Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Arithmetic of Failure


Iraq is a lost cause. It’s just a matter of arithmetic: given the violence of the environment, with ethnic groups and rival militias at each other’s throats, American forces there are large enough to suffer terrible losses, but far too small to stabilize the country.

We’re so undermanned that we’re even losing our ability to influence events: earlier this week, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki brusquely rejected American efforts to set a timetable for reining in the militias.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a war we haven’t yet lost, and it’s just possible that a new commitment of forces there might turn things around.

The moral is clear — we need to get out of Iraq, not because we want to cut and run, but because our continuing presence is doing nothing but wasting American lives. And if we do free up our forces (and those of our British allies), we might still be able to save Afghanistan.

The classic analysis of the arithmetic of insurgencies is a 1995 article by James T. Quinlivan, an analyst at the Rand Corporation. “Force Requirements in Stability Operations,” published in Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, looked at the number of troops that peacekeeping forces have historically needed to maintain order and cope with insurgencies. Mr. Quinlivan’s comparisons suggested that even small countries might need large occupying forces.

Specifically, in some cases it was possible to stabilize countries with between 4 and 10 troops per 1,000 inhabitants. But examples like the British campaign against communist guerrillas in Malaya and the fight against the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland indicated that establishing order and stability in a difficult environment could require about 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants.

The implication was clear: “Many countries are simply too big to be plausible candidates for stabilization by external forces,” Mr. Quinlivan wrote.

Maybe, just maybe, the invasion and occupation of Iraq could have been managed in such a way that a force the United States was actually capable of sending would have been enough to maintain order and stability. But that didn’t happen, and at this point Iraq is a cauldron of violence, far worse than Malaya or Ulster ever was. And that means that stabilizing Iraq would require a force of at least 20 troops per 1,000 Iraqis — that is, 500,000 soldiers and marines.

We don’t have that kind of force. The combined strength of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps is less than 700,000 — and the combination of America’s other commitments plus the need to rotate units home for retraining means that only a fraction of those forces can be deployed for stability operations at any given time. Even maintaining the forces we now have deployed in Iraq, which are less than a third as large as the Quinlivan analysis suggests is necessary, is slowly breaking the Army.

Meanwhile, what about Afghanistan?

Given the way the Bush administration relegated Afghanistan to sideshow status, it comes as something of a shock to realize that Afghanistan has a larger population than Iraq. If Afghanistan were in as bad shape as Iraq, stabilizing it would require at least 600,000 troops — an obvious impossibility.

However, things in Afghanistan aren’t yet as far gone as they are in Iraq, and it’s possible that a smaller force — one in that range of 4 to 10 per 1,000 that has been sufficient in some cases — might be enough to stabilize the situation. But right now, the forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan are absurdly small: we’re trying to provide security to 30 million people with a force of only 32,000 Western troops and 77,000 Afghan national forces.

If we stopped trying to do the impossible in Iraq, both we and the British would be able to put more troops in a place where they might still do some good. But we have to do something soon: the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan says that most of the population will switch its allegiance to a resurgent Taliban unless things get better by this time next year.

It’s hard to believe that the world’s only superpower is on the verge of losing not just one but two wars. But the arithmetic of stability operations suggests that unless we give up our futile efforts in Iraq, we’re on track to do just that.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Don’t Make Nice


Now that the Democrats are strongly favored to capture at least one house of Congress, they’re getting a lot of unsolicited advice, with many people urging them to walk and talk softly if they win.

I hope the Democrats don’t follow this advice — because it’s bad for their party and, more important, bad for the country. In the long run, it’s even bad for the cause of bipartisanship.

There are those who say that a confrontational stance will backfire politically on the Democrats. These are by and large the same people who told Democrats that attacking the Bush administration over Iraq would backfire in the midterm elections. Enough said.

Political considerations aside, American voters deserve to have their views represented in Congress. And according to opinion polls, most Americans are actually to the left of Congressional Democrats on issues such as health care.

In particular, the public wants politicians to stand up to corporate interests. This is clear from the latest Newsweek poll, which shows overwhelming public support for the agenda Nancy Pelosi has laid out for her first 100 hours if she becomes House speaker. The strongest support is for her plan to have Medicare negotiate with drug companies for lower prices, which is supported by 74 percent of Americans — and by 70 percent of Republicans!

What the make-nice crowd wants most of all is for the Democrats to forswear any investigations into the origins of the Iraq war and the cronyism and corruption that undermined it. But it’s very much in the national interest to find out what led to the greatest strategic blunder in American history, so that it won’t happen again.

What’s more, the public wants to know. A large majority of Americans believe both that invading Iraq was a mistake, and that the Bush administration deliberately misled us into war. And according to the Newsweek poll, 58 percent of Americans believe that investigating contracting in Iraq isn’t just a good idea, but a high priority; 52 percent believe the same about investigating the origins of the war.

Why, then, should the Democrats hold back? Because, we’re told, the country needs less divisiveness. And I, too, would like to see a return to kinder, gentler politics. But that’s not something Democrats can achieve with a group hug and a chorus of “Kumbaya.”

The reason we have so much bitter partisanship these days is that that’s the way the radicals who have taken over the Republican Party want it. People like Grover Norquist, who once declared that “bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” push for a hard-right economic agenda; people like Karl Rove make that agenda politically feasible, even though it’s against the interests of most voters, by fostering polarization, using religion and national security as wedge issues.

As long as polarization is integral to the G.O.P.’s strategy, Democrats can’t do much, if anything, to narrow the partisan divide.

Even if they try to act in a bipartisan fashion, their opponents will find a way to divide the nation — which is what happened to the great surge of national unity after 9/11. One thing we might learn from investigations is the extent to which the Iraq war itself was motivated by the desire to have another wedge issue.

There are those who believe that the partisan gap can be bridged if the Democrats nominate an attractive presidential candidate who speaks in uplifting generalities. But they must have been living under a rock these past 15 or so years. Whoever the Democrats nominate will feel the full force of the Republican slime machine. And it doesn’t matter if conservatives have nice things to say about a Democrat now. Once the campaign gets serious, they’ll suddenly question his or her patriotism and discover previously unmentioned but grievous character flaws.

The truth is that we won’t get a return to bipartisanship until or unless the G.O.P. decides that polarization doesn’t work as a political strategy. The last great era of bipartisanship began after the 1948 election, when Republicans, shocked by Harry Truman’s victory, decided to stop trying to undo the New Deal. And that example suggests that the best thing the Democrats can do, not just for their party and their country, but for the cause of bipartisanship, is what Truman did: stand up strongly for their principles.

The Obama Bandwagon



The capacity crowd on a rainy night at the John F. Kennedy Library couldn’t have been happier. The guest of honor had been born the same year that J.F.K. was inaugurated, and now he was generating the kind of political delirium we have tended to associate with the Kennedys.

I was the interviewer that night, and as I arrived in a cab outside the library, the driver said, “Who’s on the program?” When I said, “Barack Obama,” the driver replied, “Oh, our next president.”

It’s a measure of how starved the country is for a sensible, appealing, intelligent, trustworthy leader that a man who until just a couple of years ago was an obscure state senator in Illinois is now suddenly, in the view of an awful lot of voters, the person we should install in the White House.

At the Kennedy Library forum on Friday night, Mr. Obama declined to rule out a run for the White House in 2008. In an appearance on “Meet the Press” yesterday, he made it clear that he was considering such a run.

With all due respect to Senator Obama, this is disturbing. He may be capable of being a great president. Someday. But one quick look around at the state of the nation and the world tells us that we need to be more careful than we have been in selecting our leaders. There shouldn’t be anything precipitous about the way we pick our presidents.

That said, the Barack Obama boom may well have legs. During the forum, every reference to the possibility of him running drew a roar from the audience. He’s thoughtful, funny and charismatic. And there is not the slightest ripple of a doubt that he wants to run for president.

The reason he went into politics, he said, was to be able to influence events, to make a difference. “Obviously,” he added, “the president has the most influence.”

I asked what thoughts run through his mind when he thinks about himself and the presidency. He said: “That office is so different from any other office on the planet, you have to understand that if you seek that office you have to be prepared to give your life to it. How I think about it is that you don’t make that decision unless you are prepared to make that sacrifice, that trade-off.

“What’s difficult and important for somebody like myself, who has a wonderful, forbearing wife and two gorgeous young children, is that they end up having to make some of those sacrifices with you. And that’s a profound decision that we won’t make lightly.”

I asked if he could imagine himself, at some point, making the kind of commitment he described. He said that he could, and the crowd erupted.

I asked if he might run in 2008. He said he was focused on the coming Congressional elections.

“So you have not ruled it out,” I said.

“We’ll leave it there,” he said.

The giddiness surrounding the Obama phenomenon seems to be an old-fashioned mixture of fun, excitement and a great deal of hope. His smile is electric, and when he laughs people tend to laugh with him. He’s the kind of politician who makes people feel good.

But the giddiness is crying out for a reality check. There’s a reason why so many Republicans are saying nice things about Mr. Obama, and urging him to run. They would like nothing more than for the Democrats to nominate a candidate in 2008 who has a very slender résumé, very little experience in national politics, hardly any in foreign policy — and who also happens to be black.

The Republicans may be in deep trouble, but they believe they could pretty easily put together a ticket that would chew up Barack Obama in 2008.

My feeling is that Senator Obama may well be the real deal. If I were advising him, I would tell him not to move too fast. With a few more years in the Senate, possibly with a powerful committee chairmanship if the Democrats take control, he could build a formidable record and develop the kind of toughness and savvy that are essential in the ugly and brutal combat of a presidential campaign.

After the interview at the Kennedy Library, hundreds of people lined up to have copies of Mr. Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” autographed. He signed as many as he could. Then he shook hands with everyone who remained and assured them that he would have their books delivered to his hotel, where he would sign them later that night.

He’s 45. There’s no hurry. He should take all the time he needs.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Obama Is Not a Miracle Elixir


THE Democrats are so brilliant at yanking defeat from the jaws of victory that it still seems unimaginable that they might win on Nov. 7. But even the most congenital skeptic has to face that possibility now. Things have gotten so bad for the Republicans that were President Bush to unveil Osama bin Laden’s corpse in the Rose Garden, some reporter would instantly check to see if his last meal had been on Jack Abramoff’s tab.

With an approval rating of 16 percent — 16! — in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Congress has matched the Democrats of 1994 or, for that matter, Michael Jackson during his own version of Foleygate. As for Mr. Bush, he is once more hiding behind children in an elementary school, as he did last week when the monthly death toll for Americans in Iraq approached a nearly two-year high. And where else could he go? Some top Republican Congressional candidates in the red state he was visiting, North Carolina, would not appear with him. When the president did find a grateful campaign mate at his next stop, Pennsylvania, it was the married congressman who paid $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit by a mistress who accused him of throttling her.

Maybe the Democrats can blow 2006 as they did 2004, but not without herculean effort. As George Will memorably wrote, if they can’t at least win back the House under these conditions, “they should go into another line of work.”

The tough question is not whether the Democrats can win, but what will happen if they do win. The party’s message in this campaign has offered no vision beyond bashing Mr. Bush and pledging to revisit the scandals and the disastrous legislation that went down on his watch. Last spring Nancy Pelosi did promote a “New Direction for America” full of golden oldies — raising the minimum wage, enacting lobbying reform, cutting Medicare drug costs, etc. She promised that Democrats would “own August” by staging 250 campaign events to publicize it. But this rollout caused so few ripples that its participants might as well have been in the witness protection program. Meanwhile, it was up to John Murtha, a congressman with no presidential ambitions, to goad his peers to start focusing on a specific Iraq exit strategy.

Enter Barack Obama. To understand the hysteria about a Democratic senator who has not yet served two years and is mainly known for a single speech at the 2004 convention, you have to appreciate just how desperate the Democrats are for a panacea for all their ills. In the many glossy cover articles about Obamamania, the only real suspense is whether a Jack or Bobby Kennedy analogy will be made in the second paragraph or the fifth. Men’s Vogue (cover by Annie Leibovitz) went so far as to say that the Illinois senator “alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath” as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Why not throw in Mark Twain and Sammy Davis Jr.?

This is a lot to put on the shoulders of anyone, even someone as impressive as Mr. Obama. Though he remains a modest and self-effacing guy from all appearances, he is encouraging the speculation about seeking higher office — and not as a coy Colin Powell-style maneuver to sell his new book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Mr. Obama hasn’t been turning up in Iowa for the corn dogs. He consistently concedes he’s entertaining the prospect of a presidential run.

There’s no reason to rush that decision now, but it’s a no-brainer. Of course he should run, assuming his family is on the same page. He’s 45, not 30, and his slender résumé in public office (which also includes seven years as a state senator) should be no more of an impediment to him than it was to the White House’s current occupant. As his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin told The Chicago Tribune last week, “I said to him, ‘Do you really think sticking around the Senate for four more years and casting a thousand more votes will make you more qualified for president?’ ” Instead, such added experience is more likely to transform an unusually eloquent writer, speaker and public servant into another windbag like Joe Biden.

The more important issue is not whether Mr. Obama will seek the presidency, but what kind of candidate he would be. If the Democratic Party is to be more than a throw-out-Bush party, it can’t settle for yet again repackaging its well-worn ideas, however worthy, with a new slogan containing the word “New.” It needs a major infusion of steadfast leadership. That’s the one lesson it should learn from George Bush. Call him arrogant or misguided or foolish, this president has been a leader. He had a controversial agenda — enacting big tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, waging “pre-emptive” war, packing the courts with judges who support his elisions of constitutional rights — and he didn’t fudge it. He didn’t care if half the country despised him along the way.

The interminable Iraq fiasco has branded the Democrats as the party of fecklessness. The failure of its leaders to challenge the administration’s blatant propaganda to gin up the war is a failure of historic proportions (as it was for much of the press and liberal punditry). When Tom Daschle, then the Senate leader, presided over the rushed passing of the war resolution before the 2002 midterms, he explained that the “bottom line” was for Democrats “to move on”; they couldn’t wait to campaign on the economy. The party’s subsequent loss of the Senate did not prevent it two years later from nominating a candidate who voted for the war’s funding before he voted against it.

What makes the liberal establishment’s crush on Mr. Obama disconcerting is that it too often sees him as a love child of a pollster’s focus group: a one-man Benetton ad who can be all things to all people. He’s black and he’s white. He’s both of immigrant stock (Kenya) and the American heartland (Kansas, yet). He speaks openly about his faith without disowning evolution. He has both gravitas and unpretentious humor. He was the editor of The Harvard Law Review and also won a Grammy (for the audiobook of his touching memoir, “Dreams From My Father”). He exudes perfection but has owned up to youthful indiscretions with drugs. He is post-boomer and post-civil-rights-movement. He is Bill Clinton without the baggage, a fail-safe 21st-century bridge from “A Place Called Hope” to “The Audacity of Hope.”

Mr. Obama has offended no one (a silly tiff with John McCain excepted). Search right-wing blogs and you’ll find none of the invective showered on other liberal Democrats in general and black liberal leaders in particular. What little criticism Mr. Obama has received is from those in his own camp who find him cautious to a fault, especially on issues that might cause controversy. The sum of all his terrific parts, this theory goes, may be less than the whole: another Democrat who won’t tell you what day it is before calling a consultant, another human weather vane who waits to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a stand.

That has been the Democrats’ fatal malady, but it’s way too early and there’s too little evidence to say Mr. Obama has been infected by it. If he is conciliatory by nature and eager to entertain adversaries’ views in good faith, that’s not necessarily a fault, particularly in these poisonous times. The question is whether Mr. Obama will stick up for core principles when tested and get others to follow him.

That’s why it’s important to remember that on one true test for his party, Iraq, he was consistent from the start. On the long trail to a hotly competitive senatorial primary in Illinois, he repeatedly questioned the rationale for the war before it began, finally to protest it at a large rally in Chicago on the eve of the invasion. He judged Saddam to pose no immediate threat to America and argued for containment over a war he would soon label “dumb” and “political-driven.” He hasn’t changed. In his new book, he gives a specific date (the end of this year) for beginning “a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops” and doesn’t seem to care who calls it “cut and run.”

Contrast this with Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, who last week said that failed American policy in Iraq should be revisited if there’s no improvement in “maybe 60 to 90 days.” This might qualify as leadership, even at this late date, if only John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, hadn’t proposed exactly the same time frame for a re-evaluation of the war almost a week before she did.

The Democrats may well win on Election Day this year. But one of their best hopes for long-term viability in the post-Bush era is that Barack Obama steps up and changes the party before the party of terminal timidity and equivocation changes him.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Obama’s Project Runway



So the question before us is, should Barack Obama stop lounging around in fashion magazines and do some honest work, like running for president?

How will we ever persuade him to give up his modeling gigs in Men’s Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair and Washington Life? How can we lure the lanky young senator from Illinois out of the glossy celebrity pages and back to gritty substance, away from Annie Leibovitz’s camera and back to Abraham Lincoln’s tradition? He may not want to come back, now that he has mastered that J.F.K. casual glamour pose in shirt sleeves and tie, suit jacket slung over his shoulder, elegant wife and pretty children accessorizing.

The Washington Post’s fashion reporter, Robin Givhan, analyzed the Men’s Vogue spread, with its “touch football” aura: “Obama is pictured in warm light or soft focus. He is pondering, nurturing, working. But never glad-handing, pontificating or fund-raising. The pictures celebrate the idea of Obama rather than the reality of politics.”

Why should the 45-year-old senator tackle reality in a city that has forsworn it altogether? And why not join the catwalk of Democratic hotties? The Washington Post reported that the Democrats were “fielding an uncommonly high number of uncommonly good-looking candidates.” Young and cute, as the party campaign honcho Rahm Emanuel wryly told me, could be a refreshing change from “Hastert, Rumsfeld and Cheney, who look like the retirees from ‘Goodfellas.’ ”

Mr. Obama’s main accomplishment so far is sending a chill through Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ dreaded eventuality. It must certainly be more fun cavorting on a cover with Eva Longoria than caucusing in the Capitol with Harry Reid. Working on legislation can be so tedious, compared with a 13-city book tour in which you are feted as the liberal hunk of the 21st century, generating buzz about your future instead of the country’s.

Mr. Obama, who fears being seen as fluffy and who has been known to mock pretty boys in his party, never seems to take off his makeup these days, as he pads from one soft perch to the next, from Oprah to Meredith to Larry. The first black president of the Harvard Law Review is spending too much time in green rooms.

He also logs a lot of time at the gym. (You never know when Anna Wintour will call.) It is the only thing this intellectually nimble, preternaturally articulate smarty-pants has in common with W.

“Politics sometimes blends in with celebrity,” he told Oprah this week. “And it gobbles you up because the tendency is for people to want to see you perform and say what they want to hear, as opposed to you trying to stay in touch with, you know, that deepest part of you, that kernel of truth inside.” Doesn’t he see that when you express this skepticism on Oprah it is not skepticism at all?

Haven’t we seen this tease before? Before the 1996 campaign, Colin Powell scared the bejesus out of Hillary’s husband by showing a fair amount of leg on his book tour. He sold 2.6 million books and was hugely popular, but caution crimped him. He never ran for president, and when he went to the State Department he never stood up to the forces of darkness.

Senator Obama’s caution, too, may cause him to miss the moment. Like Alma Powell, Michelle Obama is afraid for her husband to run.

After 16 years of polarizing presidents driving them crazy, Americans will be yearning for someone as soothing as Obama. (“No one is exempt,” he writes in one of many platitudes in his new book, “from the call to find common ground.”) He is so hot now that tickets to his political events are being sought, at scalpers’ prices, on Craig’s List.

His appeal combines the political ability — alien to the Bush administration — to see something from your opponent’s point of view with the cool detachment of a J.F.K. He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and “maybe a little blow” as a young man.

He has been told by Democratic leaders to think about whether he really wants to be president, or whether he’s just getting swept away by people who want him to do it. (That’s a distinction that entitled and unqualified Republican WASPs like W. and Dan Quayle never bother to make, simply learning — or not learning — on the job.)

Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history — or is there no longer any difference?

Incentives for the Dead


I don’t know about you, but I need a break from political scandals. So let’s talk about private-sector scandals instead — specifically, the growing scandal involving backdated stock options, which this week led to the resignation of William McGuire, the chief executive of UnitedHealth Group.

To understand the issue, we need to go back to the original ideological justification for giant executive paychecks.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, C.E.O.’s of the largest firms were paid, on average, about 40 times as much as the average worker. But executives wanted more — and professors at business schools provided a theory that justified much higher pay.

They argued that a chief executive who expects to receive the same salary if his company is highly profitable that he will receive if it just muddles along won’t be willing to take risks and make hard decisions. “Corporate America,” declared an influential 1990 article by Michael Jensen of the Harvard Business School and Kevin Murphy of the University of Southern California, “pays its most important leaders like bureaucrats. Is it any wonder then that so many C.E.O.’s act like bureaucrats?”

The claim, then, was that executives had to be given more of a stake in their companies’ success. And so corporate boards began giving C.E.O.’s lots of stock options — the right to purchase a share of the company’s stocks at a fixed price, usually the market price on the day the option was issued. If the stock went up, these options would pay off; if the stock went down, they would lose their value. And so, the theory went, executives would have the incentive to do whatever it took to push the stock price up.

In the 1990’s, executive stock options proliferated — and executive pay soared, rising to 367 times the average worker’s pay by the early years of this decade.

But the truth was that in many — perhaps most — cases, executive pay still had little to do with performance. For one thing, the great bull market of the 1990’s meant that even companies that didn’t do especially well saw their stock prices rise.

Then there were the tricks that companies used to ensure lavish executive pay even if the stock simply seesawed up and down. For example, after a downward move in the stock price, executive stock options would often be repriced or swapped — that is, the price at which the executive had the right to buy stocks would be reduced to the new market price. Heads the C.E.O. wins, tails he gets another chance to flip the coin.

What the backdating scandal reveals is that for many executives even that wasn’t enough. To ensure that executives profited from newly issued options, companies would pretend that the options had in fact been issued at an earlier date, when the stock price was lower. Thus a contract that Mr. McGuire signed in December 1999 included a grant of one million stock options dated back to Oct. 13, the day UnitedHealth’s stock price reached its low point for the year.

What’s wrong with backdating stock options? There’s a tax evasion aspect, but the main point is the bait-and-switch. The public was told that gigantic executive paychecks were rewards for exceptional performance, but in practice executives were lavishly paid simply for showing up at the office.

And in some cases even that wasn’t required. Cablevision Systems gave options to a deceased executive (in other words, to his heirs), backdating them to make it appear that he had received them while still alive.

The moral of the story is that we still haven’t come to grips with the epidemic of corporate misgovernance revealed four years ago by the Enron and WorldCom scandals, then drowned out as a political issue by the clamor for war with Iraq. Even now, we’re still learning how deep the rot went.

And there’s no reason to believe that the problem has been solved. Three years ago, Warren Buffett declared that reining in runaway executive pay was the “acid test of corporate reform.” Well, executive compensation, which fell briefly after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, has shot right back up.

So we’re still waiting for serious corporate reform. And don’t tell me that everything must be O.K. because stocks have been rising lately. Remember, they rose even faster in the 1990’s — and the 1920’s.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Young, Cold and for Sale



The girl approached me on a desolate stretch of Metropolitan Parkway, about halfway between the airport and the clustered lights of the downtown skyline. The night was unusually cold and she was shivering a little. She told me she was 15, but she didn’t look more than 12.

It was bad enough that the child was outside at all at midnight. The fact that she was turning tricks was heartbreaking. I explained that I was a reporter for The New York Times and asked if she would wait while I went to get someone to help her. She looked surprised. “I don’t need any help,” she said.

I had already spent a night traveling with undercover vice cops, and they had pointed out the different neighborhoods in which under-age prostitutes, some as young as 10, roamed the streets.

“The girls are exploited in every sense of the word,” said Lt. Keith Meadows, who heads Atlanta’s vice unit. “The men are all over them — the pimps, the johns. The girls get beaten. That’s common. They’re introduced to drugs. And the pimps take all the money. It’s sad.

“I would say that in most cases, the girls never knew their fathers. A lot of them were abused at home and they end up in the clutches of these pimps, putting their trust in someone they shouldn’t have.”

Atlanta, for a variety of reasons, has become a hub of child prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The overall market for sex with kids is booming in many parts of the U.S. In Atlanta — a thriving hotel and convention center with a sophisticated airport and ground transportation network — pimps and other lowlifes have tapped into that market bigtime.

“These guys are even going into rural Georgia and getting these girls and bringing them into Atlanta,” said Alesia Adams, a longtime advocate who has worked with the courts and social service agencies to assist young girls who are lured into the sex trade.

Kaffie McCullough, the project director of a federally sponsored intervention program, said Atlanta’s juvenile prostitution problem “is a lot bigger than anybody would really like to know.” The sex trade in Atlanta is “a huge, huge, huge industry,” she said, and the involvement of kids under 17, which is the age of consent in Georgia, is a substantial part of it.

Stephanie Davis, the policy adviser on women’s issues for Mayor Shirley Franklin, agreed. “Sex tourism is coming south,” she told me. “There is advertising that I’ve seen on the Internet and other places that actually targets the New York market, urging men to come to Atlanta for the day and fly back home that night.”

The risks for pimps and other exploiters of children are low, and the payoff is often enormous. Demand is increasing for younger and younger prostitutes, in part because of the cultural emphasis on the sexual appeal of very young women and girls, and in part because of the widely held belief among johns that there is less risk of contracting a disease from younger prostitutes.

For the girls, life on the street can be hellish. A study released last fall by the Atlanta Women’s Agenda, an initiative of the mayor’s office, noted that the girls are always highly vulnerable to rape, assault, robbery and murder, not to mention arrest and incarceration. Added to that are the psychological risks, which are profound.

The girl who approached me on Metropolitan Parkway had walked alone across an empty, rundown parking lot. The usual practice, I had been told, was for johns in cars to pick up the girls and then drive behind an abandoned commercial building, of which there were plenty in the area.

The girl said she had a “boyfriend,” which is the word the girls use for their pimps. When I asked if her boyfriend knew what she was doing, she said, “He told me to do it.”

She lifted her chin and proudly showed me a cheap necklace she was wearing. “He gave me this,” she said. “He loves me.”

I tried to think of a way to bring the girl to the attention of some social service agency, or even the police. But taking her into my rented car, even if she had been willing to go with me, was out of the question. I looked around, hoping to spot a passing patrol car.

The girl’s bangs fluttered as the wind picked up. She looked cold. “I gotta go,” she said.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

In Vodka Non Veritas



Hillary Clinton always reminded me of Sarah, the Mission Doll, in “Guys and Dolls.”

As first lady, she had that earnest, sometimes sanctimonious, air of certitude and do-gooding that earned her the nickname Saint Hillary. As a senator, she has gotten friendly with conservatives in her Congressional prayer group and has lately been spotted wearing crosses around her neck, a gold one and a diamond one.

“Is it, perhaps, a sign that her faith may be a bit more in the foreground as 2008 approaches?” Ben Smith mused in a New York Daily News blog.

And yet Hillary always struck me as the sort of buttoned-up and driven woman who would be really fun if you could get her out for a night of dulces de leche in Cuba, as Marlon Brando did Jean Simmons in “Guys and Dolls.”

My instinct about Hillary’s subterranean saucy side was confirmed when I read a front-page story in The Times about her unlikely friendship with her expected rival in the 2008 race, John McCain.

Anne Kornblut wrote that two summers ago, on a Congressional trip to Estonia with Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, Senator Clinton “astonished her traveling companions by suggesting that the group do what one does in the Baltics: hold a vodka-drinking contest. Delighted, the leader of the delegation, Senator John McCain, quickly agreed. The after-dinner drinks went so well — memories are a bit hazy on who drank how much — that Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, later told people how unexpectedly engaging he found Mrs. Clinton to be.”

It seemed a refreshing breeze of bipartisanship in W.’s acrid era. But a few days after the anecdote appeared, Mr. McCain flatly denied it on Fox News as “Not true.”

“Didn’t happen?” Alan Colmes pressed.

“No,” Mr. McCain insisted.

“But you and she have a good working relationship, right?” Mr. Colmes asked.

“I try to have a good working relationship with all senators, and I have a good working relationship with Senator Clinton, and I try to do that,” Mr. McCain said.

Sean Hannity chimed in, “I’m glad to hear, Senator, you weren’t drinking shots with Senator Clinton.”

“I was not,” Mr. McCain repeated, emphatically.

Then the senator went on Jay Leno’s show and again denied the Night of Baltic Sea carousing. After joking that “we were trying to get Ted Kennedy to be the judge,” he insisted again: “Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen.”

“It was the front page of The New York Times!” Mr. Leno said, to which Mr. McCain riposted, “Don’t believe everything you read.”

Joshua Green, reporting the cover profile of Hillary for the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, was rebuffed when he asked for an interview with Mr. McCain about the night Hillary poured shots for fellow lawmakers. But Mr. Green ran into Mr. McCain walking through the Capitol and asked him about the Baltics escapade. “McCain lit up at the recollection,” he wrote. “ ‘It’s been 50 years since I’d been in a drinking game,’ said McCain. ... He added, admiringly, ‘She can really hold her liquor.’ ”

The Straight Talk Express was swerving again. Confused, I checked in with the McCain camp.

“They went out and had dinner,” I was told. “After dinner, they had drinks. It was not a drinking contest, the way you and I think of a drinking contest. John had two drinks.” Team McCain wanted it to be clear that Susan Collins and Hillary Clinton were more dedicated revelers, and that it was not an intimate party — “there were six senators and staff and Estonian hangers-on.”

So the vodka vivacity happened, but Mr. McCain’s staff, eager to see the senator pander to what Jon Stewart called the “crazy-base world,” put a stop to their boss’s inviting Mrs. Clinton on trips. The former fighter jock and “scamp,” as his mom called him, has become so lifeless and base-whipped that he is scared to be seen knocking back Stolis with a nice Methodist girl from the Midwest who wears crosses around her neck.

“John was not intentionally misleading,” his person said. “The image a drinking contest sets up is not very pretty, and we’re in serious times. The best thing he’s done is to be collegial. You can do that by drinking, but it’s not a drinking contest. Is this splitting hairs?”

Actually, yeah. The once candid senator is starting to sound downright Clintonian with all this silly parsing and dissembling. I did not have drinks with that woman!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

One-Letter Politics


In a recent interview with The Hartford Courant, Senator Joseph Lieberman said something that wasn’t credible. When the newspaper asked him whether America would be better off if the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives next month, he replied, “Uh, I haven’t thought about that enough to give an answer.”

Why wasn’t this a credible answer? Because anyone with the slightest interest in American politics — a group that obviously includes Mr. Lieberman — is waiting with bated breath to see how this election goes, and thinking a lot about the implications. If the Democrats gain control of either house, no matter how narrowly, the American political landscape will be transformed. If they fail, no matter how narrowly, it will be seen, correctly, as a great victory for the hard right.

The fact is that this is a one-letter election. D or R, that’s all that matters.

It’s hard to think of an election in which the personal qualities of the people running in a given district or state have mattered less. Given the stakes, voters who answer “yes” to the question Mr. Lieberman claims not to have thought about should think hard about voting for any Republican, no matter how appealing. Conversely, those who answer “no” should think hard about supporting any Democrat, no matter how much they like him or her.

There are two reasons why party control is everything in this election.

The first, lesser reason is the demonstrated ability of Republican Congressional leaders to keep their members in line, even those members who cultivate a reputation as moderates or mavericks. G.O.P. politicians sometimes make a show of independence, as Senator John McCain did in seeming to stand up to President Bush on torture. But in the end, they always give the White House what it wants: after getting a lot of good press for his principled stand, Mr. McCain signed on to a torture bill that in effect gave Mr. Bush a completely free hand.

And if the Republicans retain control of Congress, even if it’s by just one seat in each house, Mr. Bush will retain that free hand. If they lose control of either house, the G.O.P. juggernaut will come to a shuddering halt.

Yet that’s the less important reason this election is all about party control. The really important reason may be summed up in two words: subpoena power.

Even if the Democrats take both houses, they won’t be able to accomplish much in the way of new legislation. They won’t have the votes to stop Republican filibusters in the Senate, let alone to override presidential vetoes.

The only types of legislation the Democrats might be able to push through are overwhelmingly popular measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage, that Republicans don’t want but probably wouldn’t dare oppose in an open vote.

But while the Democrats won’t gain the ability to pass laws, if they win they will gain the ability to carry out investigations, and the legal right to compel testimony.

The current Congress has shown no inclination to investigate the Bush administration. Last year The Boston Globe offered an illuminating comparison: when Bill Clinton was president, the House took 140 hours of sworn testimony into whether Mr. Clinton had used the White House Christmas list to identify possible Democratic donors. But in 2004 and 2005, a House committee took only 12 hours of testimony on the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

If the Democrats take control, that will change — and voters should think very hard about whether they want that change. Those who think it’s a good idea to investigate, say, allegations of cronyism and corruption in Iraq contracting should be aware that any vote cast for a Republican makes Congressional investigations less likely. Those who believe that the administration should be left alone to do its job should be aware that any vote for a Democrat makes investigations more likely.

O.K., what about the Senate race in Connecticut, where Ned Lamont is the Democratic nominee, and Mr. Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary, is running as an independent but promising to caucus with the Democrats if he wins? Is this a case where the man, not the party, is what matters? Only if you believe that Mr. Lieberman’s promise not to switch parties is 100 percent credible.

Why Aren’t We Shocked?


“Who needs a brain when you have these?”

— message on an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt for young women

In the recent shootings at an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania and a large public high school in Colorado, the killers went out of their way to separate the girls from the boys, and then deliberately attacked only the girls.

Ten girls were shot and five killed at the Amish school. One girl was killed and a number of others were molested in the Colorado attack.

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.

The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock. Guys at sporting events and other public venues have shown no qualms about raising an insistent chant to nearby women to show their breasts. An ad for a major long-distance telephone carrier shows three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, “When was the last time you got screwed?”

An ad for Clinique moisturizing lotion shows a woman’s face with the lotion spattered across it to simulate the climactic shot of a porn video.

We have a problem. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed on women every day, and there is no escaping the fact that in the most sensational stories, large segments of the population are titillated by that violence. We’ve been watching the sexualized image of the murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey for 10 years. JonBenet is dead. Her mother is dead. And we’re still watching the video of this poor child prancing in lipstick and high heels.

What have we learned since then? That there’s big money to be made from thongs, spandex tops and sexy makeovers for little girls. In a misogynistic culture, it’s never too early to drill into the minds of girls that what really matters is their appearance and their ability to please men sexually.

A girl or woman is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so in the U.S. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is far beyond the ability of any agency to count. We’re all implicated in this carnage because the relentless violence against women and girls is linked at its core to the wider society’s casual willingness to dehumanize women and girls, to see them first and foremost as sexual vessels — objects — and never, ever as the equals of men.

“Once you dehumanize somebody, everything is possible,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the women’s advocacy group Equality Now.

That was never clearer than in some of the extreme forms of pornography that have spread like nuclear waste across mainstream America. Forget the embarrassed, inhibited raincoat crowd of the old days. Now Mr. Solid Citizen can come home, log on to this $7 billion mega-industry and get his kicks watching real women being beaten and sexually assaulted on Web sites with names like “Ravished Bride” and “Rough Sex — Where Whores Get Owned.”

Then, of course, there’s gangsta rap, and the video games where the players themselves get to maul and molest women, the rise of pimp culture (the Academy Award-winning song this year was “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”), and on and on.

You’re deluded if you think this is all about fun and games. It’s all part of a devastating continuum of misogyny that at its farthest extreme touches down in places like the one-room Amish schoolhouse in normally quiet Nickel Mines, Pa.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Gay Old Party Comes Out


PAGING Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council: Here’s a gay Republican story you probably did not hear last week. On Tuesday a card-carrying homosexual, Mark Dybul, was sworn into office at the State Department with his partner holding the Bible. Dr. Dybul, the administration’s new global AIDS coordinator, was flanked by Laura Bush and Condi Rice. In her official remarks, the secretary of state referred to the mother of Dr. Dybul’s partner as his “mother-in-law.”

Could wedding bells be far behind? It was all on display, photo included, on www.state.gov. And while you’re cruising the Internet, a little creative Googling will yield a long list of who else is gay, openly and not, in the highest ranks of both the Bush administration and the Republican hierarchy. The openly gay range from Steve Herbits, the prescient right-hand consultant to Donald Rumsfeld who foresees disaster in Iraq in Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial,” to Israel Hernandez, the former Bush personal aide and current Commerce Department official whom the president nicknamed “Altoid boy.” (Let’s not go there.)

If anything good has come out of the Foley scandal, it is surely this: The revelation that the political party fond of demonizing homosexuals each election year is as well-stocked with trusted and accomplished gay leaders as virtually every other power center in America. “What you’re really seeing is the Republican Party on the Hill,” says Rich Tafel, the former leader of the gay Log Cabin Republicans whom George W. Bush refused to meet with during the 2000 campaign. “Across the board gay people are in leadership positions.” Yet it is this same party’s Congressional leadership that in 2006 did almost nothing about government spending, Iraq, immigration or ethics reform, but did drop everything to focus on a doomed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The split between the Republicans’ outward homophobia and inner gayness isn’t just hypocrisy; it’s pathology. Take the bizarre case of Karl Rove. Every one of his Bush campaigns has been marked by a dirty dealing of the gay card, dating back to the lesbian whispers that pursued Ann Richards when Mr. Bush ousted her as Texas governor in 1994. Yet we now learn from “The Architect,” the recent book by the Texas journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater, that Mr. Rove’s own (and beloved) adoptive father, Louis Rove, was openly gay in the years before his death in 2004. This will be a future case study for psychiatric clinicians as well as historians.

So will Kirk Fordham, the former Congressional aide who worked not only for Mark Foley but also for such gay-baiters as Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma (who gratuitously bragged this year that no one in his family’s “recorded history” was gay) and Senator Mel Martinez of Florida (who vilified his 2004 Republican primary opponent, a fellow conservative, as a tool of the “radical homosexual agenda”). Then again, even Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania senator who brought up incest and “man-on-dog” sex while decrying same-sex marriage, has employed a gay director of communications. In the G.O.P. such switch-hitting is as second nature as cutting taxes.

As for Mr. Foley, he is no more representative of gay men, whatever their political orientation, than Joey Buttafuoco is of straight men. Yet he’s a useful creep at this historical juncture because his behavior has exposed and will continue to expose a larger dynamic on the right. The longer the aftermath of this scandal continues, with its maniacal finger-pointing and relentless spotlight on the Republican closet, the harder it will be for his party to return to the double-dealing that has made gay Americans election-year bogeymen (and women) for so long.

The moment Mr. Foley’s e-mails became known, we saw that brand of fearmongering and bigotry at full tilt: Bush administration allies exploited the former Congressman’s predatory history to spread the grotesque canard that homosexuality is a direct path to pedophilia. It’s the kind of blood libel that in another era was spread about Jews.

The Family Research Council’s Mr. Perkins, a frequent White House ally and visitor, led the way. “When we elevate tolerance and diversity to the guidepost of public life,” he said on Fox News Channel, “this is what we get — men chasing 16-year-old boys around the halls of Congress.” A related note was struck by The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which asked, “Could a gay Congressman be quarantined?” The answer was no because “today’s politically correct culture” — tolerance of “private lifestyle choices” — gives predatory gay men a free pass. Newt Gingrich made the same point when he announced on TV that Mr. Foley had not been policed because Republicans “would have been accused of gay bashing.” Translation: Those in favor of gay civil rights would countenance and protect sex offenders.

This line of attack was soon followed by another classic from the annals of anti-Semitism: the shadowy conspiracy. “The secret Capitol Hill homosexual network must be exposed and dismantled,” said Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, another right-wing outfit that serves as a grass-roots auxiliary to the Bush administration. This network, he claims, was allowed “to infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus” and worked “behind the scenes to sabotage a conservative pro-family agenda in Congress.”

There are two problems with this theory. First, gay people did not “infiltrate” the party apparatus — they are the party apparatus. Rare is the conservative Republican Congressional leader who does not have a gay staffer wielding clout in a major position. Second, any inference that gay Republicans on the Hill conspired to cover up Mr. Foley’s behavior is preposterous. Mr. Fordham, the gay former Foley aide who spent Thursday testifying under oath about his warnings to Denny Hastert’s staff, is to date the closest this sordid mess has to a whistle-blower, however tardy. So far, the slackers in curbing Mr. Foley over the past three years seem more straight than gay, led by the Buffalo Congressman Tom Reynolds, who is now running a guilt-ridden campaign commercial desperately apologizing to voters.

A Washington Post poll last week found that two-thirds of Americans believe that Democrats would behave just as badly as the Hastert gang in covering up a scandal like this to protect their own power. They are no doubt right. But the reason why the Foley scandal has legs — and why it has upstaged most other news, from the Congressional bill countenancing torture to North Korea’s nuclear test — is not just that sex trumps everything else in a tabloid-besotted America. The Republicans, unlike most Democrats (Joe Lieberman always excepted), can’t stop advertising their “family values,” which is why their pitfalls are as irresistible as a Molière farce. It was entertaining enough to learn that the former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed wanted to go “humping in corporate accounts” with the corrupt gambling lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The only way that comic setup could be topped was by the news that Mr. Foley was chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus. It beggars the imagination that he wasn’t also entrusted with No Child Left Behind.

Cultural conservatives who fell for the G.O.P.’s pious propaganda now look like dupes. Tonight on “60 Minutes,” David Kuo, a former top official in the administration’s faith-based initiatives program, is scheduled to discuss his new book recounting how evangelical supporters were privately ridiculed as “nuts” in the White House. If they have any self-respect, they’ll exact their own revenge.

We must hope as well that this crisis will lead to a repudiation of the ritual targeting of gay people for sport at the top levels of the Republican leadership in and out of the White House. For all the president’s talk of tolerance and “compassionate conservatism,” he has repeatedly joined Congress in wielding same-sex marriage as a club for divisive political purposes. He sat idly by while his secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, attacked a PBS children’s show because an animated rabbit visited a lesbian couple and their children. Ms. Spellings was worried about children being exposed to that “lifestyle” — itself a code word for “deviance” — even as the daughter of the vice president was preparing to expose the country to that lifestyle in a highly promoted book.

“The hypocrisy, the winking and nodding is catching up with the party,” says Mr. Tafel, the former Log Cabin leader. “Republicans must welcome their diversity as the party of Lincoln or purge the party of all gays. The middle ground — we’re a diverse party but we can bash gays too — will no longer work.” He adds that “the ironic point is that the G.O.P. isn’t as homophobic as it pretends to be.” Indeed two likely leading presidential competitors in 2008, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, are consistent supporters of gay civil rights.

Another ironic point, of course, is that the effort to eradicate AIDS, led by a number of openly gay appointees like Dr. Dybul, may prove to be the single most beneficent achievement of this beleaguered White House. To paraphrase a show tune you’re unlikely to hear around the Family Research Council, isn’t that queer?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Is Chivalry Shivved?



Hillary Clinton became a senator because men abused her. Her husband humiliated her in public and her opponent, Rick Lazio, hounded her in a debate. She was a sympathetic figure to many voters only after she went from pushy to pushed around.

So John McCain must be wary as he figures out how to push her around. He must slide in the shiv chivalrously.

This week, he managed to attack her three ways in one sentence: as a senator, as a wife and as a future opponent. This raises the question: Is it a smart move, pleasing a base that cringes at stories of these celebrity senators palling around, knocking back drinks on an overseas trip? Or is it a misstep, making Mr. McCain look like a sexist bully for pointedly blaming his fellow senator for her husband’s old policies — and calling her “Mrs. Clinton” just to rub it in?

On a trip to Detroit to campaign for a Republican Senate candidate, Mr. McCain singled out Hillary for a shellacking on North Korea. “I would remind Senator Clinton and other Democrats critical of Bush administration policies that the framework agreement her husband’s administration negotiated was a failure,” he said.

The next morning on CBS’s “The Early Show,” he was asked why he would blame the Clintons for North Korea’s batty behavior.

It’s clear, after all, that the North Koreans are acting immaturely in response to W. acting immaturely. They want attention because the Bush administration inexplicably refuses to talk to them. And they know, in the pre-emptive world ordained by nutty Dick Cheney, that the best way to protect themselves from the fate of Saddam Hussein is to actually go nuclear, rather than merely fantasizing and boasting about it.

But the Republicans love to blame Bill Clinton for everything, from the radioactive Congressional page explosion to the radioactive North Korean explosion.

Mr. McCain told Hannah Storm that he “was responding to attacks made on President Bush by Mrs. Clinton, Senator Kerry, Senator Reid and other Democrats.” Hillary advisers noted that she was called “Mrs.” while the others were called “Senator.”

Just as the male Republican front-runner, known for a short fuse, must be careful how he attacks the female Democratic front-runner, the former first lady must be careful how she attacks the war hero.

If she doesn’t respond forcefully, she’s not fit for the alpha chair in the Oval; if she responds too forcefully, the Republicans will try to paint her as an angry harridan who would nag us to death, or go all hypersensitive on us.

“It hurts her when she gets in a defensive crouch on her husband’s record,” a McCain adviser said.

Clearly, the missus does not think so. Billary has their 2008 war room running and finger-wagging. Just as they teamed up recently to punch back when Condi and Bush boosters accused Bill of being lax with Al Qaeda before 9/11, Hillary swiftly rebutted the charge that Bill was lax with North Korea, calling it “ridiculous.”

Privately, Hillary’s camp was not overly upset by the McCain swipe because it suspected he was doing the bidding of the White House and that he ended up, as one adviser put it, “looking similar to the way he did on those captive tapes from Hanoi, where he recited the names of his crew mates.” Besides, Senator Clinton does like to cruise on her husband’s coattails and remind Americans that the economy was exploding and the world wasn’t.

Hillary’s people think she’s better off tying herself to les bon-temps-roulez Bill years than Mr. McCain is tying himself to the war-without-end W. years. “It’s bad enough that he strapped himself to a broken Acme rocket on Iraq and the economy, now he’s strapping himself on North Korea,” said one. “People were enamored of his independence, but now he just seems like Bush’s windup toy, the obedient corporal.”

Linking to W. may become even more problematic if Republicans lose the House next month, and Democrats begin a lollapalooza of investigations into W.’s economic policies, Katrina management methods, Iraq military plan and Iraq reconstruction record.

But Hillary and her first lad have their work cut out for them in trying to take out a popular war hero, according to Mark Halperin and John Harris, authors of “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008.”

“Our sense right now,” Mr. Halperin says, “is that McCain would beat any Democrat including Hillary Clinton, and Clinton would beat any Republican except for McCain.”

Will the Levee Break?


The conventional wisdom says that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives next month, but only by a small margin. I’ve been looking at the numbers, however, and I believe this conventional wisdom is almost all wrong.

Here’s what’s happening: a huge Democratic storm surge is heading toward a high Republican levee. It’s still possible that the surge won’t overtop the levee — that is, the Democrats could fail by a small margin to take control of Congress. But if the surge does go over the top, the flooding will almost surely reach well inland — that is, if the Democrats win, they’ll probably win big.

Let’s talk about Congressional arithmetic.

Unless the Bush administration is keeping Osama bin Laden in a freezer somewhere, a majority of Americans will vote Democratic this year. If Congressional seats were allocated in proportion to popular votes, a Democratic House would be a done deal. But they aren’t, and the way our electoral system works, combined with the way ethnic groups are distributed, still gives the Republicans some hope of holding on.

The key point is that African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are highly concentrated in a few districts. This means that in close elections many Democratic votes are, as political analysts say, wasted — they simply add to huge majorities in a small number of districts, while the more widely spread Republican vote allows the G.O.P. to win by narrower margins in a larger number of districts.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that because of this “geographic gerrymander,” even a substantial turnaround in total Congressional votes — say, from the three-percentage-point Republican lead in 2004 to a five-point Democratic lead this year — would leave the House narrowly in Republican hands. It looks as if the Democrats need as much as a seven-point lead in the overall vote to take control.

No wonder, then, that until a few months ago many political analysts argued that the Republicans would control the House for the foreseeable future, because only a perfect political storm could overcome the G.O.P. structural advantage.

But what’s that howling sound? Every poll taken this month shows the Democrats with a double-digit lead in the generic ballot question, in which voters are asked which party they support in this election. The median Democratic lead is 14 points.

And here’s the thing: because there are many districts that the G.O.P. carried by only moderately large margins in recent elections, a large Democratic surge — one only a bit bigger than that needed to take the House at all — would sweep away many Republicans holding seats normally considered safe. If the actual vote is anything like what the polls now suggest, we’re talking about the Democrats holding a larger majority in the House than the Republicans have held at any point since their 1994 takeover.

So if the Democrats win, they’ll probably have a substantial majority. Whether they’ll be able to keep that majority is another question. But be prepared to wake up less than four weeks from now and learn that everything you’ve been told about American politics — liberalism is dead, whoever controls the South controls Washington, only Republicans know “the way to win” — is wrong. (Are we seeing the birth of a new New Deal coalition, in which the solid Northeast takes the place of the solid South?)

The storm may yet weaken. The Iowa Electronic Markets, in which people bet real money on election outcomes, still give Republicans a roughly 40 percent chance of keeping control of both houses of Congress. If that happens, will it mean that Republican control is permanent after all?

No. Bear in mind that the G.O.P. isn’t in trouble because of a string of bad luck. The problems that have caused Americans to turn on the party, from the disaster in Iraq to the botched response to Katrina, from the failed attempt to privatize Social Security to the sudden realization by many voters that the self-proclaimed champions of moral values are hypocrites, are deeply rooted in the whole nature of Republican governance. So even if this surge doesn’t overtop the levee, there will be another surge soon.

But the best guess is that the permanent Republican majority will end in a little over three weeks.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sacrifice of the Few


Clarksville, Tenn.

Sgt. Mike Krause remembers the time, not too long ago, when he came home on a brief leave from Iraq. He was walking through an airport, in uniform, and other passengers, spotting him, began to applaud.

“It was awesome,” he said. “They were cheering and clapping. It was great. But you know what? I said to myself, ‘That guy’s flying to Toledo on a business trip. This lady over here is flying off on vacation. Their lives are normal. But soon I’ll be getting on a plane to go back to the most abnormal place on earth.’ ”

Just how abnormal is made explicit when the sergeant, just 24 years old, describes the worst task he had to perform in Iraq. He spoke hesitantly. “You’ll excuse me,” he said. “This is not easy to talk about. Part of our job, our duty, was that we loaded, you know, bodies. We were in charge of the airfield, and we would load these heroes into the aircraft.

“My platoon sergeant had a policy. He didn’t want lower-ranking soldiers involved. He told us, ‘I don’t want privates doing this. You guys are going to carry this with you, whether you realize it or not, for the rest of your lives. If I can protect the privates, I will.’

“I don’t know if I could ever explain what that was really like. I loaded those guys — and I know all their names — onto a plane. And you don’t know how heavy a guy in a body bag can be. It’s not just his weight. He may be 180 pounds, but it’s a lot more than just a 180-pound guy. You’re loading his entire life.”

Sergeant Krause, who served with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, lives in a quiet middle-class subdivision not far from Fort Campbell, which is on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Sprawled in his living room in jeans and a polo shirt, he seems happy. He’s safely home after serving three nerve-racking combat tours — one in Afghanistan and two yearlong tours in Iraq. He’s engaged to be married and will receive a degree soon from nearby Austin Peay State University. His commitment to the military, which he made while still in high school in Huntsville, Ala., will end in a few months.

But there is a definite edge in his voice, an undercurrent of bitterness, when he talks about the tiny percentage of the American population that is shouldering the burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re nowhere close to sharing the sacrifice,” he said. “And it should be shared, because it’s only in that sharing that society will truly care about what’s going on over there.

“Right now it’s such a small minority of families who have a stake in all of this. I hear people say things like, ‘We lost a lot of good people over there.’ I sort of snap around and say, ‘We? You didn’t lose anybody.’ You know what I mean?”

While most Americans are free to go about their daily business, unaffected by the wars in any way, scores of thousands of troops have been sent off on repeat tours into the combat zones. According to the support group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, two-thirds of the 92,000 Army troops deployed since the beginning of this year are on at least their second deployment.

Many soldiers, like Sergeant Krause, have served three or four tours. There is no way for a nation as big and as rich and as healthy as the U.S. to justify the imposition of such a tragic and heavy load on the backs of so few.

Sergeant Krause showed me a photo of a soldier who he thought would become his brother-in-law, a 23-year-old West Point graduate named Dennis Zilinski. He was killed last November, along with four other American soldiers in a roadside bomb attack near Bayji, Iraq.

Sergeant Krause said that witnessing the profound grief of Lt. Zilinski’s mother and fiancée “drove home” the real meaning of wartime sacrifice.

Sergeant Krause is proud of his service and still loves the military. “But we’re a nation at war,” he said, “and we should all be in this together.”

He said that if he could wave a magic wand, he would make some form of public service compulsory. “You wouldn’t have to join the military,” he said. “But there are many other ways to serve. You could work for AmeriCorps, or the Red Cross, or Homeland Security. You could do something. It’s about social responsibility. Especially in a time of war.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In Search of a North Korea Policy

By William J. Perry

North Korea's declared nuclear bomb test program will increase the incentives for other nations to go nuclear, will endanger security in the region and could ultimately result in nuclear terrorism. While this test is the culmination of North Korea's long-held aspiration to become a nuclear power, it also demonstrates the total failure of the Bush administration's policy toward that country. For almost six years this policy has been a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction.

President Bush, early in his first term, dubbed North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and made disparaging remarks about Kim Jong Il. He said he would not tolerate a North Korean nuclear weapons program, but he set no bounds on North Korean actions.

The most important such limit would have been on reprocessing spent fuel from North Korea's reactor to make plutonium. The Clinton administration declared in 1994 that if North Korea reprocessed, it would be crossing a "red line," and it threatened military action if that line was crossed. The North Koreans responded to that pressure and began negotiations that led to the Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework did not end North Korea's aspirations for nuclear weapons, but it did result in a major delay. For more than eight years, under the Agreed Framework, the spent fuel was kept in a storage pond under international supervision.

Then in 2002, the Bush administration discovered the existence of a covert program in uranium, evidently an attempt to evade the Agreed Framework. This program, while potentially serious, would have led to a bomb at a very slow rate, compared with the more mature plutonium program. Nevertheless, the administration unwisely stopped compliance with the Agreed Framework. In response the North Koreans sent the inspectors home and announced their intention to reprocess. The administration deplored the action but set no "red line." North Korea made the plutonium.

The administration also said early this summer that a North Korean test of long-range missiles was unacceptable. North Korea conducted a multiple-launch test of missiles on July 4. Most recently, the administration said a North Korean test of a nuclear bomb would be unacceptable. A week later North Korea conducted its first test.

It appears that the administration is deeply divided on how to deal with North Korea, with some favoring negotiation and others economic and political pressure to force a regime change. As a result, while the administration was willing to send a representative to the six-party talks organized by the Chinese in 2003, it had no apparent strategy for dealing with North Korea there or for providing leadership to the other parties. In the meantime, it increased economic pressure on Pyongyang. Certainly an argument can be made for such pressure, but it would be naive to think it could succeed without the support of the Chinese and South Korean governments, neither of which backs such action. North Korea, sensing the administration's paralysis, has moved ahead with an aggressive and dangerous nuclear program.

So what can be done now that might have a constructive influence on North Korea's behavior? The attractive alternatives are behind us. There should and will be a U.N. resolution condemning the test. The United Nations may respond to calls from the United States and Japan for strong sanctions to isolate North Korea and cut off trade with it. But North Korea is already the most isolated nation in the world, and its government uses this isolation to its advantage. Stronger sanctions on materials that might be of use to the nuclear program are reasonable, but the horse is already out of the barn. Economic sanctions to squeeze North Korea would increase the suffering of its people but would have little effect on the elite. In any event, they would be effective only if China and South Korea fully participated, and they have shown no inclination to do so.

There will be calls to accelerate our national missile defense program. But the greatest danger to the United States from this program is not that North Korea would be willing to commit suicide by firing a missile at the United States, even if it did develop one of sufficient range. Rather, it is the possibility that the North Koreans will sell one of the bombs or some of their plutonium to a terrorist group. The president has warned North Korea not to transfer any materials from its nuclear program. But the warnings we have sent to North Korea these past six years have gone unheeded and its acts unpunished. It is not clear that this latest one will have any greater effect. If a warning is to have a chance of influencing North Korea's behavior it has to be much more specific. It would have to promise retaliation against North Korea if a terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in one of our cities. It must be backed by a meaningful forensics program that can identify the source of a nuclear bomb.

This test will certainly send an undesirable message to Iran, and that damage has already been done. But it is important to try to keep this action from precipitating a nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Both Japan and South Korea have the capability to move quickly to full nuclear-weapon status but have not done so because they have had confidence in our nuclear umbrella. They may now reevaluate their decision. We should consult closely with Japan and South Korea to reassure them that they are still under our umbrella and that we have the will and the capability to regard an attack on them as an attack on the United States. This may be necessary to discourage them from moving forward with nuclear deterrence of their own.

Our government's inattention has allowed North Korea to establish a new and dangerous threat to the Asia-Pacific region. It is probably too late to reverse that damage, but serious attention to this problem can still limit the extent of the damage.

The writer was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997.

Solving the Korean Stalemate, One Step at a Time



IN 1994 the North Koreans expelled inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and were threatening to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium, giving them the ability to produce nuclear weapons.

With the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula, there was a consensus that the forces of South Korea and the United States could overwhelmingly defeat North Korea. But it was also known that North Korea could quickly launch more than 20,000 shells and missiles into nearby Seoul. The American commander in South Korea, Gen. Gary Luck, estimated that total casualties would far exceed those of the Korean War.

Responding to an invitation from President Kim Il-sung of North Korea, and with the approval of President Bill Clinton, I went to Pyongyang and negotiated an agreement under which North Korea would cease its nuclear program at Yongbyon and permit inspectors from the atomic agency to return to the site to assure that the spent fuel was not reprocessed. It was also agreed that direct talks would be held between the two Koreas.

The spent fuel (estimated to be adequate for a half-dozen bombs) continued to be monitored, and extensive bilateral discussions were held. The United States assured the North Koreans that there would be no military threat to them, that it would supply fuel oil to replace the lost nuclear power and that it would help build two modern atomic power plants, with their fuel rods and operation to be monitored by international inspectors. The summit talks resulted in South Korean President Kim Dae-jung earning the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his successful efforts to ease tensions on the peninsula.

But beginning in 2002, the United States branded North Korea as part of an axis of evil, threatened military action, ended the shipments of fuel oil and the construction of nuclear power plants and refused to consider further bilateral talks. In their discussions with me at this time, North Korean spokesmen seemed convinced that the American positions posed a serious danger to their country and to its political regime.

Responding in its ill-advised but predictable way, Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelled atomic energy agency inspectors, resumed processing fuel rods and began developing nuclear explosive devices.

Six-nation talks finally concluded in an agreement last September that called for North Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and for the United States and North Korea to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations. Each side subsequently claimed that the other had violated the agreement. The United States imposed severe financial sanctions and Pyongyang adopted the deeply troubling nuclear option.

The current military situation is similar but worse than it was a decade ago: we can still destroy North Korea’s army, but if we do it is likely to result in many more than a million South Korean and American casualties.

If and when it is confirmed that the recent explosion in North Korea was nuclear, the international community will once again be faced with difficult choices.

One option, the most likely one, is to try to force Pyongyang’s leaders to abandon their nuclear program with military threats and a further tightening of the embargoes, increasing the suffering of its already starving people. Two important facts must be faced: Kim Jong-il and his military leaders have proven themselves almost impervious to outside pressure, and both China and South Korea have shown that they are reluctant to destabilize the regime. This approach is also more likely to stimulate further nuclear weapons activity.

The other option is to make an effort to put into effect the September denuclearization agreement, which the North Koreans still maintain is feasible. The simple framework for a step-by-step agreement exists, with the United States giving a firm and direct statement of no hostile intent, and moving toward normal relations if North Korea forgoes any further nuclear weapons program and remains at peace with its neighbors. Each element would have to be confirmed by mutual actions combined with unimpeded international inspections.

Although a small nuclear test is a far cry from even a crude deliverable bomb, this second option has become even more difficult now, but it is unlikely that the North Koreans will back down unless the United States meets this basic demand. Washington’s pledge of no direct talks could be finessed through secret discussions with a trusted emissary like former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who earlier this week said, “It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

What must be avoided is to leave a beleaguered nuclear nation convinced that it is permanently excluded from the international community, its existence threatened, its people suffering horrible deprivation and its hard-liners in total control of military and political policy.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

How Carly Lost Her Gender Groove


Carly Fiorina prided herself on being adept at succeeding in a man’s world without whining about sexism.

In her new memoir, “Tough Choices,” the expelled C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard — the first female head of a Fortune 20 company — describes how she insisted on going along to a business meeting at a Washington strip club when she started out as an ambitious young woman at AT&T.

“I was scared to death,” she writes, adding that she wore her most conservative dress-for-success business suit and little bow tie, carried her briefcase like “a shield of honor,” and repeated the mantra, “I am a professional woman,” even when her cabdriver asked her if she was the new act for the club, where babes in see-through negligees danced on tables.

“In a show of empathy that brings tears to my eyes still,” she recounts, “each woman who approached the table would look the situation over and say: ‘Sorry, gentlemen. Not till the lady leaves.’ ”

On her first day at HP, she proclaimed, “The glass ceiling doesn’t exist.” But she now concedes that the glass trapdoor might.

“I think somehow men understand other men’s need for respect differently than they understand it for a woman,” Ms. Fiorina told Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.”

The male-dominated board’s handling of her exit was “heartless in some ways and disrespectful in other ways,” she said. “Maybe they took great pleasure in seeing me beat up publicly for weeks and weeks.”

Other controlling blondes, like Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Tina Brown, were slapped back after great success (in a trend that The Times’s Alessandra Stanley dubbed blondenfreude), and Ms. Fiorina now thinks she was victimized by gender.

“In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as either a ‘bimbo’ or a ‘bitch,’ she writes. “Too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides.” She adds: “I watched with interest as male C.E.O.’s fired people and were hailed as ‘decisive.’ I was labeled ‘vindictive.”

She reels off things that offended her: The editor of Business Week asked her if she was wearing an Armani suit. She felt adjectives such as “flashy,” “glamorous,” and “diamond studded” were meant to make her seem superficial. (Who doesn’t like being called glamorous?) Stories referred to her by her first name. There was “painful commentary” that she’d chosen not to have children because she was “too ambitious.”

“When I finally reached the top, after striving my entire career to be judged by results and accomplishments,” she concludes, “the coverage of my gender, my appearance and the perceptions of my personality would vastly outweigh anything else.”

One of her foes was Tom Perkins, the 74-year-old rich venture capitalist on the HP board who also tangled with Patricia Dunn, the former board chairwoman. Being married to the romance novelist Danielle Steel and writing his own steamy novel, “Sex and the Single Zillionaire,” did not improve Mr. Perkins’s skills in dealing with women, it seems.

With several of the few high-profile women at the top tanking, it’s interesting to note that Columbia Business School has introduced a new program that teaches the importance of a more empathetic and sensitive leadership style in globalized business, as opposed to the command-and-control style that has dominated the White House and Pentagon for, lo, these many messed up years.

Students learn how to read facial expressions, body language and posture, and get coaching on their brain’s “mirror neurons” — how what they’re thinking and feeling can affect others.

“This less autocratic leadership style draws on capabilities in which women are as good as men,” says Michael Morris, a professor of psychology and management who is running the business school’s new program.

Daniel Goleman, whose new book “Social Intelligence” is being taught in the program, points out that “while women are, in general, better at reading emotions, men tend to be better at managing them during a crisis. Women tend to be more sophisticated in reading social interactions but also tend to ruminate more when things go wrong.”

And that can lead to score-settling memoirs — Ms. Fiorina fillets both her male tormentors on the “dysfunctional” board and Ms. Dunn — and to the sort of awful judgment and sneaky behavior that Ms. Dunn exhibited.

Neenu Sharma, an M.B.A. student in the new Columbia program, says the moral of the story is that leadership works best with both sexes involved. “You need the woman there to know what’s actually going on, but you need the man there to deal with the critical emotions at the time.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

Republican denials are looking desperate


WASHINGTON - Not to be missed in the self-righteous heaving and churning over stimulating e-mails are the flickers of high (or low) comedy offered by the House leadership.

Most farcical is the shock, shock over the discovery of what former Congressman Mark Foley, R-Fla., had been doing since 1998.

Understand, dear reader, that Foley was a protected Republican property because he embodied core values down here.

Foley was a flood-stage river of Palm Beach County money to House Republican campaign coffers - all by himself, a contributor of a third of a million dollars to the House's campaign in just three years.

To get this money, Foley and his GOP colleagues trafficked at hundreds of fund-raising parties here - back-slapping, elbow-pinching events, lubricated with lots of liquor and staged in sports sky-boxes, law firm board rooms and lobbyists' quarters - some of which, like any good party, went on well into the night.

These gold-plated affairs are the real life of Washington. Columnist Bob Novak wrote last week that members of Congress live a secret life. Yes, in too many cases secret from their constituents, but never secret from their colleagues and staff.

And yet over a dozen years, nobody had any idea of what Foley was capable of - least of all, presumably, Kirk Fordham, his chief of staff, who left Foley's office in 2004 after 10 years.

By his own remarks, Fordham, who had worked for Foley since 1995, claimed he never complained about his boss to superiors until 2003.


A chief of staff knows everything that goes on in a congressional office. He or she sees any mail of importance; knows of all the travels and appointments of the member; and handles all the money, even paying relatives' gasoline bills.

The chief of staff buys the Blackberries, cell phones and all the other electronic gear, and can access any of that traffic.

And yet Fordham never knew any of this from 1995 until he squealed on Foley to aides of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., eight years later?

About a year ago, Fordham became the congressional chief of staff for Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, head of the GOP House campaign effort. Last week, as everybody knows, Fordham resigned and is now talking to the FBI in private and to the public through his lawyer.

For a reporter, it is necessary to keep a straight face at all times, especially now. It helps to maintain - to borrow a wonderful phrase of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's - "a willing suspension of disbelief."

It means a reporter can be indignant over revelations of sexual misconduct and official lying, but never unbelieving in the first instance.

So one must accept at face value the promises of the chairman of the long-dormant House Ethics Committee, Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that he will pursue evidence of a possible coverup without fear or favor.

Put out of mind that Hastings was named chairman by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to replace a chairman who was tough on DeLay. And forget that Hastert, who is the man most on the spot on this, named the other Republicans on the committee.

And that Hastings volunteered at Thursday's news conference that his boss, Hastert, "is doing a good job."

When the House Page Board announced 10 days ago it has been investigating the Foley affair, one had to forget that the first and only meeting it had ever held on the matter was on that afternoon.

Most of all, don't ask too much of the DeLay Republicans who still rule the House. They're here to go to parties and raise money, get elected and vote the way they're told - by the lobbyists.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Paranoid Style


Last week Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, explained the real cause of the Foley scandal. “The people who want to see this thing blow up,” he said, “are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros.”

Most news reports, to the extent they mentioned Mr. Hastert’s claim at all, seemed to treat it as a momentary aberration. But it wasn’t his first outburst along these lines. Back in 2004, Mr. Hastert said: “You know, I don’t know where George Soros gets his money. I don’t know where — if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from.”

Does Mr. Hastert really believe that George Soros and his operatives, conspiring with the evil news media, are responsible for the Foley scandal? Yes, he probably does. For one thing, demonization of Mr. Soros is widespread in right-wing circles. One can only imagine what people like Mr. Hastert or Tony Blankley, the editorial page editor of The Washington Times, who once described Mr. Soros as “a Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust,” say behind closed doors.

More generally, Mr. Hastert is a leading figure in a political movement that exemplifies what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”

Hofstadter’s essay introducing the term was inspired by his observations of the radical right-wingers who seized control of the Republican Party in 1964. Today, the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater controls both Congress and the White House.

As a result, political paranoia — the “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” Hofstadter described — has gone mainstream. To read Hofstadter’s essay today is to be struck by the extent to which he seems to be describing the state of mind not of a lunatic fringe, but of key figures in our political and media establishment.

The “paranoid spokesman,” wrote Hofstadter, sees things “in apocalyptic terms. ... He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” Sure enough, Dick Cheney says that “the war on terror is a battle for the future of civilization.”

According to Hofstadter, for the paranoids, “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” and because “the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.” Three days after 9/11, President Bush promised to “rid the world of evil.”

The paranoid “demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals” — instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, we’ll try to remake the Middle East and eliminate a vast “axis of evil” — “and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” Iraq, anyone?

The current right-wing explanation for what went wrong in Iraq closely echoes Joseph McCarthy’s explanation for the Communist victory in China, which he said was “the product of a great conspiracy” at home. According to the right, things didn’t go wrong because the invasion was a mistake, or because Donald Rumsfeld didn’t send enough troops, or because the occupation was riddled with cronyism and corruption. No, it’s all because the good guys were stabbed in the back. Democrats, who undermined morale with their negative talk, and the liberal media, which refused to report the good news from Iraq, are responsible for the quagmire.

You might think it would be harder to claim that traitors are aiding our foreign enemies today than it was during the McCarthy era, when domestic liberals and Communist regimes could be portrayed as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. What does the domestic enemy, which Bill O’Reilly identifies as the “secular-progressive movement,” have to do with the religious fanatics who attacked America five years ago?

But that’s easy: according to Mr. O’Reilly, “Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have got to be cheering on the S-P movement,” because “both outfits believe that the United States of America is fundamentally a bad place.”

Which brings us back to the Foley affair. The immediate response by nearly everyone in the Republican establishment — wild claims, without a shred of evidence behind them, that the whole thing is a Democratic conspiracy — may sound crazy. But that response is completely in character for a movement that from the beginning has been dominated by the paranoid style. And here’s the scary part: that movement runs our government.

Cash With a Catch


A program that has shown promise in changing the behavior of desperately poor people in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua is about to get a tryout in New York City, a place that has always had deep rivers of poverty flowing beneath its glittering surface.

New York has eight million people, and 1.5 million of them are poor. One-third of all children under 5 in the city are poor.

The federal government’s attitude toward the poor in recent years has ranged from indifferent to hostile. Poor kids can be useful as campaign props at election time, but otherwise are expected to remain silent and invisible.

Municipal governments are hardly equipped to deal with a problem as enormous and deeply embedded as poverty. But to his credit, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has directed his aides to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to develop a workable plan for reducing poverty in the city.

He has said, “Until we marshal the best efforts of our public and private sectors to help more of [the poor] transform their lives, this will not be the city it can be, or that we want it to be.”

One of the programs in the works, known as conditional cash transfers, is new to the United States. Hard cash is given by the government to poor families, but the transfers are contingent upon improvements in certain kinds of behavior. Where it has been tried in other countries, families with children would typically agree to enroll the youngsters in school, or improve their attendance, or take them for regular medical checkups.

The goal of the transfers is to provide immediate cash assistance to the poor while at the same time countering the self-defeating notions and activities that tend to hold people in poverty, sometimes for generations.

The amount of money involved varies from program to program. But some of the poorest families have been able to double their incomes with the transfers. Studies looking back over the past few years have shown solid evidence that the transfers have led to significant improvements in the habits and decision-making of participants.

“There’s often a requirement that mothers go to workshops that cover a range of issues — for example, health and hygiene and child care,” said Laura Rawlings, a senior specialist at the World Bank, who compiled an extensive report on the transfers. “One of the aims of these programs is to make long-term investments that benefit future generations.”

The question facing the Bloomberg administration, as it develops a pilot project, is how to craft a variation that is suitable for a family in New York that is poor but is not facing the subsistence-level crises that might confront, say, a rural household in Colombia.

Where young children are involved, the primary concerns here, as elsewhere, will center on the parents’ attitudes and behavior with regard to schooling and health. But Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said the city would also be looking to see if this system of cash rewards could be used to encourage adolescents to remain in school, and to bolster work habits and the development of employable skills among the working poor.

The longest-running large-scale cash transfer programs are in Mexico, which established a system of cash rewards in 1997. Ms. Gibbs said studies of the Mexican experience have shown that constructive changes in the behavior of participants far outlasted the receipt of money from the programs.

However worthy an experiment, there remains the matter of how to pay for this. Mayor Bloomberg is planning to raise all of the money for the pilot project from private sources — foundations, corporations, private donors and so on. If the pilot project is successful, the start-up costs for a full-scale program would be formidable, and would require public funding.

Last month, when he announced the findings of his Commission for Economic Opportunity, Mr. Bloomberg said:

“For too long, this widespread poverty has been regarded as a troubling but inevitable condition of life in our city. But time and again — in reducing crime, reforming our schools, reviving our economy, and in other areas — New Yorkers have shown that we can devise realistic solutions to even the toughest problems.”

We haven’t much to lose. In an era of almost criminal indifference to the plight of the have-nots, the mayor’s antipoverty efforts are, at the very least, a sign that the forces in support of the poor have not been completely routed.

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