Wealthy Frenchman

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bush Is Not Above the Law


LAST August, a federal judge found that the president of the United States broke the law, committed a serious felony and violated the Constitution. Had the president been an ordinary citizen — someone charged with bank robbery or income tax evasion — the wheels of justice would have immediately begun to turn. The F.B.I. would have conducted an investigation, a United States attorney’s office would have impaneled a grand jury and charges would have been brought.

But under the Bush Justice Department, no F.B.I. agents were ever dispatched to padlock White House files or knock on doors and no federal prosecutors ever opened a case.

The ruling was the result of a suit, in which I am one of the plaintiffs, brought against the National Security Agency by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a response to revelations by this newspaper in December 2005 that the agency had been monitoring the phone calls and e-mail messages of Americans for more than four years without first obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

In the past, even presidents were not above the law. When the F.B.I. turned up evidence during Watergate that Richard Nixon had obstructed justice by trying to cover up his involvement, a special prosecutor was named and a House committee recommended that the president be impeached.

And when an independent counsel found evidence that President Bill Clinton had committed perjury in the Monica Lewinsky case, the impeachment machinery again cranked into gear, with the spectacle of a Senate trial (which ended in acquittal).

Laws are broken, the federal government investigates, and the individuals involved — even if they’re presidents — are tried and, if found guilty, punished. That is the way it is supposed to work under our system of government. But not this time.

Last Aug. 17, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the United States District Court in Detroit issued her ruling in the A.C.L.U. case. The president, she wrote, had “undisputedly violated” not only the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, but also statutory law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Enacted by a bipartisan Congress in 1978, the FISA statute was a response to revelations that the National Security Agency had conducted warrantless eavesdropping on Americans. To deter future administrations from similar actions, the law made a violation a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years in prison.

Yet despite this ruling, the Bush Justice Department never opened an F.B.I. investigation, no special prosecutor was named, and there was no talk of impeachment in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Justice Department lawyers argued last June that warrants were not required for what they called the administration’s “terrorist surveillance program” because of the president’s “inherent powers” to order eavesdropping and because of the Congressional authorization to use military force against those responsible for 9/11. But Judge Taylor rejected both arguments, ruling that even presidents must obey statutory law and the Constitution.

On Jan. 17, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales unexpectedly declared that President Bush had ended the program, deciding to again seek warrants in all cases. Exactly what kind of warrants — individual, as is required by the law, or broad-based, which would probably still be illegal — is as yet unknown.

The action may have been designed to forestall a potentially adverse ruling by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, which had scheduled oral arguments on the case for today. At that hearing, the administration is now expected to argue that the case is moot and should be thrown out — while reserving the right to restart the program at any time.

But that’s a bit like a bank robber coming into court and arguing that, although he has been sticking up banks for the past half-decade, he has agreed to a temporary halt and therefore he shouldn’t be prosecuted. Independent of the A.C.L.U. case, a criminal investigation by the F.B.I. and a special prosecutor should begin immediately. The question that must finally be answered is whether the president is guilty of committing a felony by continuously reauthorizing the warrantless eavesdropping program for the past five years. And if so, what action must be taken?

The issue is not original. Among the charges approved by the House Judiciary Committee when it recommended its articles of impeachment against President Nixon was “illegal wiretaps.” President Nixon, the bill charged, “caused wiretaps to be placed on the telephones of 17 persons without having obtained a court order authorizing the tap, as required by federal law; in violation of Sections 241, 371 and 2510-11 of the Criminal Code.”

Under his program, President Bush could probably be charged with wiretapping not 17 but thousands of people without having obtained a court order authorizing the taps as required by federal law, in violation of FISA.

It is not only the federal court but also many in Congress who believe that a violation of law has taken place. In a hearing on Jan. 18, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said, “For years, this administration has engaged in warrantless wiretapping of Americans contrary to the law.”

His view was shared by the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who said of Mr. Bush, “For five years he has been operating an illegal program.”

And Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, noted that much of the public was opposed to the program and that it both hurt the country at home and damaged its image abroad. “The heavy criticism which the president took on the program,” he said, “I think was very harmful in the political process and for the reputation of the country.”

To allow a president to break the law and commit a felony for more than five years without even a formal independent investigation would be the ultimate subversion of the Constitution and the rule of law. As Judge Taylor warned in her decision, “There are no hereditary kings in America.”

James Bamford is the author of two books on the National Security Agency, “The Puzzle Palace” and “Body of Secrets.”

Mama Hugs Iowa



When she was little, Hillary Rodham would sit on a basement bench and pretend she was flying a spaceship to Mars. Her younger brother Hugh, perched behind, would sometimes beg for a chance to be captain.

No dice. “She would always drive, and I would always have to sit in the back,” he once told me.

Through all the years of sitting behind Bill Clinton on his trip to the stars, Hillary fidgeted and elbowed, trying to be co-captain rather than just wingman, or worse, winglady.

Finally, in Iowa, she was once more behind the wheel of her spaceship to Mars. She didn’t have to prop up Bill after one of his roguish pratfalls. She didn’t have to feign interest in East Wing piffle — table settings and pastry chefs and designer gowns. She didn’t have to defer to her male colleagues in the Senate, stepping back to give them the limelight.

She positively glistened as she talked about how “I” — rather than the “we” of ’92 — would run the world.

Humbly, graciously, deftly, she offered Iowa the answer to that eternal question, What Is Hillary Owed?


John Wood, a self-described “plainsman,” Republican and machinery-and-tool salesman from Davenport, asked Hillary how she would handle the world’s evil and bad men, provoking the slyly ambiguous retort: “What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?”

He said afterward that he was more worried about her ability to face down villains, “being a lady,” but conceded, “The woman did good today.”

(His question was reminiscent of Ali G’s interview of Newt Gingrich, when the faux rapper asked whether a woman president would be turned on and manipulated by evil dictators, given that, with women, “the worse you treat ’em, the more they want you.”)

As YouTube attests, Hillary didn’t care about style as first lady; she was too busy trying to get in on Bill’s substance. She showed off a long parade of unflattering outfits and unnervingly changing hairdos.

In Iowa, her national anthem may have been off-key, but her look wasn’t. It was an attractive mirror of her political message: man-tailored with a dash of pink femininity.

“I think you look very nice,” a veteran of the first gulf war told her in Des Moines.

“Thank you!” she answered, beaming and laughing.

When Geraldine Ferraro made her historic run in ’84, she tried to blend a mother’s concerns into her foreign policy answers, but it did not work so well once she started getting her nuclear terminology mixed up.

Hillary dealt with the issue head on — “I’m a woman; I’m a mom” — hoping to stir that sisterly vote that Ms. Ferraro failed to draw after it turned out that many women were skeptical about one of their own facing down the Soviets.

Unlike Barack Obama, who once said he was bored by the suburbs, she introduced herself in the land of bingo and bacon as a product of the suburbs, wallowing in the minutiae of kitchen-table issues.

W. and Cheney have lavished attention and money on Iraq, leaving Americans feeling neglected. Hillary offered Iowans a warm bath of “you,” homey rumination rather than harsh domination.

(Though Jon Stewart warned on “The Daily Show” that her slogan — “Let the conversation begin!” — will not help her with men. “I think the typical response would be, ‘Now?’ ” he said, adding that her new Iraq policy is, “America, let’s pull over and just ask for directions.”)

Thomasine Johnson, a 66-year-old African-American from outside Des Moines, complained that Hillary talked too much about “traditional women’s issues,” but many in the audiences seemed enthralled.

The Achilles’ heel of “The Warrior,” as she is known, is the war. She expressed outrage about Iraq, but ended up sounding like a mother whose teenage son has not cleaned up his room: “The president has said this is going to be left to his successor ... and I think it’s the height of irresponsibility, and I really resent it.”

She uttered the most irritating and disingenuous nine words in politics: “If we had known then what we know now. ...”

Jim Webb knew. Barack Obama knew. Even I knew, for Pete’s sake. The administration’s trickery was clear in real time.

Hillary didn’t have the nerve to oppose a popular president on a national security issue after 9/11, and she feared being cast as an antiwar hippie when she ran. Now she feels she can’t simply say she made a bad decision. And that makes her seem conniving — not a good mix with nurturing.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Sum of All Ears


For those hoping for real action on global warming and energy policy, the State of the Union address was a downer. There had been hints and hopes that the speech would be a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, with President Bush turning conservationist. But it ended up being more of a Nixon-bombs-Cambodia moment.

Too bad: the rumors were tantalizing. Al Hubbard, the chairman of the National Economic Council, predicted “headlines above the fold that will knock your socks off in terms of our commitment to energy independence.” British officials told the newspaper The Observer that Mr. Bush would “make a historic shift in his position on global warming.”

None of it happened. Mr. Bush acknowledged that climate change is a problem, but you missed it if you sneezed. He said something vague about fuel economy, but the White House fact sheet on energy makes it clear that there was even less there than met the ear.

The only real substance was Mr. Bush’s call for a huge increase in the supply of “alternative fuels.” Mainly that means using ethanol to replace gasoline. Unfortunately, that’s a really bad idea.

There is a place for ethanol in the world’s energy future — but that place is in the tropics. Brazil has managed to replace a lot of its gasoline consumption with ethanol. But Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugar cane.

In the United States, ethanol comes overwhelmingly from corn, a much less suitable raw material. In fact, corn is such a poor source of ethanol that researchers at the University of Minnesota estimate that converting the entire U.S. corn crop — the sum of all our ears — into ethanol would replace only 12 percent of our gasoline consumption.

Still, doesn’t every little bit help? Well, this little bit would come at a very high price compared with the obvious alternative — conservation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that reducing gasoline consumption 10 percent through an increase in fuel economy standards would cost producers and consumers about $3.6 billion a year. Achieving the same result by expanding ethanol production would cost taxpayers at least $10 billion a year, based on the subsidies ethanol already receives — and probably much more, because expanding production would require higher subsidies.

What’s more, ethanol production has hidden costs. Even the Department of Energy, which is relatively optimistic, says that the net energy savings from replacing a gallon of gasoline with ethanol are only the equivalent of about a quarter of a gallon, because of the energy used to grow corn, transport it, run ethanol plants, and so on. And these energy inputs come almost entirely from fossil fuels, so it’s not clear whether promoting ethanol does anything to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

So why is ethanol, not conservation, the centerpiece of the administration’s energy policy? Actually, it’s not entirely Mr. Bush’s fault.

To be sure, at this point Mr. Bush’s people seem less concerned with devising good policy than with finding something, anything, for the president to talk about that doesn’t end with the letter “q.” And the malign influence of Dick “Sign of Personal Virtue” Cheney, who no doubt still sneers at conservation, continues to hang over everything.

But even after the Bushies are gone, bad energy policy ideas will have powerful constituencies, while good ideas won’t.

Subsidizing ethanol benefits two well-organized groups: corn growers and ethanol producers (especially the corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland). As a result, it’s bad policy with bipartisan support. For example, earlier this month legislation calling for a huge increase in ethanol use was introduced by five senators, of whom four, including presidential aspirants Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, were Democrats. In a recent town meeting in Iowa, Hillary Clinton managed to mention ethanol twice, according to The Politico.

Meanwhile, conservation doesn’t have anything like the same natural political mojo. Where’s the organized, powerful constituency for tougher fuel economy standards, a higher gasoline tax, or a cap-and-trade system on carbon dioxide emissions?

Can anything be done to promote good energy policy? Public education is a necessary first step, which is why Al Gore deserves all the praise he’s getting. It would also help to have a president who gets scientific advice from scientists, not oil company executives and novelists.

But there’s still a huge gap between what obviously should be done and what seems politically possible. And I don’t know how to close that gap.

More Than Antiwar



It was a few minutes after 11 a.m. when the scattered crowd began moving slowly toward the stage at the end of the Mall. The sky was a beautiful sunlit blue and the Capitol building, huge and white and majestic, offered the protesters an emotional backdrop that seemed almost close enough to touch.

“It’s so big,” said a woman from Milwaukee, who was there with her husband and two children. “It’s lovely. Makes you want to cry.”

You can say what you want about the people opposed to this wretched war in Iraq, try to stereotype them any way you can. But you couldn’t walk among them for more than a few minutes on Saturday without realizing that they love their country as much as anyone ever has. They love it enough to try to save it.

By 11:15 I thought there was a chance that the march against the war would be a bust. There just weren’t that many people moving toward the stage to join the rally that preceded the march. But the crowd kept building, slowly, steadily. It was a good-natured crowd. Everyone was bad-mouthing the Bush administration and the war, but everybody seemed to be smiling.

There were gray-haired women with digital cameras and young girls with braces. There were guys trying to look cool in knit caps and shades and balding baby boomers trading stories about Vietnam. And many ordinary families.

“Where’s Hillary?” someone asked.

That evoked laughter in the crowd. “She’s in Iowa running for president,” someone said.

When a woman asked, “What’s her position on the war?” a man standing next to her cracked, “She was for it before she was against it.”

More laughter.

The crowd kept building. There were people being pushed in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. There were elderly men and women, walking very slowly in some cases and holding hands.

The goal of the crowd was to get the attention of Congress and persuade it to move vigorously to reverse the Bush war policies. But the thought that kept returning as I watched the earnestly smiling faces, so many of them no longer young, was the way these protesters had somehow managed to keep the faith. They still believed, after all the years and all the lies, that they could make a difference. They still believed their government would listen to them and respond.

“I have to believe in this,” said Donna Norton of Petaluma, Calif. “I have a daughter in the reserves and a son-in-law on active duty. I feel very, very strongly about this.”

Betty and Peter Vinten-Johansen of East Lansing, Mich., said they felt obliged to march, believing that they could bolster the resolve of opponents of the war in Congress. Glancing toward the Capitol, Mr. Vinten-Johansen said, “Maybe we can strengthen their backbone a little bit.”

Even the celebrities who have been at this sort of thing for decades have managed to escape the debilitating embrace of cynicism. “How can you be cynical?” asked Tim Robbins, just before he mounted the stage to address the crowd, which by that time had grown to more than 100,000.

“This is inspiring,” he said. “It’s the real voice of the American people, and when you hear that collective voice protesting freely it reminds you of the greatness of our country. It gives you hope.”

When Jane Fonda said, “Silence is no longer an option,” she was doing more than expressing the outrage of the crowd over the carnage in Iraq and the president’s decision to escalate American involvement. She was implicitly re-asserting her belief in the effectiveness of citizen action.

Ms. Fonda is approaching 70 now and was at the march with her two grandchildren. It was very touching to watch her explain how she had declined to participate in antiwar marches for 34 years because she was afraid her notoriety would harm rather than help the effort.

The public is way out in front of the politicians on this issue. But the importance of Saturday’s march does not lie primarily in whether it hastens a turnaround of U.S. policy on the war. The fact that so many Americans were willing to travel from every region of the country to march against the war was a reaffirmation of the public’s commitment to our peaceful democratic processes.

It is in that unique and unflagging commitment, not in our terrifying military power, that the continued promise and greatness of America are to be found.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hillary Clinton’s Mission Unaccomplished

HILLARY CLINTON has an answer to those who suspect that her “I’m in to win” Webcast last weekend was forced by Barack Obama’s Webcast of just four days earlier. “I wanted to do it before the president’s State of the Union,” she explained to Brian Williams on NBC, “because I wanted to draw the contrast between what we’ve seen over the last six years, and the kind of leadership and experience that I would bring to the office.”

She couldn’t have set the bar any lower. President Bush’s speech was less compelling than the Monty Python sketch playing out behind it: the unacknowledged race between Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney to be the first to stand up for each bipartisan ovation. (Winner: Pelosi.)

As we’ve been much reminded, the most recent presidents to face Congress in such low estate were Harry Truman in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1974, both in the last ebbs of their administrations, both mired in unpopular wars that their successors would soon end, and both eager to change the subject just as Mr. Bush did. In his ’52 State of the Union address, Truman vowed “to bring the cost of modern medical care within the reach of all the people” while Nixon, 22 years later, promised “a new system that makes high-quality health care available to every American.” Not to be outdone, Mr. Bush offered a dead-on-arrival proposal that “all our citizens have affordable and available health care.” The empty promise of a free intravenous lunch, it seems, is the last refuge of desperate war presidents.

Few Americans know more than Senator Clinton about health care, as it happens, and if 27 Americans hadn’t been killed in Iraq last weekend, voters might be in the mood to listen to her about it. But polls continue to show Iraq dwarfing every other issue as the nation’s No. 1 concern. The Democrats’ pre-eminent presidential candidate can’t escape the war any more than the president can. And so she was blindsided Tuesday night, just as Mr. Bush was, by an unexpected gate crasher, the rookie senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Though he’s not a candidate for national office, Mr. Webb’s nine-minute Democratic response not only upstaged the president but also, in an unintended political drive-by shooting, gave Mrs. Clinton a more pointed State of the Union “contrast” than she had bargained for.

To the political consultants favored by both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush, Mr. Webb is an amateur. More than a few Washington insiders initially wrote him off in last year’s race to unseat a star presidential prospect, the incumbent Senator George Allen. Mr. Webb is standoffish. He doesn’t care whom he offends, including in his own base. He gives the impression — as he did Tuesday night — that he just might punch out his opponent. When he had his famously testy exchange with Mr. Bush over the war at a White House reception after his victory, Beltway pooh-bahs labeled him a boor, much as they had that other interloper who refused to censor himself before the president last year, Stephen Colbert.

But this country is at a grave crossroads. It craves leadership. When Mr. Webb spoke on Tuesday, he stepped into that vacuum and, for a few minutes anyway, filled it. It’s not merely his military credentials as a Vietnam veteran and a former Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan that gave him authority, or the fact that his son, also a marine, is serving in Iraq. It was the simplicity and honesty of Mr. Webb’s message. Like Senator Obama, he was a talented professional writer before entering politics, so he could discard whatever risk-averse speech his party handed him and write his own. His exquisitely calibrated threat of Democratic pushback should Mr. Bush fail to change course on the war — “If he does not, we will be showing him the way” — continued to charge the air even as Mrs. Clinton made the post-speech rounds on the networks.

Mrs. Clinton cannot rewrite her own history on Iraq to match Mr. Obama’s early opposition to the war, or Mr. Webb’s. She was not prescient enough to see, as Mr. Webb wrote in The Washington Post back in September 2002, that “unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation’s existence is clearly at stake.” But she’s hardly alone in this failing, and the point now is not that she mimic John Edwards with a prostrate apology for her vote to authorize the war. (“You don’t get do-overs in life or in politics,” she has said.) What matters to the country is what happens next. What matters is the leadership that will take us out of the fiasco.

Mr. Webb made his own proposals for ending the war, some of them anticipating those of the Iraq Study Group, while running against a popular incumbent in a reddish state. Mrs. Clinton, running for re-election in a safe seat in blue New York, settled for ratcheting up her old complaints about the war’s execution and for endorsing other senators’ calls for vaguely defined “phased redeployments.” Even now, after the Nov. 7 results confirmed that two-thirds of voters nationwide want out, she struggles to parse formulations about Iraq.

This is how she explains her vote to authorize the war: “I would never have expected any president, if we knew then what we know now, to come to ask for a vote. There would not have been a vote, and I certainly would not have voted for it.” John Kerry could not have said it worse himself. No wonder last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” gave us a “Hillary” who said, “Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it.”

Compounding this problem for Mrs. Clinton is that the theatrics of her fledgling campaign are already echoing the content: they are so overscripted and focus-group bland that they underline rather than combat the perennial criticism that she is a cautious triangulator too willing to trim convictions for political gain. Last week she conducted three online Web chats that she billed as opportunities for voters to see her “in an unfiltered way.” Surely she was kidding. Everything was filtered, from the phony living-room set to the appearance of a “campaign blogger” who wasn’t blogging to the softball questions and canned responses. Even the rare query touching on a nominally controversial topic, gay civil rights, avoided any mention of the word marriage, let alone Bill Clinton’s enactment of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

When a 14-year-old boy from Armonk, N.Y., asked Mrs. Clinton what made her “so inspirational,” it was a telltale flashback to those well-rehearsed “town-hall meetings” Mr. Bush billed as unfiltered exchanges with voters during the 2004 campaign. One of those “Ask President Bush” sessions yielded the memorable question, “Mr. President, as a child, how can I help you get votes?”

After six years of “Ask President Bush,” “Mission Accomplished” and stage sets plastered with “Plan for Victory,” Americans hunger for a presidency with some authenticity. Patently synthetic play-acting and carefully manicured sound bites like Mrs. Clinton’s look out of touch. (Mr. Obama’s bare-bones Webcast and Web site shrewdly play Google to Mrs. Clinton’s AOL.) Besides, the belief that an image can be tightly controlled in the viral media era is pure fantasy. Just ask the former Virginia senator, Mr. Allen, whose past prowess as a disciplined, image-conscious politician proved worthless once the Webb campaign posted on YouTube a grainy but authentic video capturing him in an embarrassing off-script public moment.

The image that Mrs. Clinton wants to sell is summed up by her frequent invocation of the word middle, as in “I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America.” She’s not left or right, you see, but exactly in the center where everyone feels safe. But as the fierce war critic Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, argues in a must-read interview at gq.com, the war is “starting to redefine the political landscape” and scramble the old party labels. Like Mrs. Clinton, the middle-American Mr. Hagel voted to authorize the Iraq war, but that has not impeded his leadership in questioning it ever since.

The issue raised by the tragedy of Iraq is not who’s on the left or the right, but who is in front and who is behind. Mrs. Clinton has always been a follower of public opinion on the war, not a leader. Now events are outrunning her. Support for the war both in the polls and among Republicans in Congress is plummeting faster than she can recalibrate her rhetoric; unreliable Iraqi troops are already proving no-shows in the new Iraqi-American “joint patrols” of Baghdad; the Congressional showdown over fresh appropriations for Iraq is just weeks away.

This, in other words, is a moment of crisis in our history and there will be no do-overs. Should Mrs. Clinton actually seek unfiltered exposure to voters, she will learn that they are anxiously waiting to see just who in Washington is brave enough to act.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Daffy Does Doom



Dick Durbin went to the floor of the Senate on Thursday night to denounce the vice president as “delusional.”

It was shocking, and Senator Durbin should be ashamed of himself.

Delusional is far too mild a word to describe Dick Cheney. Delusional doesn’t begin to capture the profound, transcendental one-flew-over daftness of the man.

Has anyone in the history of the United States ever been so singularly wrong and misguided about such phenomenally important events and continued to insist he’s right in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It requires an exquisite kind of lunacy to spend hundreds of billions destroying America’s reputation in the world, exhausting the U.S. military, failing to catch Osama, enhancing Iran’s power in the Middle East and sending American kids to train and arm Iraqi forces so they can work against American interests.

Only someone with an inspired alienation from reality could, under the guise of exorcising the trauma of Vietnam, replicate the trauma of Vietnam.

You must have a real talent for derangement to stay wrong every step of the way, to remain in complete denial about Iraq’s civil war, to have a total misunderstanding of Arab culture, to be completely oblivious to the American mood and to be absolutely blind to how democracy works.

In a democracy, when you run a campaign that panders to homophobia by attacking gay marriage and then your lesbian daughter writes a book about politics and decides to have a baby with her partner, you cannot tell Wolf Blitzer he’s “out of line” when he gingerly raises the hypocrisy of your position.

Mr. Cheney acts more like a member of the James gang than the Jefferson gang. Asked by Wolf what would happen if the Senate passed a resolution critical of The Surge, Scary Cheney rumbled, “It won’t stop us.”

Such an exercise in democracy, he noted, would be “detrimental from the standpoint of the troops.”

Americans learned an important lesson from Vietnam about supporting the troops even when they did not support the war. From media organizations to Hollywood celebrities and lawmakers on both sides, everyone backs our troops.

It is W. and Vice who learned no lessons from Vietnam, probably because they worked so hard to avoid going. They rush into a war halfway around the world for no reason and with no foresight about the culture or the inevitable insurgency, and then assert that any criticism of their fumbling management of Iraq and Afghanistan is tantamount to criticizing the troops. Quel demagoguery.

“Bottom line,” Vice told Wolf, “is that we’ve had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes.” The biggest threat, he said, is that Americans may not “have the stomach for the fight.”

He should stop casting aspersions on the American stomach. We’ve had the stomach for more than 3,000 American deaths in a war sold as a cakewalk.

If W. were not so obsessed with being seen as tough, Mr. Cheney could not influence him with such tripe.

They are perpetually guided by the wrong part of the body. They are consumed by the fear of looking as if they don’t have guts, when they should be compelled by the desire to look as if they have brains.

After offering Congress an olive branch in the State of the Union, the president resumed mindless swaggering. Asked yesterday why he was ratcheting up despite the resolutions, W. replied, “In that I’m the decision maker, I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster.” (Or preordained it.)

The reality of Iraq, as The Times’s brilliant John Burns described it to Charlie Rose this week, is that a messy endgame could be far worse than Vietnam, leading to “a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that will absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now,” and a “wider conflagration, with all kinds of implications for the world’s flow of oil, for the state of Israel. What happens to King Abdullah in Jordan if there’s complete chaos in the region?”

Mr. Cheney has turned his perversity into foreign policy.

He assumes that the more people think he’s crazy, the saner he must be. In Dr. No’s nutty world-view, anti-Americanism is a compliment. The proof that America is right is that everyone thinks it isn’t.

He sees himself as a prophet in the wilderness because he thinks anyone in the wilderness must be a prophet.

To borrow one of his many dismissive words, it’s hogwash.

Pie-in-the-sky dream

McClatchy Newspapers


President George W. Bush this week asked Congress and the American people to give him one more chance to get the strategy and tactics right as his war in Iraq moves into its fifth year with ever-rising costs in blood and national treasure.

His choice to command this final phase, Army Gen. David Petraeus, told senators at his confirmation hearing the day before Bush's speech that the president's mini-escalation, adding 21,500 American troops to the 130,000 already there, would take until late May - a painfully slow ratcheting up that allows the multitude of enemies in Iraq ample time to adjust their own strategy and tactics.

Petraeus said that, consequently, we wouldn't know until late this summer whether the president's gamble was paying off. He promised that if it weren't working, he'd say so.

If it isn't working, and that seems to be a pretty good bet at this point, given how many weak reeds the plan rests upon, we're likely to know well before the general tells us.

Some 15,000 of the additional U.S. troops are to be assigned to damping down the bloody sectarian murders, sectarian cleansing and suicide car-bombings that fill the streets of the Iraqi capital with more than 100 corpses daily.

Petraeus, who's already spent 32 months in Iraq as a two-star division commander and the three-star U.S. officer in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, most recently has commanded at Fort Leavenworth and supervised the writing of a new Army counter-insurgency manual.

That manual provides a formula by which to calculate the number of regular soldiers required to maintain control in an insurgency situation: 20 troops per 1,000 people. So by Petraeus' own formula, Baghdad requires approximately 140,000 friendly troops. Even if you count the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to be assigned to the job - nearly 90,000 - we'll still fall considerably short of what's needed.

The new U.S. commander in Iraq plans to parcel out the newly arriving American soldiers in small groups attached to Iraqi forces in widely scattered Baghdad neighborhoods.

How those soldiers will be supplied and supported and protected is the primary question. It's one thing for Americans to fort up in the Green Zone or at the huge U.S. base at Baghdad Airport by night and venture out by day to patrol a mean city's streets.

It's quite another for them to spend their days in those streets and their nights in vulnerable Iraqi army and police stations scattered throughout the city. Their lives will depend on Iraqi troops whose training and equipment leave much to be desired, and whose loyalty in the sectarian civil war is suspect.

Keeping them supplied and providing quick reaction forces able to respond to their 9-1-1 calls for help in the middle of the night will only put even more Americans on the most dangerous streets and roads in the world.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey calls the surge and those plans "a fool's errand" that almost certainly will produce many more American casualties and no great chance of success.

It's not too great a leap to look back to a chilling situation that American advisers to some South Vietnamese Army units found themselves in during that war. When a South Vietnamese battalion was surrounded by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army regulars, the enemy would break out bullhorns and shout: "Give us the Americans and we will let you go free!"

What happened then? The best Vietnamese commanders stood and fought, the Americans by their side. Others accepted the enemy's invitation, threw down their weapons and ran for their lives, leaving the few Americans to their fate.

The night that starts happening in Baghdad, you'll know that President Bush's last best hope for victory in an un-winnable war has failed, and it's hard to imagine what he might come up with for Plan C.

It's doubtful, however, that even such a catastrophe would prompt an admission that the administration's rosy dream of planting the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy in such infertile soil and turning the Middle East on its head simply didn't work before high noon on Jan. 20, 2009, when the outgoing president can hand the bloody mess he created off to his successor.

To think differently is just one more pie-in-the-sky dream, and we've had enough of those.


Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."

On Being Partisan


American politics is ugly these days, and many people wish things were different. For example, Barack Obama recently lamented the fact that “politics has become so bitter and partisan” — which it certainly has.

But he then went on to say that partisanship is why “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that’s what we have to change first.” Um, no. If history is any guide, what we need are political leaders willing to tackle the big problems despite bitter partisan opposition. If all goes well, we’ll eventually have a new era of bipartisanship — but that will be the end of the story, not the beginning.

Or to put it another way: what we need now is another F.D.R., not another Dwight Eisenhower.

You see, the nastiness of modern American politics isn’t the result of a random outbreak of bad manners. It’s a symptom of deeper factors — mainly the growing polarization of our economy. And history says that we’ll see a return to bipartisanship only if and when that economic polarization is reversed.

After all, American politics has been nasty in the past. Before the New Deal, America was a nation with a vast gap between the rich and everyone else, and this gap was reflected in a sharp political divide. The Republican Party, in effect, represented the interests of the economic elite, and the Democratic Party, in an often confused way, represented the populist alternative.

In that divided political system, the Democrats probably came much closer to representing the interests of the typical American. But the G.O.P.’s advantage in money, and the superior organization that money bought, usually allowed it to dominate national politics. “I am not a member of any organized party,” Will Rogers said. “I am a Democrat.”

Then came the New Deal. I urge Mr. Obama — and everyone else who thinks that good will alone is enough to change the tone of our politics — to read the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the quintessential example of a president who tackled big problems that demanded solutions.

For the fact is that F.D.R. faced fierce opposition as he created the institutions — Social Security, unemployment insurance, more progressive taxation and beyond — that helped alleviate inequality. And he didn’t shy away from confrontation.

“We had to struggle,” he declared in 1936, “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.

The history of the last few decades has basically been the story of the New Deal in reverse. Income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the pre-New Deal era, and so have political divisions in Congress as the Republicans have moved right, once again becoming the party of the economic elite. The signature domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration have been attempts to undo F.D.R.’s legacy, from slashing taxes on the rich to privatizing Social Security. And a bitter partisan gap has opened up between the G.O.P. and Democrats, who have tried to defend that legacy.

What about the smear campaigns, like Karl Rove’s 2005 declaration that after 9/11 liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers”? Well, they’re reminiscent of the vicious anti-Catholic propaganda used to defeat Al Smith in 1928: smear tactics are what a well-organized, well-financed party with a fundamentally unpopular domestic agenda uses to change the subject.

So am I calling for partisanship for its own sake? Certainly not. By all means pass legislation, if you can, with plenty of votes from the other party: the Social Security Act of 1935 received 77 Republican votes in the House, about the same as the number of Republicans who recently voted for a minimum wage increase.

But politicians who try to push forward the elements of a new New Deal, especially universal health care, are sure to face the hatred of a large bloc on the right — and they should welcome that hatred, not fear it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Long on Rhetoric, Short on Sorrow


President Bush showed what he does well at the beginning of the State of the Union ceremony when he graciously acknowledged and introduced Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives. He seemed both generous and sincere, and it was the right touch for a genuinely historic moment.

At the end of his speech he introduced four Americans of whom the nation can be proud, including Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who made like a Hollywood stunt man to save the life of a stricken passenger who had fallen onto the tracks in front of an oncoming subway train.

The rest of the evening was a study in governmental dysfunction. The audience kept mindlessly applauding — up and down, like marionettes — when in fact there was nothing to applaud. The state of the union is wretched, which is why the president’s approval ratings are the worst since Nixon and Carter.

If Mr. Bush is bothered by his fall from political grace, it wasn’t showing on Tuesday night. He seemed as relaxed as ever, smiling, signing autographs, glad-handing.

I wanted to hear him talk about the suffering of the soldiers he has put in harm’s way, and the plight of the residents of New Orleans. I wanted to hear him express a little in the way of sorrow for the many thousands who have died unnecessarily on his watch. I wanted to see him slip the surly bonds of narcissism and at least acknowledge the human wreckage that is the sum and substance of his sustained folly.

But this is a president who runs when empathy calls. While others are monitoring the casualty lists, he’s off to the gym. At least Lyndon Johnson had the decency to agonize over the losses he unleashed in Vietnam.

The State of the Union speech was boilerplate at a time when much of the country, with good reason, is boiling mad. The United States, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, seems paralyzed. It can’t extricate itself from the war in Iraq, can’t rebuild the lost city of New Orleans, can’t provide health care for all of its citizens, can’t come up with a sane energy policy in the era of global warming, can’t even develop a thriving public school system.

If it’s true, as President Bush told his audience, that “much is asked of us,” it’s equally true that very little has been delivered.

The Democrats, delighted by the wounded Bush presidency, believe this is their time. Like an ostentation of peacocks, an extraordinary crowd of excited candidates is gathering in hopes of succeeding Mr. Bush.

But such a timid crowd!

Ask a potential Democratic president what he or she would do about the war, and you’ll get a doctoral dissertation about the importance of diplomacy, the possibility of a phased withdrawal (but not too quick), the need for Iraqis to help themselves and figure out a way to divvy up the oil, and so on and so forth.

A straight answer? Surely you jest. The Democrats remind me of the boxer in the Bonnie Raitt lyric who was “afraid to throw a punch that might land.”

There’s a hole in the American system where the leadership used to be. The country that led the miraculous rebuilding effort in the aftermath of World War II can’t even build an adequate system of levees on its own Gulf Coast.

The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement — were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo.

It’s time for thoughtful citizens to turn off their TVs and step into the public arena. Protest. Attend meetings. Circulate petitions. Run for office. I suspect the public right now is way ahead of the politicians when it comes to ideas about creating a more peaceful, more equitable, more intelligent society.

The candidates for the most part are listening to their handlers and gurus and fat-cat contributors, which is the antithesis of democracy. It’s not easy for ordinary men and women to be heard above that self-serving din, but it can be done.

Voters should listen to Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1954:

“Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Case of Hearing Without Listening


Madame Speaker didn’t lean over and boink the president on the head with her gavel, or garrote him with her red pashmina.

No one was gelded or cuckolded or left to bleed on the floor of the Senate, as in HBO’s “Rome,” that other gory saga of a declining empire with people who can’t stop talking.

Still, the nation’s capital had the aroma of treachery, as former allies brutally turned on one another. Despite W.’s attempt to salvage his presidency last night by changing the subject and going all domestic-sensitive, Washington was more consumed with betrayal than substance.

The city was riveted by opening statements in the Scooter Libby trial, where the aspens were turning but not in clusters. Scooter’s lawyer claimed that the White House had made his client a scapegoat in the Valerie Plame case to protect Karl Rove because “Boy Genius,” as W. calls him, was critical to keeping the Republican Party in power.

In light of the 2006 debacle, the White House might have been better off saving Scooter and making Karl the fall guy.

Vice got an extra dose of unflattering limelight in the debut issue of The Politico, a Capitol Hill publication. In an interview with Roger Simon, John McCain stopped pandering to the White House long enough to lambaste Dick Cheney for stirring a “witch’s brew” of a “terribly mishandled” war. What took the brave senator so long?

“The president listened too much to the vice president,” he said, adding, “Of course, the president bears the ultimate responsibility, but he was very badly served by both the vice president and, most of all, the secretary of defense.”

At a critical hearing yesterday, senators happily blew a chance to grill Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, W.’s choice to try to rescue Iraq, on whether those 21,500 additional troops will be cavalry to the rescue or lambs to the slaughter.

Why dwell on the most consequential elements of American strategy when they can linger over something even more repercussive: their own political reputations?

Hillary Clinton, who dodged a recent important Iraq hearing by flying to Iraq, did not have any questions at all for the general. She simply lectured him crisply on her belated discovery that the administration has a “dead-end” and “blank check” policy, as she tried to seem like the kind of gal who could command the most powerful military on earth. This is odd from someone who is running infomercials on her Web site promising “a conversation.”

In their questioning, Senator Joe Lieberman and Mr. McCain seemed most interested in enlisting the general’s prestige for their own campaign to discredit colleagues in both parties who are tired of passively watching W.’s disaster unfold.

If the Senate sends the additional troops but conveys the belief they cannot succeed, Mr. McCain asked, “what effect does that have on the morale of your troops?”

“It would not be a beneficial effect,” the general replied.

Senator Lieberman also asked whether a Senate resolution expressing disapproval of The Surge would give the enemy in Iraq “encouragement” that the American people “were divided.”

The general agreed: “That’s correct, sir.”

Much of the rest of the hearing was squandered in attempts by Democrats and Republicans who had criticized the war to get the general to back away from his opinion that the troops would be hurt and the enemy emboldened by any impediment that the legislative branch might throw in W.’s way.

“Honorable people have different views, and they will voice their criticisms,” chided John Warner, who presented a bipartisan resolution on Monday declaring that the Senate “disagrees with the ‘plan’ to augment our forces.”

He told General Petraeus that as President Nixon’s secretary of the Navy, he had sat where the general was, justifying another impossible war. “I hope,” he warned the witness, “that this colloquy has not entrapped you into some responses that you might later regret.”

The fact that Senator Warner attacked The Surge in a formal way means that a substantial majority of the Senate are willing to stick their necks out. It’s the beginning of a slow procession to limit spending on the war and rein in Mr. Bush.

As one does in a job interview, the general tried to oblige everyone. After getting caught in a political mine field, he demurred that he had learned “that mine fields are best avoided and gone around rather than walked through.”

The poor man. He probably thought that he came all this way to talk about how to fight the war, not to talk about how to talk about the war.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Gold-Plated Indifference

President Bush’s Saturday radio address was devoted to health care, and officials have put out the word that the subject will be a major theme in tomorrow’s State of the Union address. Mr. Bush’s proposal won’t go anywhere. But it’s still worth looking at his remarks, because of what they say about him and his advisers.

On the radio, Mr. Bush suggested that we should “treat health insurance more like home ownership.” He went on to say that “the current tax code encourages home ownership by allowing you to deduct the interest on your mortgage from your taxes. We can reform the tax code, so that it provides a similar incentive for you to buy health insurance.”

Wow. Those are the words of someone with no sense of what it’s like to be uninsured.

Going without health insurance isn’t like deciding to rent an apartment instead of buying a house. It’s a terrifying experience, which most people endure only if they have no alternative. The uninsured don’t need an “incentive” to buy insurance; they need something that makes getting insurance possible.

Most people without health insurance have low incomes, and just can’t afford the premiums. And making premiums tax-deductible is almost worthless to workers whose income puts them in a low tax bracket.

Of those uninsured who aren’t low-income, many can’t get coverage because of pre-existing conditions — everything from diabetes to a long-ago case of jock itch. Again, tax deductions won’t solve their problem.

The only people the Bush plan might move out of the ranks of the uninsured are the people we’re least concerned about — affluent, healthy Americans who choose voluntarily not to be insured. At most, the Bush plan might induce some of those people to buy insurance, while in the process — whaddya know — giving many other high-income individuals yet another tax break.

While proposing this high-end tax break, Mr. Bush is also proposing a tax increase — not on the wealthy, but on workers who, he thinks, have too much health insurance. The tax code, he said, “unwisely encourages workers to choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans. The result is that insurance premiums rise, and many Americans cannot afford the coverage they need.”

Again, wow. No economic analysis I’m aware of says that when Peter chooses a good health plan, he raises Paul’s premiums. And look at the condescension. Will all those who think they have “gold plated” health coverage please raise their hands?

According to press reports, the actual plan is to penalize workers with relatively generous insurance coverage. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the wealthy; we’re talking about ordinary workers who have managed to negotiate better-than-average health plans.

What’s driving all this is the theory, popular in conservative circles but utterly at odds with the evidence, that the big problem with U.S. health care is that people have too much insurance — that there would be large cost savings if people were forced to pay more of their medical expenses out of pocket.

The administration also believes, for some reason, that people should be pushed out of employment-based health insurance — admittedly a deeply flawed system — into the individual insurance market, which is a disaster on all fronts. Insurance companies try to avoid selling policies to people who are likely to use them, so a large fraction of premiums in the individual market goes not to paying medical bills but to bureaucracies dedicated to weeding out “high risk” applicants — and keeping them uninsured.

I’m somewhat skeptical about health care plans, like that proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that propose covering gaps in the health insurance market with a series of patches, such as requiring that insurers offer policies to everyone at the same rate. But at least the authors of these plans are trying to help those most in need, and recognize that the market needs fixing.

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is still peddling the fantasy that the free market, with a little help from tax cuts, solves all problems.

What’s really striking about Mr. Bush’s remarks, however, is the tone. The stuff about providing “incentives” to buy insurance, the sneering description of good coverage as “gold plated,” is right-wing think-tank jargon. In the past Mr. Bush’s speechwriters might have found less offensive language; now, they’re not even trying to hide his fundamental indifference to the plight of less-fortunate Americans.

Your MasterCard or Your Life

Americans are increasingly living in a house of cards — credit cards.

A disturbing new report shows that with health care costs continuing their sharp rise, low- and middle-income patients are reaching for their credit cards with alarming frequency to cover treatment that they otherwise would be unable to afford.

This medical debt, to be paid off in many cases at sky-high interest rates, is being loaded onto consumer debt that is already at dangerously high levels. Many families have been crushed by the load, driven from their homes, forced into bankruptcy, and worse.

The report, released last week, was jointly compiled by Demos, a public policy group in New York, and the Access Project, which is affiliated with a health policy institute at Brandeis University and is trying to broaden the availability of health care in the U.S.

Imagine for a moment the seriously ill patient who needs to be hospitalized. In the cold new world of health care, the primary message to such patients is often “Show me the money!”

In many instances, of course, the patient does not have the money. What the report found is that even people with health insurance are being drained by health care costs to the point where the credit card seems the only option.

“As deductibles and co-payments increase,” the report said, “hospitals are finding more patients unable to pay their medical bills. Some hospital management analysts are expecting an increase in self-pay patients and are bracing for higher levels of bad debt.

“In recognition of the evolving payment landscape and the risk of hospital bad debt, health care providers are more aggressively seeking upfront collection of co-pays and deductibles. A component of this strategy is to encourage patients to use third-party lenders such as credit cards to pay for medical expenses they cannot afford, which families frequently do to meet high medical bills.”

It’s one thing to reach for your Visa or MasterCard to pay for a Barbie doll or flat-screen TV. It’s way different to pull out the plastic because you’ve just learned you have cancer or heart disease, and you don’t have any other way to pay for treatment that would prevent a premature trip to the great beyond.

A society is seriously out of whack when legalized loan sharks are encouraged to close in on those who are broke and desperately ill.

This medical indebtedness is hardly surprising. Health care costs continue to rise much faster than family income and inflation, and Americans (who have stopped saving altogether) were already mired in staggering amounts of personal debt. Some families have been putting their groceries on credit cards. Many have taken the financially disastrous step of using home equity loans to bring down credit card balances.

A serious illness for people already in shaky economic circumstances can be the final push into bankruptcy.

According to the report, called “Borrowing to Stay Healthy,” about 29 percent of low- and middle-income families with credit card debt reported using their credit cards to pay medical expenses — in most cases for major medical problems.

Over all, a full 20 percent of low- and middle-income families with credit card debt said they had used their cards to cover major medical expenses over the prior three years.

This indebtedness — subject to monthly late fees and penalties, and interest rates that can reach 30 percent — only adds to the trauma of serious illness.

It’s believed that 29 million Americans are burdened with medical debt of one form or another. Individuals who are already saddled with medical bills that they can’t pay are much more likely to avoid further medical treatment and to leave drug prescriptions unfilled. Such decisions often have life-threatening consequences.

There is an epidemic of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. and medical factors are believed to play a role in as many as half of them.

These are problems that cry out for reform — of the American health care system and the American way of debt, both of which seriously threaten the American way of life. At the very least, in the short term, we need to protect financially vulnerable patients from a credit card universe in which there are no legal limits on fees or interest, and where the abuse of customers is the norm.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lying Like It’s 2003

THOSE who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but who could imagine we’d already be in danger of replaying that rotten year 2003?

Scooter Libby, the mastermind behind the White House’s bogus scenarios for ginning up the war in Iraq, is back at Washington’s center stage, proudly defending the indefensible in a perjury trial. Ahmad Chalabi, the peddler of flawed prewar intelligence hyped by Mr. Libby, is back in clover in Baghdad, where he purports to lead the government’s Shiite-Baathist reconciliation efforts in between visits to his pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Last but never least is Mr. Libby’s former boss and Mr. Chalabi’s former patron, Dick Cheney, who is back on Sunday-morning television floating fictions about Iraq and accusing administration critics of aiding Al Qaeda. When the vice president went on a tear like this in 2003, hawking Iraq’s nonexistent W.M.D. and nonexistent connections to Mohamed Atta, he set the stage for a war that now kills Iraqi civilians in rising numbers (34,000-plus last year) that are heading into the genocidal realms of Saddam. Mr. Cheney’s latest sales pitch is for a new plan for “victory” promising an even bigger bloodbath.

Mr. Cheney was honest, at least, when he said that the White House’s Iraq policy would remain “full speed ahead!” no matter what happened on Nov. 7. Now it is our patriotic duty — politicians, the press and the public alike — to apply the brakes. Our failure to check the administration when it rushed into Iraq in 2003 will look even more shameful to history if we roll over again for a reboot in 2007. For all the belated Washington scrutiny of the war since the election, and for all the heralded (if so far symbolic) Congressional efforts to challenge it, too much lip service is still being paid to the deceptive P.R. strategies used by the administration to sell its reckless policies. This time we must do what too few did the first time: call the White House on its lies. Lies should not be confused with euphemisms like “incompetence” and “denial.”

Mr. Cheney’s performance last week on “Fox News Sunday” illustrates the problem; his lying is nowhere near its last throes. Asked by Chris Wallace about the White House’s decision to overrule commanders who recommended against a troop escalation, the vice president said, “I don’t think we’ve overruled the commanders.” He claimed we’ve made “enormous progress” in Iraq. He said the administration is not “embattled.” (Well, maybe that one is denial.)

This White House gang is so practiced in lying with a straight face that it never thinks twice about recycling its greatest hits. Hours after Mr. Cheney’s Fox interview, President Bush was on “60 Minutes,” claiming that before the war “everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction” and that “the minute we found out” the W.M.D. didn’t exist he “was the first to say so.” Everybody, of course, was not wrong on W.M.D., starting with the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq. Nor was Mr. Bush the first to come clean once the truth became apparent after the invasion. On May 29, 2003 — two days after a secret Defense Intelligence Agency-sponsored mission found no biological weapons in trailers captured by American forces — Mr. Bush declared: “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

But that’s all W.M.D under the bridge. The most important lies to watch for now are the new ones being reiterated daily by the administration’s top brass, from Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on down. You know fiasco awaits America when everyone in the White House is reading in unison from the same fictional script, as they did back in the day when “mushroom clouds” and “uranium from Africa” were the daily drumbeat.

The latest lies are custom-made to prop up the new “way forward” that is anything but. Among the emerging examples is a rewriting of the history of Iraq’s sectarian violence. The fictional version was initially laid out by Mr. Bush in his Jan. 10 prime-time speech and has since been repeated on television by both Mr. Cheney and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, last Sunday and by Mr. Bush again on PBS’s “NewsHour” on Tuesday. It goes like this: sectarian violence didn’t start spiraling out of control until the summer of 2006, after Sunni terrorists bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra and forced the Shiites to take revenge.

But as Mark Seibel of McClatchy Newspapers noted last week, “the president’s account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics.” They were visible in embryo long before that; The Times, among others, reported as far back as September 2003 that Shiite militias were becoming more radical, dangerous and anti-American. The reasons Mr. Bush pretends that Shiite killing started only last year are obvious enough. He wants to duck culpability for failing to recognize the sectarian violence from the outset — much as he failed to recognize the Sunni insurgency before it — and to underplay the intractability of the civil war to which he will now sacrifice fresh American flesh.

An equally big lie is the administration’s constant claim that it is on the same page as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as we go full speed ahead. Only last month Mr. Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wished he “could be done with” his role as Iraq’s leader “before the end of this term.” Now we are asked to believe not merely that he is a strongman capable of vanquishing the death squads of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, his political ally, but also that he can be trusted to produce the troops he failed to supply in last year’s failed Baghdad crackdown. Yet as recently as November, there still wasn’t a single Iraqi battalion capable of fighting on its own.

Hardly a day passes without Mr. Maliki mocking the White House’s professed faith in him. In the past week or so alone, he has presided over a second botched hanging (despite delaying it for more than two weeks to put in place new guidelines), charged Condi Rice with giving a “morale boost to the terrorists” because she criticized him, and overruled American objections to appoint an obscure commander from deep in Shiite territory to run the Baghdad “surge.” His government doesn’t even try to hide its greater allegiance to Iran. Mr. Maliki’s foreign minister has asked for the release of the five Iranians detained in an American raid on an Iranian office in northern Iraq this month and, on Monday, called for setting up more Iranian “consulates” in Iraq.

The president’s pretense that Mr. Maliki and his inept, ill-equipped, militia-infiltrated security forces can advance American interests in this war is Neville Chamberlain-like in its naiveté and disingenuousness. An American military official in Baghdad read the writing on the wall to The Times last week: “We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn.” That’s why the most destructive lie of all may be the White House’s constant refrain that its doomed strategy is the only one anyone has proposed. Administration critics, Mr. Cheney said last Sunday, “have absolutely nothing to offer in its place,” as if the Iraq Study Group, John Murtha and Joseph Biden-Leslie Gelb plans, among others, didn’t predate the White House’s own.

In reality we’re learning piece by piece that it is the White House that has no plan. Ms. Rice has now downsized the surge/escalation into an “augmentation,” inadvertently divulging how the Pentagon is improvising, juggling small deployments in fits and starts. No one can plausibly explain how a parallel chain of command sending American and Iraqi troops into urban street combat side by side will work with Iraqis in the lead (it will report to a “committee” led by Mr. Maliki!). Or how $1 billion in new American reconstruction spending will accomplish what the $30 billion thrown down the drain in previous reconstruction spending did not.

All of this replays 2003, when the White House refused to consider any plan, including existing ones in the Pentagon and State Department bureaucracies, for coping with a broken post-Saddam Iraq. Then, as at every stage of the war since, the only administration plan was for a propaganda campaign to bamboozle American voters into believing “victory” was just around the corner.

The next push on the “way forward” propaganda campaign arrives Tuesday night, with the State of the Union address. The good news is that the Democrats have chosen Jim Webb, the new Virginia senator, to give their official response. Mr. Webb, a Reagan administration Navy secretary and the father of a son serving in Iraq, has already provoked a testy exchange about the war with the president at a White House reception for freshmen in Congress. He’s the kind of guy likely to keep a scorecard of the lies on Tuesday night. But whether he does or not, it’s incumbent on all those talking heads who fell for “shock and awe” and “Mission Accomplished” in 2003 to not let history repeat itself in 2007. Facing the truth is the only way forward in Iraq.

Roadblocks to Greater Say on Pay

GREATER detail on executive pay will arrive this spring, thanks to new regulatory requirements. But shareholders won’t have a greater say on how that pay is computed if companies like AT&T and Verizon Communications get their way.

Shareholders of both companies have submitted proposals requiring an advisory vote by the owners on corporate pay practices, but AT&T and Verizon are doing their best to stymie the initiatives. Proposals like these were popular last year and promise to be even more so in 2007. A shareholder activist estimates that as many as 75 companies will receive such initiatives this year.

In 2006, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ pension unit put forward advisory initiatives at seven companies and garnered support from 41 percent of the votes cast, on average. At Merrill Lynch’s annual meeting, for example, 35.5 percent of the votes cast favored the proposal.

It is not yet clear what companies besides AT&T and Verizon have received the initiatives this year. Under the terms of the proposals, the shareholder votes would be nonbinding. Given the support that company owners gave these initiatives last year, it is surprising that companies like AT&T and Verizon are fighting hard to keep them off corporate proxies in 2007. After all, these are the owners talking. And let’s not forget that these proposals seek something that regulators already require of public companies in Britain and Australia.

Since 2001, for example, shareholders in British companies have been voting on compensation practices; in Australia, holders have been doing so since 2005. Financial markets have not ground to a halt in either country as a result of inviting shareholder input on pay. On the contrary, shareholders say that putting such matters to an advisory, or so-called precatory, vote has brought owners and corporate managers together to talk about compensation. The dialogue has become much less adversarial.

No matter. AT&T and Verizon felt it wise to spend shareholder money to block a reasonable approach to hold directors accountable on pay. Judging from the strange reasoning made by the companies’ lawyers when they moved to halt the initiatives, shareholder funds were not well spent.

AT&T and Verizon make essentially the same arguments in asking that the Securities and Exchange Commission permit these proposals to be omitted from proxy materials. In letters written last month, both companies cited, for example, a decision by the S.E.C. that permitted a proposal to be excluded in 1999 from the proxy of the Corporation">CSX Corporation">Corporation.

That proposal, by the way, had nothing to do with shareholder approval on pay or board practices. The CSX proposal asked that the company — get this — include three poems written by a shareholder in its proxy statement.

Interesting that AT&T and Verizon view executive pay proposals in the same fashion as a wacky request to turn the proxy into a stockholder poetry collection. Both companies’ lawyers, meanwhile, ignored the only real precedent out there: a say-on-pay proposal that appeared on the ballot last year at the Corporation">Sara Lee Corporation">Corporation. S.E.C. officials rejected Sara Lee’s request to omit the proposal; it went on to win support from 42.5 percent of votes cast at the company’s annual meeting.

Finally, both AT&T and Verizon argue that the pay proposals do not meet “procedural requirements” of proxy rules because, for example, the shareholders who are submitting the proposals must demonstrate that they will be stockholders in future years when the votes to approve executive pay would take place.

AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.

Robert A. Varettoni, a Verizon spokesman, said: “Our letter is a legal argument and not a response on the merits of the submission. The legal argument is based on the S.E.C. standards of what constitutes a valid proposal.”

Cornish F. Hitchcock, a lawyer in Washington, has written to the S.E.C. asking that it deny AT&T’s request to omit the proposal from its proxy. “If the shareholders have the power to adopt bylaws, it is difficult to see how they lack the power to propose precatory policy changes,” he wrote. “Indeed, it is difficult to see what limiting principle would apply to AT&T’s seeming assertion that the board is omnipotent.”

While AT&T and Verizon try to thwart owners’ attempts to make directors accountable on pay, other companies seem to see the merits of engaging shareholders in the compensation process. After receiving a proposal from Lucian Bebchuk, director of the Program on Corporate Governance at Harvard, Home Depot recently changed its bylaws to require that any decision relating to compensation of the company’s chief executive be approved by two-thirds of the independent directors of its board.

“It would be desirable to ensure,” Mr. Bebchuk’s proposal stated, “as the proposed arrangement would seek to do, that the corporation does not provide a C.E.O. package that cannot obtain widespread support among the corporation’s independent directors.”

Home Depot’s board undoubtedly recognized, after paying its former chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, a total of $275 million for six years of mediocrity, that its image would not be helped by intransigence on such a matter. Its decision to amend its by-laws on the issue is progress, nonetheless.

Mr. Bebchuk has submitted similar proposals — requiring approval from three-quarters of the independent directors on chief executive pay — at the American International Group, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Exxon Mobil. It is not yet clear whether the proposals will be put to shareholder votes at those companies.

A.I.G. declined to comment on the proposal, and Exxon Mobil said it was evaluating it. Bristol-Myers has asked the S.E.C. to permit it to omit the proposal, saying that it already requires approval of chief executive pay by all of its independent directors.

Charles T. Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and perspicacious partner of Warren E. Buffett, opined on the irksome issue of executive pay in an interview with The Los Angeles Times this month. First, Mr. Munger said that our current system, “with its envy-driven compensation mania, has developed to a place where it brings out the absolute worst in good people.”

But he also said: “If more executive compensation issues required shareholder approval, I think that might dampen some of the excess.” He conceded that there was a risk in this: “There are also a lot of malcontented nuts in the world, and you wouldn’t want the malcontents to get too much power.”

Agreed. But experience at overseas companies seems to demonstrate that shareholder votes on pay have improved relations between corporate managers and their owners. And at some companies, pay has become more closely linked with performance.

Precisely the result, perhaps, that executives at AT&T, Verizon and other companies fear?

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Ballad of Bushie and Flashy



George Bush may have lost his swagger, but Harry Flashman hasn’t.

Maybe the president presiding over a quicksand empire got a vicarious thrill out of the fictional Victorian brigadier general who roamed from Chillianwalla to Isandlwana to Abyssinia at the height of the British empire, always making conquests in love and war despite his cowardly, caddish behavior.

In our continuing odyssey of discovery through the president’s reading list, we learned that he perused two of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, “Flashman at the Charge” and “Flash for Freedom.”

There are those who are skeptical of the president’s souped-up reading list, a result of a book-reading contest with Karl Rove.

“I don’t think he understands the world,” Jay Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Times’s Mark Mazzetti. “I don’t think he’s particularly curious about the world. I don’t think he reads like he says he does. Every time he’s read something he tells you about it.”

I just wish W. had read more about the perils of empire before he naïvely dived into one. Mr. Fraser agrees that W. should have read the original “Flashman” before invading Afghanistan. It could have given him invaluable, if politically incorrect, insights that might have helped in the effort to catch Osama at Tora Bora and in the new push to stop the Taliban slouching toward Kandahar.

On a recent visit to Afghanistan, Robert Gates told nervous military commanders that he was open to sending more troops to thwart the Taliban from regrouping. Congressman John McHugh, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan with Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh, said that everyone they talked to had warned “that when the snows melt in the mountains, it will bring a new onslaught from Al Qaeda and the Taliban ... one that directly threatens not just the Karzai presidency, but threatens Afghanistan itself, and logically, it follows, threatens our investment in blood and treasure.”

“Flashman” is based on a devastating British defeat during one of their wars in Afghanistan. After invading Kabul in 1839 and setting up an unpopular puppet shah, the British trekked through the snowy mountains to Jalalabad. Of more than 16,000 troops and camp followers, only one doctor survived; the rest were picked off in ambushes by Afghan warriors.

The lesson is that Afghanistan is a no man’s land that can’t be tamed by gringos. The British Empire, on which the sun never set, never succeeded in occupying Afghanistan even as it engaged in the Great Game with the Russians for influence there. It was terra incognita and terra fuggedaboutit.

“You could never forget that in Afghanistan you are walking a knife-edge the whole time,” Harry Flashman notes, adding that, like himself, the Afghans could be “cruel and bloodthirsty,” turning on you with no warning.

Mr. Fraser echoed those sentiments when I tracked him down at his home on the Isle of Man. “No one has ever succeeded in invading Afghanistan,” the octogenarian who fought in Burma in World War II boomed with a trace of Scottish accent.

“The Afghans are extraordinary fighters, tough and resourceful and cruel, and they know their business inside out,” he said. “On their own territory, they’re unbeatable. They love fighting and dealing with invaders. It’s almost a game to them. The country is Death Valley 10 times over. You see them on television in their robes with their weapons and that’s all. The American and British troops are loaded with rubbishy equipment.

“Eventually, I suppose, we’ll get out of Iraq and pretend it’s been a success when it’s just a mess. ... “Afghanistan is slightly different. You cannot ever win. When you consider the Russians put in more than 100,000 troops and couldn’t do it. There’s only one way to deal with the Afghans, and that’s to buy them.”

Mr. Fraser recites the end of Kipling’s “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy”:

Abdhur Rahman, the Durani Chief, of him is the story told,

He has opened his mouth to the North and the South,

They have stuffed his mouth

with gold ...

and sweet his favours are ...

from Balkh to Kandahar.

“It wouldn’t do Bush any harm to read Kipling,” he concluded before signing off.

Surging and Purging

There’s something happening here, and what it is seems completely clear: the Bush administration is trying to protect itself by purging independent-minded prosecutors.

Last month, Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney (federal prosecutor) for the Eastern District of Arkansas, received a call on his cellphone while hiking in the woods with his son. He was informed that he had just been replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, a Republican political operative who has spent the last few years working as an opposition researcher for Karl Rove.

Mr. Cummins’s case isn’t unique. Since the middle of last month, the Bush administration has pushed out at least four U.S. attorneys, and possibly as many as seven, without explanation. The list includes Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for San Diego, who successfully prosecuted Duke Cunningham, a Republican congressman, on major corruption charges. The top F.B.I. official in San Diego told The San Diego Union-Tribune that Ms. Lam’s dismissal would undermine multiple continuing investigations.

In Senate testimony yesterday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to say how many other attorneys have been asked to resign, calling it a “personnel matter.”

In case you’re wondering, such a wholesale firing of prosecutors midway through an administration isn’t normal. U.S. attorneys, The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, “typically are appointed at the beginning of a new president’s term, and serve throughout that term.” Why, then, are prosecutors that the Bush administration itself appointed suddenly being pushed out?

The likely answer is that for the first time the administration is really worried about where corruption investigations might lead.

Since the day it took power this administration has shown nothing but contempt for the normal principles of good government. For six years ethical problems and conflicts of interest have been the rule, not the exception.

For a long time the administration nonetheless seemed untouchable, protected both by Republican control of Congress and by its ability to justify anything and everything as necessary for the war on terror. Now, however, the investigations are closing in on the Oval Office. The latest news is that J. Steven Griles, the former deputy secretary of the Interior Department and the poster child for the administration’s systematic policy of putting foxes in charge of henhouses, is finally facing possible indictment.

And the purge of U.S. attorneys looks like a pre-emptive strike against the gathering forces of justice.

Won’t the administration have trouble getting its new appointees confirmed by the Senate? Well, it turns out that it won’t have to.

Arlen Specter, the Republican senator who headed the Judiciary Committee until Congress changed hands, made sure of that last year. Previously, new U.S. attorneys needed Senate confirmation within 120 days or federal district courts would name replacements. But as part of a conference committee reconciling House and Senate versions of the revised Patriot Act, Mr. Specter slipped in a clause eliminating that rule.

As Paul Kiel of TPMmuckraker.com — which has done yeoman investigative reporting on this story — put it, this clause in effect allows the administration “to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity without the ordeal of Senate confirmation.” How convenient.

Mr. Gonzales says that there’s nothing political about the firings. And according to The Associated Press, he said that district court judges shouldn’t appoint U.S. attorneys because they “tend to appoint friends and others not properly qualified to be prosecutors.” Words fail me.

Mr. Gonzales also says that the administration intends to get Senate confirmation for every replacement. Sorry, but that’s not at all credible, even if we ignore the administration’s track record. Mr. Griffin, the political-operative-turned-prosecutor, would be savaged in a confirmation hearing. By appointing him, the administration showed that it has no intention of following the usual rules.

The broader context is this: defeat in the midterm elections hasn’t led the Bush administration to scale back its imperial view of presidential power.

On the contrary, now that President Bush can no longer count on Congress to do his bidding, he’s more determined than ever to claim essentially unlimited authority — whether it’s the authority to send more troops into Iraq or the authority to stonewall investigations into his own administration’s conduct.

The next two years, in other words, are going to be a rolling constitutional crisis.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Lost Voice of Protest


On the evening of the fourth of April, 1967, one year to the day (almost to the hour) before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked into Riverside Church in Manhattan and delivered a speech that was among his least well known, yet most controversial.

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight,” he said, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

The speech was an eloquent, full-throated denunciation of the war in Vietnam, one of the earliest public critiques by such a high-profile American. Silence in the face of the horrors of that war, said Dr. King, amounted to a “betrayal.”

The speech unleashed a hurricane of criticism. Even the N.A.A.C.P. complained about Dr. King stepping out of his perceived area of expertise, civil rights, to raise his voice against the evil of the war. The Times headlined an editorial, "Dr. King’s Error."

The war would go on for another eight years, ultimately taking the lives of 58,000 Americans and a million to two million Vietnamese. Dr. King himself would be silenced, at the age of 39, by a bullet in Memphis.

The widespread celebration of Dr. King’s birthday on Monday brought that Vietnam speech to mind. It’s both gratifying and important that we honor this great man with a national holiday. But it’s disturbing that we pay so much more attention to the celebrations than we do to the absolutely crucial lessons that he spent much of his life trying to teach us.

Whether it’s the war in Iraq, or the plight of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the violence and self-destructive behavior that plagues so many black Americans, our attitude toward the wisdom of Dr. King has been that of the drug addict or alcoholic to the notion that there might be a better way. We give lip service to it, and then we ignore it.

In the Vietnam speech, Dr. King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He may as well have been speaking into the void. The war in Iraq, a reprise of Vietnam, will cost us well over a trillion dollars before we’re done, and probably more than two trillion. More than 3,000 American G.I.’s have been killed and the death toll for Iraqis is tallied by the scores of thousands.

No one knows what to do, although the politicians and the pundits are all over television, day and night, background singers to the carnage.

Here at home the city of New Orleans is on life support, struggling to survive the combined effects of a catastrophic flood, the unconscionable neglect of the federal government, and the monumental ineptitude of its own local officials. As ordinary residents of New Orleans continue to suffer, the rest of the nation has casually turned away. The debacle is no longer being televised. So it must be over.

Dr. King held the unfashionable view that we had an obligation to help those who are in trouble, and to speak out against unfair treatment and social injustice. “Our lives begin to end,” he said, “the day we become silent about things that matter.”

New Orleans matters. And the long dark night of the war in Iraq must surely matter. But not enough voices of protest are being raised in either case. The anger quotient is much too low. You can’t stop America’s involvement in a senseless war or revive a dying American city if your greatest passion is kicking back with pizza and beer and tuning in to “American Idol.”

The quality of life for black Americans more than 38 years after the death of Dr. King is a mixed bag. Blacks are far better off economically and educationally than ever before. Barack Obama is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, and the last two secretaries of state have been black.

But the ominous shadow of racial prejudice is still with us. Even President Bush acknowledged that conditions in New Orleans pre-Katrina were proof of that. The nation’s prisons are filled to the bursting point with black men who have failed, or been failed, and have no viable future. And too many black Americans are willing and even eager to see themselves in the culturally depraved lineup of gangsters, pimps and whores.

Dr. King would be 78 now, and I can’t believe that he would be too thrilled by what’s going on. In his view: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

We miss his leadership, all of us, whether we’re wise enough to realize it or not.

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