the rest of the Axis of Evil, not to mention Afghanistan and the Middle East, have grown into just the gathering threat that Saddam was not. And there’s still no policy. As Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution writes on his foreign-affairs blog, Mr. Bush isn’t pursuing diplomacy in his post-cowboy phase so much as “a foreign policy of empty gestures” consisting of “strong words here; a soothing telephone call and hasty meetings there.” The ambition is not to control events but “to kick the proverbial can down the road — far enough so the next president can deal with it.” There is no plan for victory in Iraq, only a wish and a prayer that the apocalypse won’t arrive before Mr. Bush retires to his ranch.

But for all the administration’s setbacks, its core belief in P.R. remains unshaken. Or at least its faith in domestic P.R. (It has never cared about the destruction of America’s image abroad by our countenance of torture.) That marketing imperative, not policy, was once again the driving vision behind the latest Iraq offensive: the joint selling of the killing of Zarqawi, the formation of the new Maliki government, the surprise presidential trip to the Green Zone and the rollout of Operation Together Forward to secure Baghdad more than three years after its liberation from Saddam.

Operation Together Forward is just the latest model of the Axis of Evil gimmick. In his Rose Garden press conference last month, Mr. Bush promised that this juggernaut of crack Iraqi troops and American minders would “increase the number of checkpoints, enforce a curfew and implement a strict weapons ban across the Iraqi capital.” It’s been predictably downhill ever since. After two weeks of bloodshed, Col. Jeffrey Snow of the Army explained that the operation was a success even if the patient, Iraq, was dying, because “we expected that there would be an increase in the number of attacks.” Last week, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, allowed that there would be “adjustments” to the plan and that the next six months (why is it always six months?) would be critical. Gen. George Casey spoke of tossing more American troops into the Baghdad shooting gallery to stave off disaster.

So what’s the latest White House strategy to distract from the escalating mayhem? Yet another P.R. scheme, in this case drawn from the playbook of fall 2003, when the president countered news of the growing Iraq insurgency by going around the media “filter” to speak to the people through softball interviews with regional media outlets. Thus the past two weeks have brought the spectacle of Mr. Bush yukking it up at Graceland, flattering immigrant workers at a Dunkin’ Donuts, patronizing a children’s lemonade stand in Raleigh, N.C., and meeting the press in such comfy settings as an outside-the-filter press conference (in Chicago) and “Larry King Live.” The people, surely, are feeling better already about all that nasty business abroad.

Or not. The bounce in the polls that once reliably followed these stunts is no more. As Americans contemplate the tragedy of Iraq, the triumph of Islamic jihadists in “democracies” we promoted for the Middle East, and the unimpeded power plays of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they see reality for what it is. Gone are the days when “Mission Accomplished” would fly. Barring a miracle, one legacy of the Bush Iraq-centric foreign policy will be the mess that those who come next will have to clean up.

ANOTHER, equally significant, part of the Bush legacy is already evident throughout Washington, and not confined to foreign policy or the executive branch. Following the president’s leadership, Congress has also embraced the virtual governance of substituting publicity stunts for substance.

Instead of passing an immigration law, this Congress has entertained us with dueling immigration hearings. Instead of overseeing the war in Iraq or homeland security, its members have held press conferences announcing that they, if not the Pentagon, have at last found Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (degraded mustard gas and sarin canisters from the 1980’s). Instead of promised post-DeLay reforms, the House concocted a sham Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act that won’t do away with the gifts and junkets politicians rake in from the Abramoffs of K Street. And let’s not forget all the days devoted to resolutions about same-sex marriage, flag burning, the patriotism of The New York Times and the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Before long, Congress will be leaving on its summer vacation,” Bob Schieffer of CBS News said two weeks ago. “My question is, how will we know they are gone?” By the calculation of USA Today, the current Congress is on track to spend fewer days in session than the “do-nothing Congress” Harry Truman gave hell to in 1948. No wonder its approval rating, for Republicans and Democrats together, is even lower than the president’s. It’s not only cowboy diplomacy that’s dead at this point in the Bush era, but also functioning democracy as we used to know it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Left Behind Economics


I’d like to say that there’s a real dialogue taking place about the state of the U.S. economy, but the discussion leaves a lot to be desired. In general, the conversation sounds like this:

Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”

Informed economist: “But it’s not a great economy for most Americans. Many families are actually losing ground, and only a very few affluent people are doing really well.”

Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”

To a large extent, this dialogue of the deaf reflects Upton Sinclair’s principle: it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. But there’s also an element of genuine incredulity. Many observers, even if they acknowledge the growing concentration of income in the hands of the few, find it hard to believe that this concentration could be proceeding so rapidly as to deny most Americans any gains from economic growth.

Yet newly available data show that that’s exactly what happened in 2004.

Why talk about 2004, rather than more recent experience? Unfortunately, data on the distribution of income arrive with a substantial lag; the full story of what happened in 2004 has only just become available, and we won’t be able to tell the full story of what’s happening right now until the last year of the Bush administration. But it’s reasonably clear that what’s happening now is the same as what happened then: growth in the economy as a whole is mainly benefiting a small elite, while bypassing most families.

Here’s what happened in 2004. The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent, a very good number. Yet last August the Census Bureau reported that real median family income — the purchasing power of the typical family — actually fell. Meanwhile, poverty increased, as did the number of Americans without health insurance. So where did the growth go?

The answer comes from the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose long-term estimates of income equality have become the gold standard for research on this topic, and who have recently updated their estimates to include 2004. They show that even if you exclude capital gains from a rising stock market, in 2004 the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans surged by almost 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of the population rose only 1.5 percent. In other words, a relative handful of people received most of the benefits of growth.

There are a couple of additional revelations in the 2004 data. One is that growth didn’t just bypass the poor and the lower middle class, it bypassed the upper middle class too. Even people at the 95th percentile of the income distribution — that is, people richer than 19 out of 20 Americans — gained only modestly. The big increases went only to people who were already in the economic stratosphere.

The other revelation is that being highly educated was no guarantee of sharing in the benefits of economic growth. There’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by economists who should know better — like Edward Lazear, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers — that rising inequality in the United States is mainly a matter of a rising gap between those with a lot of education and those without. But census data show that the real earnings of the typical college graduate actually fell in 2004.

In short, it’s a great economy if you’re a high-level corporate executive or someone who owns a lot of stock. For most other Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport.

Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely? Of course. A good start would be to increase the minimum wage, which in real terms is at its lowest level in half a century.

But don’t expect this administration or this Congress to do anything to limit the growing concentration of income. Sometimes I even feel sorry for these people and their apologists, who are prevented from acknowledging that inequality is a problem by both their political philosophy and their dependence on financial support from the wealthy. That leaves them no choice but to keep insisting that ordinary Americans — who have, in fact, been bypassed by economic growth — just don’t understand how well they’re doing.

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