Wealthy Frenchman

Saturday, September 30, 2006

So You Call This Breaking News?


IF your head hurts from listening to the Washington furor over the latest National Intelligence Estimate, by all means tune it out. The entire debate is meaningless except as a damning election-year indicator of just how madly our leaders are fiddling while Iraq burns.

The supposedly shocking key finding in the N.I.E. — that the Iraq war is a boon to terrorism — isn’t remotely news. It first turned up in a classified C.I.A. report leaked to the press in June 2005. It’s also long been visible to the naked eye. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted before any revelations from the N.I.E., found that nearly half the country believes that the Iraq war is increasing the terrorist threat against America and only 12 percent thinks the war is decreasing that threat. Americans don’t have to pore over leaked intelligence documents to learn this. They just have to turn on the television.

Tonight on “60 Minutes,” Bob Woodward will spill another supposedly shocking intelligence finding revealed in his new book: a secret government prediction that the insurgency will grow worse next year. Who’d have thunk it? Given that the insurgency is growing worse every day right now — last week suicide bombings hit a record high in Baghdad — the real surprise would be if the government predicted an armistice. A poll released last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that about 6 in 10 Iraqis approved of attacks on American forces. Tardy investigative reporting is hardly needed to figure out that the insurgency is thriving.

“The insurgents know what they are doing,” Mr. Woodward is to say on CBS, according to an advance excerpt. “They know the level of violence and how effective they are. Who doesn’t know? The American public.” He accuses the administration of keeping such information out of sight by stamping it “secret.” All this, too, apparently comes as eye-opening news to Mr. Woodward three and a half years into the war; his new book’s title, “State of Denial,” has a self-referential ring to it. But the American public does know the level of violence all too well, and it also knows how the administration tries to cover up its failures.

That’s why long ago a majority of that public judged the war a mistake and Mr. Bush a dissembler. It’s only the variations on the theme that change. When the president declared last month that “the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military is committed to keeping this country together,” reality was once more busily contradicting him. The Los Angeles Times reported that a third of that government wasn’t showing up to parliamentary sessions and that only 1,000 Iraqi soldiers answered the American call for 4,000 reinforcements in the do-or-die battle to secure Baghdad.

Against this ominous reality, the debate over the N.I.E. is but a sideshow: politics as usual on both sides. The president reluctantly declassified what had already been leaked, somehow hoping he could override the bad headlines with Pavlovian repetition of shopworn slogans. (He said America must “stay on the offense” four times in one speech on Friday alone.) Democrats are huffily demanding that the White House release more than a few scraps of the 30-page-plus N.I.E., a debating point with no payoff. The N.I.E. is already six months out of date, and Americans can guess most of it, classified or not. In this war at this late stage, the devil can be found everywhere, not merely in the details.

The facts of Iraq are not in dispute. But the truth is that facts don’t matter anyway to this administration, and that’s what makes this whole N.I.E. debate beside the point. From the start, honest information has never figured into the prosecution of this war. The White House doesn’t care about intelligence, good or bad, classified or unclassified, because it believes it knows best, regardless of what anyone else has to say. The debate over the latest N.I.E. or any yet to leak will not alter that fundamental and self-destructive operating principle. That’s the truly bad news.

This war has now gone on so long that we tend to forget the early history that foretold the present. Yet this is the history we must remember now more than ever, because it keeps repeating itself, with ever more tragic results. In the run-up to the war, it should be recalled, the administration did not even bother to commission an N.I.E., a summary of the latest findings from every American intelligence agency, on Iraq’s weapons.

Why not? The answer can be found in what remains the most revealing Iraq war document leaked to date: the Downing Street memo of July 23, 2002, written eight months before the invasion. In that secret report to the Blair government, the head of British intelligence reported on a trip to Washington, where he learned that the Bush administration was fixing the “intelligence and facts” around the predetermined policy of going to war in Iraq. If we were going to fix the intelligence anyway, there was no need for an N.I.E., except as window dressing, since it might expose the thinness of the administration’s case.

A prewar N.I.E. was hastily (and sloppily) assembled only because Congress demanded it. By the time it was delivered to the Capitol after much stalling, on Oct. 1, 2002, less than two weeks remained before the House and Senate would vote on the Iraq war resolution. “No more than six senators and only a handful of House members got beyond the five-page executive summary,” according to an article last spring in Foreign Affairs by Paul Pillar, the C.I.A. senior analyst for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005. In a White House press briefing after the war started, an official said Condi Rice hadn’t read it at all, leaving that menial duty to her retinue of “experts.”

When one senator who did read the whole N.I.E., the now retired Democrat Bob Graham of Florida, asked that a declassified version be made public so that Americans could reach their own verdicts on the war’s viability, he was rebuffed. Instead the administration released a glossy white paper that trumpeted the N.I.E.’s fictions (“All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons”) but not its doubts about much-hyped evidence like aluminum tubes and uranium from Africa. The only time the president cared about the N.I.E., a document he never wanted, was when he thought it would be politically useful in fighting growing criticism in 2003 that he had manipulated prewar intelligence. Then he authorized his own cherry-picked leaks, which Scooter Libby fed to Mr. Woodward and Judith Miller of The Times. (Neither wrote about it at the time.)

As the insurgency continued to grow in the fall of 2003, the White House again showed scant interest in reality. The American military’s Central Command called for an N.I.E. instead. The existence of this second N.I.E. was only discovered in February of this year by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder Newspapers. It found that the growing violence in Iraq was “fueled by local conditions — not foreign terrorists — and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.” Yet the president ignored that accurate intelligence, refusing to raise troop levels and continuing to argue erroneously that the insurgency was mainly linked to Saddam and Al Qaeda. Three years later, he still makes that case rather than acknowledge that our troops are caught in the cross-fire of a civil war.

Having ignored the facts through each avoidable disaster, the White House won’t change its game plan now. Quite the contrary. Its main ambition seems to be to prop up its artificial reality no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Nowhere could this be better seen than in Ms. Rice’s bizarre behavior after the Bill Clinton-Chris Wallace slapdown on Fox News. Stung by the former president’s charge that the Bush administration did nothing about Al Qaeda in the eight months before 9/11, she couldn’t resist telling The New York Post that his statement was “flatly false.”

But proof of Ms. Rice’s assertion is as nonexistent as Saddam’s W.M.D. As 9/11 approached, both she and Mr. Bush blew off harbingers of the attacks (including a panicked C.I.A. briefer in Crawford, according to Ron Suskind’s “One Percent Doctrine”). The 9/11 commission report, which Ms. Rice cited as a corroborating source for her claims to The Post, in reality “found no indication of any further discussion” about the Qaeda threat among the president and his top aides between the arrival of that fateful Aug. 6 brief (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) and Sept. 10.

That the secretary of state would rush to defend the indefensible shows where this administration’s priorities are: it’s now every man and woman in the White House for himself and herself in defending the fictions, even four-year-old fictions, that took us into the war and botched its execution. When they talk about staying the course, what they are really talking about is protecting their spin and their reputations. They’ll leave it to the 140,000-plus American troops staying the course in a quagmire to face the facts.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why Retired Military Brass Don't Want Torture

Firsthand combat experiences compel old guard to attack Bush's 'alternative interrogation.'
By Charles Kaiser
CHARLES KAISER, author of "1968 in America" and "The Gay Metropolis," is completing "The Cost of Courage," a book about a French family that fought in the Resistance in Paris during World War II.

September 24, 2006

FOR ONE 83-year-old veteran of World War II, it was the searing memory of a Japanese prisoner who helped turn the tide on Iwo Jima. For a 40-year veteran of Army intelligence, it was a trip to the battlefield at Gettysburg. For all 43 retired generals and admirals, it was a combination of moral outrage and deep disgust over President Bush's proposed legislation on interrogating terrorist suspects that propelled them into unfamiliar territory.

"None of us feels comfortable speaking out publicly," said retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, who served as the Navy's judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000 and presided over the JAG corps' 1,600 members. "That's not the nature of what military officers do…. [But we] care very, very much about the country and the military — and that's why [we] are speaking out."

The group of retired flag officers first came together in 2005, when a dozen of them signed a letter opposing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general for his role in developing Bush's policies on torture in the war on terror. Late last year, they supported Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world.

And last week, the Republican senators with whom the retired officers are allied in a fight against Bush's proposed legislation to weaken the spirit and the letter of the Geneva Convention won a compromise with the administration. According to the agreement, all forms of torture would be banned, including waterboarding, which White House officials had insisted wasn't real torture, although it was one of the Gestapo's favorite techniques.

The retired officers believe that the negative consequences of the president's anti-terror policies could have been avoided if the administration had followed traditional military practices. Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Fred E. Haynes, 83, is a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1945, he was a captain in the regiment that seized Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima and raised the U.S. flag there. In March of that year, his unit found two U.S. soldiers dead, apparently victims of torture. On March 17, about 10 days before the battle ended, a Japanese soldier, wearing nothing but his boots and a cotton jock strap, stepped out of a cave with his hands up. He had read one of the leaflets Americans were distributing in artillery shells that promised that anyone who gave up would get his wounds treated and his stomach filled.

The soldier surrendered to a lieutenant who spoke no Japanese. The lieutenant called his company commander to ask what to do with the prisoner.

"As he was talking," Haynes recalled hearing from soldiers in his unit, "a Japanese sniper apparently got a good aim on him and the bullet penetrated his helmet at an angle, scooted around inside the helmet and dropped out the back." Miraculously, the lieutenant was uninjured.

"In good conscience, he could have shot the Japanese [prisoner] dead," said the general, because the soldier could reasonably have concluded that he had been set up. "But he didn't."

Instead, the lieutenant waited for the company commander to join them. He subsequently discovered that French was a language he shared with the prisoner. Speaking French, the Japanese man offered to help clear out caves nearby.

When the prisoner was interrogated by two Marine interpreters fluent in Japanese, they quickly determined that he was the chief code clerk for the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima, an extraordinarily valuable catch.

"He not only knew the situation on Iwo, but he had good insight into the situation on Okinawa, which we were to invade on April 1 and did. He even knew a fair amount about the [Japanese army's] situation with respect to China," Haynes recalled.

The prisoner was immediately sent to the headquarters of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, and from there to Washington.

"The moral of the story," said the general, "is we Americans have been so thoroughly imbued with the idea that you have to treat prisoners humanely — and this [story] is an example of why. It is an illustration of how by treating an individual decently you are much more likely to get any information you might want — and it's more likely to be correct."

Retired Army Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine spent 40 years in the Reserve as an intelligence officer, spending much of that time teaching the rules of interrogation to soldiers, Marines and airmen. He remembers a visit to Gettysburg, where he lined up with 125 other officers in front of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, from which they retraced Pickett's Charge.

"Everything there is completely flat," Irvine said. "By the time you get 50 yards out … [you're] right in artillery range of the Union line. And you've got a mile and half to go on foot [to reach the Union soldiers]. As stragglers who survived found their way back to Seminary Ridge, Lee was riding his horse on that line and apologizing: 'It's all my fault.' He sent a letter of resignation to [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis, who refused to accept it. And the point of that whole exercise was command responsibility. That's a powerful lesson."

It's a lesson these retired officers think the administration doesn't get because no higher-ups were prosecuted for the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. "Tailhook was a very painful time for the Navy," Hutson said, referring to the 1991 sexual misconduct scandal. "The Navy was not treating women with the respect and dignity that they deserved and had earned. But speaking of accountability, we had a chief of naval operations who resigned; we had a secretary of the Navy who resigned."

Retired Brig. Gen. James P. Cullen was chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. "I grew up in an Army where the rules were very clear and where serviceman and women had no question about what their obligations and responsibilities were under both the Geneva Convention and our domestic law," he said. "When you have a winking-and-nodding policy [as was the case at Abu Ghraib], that just brings about the consequences that we came to view at [the prison]."

What further fuels the officers' outrage is that the policies they believe have undermined the military were mostly formulated by men, like Bush, who have not seen combat.

"[Vice President Dick] Cheney made mention in the days after 9/11 that he wanted to operate sort of on the dark side," Cullen said. "Here was a guy who never served, and now something terrible had happened, and he wanted to show that he was a tough guy…. So he's going to operate outside the rules of law. Bad message."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad


IT’S not just about torture. Even if there had never been an Abu Ghraib, a Guantánamo or an American president determined to rewrite the Geneva Conventions, America would still be losing the war for hearts and minds in the Arab world. Our first major defeat in that war happened at the dawn of the Iraq occupation, before “detainee abuse” entered our language: the “Stuff happens!” moment at the National Museum in Baghdad.

Three and a half years later, have we learned anything? You have to wonder. As the looting of the museum was the first clear warning of disasters soon to come, so the stuff that’s happening at the museum today is a grim indicator of where we’re headed in Iraq: America is empowering the very Islamic radicals this war was supposed to smite. But even now we seem to be averting our eyes from reality on the ground in Baghdad.

Our blindness back in April 2003 seems ludicrous in retrospect. As the looting flared, an oblivious President Bush told the Iraqi people in a televised address that they were “the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.” Our actions — or, more accurately, our inaction as the artifacts of that great civilization were carted away — spoke louder than those pretty words. As Fred Ikle, the Reagan administration Pentagon policy chief, puts it in Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco,” “America lost most of its prestige and respect in that episode.”

That disaster might have been mitigated if our leaders had not dismissed the whole episode as a triviality. But Donald Rumsfeld likened the chaos to the aftermath of a soccer game and joked that television was exaggerating the story by recycling video of a single looter with a vase. Gen. Richard Myers defended our failure to intervene as “a matter of priorities” (we had protected the oil ministry). Lt. Gen. William Wallace, countering a wildly inflated early claim by a former museum employee that 170,000 artifacts had been destroyed, put the number of objects still unaccounted for at “as few as 17.” (The actual number was closer to 14,000.)

The war’s many cheerleaders in the press fell into line. In keeping with the mood of the time, administration enforcers like Charles Krauthammer and Andrew Sullivan damned Mr. Rumsfeld’s critics as fatuous aesthetes exploiting a passing incident to denigrate the liberation of Iraq. In a column in Salon titled “Idiocy of the Week” (that idiot would be me), Mr. Sullivan asked rhetorically who was right about “the alleged ransacking” of the museum, Mr. Rumsfeld or his critics? “Rummy, of course. He almost always is.”

Of course, dear old Rummy’s what-me-worry take on the museum was the tip-off to how he would be wrong about everything that would follow: he reacted with exactly the same disdain and indifference to the insurgency happening under his own nose and to Abu Ghraib. There would be a hasty corrective to the looting, at least: a heroic Marine Reserve colonel, Matthew Bogdanos, commanded a team that ultimately tracked down a bit more than a third of the vanished objects. (It was too late to rescue tens of thousands of additional treasures in Iraq’s National Library and National Archives, both also looted and torched.) But Mr. Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens!” proved indelible because it so resonantly set forth an enduring theme of the occupation: that the Americans in charge of Iraq were contemptuous of the local populace to whom they were so grandly bequeathing democracy and other fruits of civilization.

The cavalier American reaction to the museum looting was mimicked in the $22 billion reconstruction effort, an orgy of corruption and waste that still hasn’t brought Iraqis reliable electricity. In a new account of the civilian nation-builders in the Green Zone, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post details how L. Paul Bremer III and his underlings enlisted cronies and apparatchiks rather than those who might actually know anything about the country’s people or their needs. Thus we saddled Iraq with Bernie Kerik, G.O.P. fund-raisers and politically connected young ideologues chosen over more qualified job applicants who knew Arabic. They saw Iraq as a guinea pig for irrelevant (and doomed) experiments, including an antismoking campaign and an elaborate American-style stock exchange. Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book, while nonfiction, is as chilling an indictment of America’s tragic cultural myopia as Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel of the American debacle in Indochina, “The Quiet American.”

Our public diplomacy efforts were equally tone-deaf to Iraqis and their neighbors. In the early going, the State Department hired a Madison Avenue whiz who made sunny TV testimonials about America’s love of Muslims. These ads won no hearts or minds, but wasted tons of money and even more valuable time. Now this job belongs to Karen Hughes, the presidential flack, whose patronizing photo-op tour of the region last year earned mostly ridicule.

Our broadcasting outreach there is supervised by a longtime Karl Rove pal, Kenneth Tomlinson, who last month was found by State Department investigators to be using his office — literally — to run a “horse-racing operation.” One of Mr. Tomlinson’s thoroughbreds is named Karzai, in supposed honor of the Afghan president. If that’s his idea of lifting America’s image in the Muslim world, he might as well be on Al Jazeera’s payroll. On Wednesday, ABC News reported the bottom line of such P.R. misfires: a confidential Pentagon survey found that 75 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims support the insurgency, up from 14 percent in 2003.

Speaking before the United Nations last week in what may be the run-up to our new war, Mr. Bush was still on his battle-for-civilization kick, flattering Iranians much as he has the Iraqis. “We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization,” he said. All Iranians have to do is look to the Baghdad museum today to see that such words are worth no more now than they were in 2003.

It’s symbolic of the anarchy throughout Iraq’s capital that the museum’s entrances are now sealed with concrete to keep out new hordes of killers and thieves. But the violence, which seems to spiral with each declaration of a new security crackdown, is old news. More revealing is the other half of the museum’s current plight: it is now in the hands of Iraq’s version of the Taliban. That sad denouement is another symbol, standing for our defeat in the larger war of ideas.

The museum changed hands in August, when Donny George, its longtime administrator and the chairman of Iraq’s official antiquities board, fled the country fearing for his life and for the treasures in his care, both at the museum and the country’s many archaeological sites. Mr. George is a Christian and had good reason to fear. The new government minister placed in charge of the museum, a dentist, is an acolyte of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose goal is to make Iraq a fundamentalist theocracy. To Mr. Sadr and his followers, the museum’s legendary pre-Islam antiquities, harking back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, are infidels’ idols to be sacked.

You might think, given Mr. Sadr’s radicalism, that he is a fugitive terrorist on the lam as, say, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was. After all, Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is a font of death squads at the heart of the sectarian warfare; he’s an enthusiastic ally of Hezbollah besides. But he is instead a major player in the “democracy” we have installed in Iraq, controlling at least 30 of 275 seats in the Parliament and six government ministries, including the power centers of transportation and health.

Back in 2004, the Americans made plans to take down Mr. Sadr, but as Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the coalition authority in Baghdad, writes in his book “Squandered Victory,” those plans were shelved for “various reasons, including political calculations in Washington.” American forces arrested some Sadr aides last week, but such periodic skirmishes notwithstanding, his influence continues to grow. He is a crucial ally of the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who would not be in office without his support. In the past few days, both Tony Snow and Condi Rice have been reaffirming that the administration has what the secretary of state called “enormous confidence” in Mr. Maliki, despite Washington chatter to the contrary.

One of the first Westerners to warn strongly of the dangers of someone like Mr. Sadr was Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the legendary archaeologist, explorer, author and British political officer who masterminded the unlikely cobbling together of the modern Iraq state after World War I. She warned that a Shiite theocracy in the new country would be “the very devil.” As it happened, it was also Bell who created the Iraqi National Museum in 1923.

The fortunes of her museum, once considered the finest in the Middle East, have been synonymous with the fate of Iraq ever since. That’s because, like any such national institution, it is not merely some building that houses art but a repository of a country’s heart and soul. That America has stood helplessly by as Mr. Sadr folds the museum into his orbit of power is as ominous a predictor of what lies ahead in this war as was our callous reaction to the looting of 2003. For all of America’s talk of stamping out a “murderous ideology” and promoting civilization and democracy in Iraq, we are now handing the very devil the keys.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Axis of Sketchy Allies



It helps to plug your book at the White House.

After Pervez Musharraf coyly sidestepped a question at a news conference with President Bush about his claim on “60 Minutes” that Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if it did not cooperate in routing the Taliban in Afghanistan, noting that he had to save such juicy tidbits for his book’s publication next week, he shot up over 1,000 spots on Amazon.com.

General Musharraf told Steve Kroft he found the Stone Age crack “very rude,’’ and Mr. Armitage was on the defensive yesterday, explaining that he had been tough with Pakistan just after 9/11 but had not made any Flintstones threats.

The former deputy to Colin Powell needn’t apologize. That was the last time our foreign policy was on track, when we were pursuing the real enemy. It’s all been downhill from there.

The Pakistan president is a smooth operator, a military dictator cruising around the capital with his elegant wife and enormous security contingent, talking about how much he likes democracy, which he won’t yet allow.

He may have more respect for checks and balances than Dick Cheney, but that’s not saying much.

On the subject of Osama, he’s so slippery you want to lock him in a room with the muscle-bound Mr. Armitage. General ... General, as W. called him in that famous campaign pop quiz, tried to persuade Mr. Bush that the shabby truce he recently made with tribal leaders, agreeing that the Pakistani Army would stay out of the wild border area next to Afghanistan — where Osama and other Al Qaeda and Taliban members are believed to be hiding — was really “against” the militants.

The Pakistan government has, in effect, simply turned over the North Waziristan area to the militants. ABC News quoted Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan Khan of Pakistan as saying that the deal was an implicit amnesty, and that Osama “would not be taken into custody” as long as he was “being like a peaceful citizen.”

American officials are dubious about Mr. Musharraf’s commitment to destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But at the press conference, W., who no doubt thinks he has seen into General ... General’s soul, acted as though he were willing to believe the Pakistani president when he says he is “on the hunt” for Osama and the Taliban at the same time he’s setting up a safe haven for them — and getting huffy at the idea that American forces have the right to go into Pakistan to track Osama.

“Americans who are concerned about a recurrence of 9/11 are worried about the Axis of Evil when the real problem is the Axis of Allies — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Britain,’’ the British historian Niall Ferguson says. “The terrorists are funded in Saudi Arabia, they’re trained in Pakistan, and they organize their plots quite easily in London.’’

Mr. Ferguson, who analyzes evildoers and despots in his new book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West,’’ observes that Mr. Musharraf could not survive if he truly tried to break up the cozy relationship between militants, tribal leaders and some in his Army and intelligence service.

The Paks, as W. and Vice like to call them, are at the heart of the Faustian deal the Bush administration has made. The justification for invading Iraq was that they couldn’t allow a dictator who might be harboring terrorists to stay in power. But their great ally in the war on terror is General Musharraf, a dictator who appears to be harboring terrorists, including the one we want most.

Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, who is coming to the White House next week to dine with W. and General ... General, expressed a sly skepticism about his neighbor’s protestations that he is strategizing against militants. As David Sanger reported, the Afghan leader told Times editors and reporters at a meeting Thursday that he had tried to get Pakistan’s help in repelling the resurgent Taliban by giving the Pakistanis “information on training ground, on operation, people, their phone numbers, their G.P.S. locations.’’

“Our friends come back to us and say this information is old,’’ Mr. Karzai continued. “Maybe. But it means they were there.”

Asked where Osama was, he smiled and replied: “If I said he was in Pakistan, President Musharraf would be mad at me. And if I said he was in Afghanistan, it would not be true.”

We may not have Osama, but at least W. helped General ...General with his Amazon ranking. “Buy the book,” the president recommended as the two allies wrapped up.

Insurance Horror Stories


“When Steve and Leslie Shaeffer’s daughter, Selah, was diagnosed at age 4 with a potentially fatal tumor in her jaw, they figured their health insurance would cover the bulk of her treatment costs.” But “shortly after Selah’s medical bills hit $20,000, Blue Cross stopped covering them and eventually canceled her coverage retroactively.”

So begins a recent report in The Los Angeles Times titled “Sick but Insured? Think Again,” which offers a series of similar horror stories, and suggests that these stories represent a growing trend: more and more health insurers are finding ways to yank your insurance when you get sick.

This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Americans with private health insurance coverage fell by 1 percent. But over the same period, employment at health insurance companies rose a remarkable 32 percent. What are all those extra employees doing?

Now we know at least part of the answer: they’re working harder than ever at identifying people who really need medical care, and ensuring that they don’t get it. In the past, they mainly concentrated on screening out applicants likely to get sick. Now, it seems, they’re also devoting a lot of effort to finding pretexts for revoking insurance after they’ve already granted it. They typically do this by claiming that they weren’t notified about some pre-existing condition, even if the insured wasn’t aware of that condition when he or she bought the policy.

Welcome to the ugly world of American health care economics.

Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million. Meanwhile, employment in the private health services industry has risen 16 percent, to 12.6 million. Another 1.3 million people are employed at government hospitals. So we’re quickly approaching the point at which more Americans will be employed delivering health care than are employed producing manufactured goods.

Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

Because everyone faces some risk of incurring huge medical costs, only the superrich can afford to be without health insurance. Yet private insurers try to refuse coverage to those most likely to need it, and deny payment whenever they can get away with it.

The point isn’t that they’re evil or greedy (although you do wonder how the people who cut off the Schaeffers can look themselves in the mirror). The fact is that cruelty and injustice are the inevitable result of the current rules of the game. Blue Shield of California is a nonprofit insurance provider, yet as a spokesman put it, if his organization doesn’t follow the for-profit practice of selectively covering only the healthiest people, “we will end up with all the high-risk people.”

Now, before you panic about the state of your own coverage, you should know that the horror stories in The Los Angeles Times article all involve individual insurance; if your coverage comes via your employer, you’re reasonably secure against sudden cancellation.

But employment-based insurance is in rapid decline, as employers balk at the cost and more and more companies adopt Wal-Mart-style minimal-benefit policies. That’s why many people are turning to individual insurance — only to find out, in some cases, that they didn’t get what they thought they paid for.

And here’s the thing: it’s all unnecessary.

Every other wealthy nation manages to provide almost all its citizens with guaranteed health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do. And there’s no mystery why: we’re paying the price for pointless, destructive reliance on private insurers. Medicare, which is a universal health insurance program for older Americans, spends less than 2 cents of every dollar on administrative costs, leaving 98 cents to pay for medical care. By contrast, private insurance companies spend only around 80 cents of each dollar in premiums on medical care; much of the remaining 20 cents is spent denying insurance to those who need it.

If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Torture of Liberty


After traveling to Ottawa to interview Maher Arar last year, I wrote: “If John Ashcroft was right, then I was staring into the malevolent, duplicitous eyes of pure evil ... But all I could really see was a polite, unassuming, neatly dressed guy who looked like a suburban Little League coach.”

It turns out John Ashcroft was wrong. After an exhaustive investigation, a government commission in Canada ruled definitively and unequivocally this week that Maher Arar was no terrorist. He was nothing more than a quiet family man who found himself sucked into a vortex of incompetence, hysteria and a so-called war on terror that has gone completely haywire.

He’s lucky he survived. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen who was born in Syria, was snatched by American authorities as he waited for a connecting flight home from Kennedy Airport in September 2002. The Americans apparently were acting on bad information fed to them by Canadian investigators.

As in the witch hunts of old, no one seemed to care whether there was any factual basis for the allegations against Mr. Arar. Without even a nod in the direction of due process, the Americans put him on a government jet and shipped him off to Jordan, where he was promptly driven to Syria, where he was tortured.

Welcome to extraordinary rendition, a reprehensible practice in which people are kidnapped by the U.S. government and sent off to countries that specialize in the evil arts of torture.

Mr. Arar lived in torment for nearly a year, confined most of the time to a tiny underground cell, about the size of a grave. Despite the torture, the Syrians were unable to connect him to terrorism in any way. The Canadian government managed to secure his release in October 2003.

If this were just a bad but honest mistake, we might be able to simply wish Mr. Arar well and vow never to let it happen again. Instead, the United States is about to ensure that many more individuals who are falsely accused are deprived of the single most fundamental tool they need to establish their innocence.

In the push to enact legislation dealing with the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects, both the White House and dissident Republicans in the Senate intend to strip away the hallowed safeguard of habeas corpus for some noncitizens held in U.S. custody outside the United States.

Habeas corpus (literally “produce the body”) is a legal proceeding that allows one to challenge his or her detention in a court of law. It is the most significant safeguard against arbitrary imprisonment. Someone deprived of this right — which is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and has been recognized by various societies all the way back to the Middle Ages — can be locked up, whether innocent or guilty of any offense, and never heard from again.

I can’t believe that most Americans think this is all right.

“This is recognized as a broad common-law and constitutional right,” said Bill Goodman, the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has been fighting to secure basic legal protections for prisoners in American custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

At a minimum, said Mr. Goodman, “A person has a right to know what crime he’s being charged with. And a court can demand that the government produce evidence indicating that there is a reason to hold that person.”

The authority to demand that even the highest officials in a nation — even the president, even the king back in the days of the Magna Carta — justify the detention of a human being is powerful, and essential in a free society.

The right to file for a writ of habeas corpus, insisting that this authority be exercised, is a crucial check on naked governmental power. It’s a check on injustice.

In Washington, instead of saluting this cornerstone of freedom, politicians are about to deep-six it for some people without even much in the way of debate.

Talk about freedom is cheap. We hear it all the time. Real protection against tyrannical behavior by powerful government officials is another matter.

I spoke to Mr. Arar by phone yesterday. He said now that the Canadian government has publicly cleared his name, he would like the U.S. government to follow suit. But the U.S. government is busy trying to make sure that other innocents, trapped unfairly in a cage, have absolutely nowhere to turn. No recourse at all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hostage to Iran Again?


It was galling to be lectured on ethics, truth, justice, virtue and respect for human rights by a Holocaust-denying, Iraq-meddling, American-hating pipsqueak. A guy who showed up to address the United Nations without bothering to wear a tie, so casual in a disco-looking cream suit and open-necked pink shirt he looked like he would kick back later in Chelsea.

If President Bush was bland, oblique and condescending in his U.N. remarks, bypassing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak directly to the people of Iran, the Iranian leader was more blunt — referring to America and Britain disdainfully as “the occupiers.” “Not a day goes by without hundreds of people getting killed in cold blood,” he said.

Iranian leaders love nothing more than taunting American presidents, as we learned when Jimmy Carter was emasculated during the hostage crisis. And so it was with Mr. Ahmadinejad, who took W. and Dick Cheney’s refrain about how Republicans are needed to stiffen America’s will and threw it back at them.

“There is no indication,’’ he needled, “that the occupiers have the necessary political will to eliminate the sources of instability.”

All day the White House team went through gyrations not to run into the Iranian leader, fearful to be caught in the same frame, perhaps haunted by memories of that picture of a smiling Rummy shaking Saddam’s hand in 1983. It seemed a little silly, given what a tough guy W. acts like. If he ran into the punk, he could have just told him to quit processing uranium, and moved on. Bush aides assured reporters with asperity that they were not studying the Iranian president’s route or bathroom schedule, that such a fixation would only build up a foe they were trying to cut down to size.

But it’s a little late for that, with Mr. Ahmadinejad staring from the cover of Time with a story on “What War With Iran Would Look Like,” and with Senator George Voinovich calling him “Ah-mad-in-a-head’’ and “a Hitler type of person’’ at a Senate committee hearing yesterday. (Can’t pols just have little Post-its on their microphones reminding them not to compare anything to the Nazis?)

Mr. Bush played down Osama for five years, while he focused on Iraq. But his ill-fated detour into Baghdad just ended up magnifying another enemy and giving Mr. Ahmadinejad a huge strategic opportunity to stoke the growing fundamentalist and radical Shiite surge unleashed by the bungled occupation. Because W. blew off diplomacy with Iraq, he is now hostage to diplomacy with Iran.

The Iranian president sounded more scornful of the U.N. than Mr. Cheney does. “If the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom, who are permanent members of the Security Council, commit aggression, occupation and violation of international law, which of the organs of the U.N. can take them to account?’’ he said, complaining that they “arrogate to themselves simultaneously the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner.”

With their usual cultural tone-deafness, W. and Vice failed to appreciate the shrewdness of the nemesis they won’t talk to, and continued to arrogantly act as though everything were going along great in their clash of civilizations.

W. went through a gauzy litany of progress on democratizing the Middle East, and speaking to auto dealers yesterday morning, Vice applied a Harry Truman phrase about the cold war, calling the war against terrorists a “war of nerves.”

Vice said this is “a test of our character,’’ and then went on to defend all the administration’s attempts to put itself above the law on the wiretapping, torture and detention programs that have undermined America’s moral repute in the world.

John McCain seems untroubled with those who say that his stand on torture might hurt him with the Republican base in 2008. After making nice with his former rival, W., for so long, the war hero probably enjoys getting in National Guard boy’s face a little on an issue of principle.

W. has now put so many bad actors in the terror stew — some of whom hate each other — and has justified so many sketchy programs under the war-on-terror rubric, that the word “terror” is losing all meaning and just becoming a marketing slogan. Even the Republican columnist Peggy Noonan says that W. can be “a historical drama queen.”

If our pursuit of terrorists who harmed us and want to hurt us again gets too diffuse, it’s pointless, counterproductive and endless. The president’s refusal to understand what’s at stake in the torture debate is itself a kind of torture for Americans who don’t want our moral power — and our pursuit of Al Qaeda — diluted.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Kafka Strategy


The president seemed about to lose it at times last week. He was fighting with everybody — tenacious reporters frustrated by the absence of straight answers about the treatment of terror suspects; key Republican senators who think it’s crazy for a great country like the U.S. to become a champion of kangaroo courts and the degradation of defendants; even his own former secretary of state, Colin Powell, who worries that the world is coming to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”

It seemed that the only people the president wasn’t fighting with were the Democrats, who have gone into a coma, and the yahoos who never had much of a problem with such matters as torture and detention without trial.

As Marvin Gaye once sang, “What’s going on?”

The people at the top are getting scared, that’s what’s going on. The fog of secrecy is lifting, and the Bush administration is frightened to death that it will eventually have to pay a heavy price for the human rights abuses it has ordered or condoned in its so-called war on terror.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to the prisoners seized by the administration, which means that abusing those prisoners — as so many have said for so long — is unquestionably illegal. And there is also the possibility that the Democrats, if they ever wake up, may take control of at least one house of Congress, giving them the kind of subpoena power and oversight that makes the administration tremble.

Bush, Cheney & Co. are desperately trying to hold together a house of cards that is ready to collapse because their strategy and tactics for fighting terrorism were slapped together with no real regard for the rule of law. What we’ve seen over the past few years has been a nightmare version of the United States. Torture? Secret prisons? Capital trials in which key evidence is kept from the accused? That’s the stuff of Kafka, not Madison and Jefferson.

The reason President Bush has been trying so frantically to get Congressional passage of his plan to interrogate and try terror suspects is that he needs its contorted interpretations of the law to keep important cases from falling apart, and to cover the collective keisters of higher-ups who may have authorized or condoned war crimes.

There’s no guarantee that the administration can properly bring to justice even the worst of the bad guys, people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other high-profile prisoners who were recently transferred from a secret C.I.A. program to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. These are men accused of the most heinous of offenses, crimes that would subject them to the death penalty.

But it’s widely believed that some or all of them were tortured. In civilized countries, evidence obtained by torture is inadmissible in a court of law.

The Bush administration would also like to deny terror suspects, even those facing the death penalty, the right to see evidence against them that is classified. This is a concept that is so far beyond the pale it makes most legal scholars gasp.

“We don’t charge people — particularly in capital offenses, but in minor offenses, as well — without letting them see the evidence that is being offered against them,” said Scott Horton, a prominent New York attorney and Columbia law professor who has done extensive human rights work.

“Let’s imagine you’re a prosecutor,” said Mr. Horton. “Are you going to seek the death penalty against someone and convict them and let them be sentenced to death without letting them know what the evidence is against them? No way. What prosecutor wants that?”

One of the biggest concerns of the administration is the possibility of evidence emerging that could lead to charges of war crimes against high-ranking officials. The president and others in the administration have argued that they are seeking changes in the law in order to protect soldiers and ordinary interrogators in the field against war crimes accusations.

But there are already clear guidelines — short of war crimes prosecutions — for dealing with soldiers and civilian interrogators who abuse prisoners. The Abu Ghraib prosecutions are a good example.

The people who would have to worry, if war crimes were found to have been committed, would be those at the top of the command structure who crafted policies that were illegal and ordered them carried out — or who turned a blind eye to atrocities.

“Those are the ones,” said Mr. Horton, “who are vulnerable.”

King of Pain


A lot has been written and said about President Bush’s demand that Congress “clarify” the part of the Geneva Conventions that, in effect, outlaws the use of torture under any circumstances.

We know that the world would see this action as a U.S. repudiation of the rules that bind civilized nations. We also know that an extraordinary lineup of former military and intelligence leaders, including Colin Powell, have spoken out against the Bush plan, warning that it would further damage America’s faltering moral standing, and end up endangering U.S. troops.

But I haven’t seen much discussion of the underlying question: why is Mr. Bush so determined to engage in torture?

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to “stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours”; the “cold cell,” in which prisoners are forced “to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,” while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which “the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,” then “cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him,” inducing “a terrifying fear of drowning.”

And bear in mind that the “few bad apples” excuse doesn’t apply; these were officially approved tactics — and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I’m ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I’d be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured — and I’m not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantánamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent.

Is torture a necessary evil in a post-9/11 world? No. People with actual knowledge of intelligence work tell us that reality isn’t like TV dramas, in which the good guys have to torture the bad guy to find out where he planted the ticking time bomb.

What torture produces in practice is misinformation, as its victims, desperate to end the pain, tell interrogators whatever they want to hear. Thus Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — who ABC News says was subjected to both the cold cell and water boarding — told his questioners that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained members of Al Qaeda in the use of biochemical weapons. This “confession” became a key part of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq — but it was pure invention.

So why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?

To show that it can.

The central drive of the Bush administration — more fundamental than any particular policy — has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president’s power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.

And many of our politicians are willing to go along. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is poised to vote in favor of the administration’s plan to, in effect, declare torture legal. Most Republican senators are equally willing to go along, although a few, to their credit, have stood with the Democrats in opposing the administration.

Mr. Bush would have us believe that the difference between him and those opposing him on this issue is that he’s willing to do what’s necessary to protect America, and they aren’t. But the record says otherwise.

The fact is that for all his talk of being a “war president,” Mr. Bush has been conspicuously unwilling to ask Americans to make sacrifices on behalf of the cause — even when, in the days after 9/11, the nation longed to be called to a higher purpose. His admirers looked at him and thought they saw Winston Churchill. But instead of offering us blood, toil, tears and sweat, he told us to go shopping and promised tax cuts.

Only now, five years after 9/11, has Mr. Bush finally found some things he wants us to sacrifice. And those things turn out to be our principles and our self-respect.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Longer the War, the Larger the Lies


RARELY has a television network presented a more perfectly matched double feature. President Bush’s 9/11 address on Monday night interrupted ABC’s “Path to 9/11” so seamlessly that a single network disclaimer served them both: “For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and dialogue, as well as time compression.”

No kidding: “The Path to 9/11” was false from the opening scene, when it put Mohamed Atta both in the wrong airport (Boston instead of Portland, Me.) and on the wrong airline (American instead of USAirways). It took Mr. Bush but a few paragraphs to warm up to his first fictionalization for dramatic purposes: his renewed pledge that “we would not distinguish between the terrorists and those who harbor or support them.” Only days earlier the White House sat idly by while our ally Pakistan surrendered to Islamic militants in its northwest frontier, signing a “truce” and releasing Al Qaeda prisoners. Not only will Pakistan continue to harbor terrorists, Osama bin Laden probably among them, but it will do so without a peep from Mr. Bush.

You’d think that after having been caught concocting the scenario that took the nation to war in Iraq, the White House would mind the facts now. But this administration understands our culture all too well. This is a country where a cable news network (MSNBC) offers in-depth journalism about one of its anchors (Tucker Carlson) losing a prime-time dance contest and where conspiracy nuts have created a cottage industry of books and DVD’s by arguing that hijacked jets did not cause 9/11 and that the 9/11 commission was a cover-up. (The fictionalized “Path to 9/11,” supposedly based on the commission’s report, only advanced the nuts’ case.) If you’re a White House stuck in a quagmire in an election year, what’s the percentage in starting to tell the truth now? It’s better to game the system.

The untruths are flying so fast that untangling them can be a full-time job. Maybe that’s why I am beginning to find Dick Cheney almost refreshing. As we saw on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, these days he helpfully signals when he’s about to lie. One dead giveaway is the word context, as in “the context in which I made that statement last year.” The vice president invoked “context” to try to explain away both his bogus predictions: that Americans would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and that the insurgency (some 15 months ago) was in its “last throes.”

The other instant tip-off to a Cheney lie is any variation on the phrase “I haven’t read the story.” He told Tim Russert he hadn’t read The Washington Post’s front-page report that the bin Laden trail had gone “stone cold” or the new Senate Intelligence Committee report(PDF) contradicting the White House’s prewar hype about nonexistent links between Al Qaeda and Saddam. Nor had he read a Times front-page article about his declining clout. Or the finding by Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency just before the war that there was “no evidence of resumed nuclear activities” in Iraq. “I haven’t looked at it; I’d have to go back and look at it again,” he said, however nonsensically.

These verbal tics are so consistent that they amount to truth in packaging — albeit the packaging of evasions and falsehoods. By contrast, Condi Rice’s fictions, also offered in bulk to television viewers to memorialize 9/11, are as knotty as a David Lynch screenplay. Asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News last Sunday if she and the president had ignored prewar “intelligence that contradicted your case,” she refused to give up the ghost: “We know that Zarqawi was running a poisons network in Iraq,” she insisted, as she continued to state again that “there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda” before the war.

Ms. Rice may be a terrific amateur concert pianist, but she’s an even better amateur actress. The Senate Intelligence Committee report released only two days before she spoke dismissed all such ties. Saddam, who “issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with Al Qaeda,” saw both bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as threats and tried to hunt down Zarqawi when he passed through Baghdad in 2002. As for that Zarqawi “poisons network,” the Pentagon knew where it was and wanted to attack it in June 2002. But as Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News reported more than two years ago, the White House said no, fearing a successful strike against Zarqawi might “undercut its case for going to war against Saddam.” Zarqawi, meanwhile, escaped.

It was in an interview with Ted Koppel for the Discovery Channel, though, that Ms. Rice rose to a whole new level of fictionalizing by wrapping a fresh layer of untruth around her most notorious previous fiction. Asked about her dire prewar warning that a smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud, she said that “it wasn’t meant as hyperbole.” She also rewrote history to imply that she had been talking broadly about the nexus between “terrorism and a nuclear device” back then, not specifically Saddam — a rather deft verbal sleight-of-hand.

Ms. Rice sets a high bar, but Mr. Bush, competitive as always, was not to be outdone in his Oval Office address. Even the billing of his appearance was fiction. “It’s not going to be a political speech,” Tony Snow announced, knowing full well that the 17-minute text was largely Cuisinarted scraps from other recent political speeches, including those at campaign fund-raisers. Moldy canards of yore (Saddam “was a clear threat”) were interspersed with promising newcomers: Iraq will be “a strong ally in the war on terror.” As is often the case, the president was technically truthful. Iraq will be a strong ally in the war on terror — just not necessarily our ally. As Mr. Bush spoke, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was leaving for Iran to jolly up Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Perhaps the only way to strike back against this fresh deluge of fiction is to call the White House’s bluff. On Monday night, for instance, Mr. Bush flatly declared that “the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.” He once again invoked Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, asking, “Do we have the confidence to do in the Middle East what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished in Europe and Asia?”

Rather than tune this bluster out, as the country now does, let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s pretend everything Mr. Bush said is actually true and then hold him to his word. If the safety of America really depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad, then our safety is in grave peril because we are losing that battle. The security crackdown announced with great fanfare by Mr. Bush and Mr. Maliki in June is failing. Rosy American claims of dramatically falling murder rates are being challenged by the Baghdad morgue. Perhaps most tellingly, the Pentagon has nowstopped including in its own tally the large numbers of victims killed by car bombings and mortar attacks in sectarian warfare.

And that’s the good news. Another large slice of Iraq, Anbar Province (almost a third of the country), is slipping away so fast that a senior military official told NBC News last week that 50,000 to 60,000 additional ground forces were needed to secure it, despite our huge sacrifice in two savage battles for Falluja. The Iraqi troops “standing up” in Anbar are deserting at a rate as high as 40 percent.

“Even the most sanguine optimist cannot yet conclude we are winning,” John Lehman, the former Reagan Navy secretary, wrote of the Iraq war last month. So what do we do next? Given that the current course is a fiasco, and that the White House demonizes any plan or timetable for eventual withdrawal as “cut and run,” there’s only one immediate alternative: add more manpower, and fast. Last week two conservative war supporters, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, called for exactly that — “substantially more troops.” These pundits at least have the courage of Mr. Bush’s convictions. Shouldn’t Republicans in Congress as well?

After all, if what the president says is true about the stakes in Baghdad, it’s tantamount to treason if Bill Frist, Rick Santorum and John Boehner fail to rally their party’s Congressional majority to stave off defeat there. We can’t emulate our fathers and grandfathers and whip today’s Nazis and Communists with 145,000 troops. Roosevelt and Truman would have regarded those troop levels as defeatism.

The trouble, of course, is that we don’t have any more troops, and supporters of the war, starting with Mr. Bush, don’t want to ask American voters to make any sacrifices to provide them. They don’t want to ask because they know the voters will tell them no. In the end, that is the hard truth the White House is determined to obscure, at least until Election Day, by carpet-bombing America with still more fictions about Iraq.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Awake and Scream



I wish W. would let me help crystallize him.

But, alas, I’m not one of his chosen crystallizers, because he is loath to be exposed to anyone who doesn’t agree with him. He roams the country but never strays from Bushworld, going from military bases to conservative powwows to Republican Hill allies to sworn Bush supporters to sympathetic columnists.

“It helps crystallize my thought to answer your questions,” he told conservative columnists called to the Oval Office this week. But he made it clear that his thoughts were contentedly calcified: “Let me just first tell you that I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions. I’m oftentimes asked about, well, you’re stubborn and all this. If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C., you’ve got to stick to that strategy, see.”

Aside from Dick Cheney and Rummy, who don’t have all their buttons, we all long for W. to find better strategies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, pretty much the rest of the world and national security.

He’s facing a rebellion from big shots in his party who don’t want him to rip up the Geneva Conventions. Lindsey Graham calls it a fight over “who America is in 2006.” John McCain, who has been trying so hard to play nice with W. for the sake of his political future, said the president’s plan risks “our moral standing and the lives of those Americans who risk everything to defend our country.”

Colin Powell, his conscience about Iraq clearly stinging, agreed that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism” and that undermining the Geneva Conventions “would add to those doubts” and “put our own troops at risk.” (Tony Snow deemed Mr. Powell confused, which is how the Bushies dismiss those who don’t grasp their invisible genius.)

Whenever W. does something legally sketchy and morally ambiguous — from pre-emptive war to spying to torturing — he claims he’s doing it to protect Americans from terrorists. But there’s a more visceral agenda: Vice and Rummy have persuaded W. he will not carry a big stick if bound by Lilliputian legalities, tiresome checks and balances and Kumbaya international conventions. Rather than being alarmed at their battiness, the president naïvely admires what he sees as bravado.

Just as Vice lurked at Langley before the Iraq war, trying to bully reluctant C.I.A. analysts to come up with a Saddam-Osama link, now the White House has maneuvered reluctant J.A.G. lawyers into supporting its dream of undermining justice.

Catching terrorists and protecting Americans can be done without trashing American ideals. This is about throwing off laws to prove that W. is “the Man,” as Vice likes to say, not some wobbly, wavering, multilateral metrosexual.

His counselors have dulled W.’s sense of urgency by persuading him to take the long view and read about Washington and Lincoln, when it would be far better to focus on the Middle East and revise his backfiring policies.

“Ideological struggles take time,” he said, and the world expects “instant success.”

“Maybe it’s because there’s too many TV channels, I don’t know,” he told the columnists, noting that’s why a president must have patience.

Despite his history reading, Mr. Bush seems to have forgotten Vietnam. “It’s impossible for someone to have grown up in the 50’s and 60’s to envision a conflict with people that just kill mercilessly, using techniques that are kind of foreign to our — to modern warfare,” he said. “But it’s real.” Besides saying he’s in “a struggle between good and evil” — which inflames many Muslims — W. told the columnists he thought America might be experiencing “a Third Awakening,” a religious fervor, because people he meets in rope lines tell him they’re praying for him. That could also be because W.’s policies have led to so much global chaos and hatred for America, his supporters know he needs more prayers.

“I got into politics initially because I wanted to help change a culture,” he said. He wanted to banish the old 60’s “if it feels good, do it” culture and “help usher in an era of personal responsibility.”

He has changed American culture, for sure. Bustling under Bill Clinton, the nation is now insecure about its moral force and military force. The president should take responsibility for the hash he’s made, instead of insisting every decision was correct, and come up with more astute cultural and military analyses. The “awakening” should be W.’s.

Progress or Regress?


Is the typical American family better off than it was a generation ago? That’s the subject of an intense debate these days, as commentators try to understand the sour mood of the American public.

But it’s the wrong debate. For one thing, there probably isn’t a right answer. Most Americans are better off in some ways, worse off in others, than they were in the early 1970’s. It’s a subjective judgment whether the good outweighs the bad. And as I’ll explain, that ambiguity is actually the real message.

Here’s what the numbers say. From the end of World War II until 1973, when the first oil crisis brought an end to the postwar boom, the U.S. economy delivered a huge, broad-based rise in living standards: family income adjusted for inflation roughly doubled for the poor, the middle class, and the elite alike. Nobody debated whether families were better off than they had been a generation ago; it was obvious that they were, by any measure.

Since 1973, however, the picture has been mixed. Real median household income — the income of the household in the middle of the income distribution, adjusted for inflation — rose a modest 16 percent between 1973 and 2005. But even this small rise didn’t reflect clear gains across the board. The typical full-time male worker saw his wages, adjusted for inflation, actually fall; the typical household’s real income was up only because women’s wages rose (although by far less than everyone’s wages rose during the postwar boom) and because more women were working.

The debate over the state of the middle class, for the most part, is about whether these numbers understate or overstate the true progress achieved by typical families. The optimists point to technological advances that, they argue, don’t get reflected in official estimates of the standard of living. In 1973, you couldn’t chat on a cellphone, watch a video or surf the Internet; many medical conditions that are now easily managed with drugs were untreatable; and so on.

The pessimists point to ways in which life has deteriorated, things that also aren’t counted by the official statistics. Traffic has gotten far worse, and commutes have gotten longer. The economic riskiness of life has increased: year-to-year fluctuations in family income have grown much larger. The rat race has intensified, as families, no longer confident in the quality of public education, stretch to buy houses in good school districts — and often go bankrupt when misfortune strikes in the form of a layoff for either spouse or high medical bills.

Does the good outweigh the bad? Never mind. As I said, the ambiguity is the message.

Consider this: The United States economy is far richer and more productive than it was a generation ago. Statistics on economic growth aside, think of all the technological advances that have made workers more productive over the past generation. In 1973, there were no personal computers, let alone the Internet. Even fax machines were rare, expensive items, and there were no bar-code scanners at checkout counters. Freight containerization was still uncommon. The list goes on and on.

Yet in spite of all this technological progress, which has allowed the average American worker to produce much more, we’re not sure whether there was any rise in the typical worker’s pay. Only those at the upper end of the income distribution saw clear gains — gains that were enormous for the lucky few at the very top.

That’s why the debate over whether the middle class is a bit better off or a bit worse off now than a generation ago misses the point. What we should be debating is why technological and economic progress has done so little for most Americans, and what changes in government policies would spread the benefits of progress more widely. An effort to shore up middle-class health insurance, paid for by a rollback of recent tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — something like the plan proposed by John Kerry two years ago, but more ambitious — would be a good place to start.

Instead, the people running our government are fixated on cutting tax rates for the wealthy even further. And their solution to Americans’ justified economic anxiety is a public relations campaign, an effort to convince middle-class families that their problems are a figment of their imagination.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Stranger in the Mirror


We had elections in New York and around the country on Tuesday. But it seems to me that the biggest issue of our time is getting very short shrift from the politicians, and that’s the fact that the very character of the United States is changing, and not for the better.

One of the things that stands out in my mind amid the memories of the carnage and chaos of Sept. 11, 2001, is the eerie quiet — an almost prayerful quiet — that hovered over a scene on the western edge of Manhattan that afternoon.

I stood for a long time outside the triage center that had been set up at the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex. Sunlight glistened off the roofs of ambulances lined up in military fashion on the West Side Highway. Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel were standing by, waiting for what they thought would be the arrival of legions of seriously wounded victims in need of emergency care.

There seemed to be very little talking. As I recall, most of the people maintained a kind of stunned, awed silence.

The expected onslaught of victims never came. As the afternoon faded, I headed east, along with others, toward the morgue at Bellevue Hospital.

What I thought was the greatest expression of the American character in my lifetime occurred in the immediate aftermath of those catastrophic attacks. The country came together in the kind of resolute unity that I imagined was similar to the feeling most Americans felt after Pearl Harbor. We soon knew who the enemy was, and there was remarkable agreement on what needed to be done. Americans were united and the world was with us.

For a brief moment.

The invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of the change in the American character. During the Cuban missile crisis, when the hawks were hot for bombing — or an invasion — Robert Kennedy counseled against a U.S. first strike. That’s not something the U.S. would do, he said.

Fast-forward 40 years or so and not only does the U.S. launch an unprovoked invasion and occupation of a small nation — Iraq — but it does so in response to an attack inside the U.S. that the small nation had nothing to do with.

Who are we?

Another example: There was a time, I thought, when there was general agreement among Americans that torture was beyond the pale. But when people are frightened enough, nothing is beyond the pale. And we’re in an era in which the highest leaders in the land stoke — rather than attempt to allay — the fears of ordinary citizens. Islamic terrorists are equated with Nazi Germany. We’re told that we’re in a clash of civilizations.

If, as President Bush says, we’re engaged in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” why isn’t the entire nation mobilizing to meet this dire threat?

The president put us on this path away from the better angels of our nature, and he has shown no inclination to turn back. Lately he has touted legislation to try terror suspects in a way that would make a mockery of the American ideals of justice and fairness. To get a sense of just how far out the administration’s approach has been, consider the comments of Brig. Gen. James Walker, the top uniformed lawyer for the Marines. Speaking at a Congressional hearing last week, he said no civilized country denies defendants the right to see the evidence against them. The United States, he said, “should not be the first.”

And Senator Lindsey Graham, a conservative South Carolina Republican who is a former military judge, said, “It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them.”

How weird is it that this possibility could even be considered?

The character of the U.S. has changed. We’re in danger of being completely ruled by fear. Most Americans have not shared the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Very few Americans are aware, as the Center for Constitutional Rights tells us, that of the hundreds of men held by the U.S. in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, many “have never been charged and will never be charged because there is no evidence justifying their detention.”

Even fewer care.

We could benefit from looking in a mirror, and absorbing the shock of not recognizing what we’ve become.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Vice Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work



I called Tim Russert to ask if Dick Cheney had washed his hands after their interview on Sunday.

“No-o-o,’’ he replied, sounding confused.

Any sort of scrubbing, I wondered? Antiseptic wipe, Purell, quick shower on the way out?

No, Tim assured me, the vice president did not stop at the basement shower at NBC, or even drop by the men’s room you pass on the right as you head out to the parking lot.

According to The Times’s health section yesterday, Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate were not alone in wanting that “damned spot” out.

“People who washed their hands after contemplating an unethical act were less troubled by their thoughts than those who didn’t,’’ Benedict Carey wrote about a new study on the “Macbeth effect,” published in the journal Science.

“In one of several experiments among Northwestern undergraduates, the researchers had one group of students recall an unethical act from their past, like betraying a friend, and another group reflect on an ethical deed, like returning lost money,’’ the article said. “Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, either a pencil or an antiseptic wipe. Those who had reflected on a shameful act were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe.’’

If Dick Cheney didn’t try to hose himself down after his outlandish performance on “Meet the Press,’’ he may be so deep in denial he doesn’t even know he’s ruining America and needs a symbolic moral superwash.

Since W. revealed he’s been reading Shakespeare — including “Macbeth” — I’ve been puzzling over which character the vice president most resembles. He’s got as much malignant sway over the protagonist as Iago, but Iago hated Othello.

The Lord of the Underworld is more like Lady Macbeth, who persuades her partner to make a huge error in judgment by taunting him about manliness. If he doesn’t want to be unmanned, he must pre-emptively wield the dagger against his rival. She tells him:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.

Even though “blood will have blood,” Macbeth decides he must stay on his self-destructive path:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

W. and Vice went on TV this week to double down on their dishonest case, now contradicted by a mountain of evidence, once more milking our sorrow over 9/11 to justify their errant course in Iraq.

In a speech that Tony Snow promised would be “reflective,’’ the president used hyperventilated rhetoric about “a struggle for civilization” and cynically retraced a line he now knows is false, again linking Osama and Baghdad: “If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened.’’

Bin Laden has become the Willie Horton of the midterms. After letting the C.I.A. disband the unit devoted to hunting for Osama — the Senate took a slap at the White House on Thursday when it voted to reinstate it — Mr. Bush now won’t stop talking about the bogeyman he ignored for five years while he transferred all his resources to Iraq.

“The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

Instead of going after Osama, we invaded Iraq. Now W. says we must stay in Iraq or it will be run by Osamas. We must kill all the terrorists we are creating. American soldiers must keep dying because American soldiers have died. If we criticize Mr. Bush, then we’re unmanning the whole country. The logic is deviously Rovian, and we are trapped in the circularity.

On “Meet the Press,’’ Mr. Cheney warned that America cannot let its adversaries “break our will’’ and show we “don’t have the stomach for the fight.’’

“It was the right thing to do,” Vice insisted of the war in Iraq, “and if we had to do it over again we would do exactly the same thing.”

After all the miscalculations and billions wasted, projects screwed up, lives and limbs lost, foreign enemies made, American stature squandered, Taliban strength regained, North Korean bombs and Iran-Iraq alliances built (visiting the American-hating, Holocaust-denying Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq called Iran “a good friend and brother’’) Dick Cheney wouldn’t do anything differently?

Part of leadership has to be retooling, saying: “You know what? This hasn’t worked. This is making things worse. What else can we do?’’

Break out the Wet Wipes, Mr. Cheney. Time for a good scrubbing.

Monday, September 11, 2006

New York Times Editorial 9/11/06

The feelings of sadness and loss with which we look back on Sept. 11, 2001, have shifted focus over the last five years. The attacks themselves have begun to acquire the aura of inevitability that comes with being part of history. We can argue about what one president or another might have done to head them off, but we cannot really imagine a world in which they never happened, any more than we can imagine what we would be like today if the Japanese had never attacked Pearl Harbor.

What we do revisit, over and over again, is the period that followed, when sorrow was merged with a sense of community and purpose. How, having lost so much on the day itself, did we also manage to lose that as well?

The time when we felt drawn together, changed by the shock of what had occurred, lasted long beyond the funerals, ceremonies and promises never to forget. It was a time when the nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured.

But the call never came. Without ever having asked to be exempt from the demands of this new post-9/11 war, we were cut out. Everything would be paid for with the blood of other people’s children, and with money earned by the next generation. Our role appeared to be confined to waiting in longer lines at the airport. President Bush, searching the other day for an example of post-9/11 sacrifice, pointed out that everybody pays taxes.

That pinched view of our responsibility as citizens got us tax cuts we didn’t need and an invasion that never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft. With no call to work together on some effort greater than ourselves, we were free to relapse into a self- centeredness that became a second national tragedy. We have spent the last few years fighting each other with more avidity than we fight the enemy.

When we measure the possibilities created by 9/11 against what we have actually accomplished, it is clear that we have found one way after another to compound the tragedy. Homeland security is half-finished, the development at ground zero barely begun. The war against terror we meant to fight in Afghanistan is at best stuck in neutral, with the Taliban resurgent and the best economic news involving a bumper crop of opium. Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 when it was invaded, is now a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists.

Listing the sins of the Bush administration may help to clarify how we got here, but it will not get us out. The country still hungers for something better, for evidence that our leaders also believe in ideas larger than their own political advancement.

Today, every elected official in the country will stop and remember 9/11. The president will remind the country that he has spent most of his administration fighting terrorism, and his opponents will point out that Osama bin Laden is still at large. It would be miraculous if the best of our leaders did something larger — expressed grief and responsibility for the bad path down which we’ve gone, and promised to work together to turn us in a better direction.

Over the last week, the White House has been vigorously warning the country what awful things would happen in Iraq if American troops left, while his critics have pointed out how impossible the current situation is. They are almost certainly both right. But unless people on both sides are willing to come up with a plan that acknowledges both truths and accepts the risk of making real-world proposals, we will be stuck in the same place forever.

If that kind of coming together happened today, we could look back on Sept. 11, 2006, as more than a day for recalling bad memories and lost chances.

Promises Not Kept


Five years ago, the nation rallied around a president who promised vengeance against those responsible for the atrocity of 9/11. Yet Osama bin Laden is still alive and at large. His trail, The Washington Post reports, has gone “stone cold.” Osama and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are evidently secure enough in their hideaway that they can taunt us with professional-quality videos.

They certainly don’t lack for places to stay. Pakistan’s government has signed a truce with Islamic militants in North Waziristan, the province where bin Laden is presumed to be hiding. Although the Pakistanis say that this doesn’t mean that bin Laden is immune from arrest, their claims aren’t very credible.

Meanwhile, much of Afghanistan has fallen back under the control of drug-dealing warlords and of the Taliban, which sheltered Al Qaeda before it was driven from Kabul. NATO’s top commander has appealed for more troops; the top British commander in Afghanistan has said that fighting there is fiercer than in Iraq. And the numbers bear him out: since the beginning of 2006, the NATO force in Afghanistan has had a higher rate of fatalities than that suffered by coalition troops in Iraq.

The path to this strategic defeat began with the failure to capture or kill bin Laden. Never mind the anti-Clinton hit piece, produced for ABC by a friend of Rush Limbaugh; there never was a clear shot at Osama before 9/11, let alone one rejected by Clinton officials. But there was a clear shot in December 2001, when Al Qaeda’s leader was trapped in the caves of Tora Bora. He made his escape because the Pentagon refused to use American ground troops to cut him off.

No matter, declared President Bush: “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said about bin Laden in March 2002, and more or less stopped mentioning Osama for the next four years. By the time he made his what-me-worry remarks — just six months after 9/11 — the pursuit of Al Qaeda had already been relegated to second-class status. A long report in yesterday’s Washington Post adds detail to what has long been an open secret: early in 2002, the administration began pulling key resources, such as special forces units and unmanned aircraft, off the hunt for Al Qaeda’s leaders, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.

At the same time, the administration balked at giving the new regime in Kabul the support it needed. As he often does, Mr. Bush said the right things: the history of conflict in Afghanistan, he declared in April 2002, has been “one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.”

But he proceeded to do just that, neglecting Afghanistan in ways that foreshadowed the future calamity in Iraq. During the first 18 months after the Taliban were driven from power, the U.S.-led coalition provided no peacekeeping troops outside the capital city. Economic aid, in a destitute nation shattered by war, was minimal in the crucial first year, when the new government was trying to build legitimacy. And the result was the floundering and failure we see today.

How did it all go so wrong? The diversion of resources into a gratuitous war in Iraq is certainly a large part of the story. Although administration officials continue to insist that the invasion of Iraq somehow made sense as part of a broadly defined war on terror, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has just released a report confirming that Saddam Hussein regarded Al Qaeda as a threat, not an ally; he even made attempts to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But Iraq doesn’t explain it all. Even though the Bush administration was secretly planning another war in early 2002, it could still have spared some troops to provide security and allocated more money to help the Karzai government. As in the case of planning for postwar Iraq, however, Bush officials apparently refused even to consider the possibility that things wouldn’t go exactly the way they hoped.

These days most agonizing about the state of America’s foreign policy is focused, understandably, on the new enemies we’ve made in Iraq. But let’s not forget that the perpetrators of 9/11 are still at large, five years later, and that they have re-established a large safe haven.

Bob Herbert is on vacation.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?


“THE most famous picture nobody’s ever seen” is how the Associated Press photographer Richard Drew has referred to his photo of an unidentified World Trade Center victim hurtling to his death on 9/11. It appeared in some newspapers, including this one, on 9/12 but was soon shelved. “In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world,” Tom Junod later wrote in Esquire, “the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo.”

Five years later, Mr. Drew’s “falling man” remains a horrific artifact of the day that was supposed to change everything and did not. But there’s another taboo 9/11 photo, about life rather than death, that is equally shocking in its way, so much so that Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos kept it under wraps for four years. Mr. Hoepker’s picture can now be found in David Friend’s compelling new 9/11 book, “Watching the World Change,” or on the book’s Web site, watchingtheworldchange.com. It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. “They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because “we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared “it would stir the wrong emotions.” But “over time, with perspective,” he discovered, “it grew in importance.”

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

What’s gone right: the terrorists failed to break America’s back. The “new” normal lasted about 10 minutes, except at airport check-ins. The economy, for all its dips and inequities and runaway debt, was not destroyed. The culture, for better and worse, survived intact. It took only four days for television networks to restore commercials to grim news programming. Some two weeks after that Rudy Giuliani ritualistically welcomed laughter back to American living rooms by giving his on-camera imprimatur to “Saturday Night Live.” Before 9/11, Americans feasted on reality programs, nonstop coverage of child abductions and sex scandals. Five years later, they still do. The day that changed everything didn’t make Americans change the channel, unless it was from “Fear Factor” to “American Idol” or from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton.

For those directly affected by the terrorists’ attacks, this resilience can be hard to accept. In New York, far more than elsewhere, a political correctness about 9/11 is still strictly enforced. We bridle when the mayor of New Orleans calls ground zero “a hole in the ground” (even though, sadly, he spoke the truth). We complain that Hollywood movies about 9/11 are “too soon,” even as “United 93” and “World Trade Center” came and went with no controversy at multiplexes in middle America. The Freedom Tower and (now kaput) International Freedom Center generated so much political rancor that in New York freedom has become just another word for a lofty architectural project soon to be scrapped.

The price of all New York’s 9/11 P.C. is obvious: the 16 acres of ground zero are about the only ones that have missed out on the city’s roaring post-attack comeback. But the rest of the country is less invested. For tourists — and maybe for natives, too — the hole in the ground is a more pungent memorial than any grandiose official edifice. You can still see the naked wound where it has not healed and remember (sort of) what the savage attack was about.

But even as we celebrate this resilience, it too comes at a price. The companion American trait to resilience is forgetfulness. What we’ve forgotten too quickly is the outpouring of affection and unity that swelled against all odds in the wake of Al Qaeda’s act of mass murder. If you were in New York then, you saw it in the streets, and not just at ground zero, where countless thousands of good Samaritans joined the official responders and caregivers to help, at the cost of their own health. You saw it as New Yorkers of every kind gathered around the spontaneous shrines to the fallen and the missing at police and fire stations, at churches and in parks, to lend solace or a hand. This good feeling quickly spread to Capitol Hill, to red states where New York had once been Sodom incarnate and to the world, the third world included, where America was a nearly uniform object of sympathy and grief.

At the National Cathedral prayer service on Sept. 14, 2001, President Bush found just the apt phrase to describe this phenomenon: “Today we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called ‘the warm courage of national unity.’ This is the unity of every faith and every background. It has joined together political parties in both houses of Congress.” What’s more, he added, “this unity against terror is now extending across the world.”

The destruction of that unity, both in this nation and in the world, is as much a cause for mourning on the fifth anniversary as the attack itself. As we can’t forget the dead of 9/11, we can’t forget how the only good thing that came out of that horror, that unity, was smothered in its cradle.

When F.D.R. used the phrase “the warm courage of national unity,” it was at his first inaugural, in 1933, as the country reeled from the Great Depression. It is deeply moving to read that speech today. In its most famous line, Roosevelt asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Another passage is worth recalling, too: “We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”

What followed under Roosevelt’s leadership is one of history’s most salutary stories. Americans responded to his twin entreaties — to renounce fear and to sacrifice for the common good — with a force that turned back economic calamity and ultimately an axis of brutal enemies abroad. What followed Mr. Bush’s speech at the National Cathedral, we know all too well, is another story.

On the very next day after that convocation, Mr. Bush was asked at a press conference “how much of a sacrifice” ordinary Americans would “be expected to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines.” His answer: “Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.” He, too, wanted to move on — to “see life return to normal in America,” as he put it — but toward partisan goals stealthily tailored to his political allies rather than the nearly 90 percent of the country that, according to polls, was rallying around him.

This selfish agenda was there from the very start. As we now know from many firsthand accounts, a cadre from Mr. Bush’s war cabinet was already busily hyping nonexistent links between Iraq and the Qaeda attacks. The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maher’s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding “all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Fear itself — the fear that “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” as F.D.R. had it — was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.

Less than a month after 9/11, the president was making good on his promise of “no sacrifice whatsoever.” Speaking in Washington about how it was “the time to be wise” and “the time to act,” he declared, “We need for there to be more tax cuts.” Before long the G.O.P. would be selling 9/11 photos of the president on Air Force One to campaign donors and the White House would be featuring flag-draped remains of the 9/11 dead in political ads.

And so here we are five years later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Unslammed Phone



Sandy Berger is lucky they didn’t show him stuffing government documents into his bra.

After all, cinematic license is cinematic license.

Regarding ABC’s tarted-up 9/11 movie that sparked a furor among Clintonites who felt they were unfairly blamed for the rise of Osama, I hate to be so quaint as to defend reality. There’s not much point. It’s as dead as dial-up.

In Hollywood, reality comes with quotation marks around it, as in fixed and scripted “reality” shows. In New York, hybrids of fiction and nonfiction are lavishly rewarded; publishers want the reality part to sell the fiction part and the fiction part to enhance the reality part. In Washington, the Bush team is on a cynical and dangerous new pre-election push to present its fantasies about Iraq as reality, accusing reality-based critics of “moral or intellectual confusion,” as Rummy put it.

When a reporter asked President Bush a couple of weeks ago what Iraq had to do with 9/11, he blurted out the truth: “Nothing.” But momentarily dismissing that fantasy isn’t about to dissuade him from others. “One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror,’’ President Bush told Katie Couric this week. I bet. Making up is hard to do.

The administration’s shameless mau-mauing was undercut yesterday by a 376-page Senate Intelligence Committee report slapping Bush hawks for relying on the flawed information provided by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress to help make the case for war. The report also reaffirmed that Saddam viewed Osama in a negative light, and unveiled a C.I.A. assessment rejecting the president’s continuing claims about prewar links between Saddam and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The 2005 C.I.A. finding concluded that Saddam “did not have a relationship, harbor, or even turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates.”

W. is pulling out all the stops this week to try to make people forget he was in charge when the twin towers were hit, but if he’s doing so great, why is Osama releasing new tapes while Afghanistan crumbles while Pakistan stands ready to implode while Lebanon has already exploded while Iran goes nuclear and taunts us while Al Qaeda in Iraq calls on its followers to kill Americans “by a sniper bullet, spear, explosive or martyrdom car”?

Conservatives are crowing at the prospect of an ABC movie written by one of their own that blames 9/11 on a flaccid Clinton national security team.

Bill was distracted by the Monica fallout, just as W. was distracted, on Osama and Katrina, by his insistence on living life as usual in Crawford. Bill had no natural inclination to use American force and fumbled on how to strike back at Osama. W., petulantly, did not want to focus on terrorism because his predecessor had.

W. had a clear narrative thread in 2001; all he needed to do was go after the bad guys who hit us. Instead, he obsessed about other bad guys who happened to pose no danger to us.

Why do presidents and filmmakers dealing with the most stunning events in recent American history feel the need to go beyond facts? Isn’t the dire actuality enough? Oliver Stone implied that Lyndon Johnson and Nixon might have been in some tortuous way connected to plots to kill J.F.K.

The ABC movie promoted itself as a serious work based on the 9/11 commission report and featuring Tom Kean, the commission’s co-chairman, as a co-executive producer. (It’s impossible to imagine Earl Warren producing a movie about the events in Dallas.) But if it’s making a claim upon people’s attention as a trustworthy and accurate description of events that bear on all our lives, you’ve got to stick with the truth. You can’t pick and choose when you want it to be history and when you want it to be art. (Quel art.)

Sandy Berger yelped about a scene that depicted him refusing to authorize a military strike to kill Osama and slamming down the phone on a C.I.A. officer at a key moment. Cyrus Nowrasteh, the Republican and Limbaugh pal who served as the writer and a producer, told KRLA-AM in Los Angeles that the scene was improvised.

They distorted history to throw in a standard cliché of melodrama? (The 9/11 Commission Report as Douglas Sirk would have filmed it.) Why compromise your movie by adding tacky things that don’t increase its aesthetic power and detract from its moral power?

The argument over which president is to blame for 9/11 is tiresome. Both obviously bear some blame. There are no West Wing heroes in this story.

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