Wealthy Frenchman

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

‘24’ as Reality Show


“I hope people will make the distinction between television and reality.”

Jack Bauer stood with his back to the sea, the variegated light of early evening playing upon the features of his careworn face. Pondering the future, he lifted a cigarette to his lips, its golden ember a searing reminder of his perpetual courtship of death ...

Sorry, I got confused.

Let me start again.

Kiefer Sutherland was smoking a cigarette and fielding reporters’ queries at a Fox TV party on the Santa Monica pier last week, when the issue was raised of how, well, freaky it is that his show’s first female president will make her debut just in time for the Iowa caucuses.

There is a difference, he suggested, between “24” and real life. “But,” he went on, “I can tell you one thing. We had the first African-American president on television, and now Barack Obama is a serious candidate. That wasn’t going to happen eight years ago. Television is an incredibly powerful medium, and it can be the first step in showing people what is possible.”

I giggled a bit nastily over this at first. What was next — claims that fingering China as a one-nation axis of evil on “24” had presaged the country’s exposure this spring as the source of all perishables tainted and fatal? That screen first lady Martha Logan’s descent into minimadness anticipated Laura Bush’s increasingly beleaguered late-term demeanor? (Has anyone but me noticed her astounding resemblance to Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”?) That foolish Vice President Noah Daniels’s narrowly averted war with the Russians had its real-life equivalent in recent Bush-Putin wrangling over Eastern European missile defense systems?

Silliness upon silliness. But still, something about this idea of “24” as a political crystal ball spoke to me. So, eager to get some advance notice on what we might one day see in a woman president (What to Expect if You’re Expecting Another Clinton), I went to the show’s Web site, looking for season seven clues.

I didn’t find any. Instead, I spent a marvelous afternoon browsing through “research” files on Joint Direct Attack Munition missiles, suitcase nukes, hyocine-pentothal (a fictional drug), C-4 explosives, A.A. sponsors and Air Force Two (not technically a plane). I learned, to my surprise, that Jack Bauer has a bachelor’s in English literature, and that Audrey Raines — not surprisingly — is a product of Brown and Yale. It was like shopping in a mall without windows, gambling in a casino without clocks — a total, disorienting departure into a self-contained alternate reality.

Kiefer Sutherland and I may both be silly, but we’re not the only people guilty of blurring the boundaries when it comes to “24.” In recent weeks, a surprising number of journalists have seemed ready to play along with the conceit that the fictional creation of the show’s first female chief executive could actually have some bearing on the American political scene. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, proclaimed this change “could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I don’t remember people holding their breath for major political developments every time a new season began on “The West Wing.” There’s something different, I think, about “24” that gives its cartoonishness a bizarrely compelling sense of reality.

The past six or so years — the years of the show’s existence — have given us a parade of imagery seemingly tailor-made for Bauer’s TV world. The crumbling of the World Trade Center, Saddam Hussein in a hole, stress-deranged U.S. soldiers-turned-prison-block-pornographers — the dividing line between what’s believable and what’s not, between fantasy and reality, has become utterly permeable.

What was once unimaginable, or imagined only for entertainment value in “Die Hard”-type thrillers, is now all too real. Anything is possible in a world of falling towers and Abu Ghraib. Kiefer Sutherland’s magical beliefs about his show’s potential impact on politics are forgivable. Even quaint.

The big difference, unfortunately, between real life and small-screen fiction is that, on “24,” Jack Bauer actually catches the bad guys and saves the world. Good guys are incorruptible; fatuous politicians are made to pay for their sins. There is redemption; there is comeuppance.

Oh, and torture works.

Monday, July 30, 2007

An Immoral Philosophy


When a child is enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip), the positive results can be dramatic. For example, after asthmatic children are enrolled in Schip, the frequency of their attacks declines on average by 60 percent, and their likelihood of being hospitalized for the condition declines more than 70 percent.

Regular care, in other words, makes a big difference. That’s why Congressional Democrats, with support from many Republicans, are trying to expand Schip, which already provides essential medical care to millions of children, to cover millions of additional children who would otherwise lack health insurance.

But President Bush says that access to care is no problem — “After all, you just go to an emergency room” — and, with the support of the Republican Congressional leadership, he’s declared that he’ll veto any Schip expansion on “philosophical” grounds.

It must be about philosophy, because it surely isn’t about cost. One of the plans Mr. Bush opposes, the one approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate Finance Committee, would cost less over the next five years than we’ll spend in Iraq in the next four months. And it would be fully paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes.

The House plan, which would cover more children, is more expensive, but it offsets Schip costs by reducing subsidies to Medicare Advantage — a privatization scheme that pays insurance companies to provide coverage, and costs taxpayers 12 percent more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.

Strange to say, however, the administration, although determined to prevent any expansion of children’s health care, is also dead set against any cut in Medicare Advantage payments.

So what kind of philosophy says that it’s O.K. to subsidize insurance companies, but not to provide health care to children?

Well, here’s what Mr. Bush said after explaining that emergency rooms provide all the health care you need: “They’re going to increase the number of folks eligible through Schip; some want to lower the age for Medicare. And then all of a sudden, you begin to see a — I wouldn’t call it a plot, just a strategy — to get more people to be a part of a federalization of health care.”

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

This sounds like a caricature, but it isn’t. The truth is that this good-is-bad philosophy has always been at the core of Republican opposition to health care reform. Thus back in 1994, William Kristol warned against passage of the Clinton health care plan “in any form,” because “its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.”

But it has taken the fight over children’s health insurance to bring the perversity of this philosophy fully into view.

There are arguments you can make against programs, like Social Security, that provide a safety net for adults. I can respect those arguments, even though I disagree. But denying basic health care to children whose parents lack the means to pay for it, simply because you’re afraid that success in insuring children might put big government in a good light, is just morally wrong.

And the public understands that. According to a recent Georgetown University poll, 9 in 10 Americans — including 83 percent of self-identified Republicans — support an expansion of the children’s health insurance program.

There is, it seems, more basic decency in the hearts of Americans than is dreamt of in Mr. Bush’s philosophy.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Who Really Took Over During That Colonoscopy

THERE was, of course, gallows humor galore when Dick Cheney briefly grabbed the wheel of our listing ship of state during the presidential colonoscopy last weekend. Enjoy it while it lasts. A once-durable staple of 21st-century American humor is in its last throes. We have a new surrogate president now. Sic transit Cheney. Long live David Petraeus!

It was The Washington Post that first quantified General Petraeus’s remarkable ascension. President Bush, who mentioned his new Iraq commander’s name only six times as the surge rolled out in January, has cited him more than 150 times in public utterances since, including 53 in May alone.

As always with this White House’s propaganda offensives, the message in Mr. Bush’s relentless repetitions never varies. General Petraeus is the “main man.” He is the man who gives “candid advice.” Come September, he will be the man who will give the president and the country their orders about the war.

And so another constitutional principle can be added to the long list of those junked by this administration: the quaint notion that our uniformed officers are supposed to report to civilian leadership. In a de facto military coup, the commander in chief is now reporting to the commander in Iraq. We must “wait to see what David has to say,” Mr. Bush says.

Actually, we don’t have to wait. We already know what David will say. He gave it away to The Times of London last month, when he said that September “is a deadline for a report, not a deadline for a change in policy.” In other words: Damn the report (and that irrelevant Congress that will read it) — full speed ahead. There will be no change in policy. As Michael Gordon reported in The New York Times last week, General Petraeus has collaborated on a classified strategy document that will keep American troops in Iraq well into 2009 as we wait for the miracles that will somehow bring that country security and a functioning government.

Though General Petraeus wrote his 1987 Princeton doctoral dissertation on “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” he has an unshakable penchant for seeing light at the end of tunnels. It has been three Julys since he posed for the cover of Newsweek under the headline “Can This Man Save Iraq?” The magazine noted that the general’s pacification of Mosul was “a textbook case of doing counterinsurgency the right way.” Four months later, the police chief installed by General Petraeus defected to the insurgents, along with most of the Sunni members of the police force. Mosul, population 1.7 million, is now an insurgent stronghold, according to the Pentagon’s own June report.

By the time reality ambushed his textbook victory, the general had moved on to the mission of making Iraqi troops stand up so American troops could stand down. “Training is on track and increasing in capacity,” he wrote in The Washington Post in late September 2004, during the endgame of the American presidential election. He extolled the increased prowess of the Iraqi fighting forces and the rebuilding of their infrastructure.

The rest is tragic history. Were the Iraqi forces on the trajectory that General Petraeus asserted in his election-year pep talk, no “surge” would have been needed more than two years later. We would not be learning at this late date, as we did only when Gen. Peter Pace was pressed in a Pentagon briefing this month, that the number of Iraqi battalions operating independently is in fact falling — now standing at a mere six, down from 10 in March.

But even more revealing is what was happening at the time that General Petraeus disseminated his sunny 2004 prognosis. The best account is to be found in “The Occupation of Iraq,” the authoritative chronicle by Ali Allawi published this year by Yale University Press. Mr. Allawi is not some anti-American crank. He was the first civilian defense minister of postwar Iraq and has been an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; his book was praised by none other than the Iraq war cheerleader Fouad Ajami as “magnificent.”

Mr. Allawi writes that the embezzlement of the Iraqi Army’s $1.2 billion arms procurement budget was happening “under the very noses” of the Security Transition Command run by General Petraeus: “The saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense perfectly illustrated the huge gap between the harsh realities on the ground and the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements.” Mr. Allawi contrasts the “lyrical” Petraeus pronouncements in The Post with the harsh realities of the Iraqi forces’ inoperable helicopters, flimsy bulletproof vests and toy helmets. The huge sums that might have helped the Iraqis stand up were instead “handed over to unscrupulous adventurers and former pizza parlor operators.”

Well, anyone can make a mistake. And when General Petraeus cited soccer games as an example of “the astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad last month, he could not have anticipated that car bombs would kill at least 50 Iraqis after the Iraqi team’s poignant victory in the Asian Cup semifinals last week. This general may well be, as many say, the brightest and bravest we have. But that doesn’t account for why he has been invested by the White House and its last-ditch apologists with such singular power over the war.

On “Meet the Press,” Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate’s last gung-ho war defenders in either party, mentioned General Petraeus 10 times in one segment, saying he would “not vote for anything” unless “General Petraeus passes on it.” Desperate hawks on the nation’s op-ed pages not only idolize the commander daily but denounce any critics of his strategy as deserters, defeatists and enemies of the troops.

That’s because the Petraeus phenomenon is not about protecting the troops or American interests but about protecting the president. For all Mr. Bush’s claims of seeking “candid” advice, he wants nothing of the kind. He sent that message before the war, with the shunting aside of Eric Shinseki, the general who dared tell Congress the simple truth that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. The message was sent again when John Abizaid and George Casey were supplanted after they disagreed with the surge.

Two weeks ago, in his continuing quest for “candid” views, Mr. Bush invited a claque consisting exclusively of conservative pundits to the White House and inadvertently revealed the real motive for the Petraeus surrogate presidency. “The most credible person in the fight at this moment is Gen. David Petraeus,” he said, in National Review’s account.

To be the “most credible” person in this war team means about as much as being the most sober tabloid starlet in the Paris-Lindsay cohort. But never mind. What Mr. Bush meant is that General Petraeus is famous for minding his press coverage, even to the point of congratulating the ABC News anchor Charles Gibson for “kicking some butt” in the Nielsen ratings when Mr. Gibson interviewed him last month. The president, whose 65 percent disapproval rating is now just one point shy of Richard Nixon’s pre-resignation nadir, is counting on General Petraeus to be the un-Shinseki and bestow whatever credibility he has upon White House policies and pronouncements.

He is delivering, heaven knows. Like Mr. Bush, he has taken to comparing the utter stalemate in the Iraqi Parliament to “our own debates at the birth of our nation,” as if the Hamilton-Jefferson disputes were akin to the Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. He is also starting to echo the administration line that Al Qaeda is the principal villain in Iraq, a departure from the more nuanced and realistic picture of the civil-war-torn battlefront he presented to Senate questioners in his confirmation hearings in January.

Mr. Bush has become so reckless in his own denials of reality that he seems to think he can get away with saying anything as long as he has his “main man” to front for him. The president now hammers in the false litany of a “merger” between Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and what he calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq” as if he were following the Madison Avenue script declaring that “Cingular is now the new AT&T.” He doesn’t seem to know that nearly 40 other groups besides Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have adopted Al Qaeda’s name or pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden worldwide since 2003, by the count of the former C.I.A. counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer. They may follow us here well before any insurgents in Iraq do.

On Tuesday — a week after the National Intelligence Estimate warned of the resurgence of bin Laden’s Qaeda in Pakistan — Mr. Bush gave a speech in which he continued to claim that “Al Qaeda in Iraq” makes Iraq the central front in the war on terror. He mentioned Al Qaeda 95 times but Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf not once. Two days later, his own top intelligence officials refused to endorse his premise when appearing before Congress. They are all too familiar with the threats that are building to a shrill pitch this summer.

Should those threats become a reality while America continues to be bogged down in Iraq, this much is certain: It will all be the fault of President Petraeus.

Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.

The Hedge Fund Class and the French Revolution

LET’S start with the obvious. Hedge funds have created a terribly wealthy new class. Although the data is overwhelming that the mass of hedge funds have not been outperforming the market after fees, money still pours into them. This has often made their proprietors terribly rich.

Somehow, by some alchemy of brilliant tax lawyers, these people are paying long-term capital gains rates of 15 percent on their compensation (even though much of their pay is tied to trades with holding periods that last seconds). Doctors and lawyers and writers and actors pay about two times that amount.

Then there are the private equity people. They buy and sell companies, usually with other people’s money. They put up a tiny slice of their own capital and multiply it with investments from pension funds, very wealthy families and foreign government investment authorities, and they buy companies. They shake the companies up, cut spending, cut reserves and then resell them to us patsies in the public markets for huge profits. “Rip, strip and flip,” as they say. I am not saying all of them do, but some do.

The private equity people get an immense interest in the profits, vastly outstripping whatever capital they had on the line. This “carried interest,” as they call it, is then taxed at low capital-gains rates. If the private equity companies play their cards right, they use yet another loophole involving amortization of good will to eliminate any tax at all if and when they go public.

Now, all of the above appears to be legal, in that it conforms to laws made by Congress and regulations adopted by the Internal Revenue Service.

So what? The fact that the law is such and such as of July 2007 does not mean that it has to be that way in July 2008 or even in September 2007. The laws of taxation, like all laws, are political. They are not based on commandments from the Lord God Jehovah carried down on tablets from the mountaintop. They are not ordained by Solomon. They are political, hewn from the give-and-take of lobbyists, expert witnesses, law professors, economists and donors.

The law can be changed. Laws are changed all of the time in the tax arena. The oil companies used to get immense tax allowances that they don’t get any more because of political pressures. The tax rate on the last dollars of high-income people used to be above 90 percent. It’s not like that any longer. Why? Political change. It applies to the tax code as well as to all other laws.

Now, let’s think about what’s going on in America right now. We are in a war. We are apparently not winning the war. The military is desperately shy of funds, to the point where our fighting men and women are being shortchanged in training and equipment.

We also need more money for our soldiers’ pay, so their families do not have to live like church mice while their spouses are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. In these circumstances, is it fitting and morally right for the richest of the rich to be paying either very low taxes or no tax at all?

Is it right or even admissible in the human conscience that while teachers, emergency room technicians, police and firefighters are taxed at full earned-income rates — and often underpaid — that the highest-earning people in this country should pay at either very low tax rates or none at all?

Or, put it like this: do we dare send our men and women to fight for an America in which the very rich are so favored by the government that it amounts almost to an aristocracy?

Long ago, I had a European history teacher named Mrs. Enright. She explained to me that one of the causes of the French Revolution was the sad truth that the aristocracy was not taxed at all, while the workers and burghers were taxed highly. Is this our future?

Maybe the law does allow for favorable tax treatment for hedge funds if you have good enough lawyers. Maybe the law does allow for private-equity managers to receive capital-gains treatment for what is clearly money management, not risking their own capital.

But the mark of a great society is that its laws approximate morality and fairness. Is this really what we have in the tax code now? If so, fine. If not, why are we not changing it?

(Is it because of the pitifully cheap contributions of the finance industry to the two parties? If so, the politicians are much more pitiful than I had thought. Contributions in the thousands and hundreds of thousands for tax breaks in the billions? This isn’t sensible even on an old Tammany Hall basis. Contribute a penny to get a hundred dollars? What’s up with that?)

AND please, let’s not haul out that old chestnut about having tax incentives to encourage entrepreneurship. We already have enough people who want to be rich (which is another phrase for “entrepreneurship”). What we are lacking is oil and gas. Maybe we should give the oil exploration people lower taxes. What we are lacking is people willing to fight the war on terror.

Why don’t we just have a tax holiday for people who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years after they get back? This would be the tax code addressing real shortages, not an imaginary shortage of money mania (oops, I mean “entrepreneurship”).

Let’s keep it real: Congress can take notice of a mammoth inequity in taxation during wartime and make the tax on private equity and hedge funds approximate the treatment of other highly paid people — or it can continue down the road to the Bastille.

Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist. E-mail: ebiz@nytimes.com.

Bush ignores reality, sticks to 'Magic Kingdom' view of Iraq

IN THE Magic Kingdom, dreams really do come true. It's the cardinal rule of the Florida fantasyland Disney built. Equally important in the enchanted place is that everyone gets along, evil never triumphs over good, life flourishes on wishful thinking, and nobody has a bad day. If it wasn't for the heat, I could have stayed there indefinitely.

Who wouldn't want to live happily ever after in a small world where Goofy is a star and rodents are as highly regarded as royalty? In such a whimsical utopia it's all about escaping the boundaries that foolishly bind us and playing make-believe that differences can actually unite rather than divide.

In such a perfect place, where every bit of mortar, brick, and paint is designed to fan the illusion of fun and fiction, it's easy to believe life is a lark. But eventually, as is always the case, Reality-land reminds the daydreamer that Disney is only a day trip. Soon enough, bills come due and payments must be rendered. It's the cardinal rule of the real world, which runs on what is instead of what is pretend. Those who refuse to accept that reality sometimes wind up in prison or the loony bin.

But in rare circumstances, they occasionally rise to great heights as world leaders. Of course they are prone to reckless flights of fancy, as we can attest to in the United States with our current run of delusional leadership.

In the make-believe world of George W. Bush and friends, democracy should thrive where it never has before in the Middle East, given the opportunity to do so by an invading army. All Iraq needed was the military muscle of an occupying force to embrace representative government at the point of a gun.

Why it has not done so with enthusiasm is difficult for the administration to explain. In its fantasia on the Euphrates, the fiercely competing interests of the region's ethnic, religious, and cultural factions are downplayed. In its implausible scenario, Iraq would eagerly unite behind the chance to become an oil-rich ally of its liberators.

But in hindsight - and foresight - it was plainly fanciful to believe the fall of Saddam Hussein would usher in a new wave of Iraqi nationalism that would neutralize deep internal conflicts and magically transform the country into a fledgling democratic state. In reality, religion and culture matter a great deal in Iraq and toppling a despot did less to mend the country than to tear it apart.

Yet in the elaborately contrived vision of the Bush White House, if Americans would just be patient, eventually Iraqis will grow to love their occupiers, lay down their arms, and peacefully participate in land-sharing, oil profits, and power.

We are now in the fifth deadly year of a failed nation-building experiment in Iraq and George W. is still clinging to the illusion that "complete victory" in that imploding country is inevitable. With renewed fanaticism, the White House has begun spinning its old standby fairytale of Iraq's long, tortured love affair with al-Qaeda.

It's a last-ditch deception to play on the fears of an impressionable public, but the ploy worked before to sell a pre-emptive invasion. There will be no happy ending in Baghdad or the United States, President Bush warns Americans, if our soldiers retreat from the center of the war on terror. His story conveniently slides over the escalating sectarian violence roiling Iraq.

But once upon a time, when U.S. military forces got caught up in a raging civil war between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, doesn't play as well as fighting a noble crusade to save the world from al-Qaeda. It's a fable the Bush Administration has started peddling again to distract those who desperately want to believe that more than 3,600 Americans didn't die for nothing.

There's no pretending that the U.S. cost of invading Iraq has not been staggering, both in lives lost and battlefield wounds sustained. And nearly half a trillion American dollars have been spent on Operation Iraqi Freedom with little to show for it.

It seems clear to everyone but the Bush White House that Iraq is not the Magic Kingdom. It's a place where life is cheap and bad days are the norm.

And in Iraq, nightmares are not figments of the imagination but real, graphic horrors that are impossible to escape. Even the fantastic spin constructed by the administration to put the best face on the dreadful drama can't make it disappear.

That only happens in special theme parks where dreams become reality for a day in the land of happily-ever-after.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

The Cleavage Conundrum


The Washington Post’s penetrating exposé of Hillary Clinton’s “surreptitious” show of cleavage on the Senate floor last week (“To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation”) sent me trawling on the Internet, digging through sites like eBay and Hijabs-R-Us, desperate to buy a burqa.

I’d come upon the article on a very bad day, one in which I’d made the fatal error of wearing a sundress that had shrunk at the dry cleaners. Zipping up the top required a fair amount of exhaling and spousal assistance and a certain compression of body parts. All of which meant that, when I dropped my eyes down from the computer screen where I was reading the piece and turned them in the direction of my ever-contemplatable navel, I was confronted by an unmistakable bit of, well, “provocative” décolleté.

It wasn’t — I ran to check in the mirror — discernable from head-on or from the side. In fact, you pretty much had to be looking straight down to see it. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. I did not want to run the risk, as Clinton had, according to The Post’s Robin Givhan, of giving passers-by the impression that they were “catching a man with his fly unzipped.” (“Just look away!”)

I have a hard enough time making friends around the office.

And so, I spent the rest of the 90-degree day buttoned up in a warm jacket. Grumbling and muttering all the way.

You see, I’d always thought that, when you reached a certain age or a certain stage in life, you sort of bought your way out of the sexual rat race. You could be a “person of cleavage,” to borrow a Pulitzer-worthy phrase from Ruth Marcus, a Post columnist, but you could nonetheless make it through your day without having to give the matter much thought.

After all, isn’t every woman past a certain age, at a certain weight and after a certain amount of breast-feeding, a “person of cleavage?” And aren’t you allowed, at a certain time of life, to escape from the world of at least my youth, where you couldn’t walk down the street licking an ice cream cone without inviting a stream of leering commentary?

I always thought that middle age afforded some kind of protection from prying eyes and personal remarks. I thought this was the silver lining to growing up and growing older. Clearly, I was wrong.

Funny that it took another woman to drive that point home to me. Funny, too, that when I looked closely at the photo that accompanied Givhan’s article, I couldn’t see anything vaguely resembling cleavage. I guess you had to have just the right angle.

Givhan is a fashion writer, which means she spends a great deal of time in the company of professional anorexics, sunken-chested young women whose attempts at cleavage are gerry-rigged for the cameras. These are women whose images are tightly controlled, for whom every millimeter of flesh shown or unshown is a matter of careful planning and styling and aesthetic hand-wringing.

Normal women are different. Normal women — real women, dare I say? — women who have other, more important things on their minds than their looks, women who have other people on their minds than themselves, the kinds of women, in other words, whom you’d probably want to have running the country, aren’t likely to be so “perfect” in appearance. Their flesh (minus the knife) will bulge or sag; their clothes will pull and shift, showing this or that lunch stain, this or that wrinkle, this or that unbidden bit of skin. It’s a mark of how stunted we are as a society that, no matter what their age, accomplishments or stature, we still expect these women to maintain a level of image control worthy of a professional beauty.

The difference between a real female commander in chief and a woman who plays one on TV will one day prove to be that the former is not always shot at a flattering angle. She will have bad shirt days and the occasional run in a stocking.

At least, I hope she’ll be the kind of woman who would permit that to happen. I hope, at the very least, that predatory eyes won’t force her to spend a chunk of precious work time every day being packaged into an impenetrable, invulnerable suit of professionally styled armor.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist.
Bob Herbert is off today.

Try telling the truth here, so we don't die over there

By Cameron Castle

"WE are fighting them there, so we don't have to fight them here!"

There are two things inherently wrong with such statements.

One: They attacked us here, when George Bush was completely ignoring them. (See * below.) Two: This strategy implies that as long as we are willing to supply enough U.S. soldiers to walk the streets of Baghdad to get shot or blown up, we, here at home, can feel safe.

Both of those points make my mind want to blow up like a roadside bomb.

I do not want to hear our president or any supporter say those words again. It is a made-up turn of phrase designed to repel reasonable discussion and energize the diminishing support group for this administration.

Here is the Bush administration's logic:

They are so busy killing our soldiers in Iraq that they just can't find the bandwidth in their delegation of assignments to attack an airport in America.

But, if we were to bring our troops home, they would then somehow follow them back to the U.S., make it through airport and homeland security en masse and, now that our soldiers are stationed back at home ... attack us.

The more one tries to extrapolate the logic of the initial sentence of this essay, the more ludicrous it sounds.

Yet, we continue to hear it.

It is like Dick Cheney harping about "the aluminum tubes for Saddam's nuclear centrifuge machine," months after anyone tuned in enough to be, let's say, awake, knew that was a preposterous and laughable attempt at fear-mongering.

I found a muffler on the garage floor of my friend's garage. Even though it is not really a car muffler, I am sure that he is very close to creating a functioning 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE that he then is going to drive like crazy through the neighborhood, killing innocent children walking to school.

They say, "Fight them there, not here."

They say, "Aluminum tubes."

And the media play it, and enough people repeat it and believe it.

Somebody has to stand up in front of the camera and say, "What? What did you just say? That is ridiculous. That is the 20th time, Mr. Cheney, you have mentioned those tubes, and I am not going to allow you to say it again."

Like in the movie "Network," the audience would cheer.

"We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore!"

The situation over in Iraq is a tangled mess that seems nearly impossible to solve. Bush and his advisers got us into this mess and I cannot believe that I heard him say that it is up to the next president to get us out.

But until that happens, we need to try to work through this nightmare in the most intelligent and strategic way possible. We need to create some stability in that country and we need to do it with the least loss of life.

The current strategy seems to be simply, "If we kill enough of them, we will win."

The first step to finding an end to this war that George Bush chose to start is speaking honestly about it.

Purposely deceptive statements, such as "Fight 'em over there, so we don't fight 'em over here," are more destructive than the bombs ripping through the nonreinforced floorboards of our Humvees.

(* Bush failed to meet with the head of counterterrorism between the time he took office and Sept. 10, 2001. His attorney general, John Ashcroft, presented him with the most important issues facing the country, daily. Terrorism was not on the list. Bush took the month of August 2001 off, after being on the job for only six months and 20 days, making it impossible to meet daily with the head of the CIA, something his predecessor did daily for eight years — terrorist threats being No. 1 on his administration's list of issues.)

Cameron Castle is a freelance writer from Snohomish.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Dark powers, the sequel

The president's recent executive order allows the CIA to detain anyone the agency thinks is a terrorist -- or a terrorist's kid.

By Rosa Brooks

'We ... have to work the dark side, if you will," Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert, five days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "We've got to spend time in the shadows
using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies. That's the world [terrorists] operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal"

It was an odd thing to say. Throughout our history -- from John Winthrop's 1630 "City Upon a Hill" sermon to President Clinton's foreign policy speeches -- our leaders have been quick to assure us of the opposite premise: We will prevail against our enemies because (and only if) we're on the side of light, rather than the side of darkness. We will prevail not through spending "time in the shadows" but through our commitment to freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law.

Granted, previous rhetorical commitments to the side of light were at times accompanied by some pretty dark episodes. But if we didn't always manage to live up to the values we publicly embraced, our public commitments at least gave us a yardstick for measuring ourselves -- and declared to the world our willingness to be held to account when we fell short.

But in keeping with Cheney's admonition to "work the dark side," this administration has openly embraced tactics that no previous administration would have formally condoned. In prior wars, for instance, we granted the protections of the Geneva Convention to our enemies as a matter of policy, even when those enemies -- like the Viet Cong -- lacked any legal claim to the convention's protections. Yes, some U.S. soldiers abused Viet Cong prisoners anyway -- but when they did so, they violated the clear written laws and policies of the United States.

Contrast that with the Bush administration, which refused to recognize any Geneva Convention rights for the "unlawful enemy combatants" captured in the war on terror until finally ordered to do so by the Supreme Court.

Within months of Cheney's "dark side" comments, Guantanamo filled up with hooded, shackled prisoners kept in open-air cages. The Justice Department developed legal defenses of torture, we opened secret prisons in former Soviet bloc countries and the president authorized secret "enhanced" interrogation methods for "high-value" detainees.

And despite the best efforts of human rights groups, the courts and a growing number of congressional critics from both parties, Cheney's still getting his way. On July 20, President Bush issued an executive order "interpreting" Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, as applied to secret CIA detention facilities. On its face, the order bans torture -- but as an editorial in this paper noted Thursday, it does so using language so vague it appears designed to create loopholes for the CIA.

Just as bad, though barely noted by the media, last week's executive order breaks new ground by outlining the category of people who can be detained secretly and indefinitely by the CIA -- in a way that's broad enough to include a hefty chunk of the global population. Under its terms, a non-U.S. citizen may be secretly detained and interrogated by the CIA -- with no access to counsel and no independent monitoring -- as long as the CIA director believes the person "to be a member or part of or supporting Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated organizations; and likely to be in possession of information that could assist in detecting, mitigating or preventing terrorist attacks [or] in locating the senior leadership of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces."

Got that? The president of the United States just issued a public pronouncement declaring, as a matter of U.S. policy, that a single man has the authority to detain any person anyplace in the world and subject him or her to secret interrogation techniques that aren't torture but that nonetheless can't be revealed, as long as that person is thought to be a "supporter" of an organization "associated" in some unspecified way with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and as long he thinks that person might know something that could "assist" us.

But "supporter" isn't defined, nor is "associated organization." That leaves the definition broad enough to permit the secret detention of, say, a man who sympathizes ideologically with the Taliban and might have overheard something useful in a neighborhood cafe, or of a 10-year-old girl whose older brother once trained with Al Qaeda.

This isn't just hypothetical. The U.S. has already detained people based on little more. According to media reports, the CIA has even held children, including the 7- and 9-year-old sons of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In 2006, Mohammed was transferred from a secret CIA facility to Guantanamo, but the whereabouts of his children are unknown.

It's dark out there, all right.

The Sum of Some Fears


Yesterday’s scary ride in the markets wasn’t a full-fledged panic. The interest rate on 10-year U.S. government bonds — a much better indicator than stock prices of what investors think will happen to the economy — fell sharply, but even so, it ended the day higher than its level as recently as mid-May, and well above its levels earlier in the year. This tells us that investors still consider a recession, which would cause the Fed to cut interest rates, fairly unlikely.

So it wasn’t the sum of all fears. But it was the sum of some fears — three, in particular.

The first is fear of bad credit. Back in March, after another market plunge, I spun a fantasy about how a global financial meltdown could take place: people would suddenly remember that bad stuff sometimes happens, risk premiums — the extra return people demand for holding bonds that aren’t government guaranteed — would soar, and credit would dry up.

Well, some of that happened yesterday. “The risk premium on corporate bonds soared the most in five years,” reported Bloomberg News. “And debt sales faltered as investors shunned all but the safest debt.” Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com said that if another major hedge fund stumbles, “That could elicit a crisis of confidence and a global shock.”

I saw that one coming. But what’s really striking is how much of the current angst in the market is over two things that I thought had been obvious for a long time: the magnitude of the housing slump and the persistence of high oil prices.

I’ve written a lot about housing over the past couple of years, so let me just repeat the basics. Back in 2002 and 2003, low interest rates made buying a house look like a very good deal. As people piled into housing, however, prices rose — and people began assuming that they would keep on rising. So the boom fed on itself: borrowers began taking out loans they couldn’t really afford and lenders began relaxing their standards.

Eventually the bubble had to burst, and when it did it left us with prices way out of line with reality and a huge overhang of unsold properties. This in turn has caused a plunge in housing construction and a lot of mortgage defaults. And the experience of past boom-and-bust cycles in housing tells us that it should be several years at least before things return to normal.

I’ve written less about oil prices, so let me emphasize two points about the oil situation. First, we’re now in our third year of very high oil prices by historical standards — prices as high, even when adjusted for inflation, as those that prevailed in the early 1980s, after the Islamic revolution in Iran. Second, unlike the energy crises of the past, this price surge has happened even though there hasn’t been any major disruption in world oil supply.

It’s pretty clear what’s happening: economic development is colliding with geology.

The “peak oil” theorists may or may not be right in asserting that world oil production is already as high as it will ever go — anyone who really knows what’s going in Saudi Arabia’s fields, please drop me a line — but finding new oil is getting a lot harder. Meanwhile, emerging economies, especially in Asia, are burning ever more oil as they get richer. With demand soaring and supply growth sluggish at best, high prices are what you get.

So why did people seem so shocked by a few more bad housing and oil numbers? What I guess I didn’t realize was how deep the denial still runs.

Over the last couple of years a peculiar conviction emerged among some analysts — mainly, for some reason, among those with right-wing political leanings — that the housing bubble was a myth and that the real bubble was in oil prices.

Each new peak in oil prices was met with declarations that it was all speculation — like the 2005 prediction by Steve Forbes that oil was in a “huge bubble” and that its price would be down to $35 or $40 a barrel within a year. And on the other side, as recently as this January, National Review’s Buzzcharts column declared that we were having a “pop-free” housing slowdown.

I didn’t think many people believed this stuff, but the market’s sudden freakout over housing and oil suggests that I was wrong.

Anyway, now reality is settling in. And there’s one more thing worth mentioning: the economic expansion that began in 2001, while it has been great for corporate profits, has yet to produce any significant gains for ordinary working Americans. And now it looks as if it never will.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

We Can Afford Universal Health Care

By Jane Bryant Quinn

July 30, 2007 issue - Prepare to be terrorized, shocked, scared out of your wits. No, not by jihadists or Dementors (you do read "Harry Potter," right?), but by the evil threat of ... universal health insurance! The more the presidential candidates talk it up, the wilder the warnings against it. Cover everyone? Wreck America? Do you know what care would cost?

But the public knows the American health-care system is breaking up, no matter how much its backers cheer. For starters, there's the 46 million uninsured (projected to rise to 56 million in five years). There's the shock of the underinsured when they learn that their policies exclude a costly procedure they need—forcing them to run up an unpayable bill, beg for charity care or go without. And think of the millions who plan their lives around health insurance—where to work, whether to start a business, when to retire, even whom to marry (there are "benefits" marriages, just as there are "green card" marriages). It shocks the conscience that those who profit from this mess tell us to suck it up.

I do agree that we can't afford to cover everyone under the crazy health-care system we have now. We can't even afford all the people we're covering already, which is why we keep booting them out. But we have an excellent template for universal care right under our noses: good old American Medicare. When you think of reform, think "Medicare for all."

Medicare is what's known as a single-payer system. In the U.S. version, the government pays for health care delivered in the private sector. There's one set of comprehensive benefits, with premiums, co-pays and streamlined paperwork. You can buy private coverage for the extra costs.

Health insurers hate this model, which would end their gravy train. So they're trying to tar single-payer as a kind of medical Voldemort, ready to destroy. Here are some of their canards, and my replies:

Universal coverage costs too much. No—what costs too much is the system we have now. In 2005, the United States spent 15.3 percent of gross domestic product on health care for only some of us. France spent 10.7 percent and covered everyone. The French comparison is good because its system works very much like Medicare-for-all. The other European countries, all with universal coverage, spent less than France.

Why are U.S. costs off the charts? Partly because we don't bargain with providers for a universal price. Partly because of the money that health insurers spend on marketing and screening people in or out. Medicare's overhead is just 1.5 percent, compared with 13 to 16 percent in the private sector. John Sheils of the Lewin Group, a health-care consultant, says that the health insurers' overhead came to $120 billion last year, of which $40 billion was profit. By comparison, it would cost $54 billion to cover all the uninsured.

Eeeek, your taxes would go up! Maybe not, if Sheils is right. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office have testified that the United States could insure everyone for the money we're spending now. But even if taxes did rise, you might still come out ahead. That's because your Medicare plan would probably cost less than the medical bills and premiums you're paying now.

We get world-class care; don't tamper with it. On average, we don't. International surveys put France in first place. On almost all measures of health care and mortality, we lag behind Canada and Europe. Many individuals do indeed get superior care, but so do people in single-payer countries, and at lower cost.

They have long waiting times. No advanced country has waiting periods for emergency surgery or procedures that are urgently needed. The United States has shorter waits than Canada and England for elective surgery. Still, queues are developing here, at the doctor's door. In a study of five developed countries, the Commonwealth Fund looked at how many sick adults had to wait six days or more for an appointment. By this measure, only Canada's record was worse than ours. But waits depend on how well a system is funded, not with the fact that it's single-payer. Many countries that cover everyone, including France, Belgium, Germany and Japan, report no issue with waits at all.

There's no problem; people get care even if they're uninsured. They don't. They get emergency treatment but little else. As a group, the uninsured are sicker, suffer more from chronic disease and rarely get rehabilitation after an injury or surgery. They also die sooner—knowing that, with insurance, they might have lived.

Right now, Congress is trying to bring 3.3 million uninsured children into the State Children's Health Insurance Program. President George W. Bush says he'll veto the expansion as "the wrong path for our nation." He objects to "government-run health care" (like Medicare?) and says that SCHIP "deprives Americans of ... choice" (like the choice to go uninsured?). Buzzwords like "government run" are supposed to summon up monsters like "socialized medicine" that apparently still lurk under our beds. If these terror tactics work, prepare for another 46 million uninsured.

There's no vacation for our troops in Iraq

Joseph L. Galloway | McClatchy Newspapers

We're hard upon the dog days of August. Members of the U.S. Congress and the Iraqi parliament will soon slither away to the shade of cooler rocks, and President Bush will no doubt head off to Crawford to take his frustrations out on some brush with a chainsaw.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the 60,000 American combat troops who daily patrol the most dangerous streets and roads in the world will carry on fighting, dying and bleeding in the broiling sun where temperatures nudge the 130-degree mark and 40 pounds of body armor and Kevlar helmet plus weapon and ammunition weigh more with every step an Infantryman takes.

The politicians in Washington and Baghdad will take their summer breaks, happy to postpone any further thought of Iraq at least until September, when the U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus makes his progress report on the American troop surge to Congress, as though that may make some difference in how much longer this agony is going to continue.

Has anyone noticed that virtually every one of the players, political and military, have already begun chipping away at the September milestone? That, shock and horror, they begin to talk of the urgent need for American troops to remain in Iraq at the present level of 160,000 or maybe even more until 2009?

The Democrats in Congress — most of whom seem to be running for president — seem content to await further developments. The Republicans, especially those up for re-election in 2008, are wearing out the knees of their $4,000 suits praying for some miracle to remove Iraq and assorted other administration disasters from the voters' minds. The President has gone back to talking about his impossible dream of "victory" in a war that can't be won with the tools he's applying in the place where he's applying them.

The Iraqis bide their time and dream, as ever, sweet dreams of bloody revenge and communal slaughter and laugh at the to-do list of impossible American benchmarks. We talk of Iraqi "national" goals while the Iraqis talk of old, dark tribal and sectarian goals and we pass in the night like so many camel caravans.

The foreign jihadist suicide bombers flow in to take their turns at the wheel of a cargo of plastic explosives, old artillery shells and scrap iron to murder the innocents who've gone to market or the bus station or even to school. The shadowy militias of the Shia — whom we've empowered by visiting the blessings of democracy on a feudal society — kidnap and kill their Sunni neighbors and, for good measure, daily lob mortar shells into the American Green Zone in Baghdad.

Among them all, targets for all, American troops move in a desperate, hopeless attempt to quiet the slaughter and give peace a chance in a place where it has none. Day by day, the toll of those killed and wounded rises like the temperatures in August, and for what?

There aren't enough American troops at their home bases, resting, refitting and re-training after their second or third combat tours, to replace those now in Iraq and Afghanistan come next spring. Not to worry. We can just extend their new 15-month-long tour of duty in Hell to 18 months or maybe even 24 months. After all they're volunteers — the half a percent of Americans who serve and sacrifice while the rest of us obey a President's orders and go shopping and lay about the splendid beaches in August.

It's their blood that stains the hands of politicians who are vacationing when they should be working to bring this insane war to an end, bring those American troops home from Iraq and redirect their energies toward Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan where the real enemy, the real al Qaida, plots real attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

There's no vacation break for our troops this August. Only another day, another week, another month on another patrol on an impossible mission in a war that their commander-in-chief and his men expected to be over, and indeed declared over, four years and four months ago.

"Mission Accomplished," that banner draped across an aircraft carrier crowed. A "cakewalk," one of them predicted.

Have a nice vacation all you politicians, and by the way, keep those bloody hands hidden. You wouldn't want to frighten the children on the beach.

Change on the Cheap



John and Elizabeth Edwards were sitting at a camera-friendly spot along a coastal creek in South Carolina the other day, talking with environmentalists about global warming, when Mrs. Edwards mentioned that she was prepared to give up tangerines.

Much of the next hour was devoted to reporters’ attempts to clarify this matter.

John Edwards has a plan to cap carbon emissions, while allowing businesses to buy the right to go over their quotas. Many people regard this as the most efficient and politically salable way to reduce greenhouse gases. But they usually acknowledge that it would make some products — like small orange fruits that have to be transported a long way to get to market — more expensive.

“I live in North Carolina; I’ll probably never eat a tangerine again,” Elizabeth said.

To be utterly honest, the first reaction to this on the part of many listeners was that the Edwards family could afford to continue eating tangerines even if they became more costly than a two-family house in Des Moines. But we digress.

Was Mr. Edwards prepared to admit that the public might have to give up tangerines in order to keep the polar bears from drowning in the Arctic?

“I’d have to think about it,” he said during a press conference later that day. This was actually his second answer, the first being a short, utterly unrelated disquisition on food safety inspections. The Edwards campaign has devoted immense effort to beating back the image of their candidate as The Man With the Expensive Haircut. They don’t want to make August the month for The Man Who Would Take Away America’s Citrus Fruit.

Still this was, in its little tiny way, an integrity litmus test. Edwards is supposed to be the candidate with the “big, bold positions.” Asked for his top three priorities at a meeting with steelworkers here, he named four: end the war in Iraq; achieve universal health care; end global warming; end poverty and inequality in America.

Can you have this kind of to-do list without a price tag? Nobody expects politicians to dwell on the down side of their ideas. You just want some assurance that there’s an intellectual honesty at work, and that deep down, a candidate appreciates how tough big, bold change — or even small wishy-washy change — will be.

And we want to think big and bold. It’s early in the presidential campaign; we should be savoring possibilities. There will be plenty of time later to sink into depression and decide that the best we can hope for is someone electable who will refrain from invading inappropriate countries.

On tangerine day, the first stop of the Edwards campaign had been Kitty’s Soul Food in Charleston, where some people waited two or more hours just to see the candidate and shake his hand. The early arrivals included P. J. Veber, whose husband dropped her off on his way to work at 8:30, and Katharine Bloder, a teacher who just wanted to “ask him to get us out of Iraq.” Mitch and Mandy Norrell drove 176 miles from the small town of Lancaster where they have a joint law practice. The Norrells, like Edwards, were the products of striving families of textile workers. Mandy specializes in bankruptcy law, and “about a third of my filings are people who have to choose between mortgage and medical bills. That’s why I love John Edwards. He gets it.”

All the serious presidential contenders have supporters like this. The best candidate is going to be the one who comes closest to deserving them.

Which brings us back to the question of whether John Edwards is capable of admitting that his plan to end global warming — to save the planet — might require some American sacrifice on, say, the tangerine front.

“It does have a cost impact. No question about it,” the candidate said at the end of the day, as his car bounced along to the airport.

Elizabeth Edwards joined in, pointing out that if produce that was shipped and trucked from far away got more expensive it would create incentives for people to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. “I think that’s a good thing,” she said

“And she likes tangerines,” her husband laughed.

And the sun shone brightly on the tarmac as John Edwards, having said something candid, flew off into the horizon.

Yesterday morning, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign called to clarify his position. The global warming program would not require families to pay more for everyday products, he said. “We are optimistic we will not have to raise the price of tangerines.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Brothers and Sisters


W.’s odyssey is one of the oddest in history, a black sheep who leapt above expectations and then crashed back down. It must be a crushing burden for President Bush to have wrought the opposite of what he intended in so many profound ways.

For me, one of the most amazing reversals brought about by W.’s reign of error is this: He may have turned my sister into a Democrat.

As a girl, Peggy shivered in the bitter cold through a coatless John Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and when she saw W. “debone” Ann Richards in a Texas debate in ’94, she thought: “This guy will be the greatest president since J.F.K. He’s so good looking, bright. He’s got everything going for him.”

She volunteered at the Republican convention in 2000, toting a “W Stands for Women” sign. I snuck her into the press pen at a breakfast with George and Laura and had to tackle her when, to the consternation of reporters, she began cheering as if at a Redskins game. She flew to West Virginia to work a phone bank for W. She sat up all night election night (in vain). She cut back on Christmas presents to give him money, and proudly displayed pictures of herself at fund-raisers, one with W., one with Dick Cheney. She canceled her Times subscription when I wrote about the rigged buildup to the Iraq war, and called “Bushworld” (my chronicle of W.’s warped reality) “that silly book.”

She once told a reporter that she couldn’t totally choose W. over me because she knew if she were dying “he won’t come and hold my hand, and I know Maureen will.” So imagine my surprise when she started talking about voting for Barack Obama or John Edwards, if they stop “pussyfooting” around Hillary.

“W.’s loyalty to Cheney has hurt his presidency,” she says sadly. “When Cheney picked himself as vice president, W. should have said, ‘Bug off.’ He could have made his own banquet instead of choosing leftovers. If only he had dialed his father or listened to Powell instead of Cheney and Rumsfeld on Iraq. Not only has W. brought himself down, he’s brought down John McCain, who I wanted to support but can’t because of the war.

“I grew up in the shadow of Walter Reed and was used to seeing servicemen without limbs. But recently after watching a special on soldiers coming home from Iraq with brain injuries, I picked up a picture of my four nephews and I know how I would feel if they had fought in Iraq and came home without limbs or in body bags.

“We are spending billions on this war, and yet veterans and their children are practically getting nothing. I’m no longer a Republican. I’m an American, and I will cast my vote for the person I believe will start the process to get out of Iraq — unless, of course, it’s Hillary.”

I knew my family’s cocky red state of mind had changed when one of my O’Reillyesque brothers used a mocking nickname for W., and expressed disgust about Iraq.

Another, Kevin, praises W. on the economy but not on immigration, noting that our father, who came from Ireland in steerage at 19, had to fight in World War I to win citizenship: “The secret key to the puzzle is the word illegal.”

He supports W. on Iraq but agrees that “one of the president’s greatest assets, loyalty, has turned into his Achilles’ heel. When I started my sales career, an older rep advised me: ‘Stay away from the mean drinkers in the bar. They start the fight but someone else always gets hit.’ George Bush is getting hit because he won’t move away from ‘the mean drinkers.’ ”

“The word neocon bothered me because I have an aversion to zealotry,” he continues. “An uncomfortable visual of Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld manning the Situation Room in a scene reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove and Gen. Buck Turgidson — ‘No more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops, uh, depending on the breaks’ — began to haunt me. How could we have underestimated the postwar situation in Iraq so badly? Is our intelligence that poor, or did the people making the decisions even care?

“The Republicans got exactly what they deserved in the last election. They fell on the same sword they had brilliantly wielded to gain power. Tom DeLay was as corrupt as Jim Wright, Dennis Hastert as inept as Tom Foley.”

Even in his demoralized state, Kevin warns Democrats: “Memo to Nancy and Harry — a default blind date to the prom is not the basis for a long-term relationship.”

My sister still has her picture of W. up. But Cheney is face down in the laundry room.

Thomas L. Friedman is off today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A War the Pentagon Can’t Win

AS the National Intelligence Estimate issued last week confirms, a terrorist haven has emerged in Pakistan’s tribal belt. And as recent revelations about an aborted 2005 operation in the region demonstrate, our Defense Department is chronically unable to conduct the sort of missions that would disrupt terrorist activity there and in similarly ungoverned places.

These are perhaps the most important kind of counterterrorism missions. Because the Pentagon has shown that it cannot carry them out, the Central Intelligence Agency should be given the chance to perform them.

The story of the scrubbed 2005 operation illustrates why the Pentagon is incapable of doing what needs to be done. The preparations for the mission to capture or kill Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to have unfolded like others before it. Intelligence was received about a high-level Qaeda meeting. A small snatch or kill operation was to be carried out by Special Operations. But military brass added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work.

At that point, as one senior intelligence official told this newspaper, “The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,” and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.

To those of us who worked in counterterrorism in the 1990s, this sequence of events feels like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Similar decision-making led to the failure to mount critical operations on at least three occasions during the Clinton administration. The most notable was the effort to get the Pentagon to conduct a ground operation against the Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan beginning in late 1998.

The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, senior military officials declared such a mission “would be Desert One,” referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.

But the Zawahri stand-down is even more telling. It occurred four years into the global war on terrorism, when the basic questions about the nature of the Qaeda threat had been settled and the nation, in the oft-intoned phrase of the Bush administration, was said to be always “on the offensive.” Moreover, it happened on the watch of Donald Rumsfeld, the most dominating secretary of defense in memory, who overruled military planners routinely as he micromanaged the deployment to Iraq. Perhaps his attention was focused on the growing mess in that country, but even Mr. Rumsfeld, who viewed special forces as the keystone of a transformed 21st-century American military, could not keep on track a mission that would have stunned Al Qaeda.

Highly mobile, highly lethal counterterrorism operations are clearly possible. Israel scored victories with raids in Entebbe, Uganda; Tunis; and Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1970s and 1980s. Other countries, like Germany, have carried out similar operations, like the Mogadishu raid of 1977 that freed passengers on a Lufthansa plane hijacked to Somalia by the Baader-Meinhof gang. An operation in Pakistan’s tribal areas — setting aside the issue of whether this could politically upend President Pervez Musharraf — would be extremely difficult. But it is hard to believe it is impossible.

Since the Desert One debacle, the United States has poured vast resources into its special forces. The Special Operations Command budget has nearly doubled since 2001, and it is expected to grow 150 percent over five years. The command includes more than 50,000 troops, the equivalent of three or four infantry divisions. The best of them — Delta Force and the Navy Seals — have developed into highly skilled unconventional forces.

Yet fear of failure and casualties has meant they are seldom, if ever, deployed for such counterterrorism operations. In theory, the best place in the government for small-scale missions to be planned and executed is the Pentagon, because snatch or kill teams should be plugged into a larger military support team. The reality, unfortunately, is that they can’t be plugged in without being bogged down.

Senior officers, trained to understand the American way of war to mean overwhelming force and superior firepower, view special ops outside a war zone as something to be avoided at all cost. This has been true even in lower-risk efforts to capture war criminals in the Balkans. The record demonstrates that our military is simply incapable of adapting its culture to embrace such operations. The Pentagon should just stop planning for missions it won’t launch.

While the C.I.A. doesn’t have an unblemished record, its counterterrorism operations have shown more promise than the Pentagon’s. The agency has already had some successes operating in ungoverned spaces. In the first reported attack in such a region, a C.I.A.-operated Predator drone launched a missile that killed a Qaeda lieutenant in Yemen in 2002. Since then the Predator has been used to strike Al Qaeda at least eight times, although with limited success. At least initially, the trigger in these attacks was pulled by C.I.A. operatives, not soldiers.

The record of a small, vulnerable C.I.A. paramilitary force in Afghanistan in 2001 was more impressive. The group’s audacious reconnaissance work and direction of local warlords in action against the Taliban provided the most significant battlefield success of the post-9/11 period. Without this risky, cold-start intervention, the American troops that followed the agency into Afghanistan would have gone in blind and worried more about their flanks than about Al Qaeda.

The agency’s history of ill-conceived covert political operations from the 1950s through the 1970s may cause some to worry. That agency, however, no longer exists. Congressional hearings and legislation, as well as fear of casualties, have given the clandestine service its own case of risk aversion, though it seems less severe than the Pentagon’s.

We have failed in Pakistan, and are failing in Iraq, to achieve a primary aim of our counterterrorism policy: preventing Al Qaeda from acquiring safe havens. Our military has shown itself to be a poor instrument for fighting terrorism, and there are now thousands of jihadists who weren’t in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion. When the inevitable American drawdown occurs, we will need a way to keep the terrorists off balance in Iraq and to disrupt the conveyor belt that is already moving fighters to places like Lebanon, North Africa and Europe.

With new leadership at both the C.I.A. and the Defense Department, the Bush administration has a chance to fix this problem. The missing ingredient for success with the most important kind of counterterrorism missions is not courage or technical capacity — our uniformed personnel are unsurpassed — but organizational culture. With a small fraction of the resources that Pentagon has for special operations, the C.I.A. could develop the paramilitary capacity we profoundly need.

Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, were members of the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The French Connections


There was a time when everyone thought that the Europeans and the Japanese were better at business than we were. In the early 1990s airport bookstores were full of volumes with samurai warriors on their covers, promising to teach you the secrets of Japanese business success. Lester Thurow’s 1992 book, “Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America,” which spent more than six months on the Times best-seller list, predicted that Europe would win.

Then it all changed, and American despondency turned into triumphalism. Partly this was because the Clinton boom contrasted so sharply with Europe’s slow growth and Japan’s decade-long slump. Above all, however, our new confidence reflected the rise of the Internet. Jacques Chirac complained that the Internet was an “Anglo-Saxon network,” and he had a point — France, like most of Europe except Scandinavia, lagged far behind the U.S. when it came to getting online.

What most Americans probably don’t know is that over the last few years the situation has totally reversed. As the Internet has evolved — in particular, as dial-up has given way to broadband connections using DSL, cable and other high-speed links — it’s the United States that has fallen behind.

The numbers are startling. As recently as 2001, the percentage of the population with high-speed access in Japan and Germany was only half that in the United States. In France it was less than a quarter. By the end of 2006, however, all three countries had more broadband subscribers per 100 people than we did.

Even more striking is the fact that our “high speed” connections are painfully slow by other countries’ standards. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, French broadband connections are, on average, more than three times as fast as ours. Japanese connections are a dozen times faster. Oh, and access is much cheaper in both countries than it is here.

As a result, we’re lagging in new applications of the Internet that depend on high speed. France leads the world in the number of subscribers to Internet TV; the United States isn’t even in the top 10.

What happened to America’s Internet lead? Bad policy. Specifically, the United States made the same mistake in Internet policy that California made in energy policy: it forgot — or was persuaded by special interests to ignore — the reality that sometimes you can’t have effective market competition without effective regulation.

You see, the world may look flat once you’re in cyberspace — but to get there you need to go through a narrow passageway, down your phone line or down your TV cable. And if the companies controlling these passageways can behave like the robber barons of yore, levying whatever tolls they like on those who pass by, commerce suffers.

America’s Internet flourished in the dial-up era because federal regulators didn’t let that happen — they forced local phone companies to act as common carriers, allowing competing service providers to use their lines. Clinton administration officials, including Al Gore and Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, tried to ensure that this open competition would continue — but the telecommunications giants sabotaged their efforts, while The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ridiculed them as people with the minds of French bureaucrats.

And when the Bush administration put Michael Powell in charge of the F.C.C., the digital robber barons were basically set free to do whatever they liked. As a result, there’s little competition in U.S. broadband — if you’re lucky, you have a choice between the services offered by the local cable monopoly and the local phone monopoly. The price is high and the service is poor, but there’s nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, as a recent article in Business Week explains, the real French bureaucrats used judicious regulation to promote competition. As a result, French consumers get to choose from a variety of service providers who offer reasonably priced Internet access that’s much faster than anything I can get, and comes with free voice calls, TV and Wi-Fi.

It’s too early to say how much harm the broadband lag will do to the U.S. economy as a whole. But it’s interesting to learn that health care isn’t the only area in which the French, who can take a pragmatic approach because they aren’t prisoners of free-market ideology, simply do things better.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Impeach George Bush to stop war lies, deaths


July 22, 2007

I am walking in Rosedale on this day early in the week while I wait for the funeral of Army soldier Le Ron Wilson, who died at age 18 in Iraq. He was 17 1/2 when he had his mother sign his enlistment papers at the Jamaica recruiting office. If she didn't, he told her, he would just wait for the months to his 18th birthday and go in anyway. He graduated from Thomas Edison High School at noon one day in May. He left right away for basic training. He came home in a box last weekend. He had a fast war.

The war was there to take his life because George Bush started it with bold-faced lies.

He got this lovely kid killed by lying.

If Bush did this in Queens, he would be in court on Queens Boulevard on a murder charge.

He did it in the White House, and it is appropriate, and mandatory for the good of the nation, that impeachment proceedings be started. You can't live with lies. You can't permit them to be passed on as if it is the thing to do.

Yesterday, Bush didn't run the country for a couple of hours while he had a colonoscopy at the presidential retreat, Camp David. He came out of it all right. He should now take his good health and go home, quit a job he doesn't have a clue as to how to do.

The other day, Bush said he couldn't understand why in the world would some people say that millions of Americans have no health insurance. "Why, all they have to do is go to the emergency room," he said.

Said this with the smirk, the insolent smug, contemptuous way he speaks to citizens.

People, particularly these politicians, these frightened beggars in suits, seem petrified about impeachment. It could wreck the country. Ridiculous. I've been around this business twice and we're all still here and no politician was even injured. Richard Nixon lied during a war and helped get some 58,500 Americans killed and many escaped by hanging onto helicopter skids. Nixon left peacefully. Mike Mansfield of Montana, the Democratic Senate majority leader, said on television that the Senate impeachment trial of Nixon would be televised and there would be no immunity. That meant Nixon would have to face the country under oath and if he lied he would go to prison. He knew he was finished as he heard this. Mansfield said no more. He got up and left. Barbara Walters, on the "Today" show, said, "He doesn't say very much, does he?"

The second time the subject was Bill Clinton for illegal holding in the hallway.

This time, we have dead bodies involved. Consider what is accomplished by the simple power of the word impeachment. If you read these broken-down news writers or terrified politicians claiming that an impeachment would leave the nation in pieces, don't give a moment to them.

It opens with the appointing of an investigator to report to the House on evidence that calls for impeachment. He could bring witnesses forward. That would be all you'd need. Here in the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon came John Dean. His history shows how far down the honesty and honor of this country has gone. Dean was the White House counsel. Richard Nixon, at his worst, never told him not to appear or to remain silent in front of the Congress. Dean went on and did his best to fill prisons. After that came Alexander Butterfield, a nobody. All he had to say was that the White House had a taping system that caught all the conversations in the White House. Any of them not on tape were erased by a participant.

The same is desperately needed now. Curious, following the words, an investigator - the mind here sees George Mitchell and Warren Rudman, and you name me better - can slap a hand on the slitherers and sneaks who have kept us in war for five years and who use failing generals to beg for more time and more lives of our young. A final word in September? Two years more, the generals and Bush people say.

Say impeachment and you'll get your troops home.

As I am walking in Rosedale, on these streets sparkling with sun, I remember the places I have been in the cold rain for the deaths of our young in this war. Rosedale now, Washington Heights before, and the South Bronx, and Bay Shore and Hauppauge and too many other places around here.

And in Washington we had this Bush, and it is implausible to have anyone who is this dumb running anything, smirking at his country. He sure doesn't mind copying those people. On his PBS television show the other night, Bill Moyers said he was amazed at Sara Taylor of the White House staff saying that she didn't have to talk to a congressional committee because George Bush had ordered her not to. "I took an oath to uphold the president," she said.

That president had been in charge of a government that kidnapped, tortured, lied, intercepted mail and calls, all in the name of opposing people who are willing to kill themselves right in front of you. You have to get rid of a government like this. Ask anybody in Rosedale, where Le Ron Wilson wanted to live his young life. His grave speaks out that this is an impeachable offense.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Did Have Sexual Relations With That Woman

IT’S not just the resurgence of Al Qaeda that is taking us back full circle to the fateful first summer of the Bush presidency. It’s the hot sweat emanating from Washington. Once again the capital is titillated by a scandal featuring a member of Congress, a woman who is not his wife and a rumor of crime. Gary Condit, the former Democratic congressman from California, has passed the torch of below-the-Beltway sleaziness to David Vitter, an incumbent (as of Friday) Republican senator from Louisiana.

Mr. Vitter briefly faced the press to explain his “very serious sin,” accompanied by a wife who might double for the former Mrs. Jim McGreevey. He had no choice once snoops hired by the avenging pornographer Larry Flynt unearthed his number in the voluminous phone records of the so-called D.C. Madam, now the subject of a still-young criminal investigation. Newspapers back home also linked the senator to a defunct New Orleans brothel, a charge Mr. Vitter denies. That brothel’s former madam, while insisting he had been a client, was one of his few defenders last week. “Just because people visit a whorehouse doesn’t make them a bad person,” she helpfully told the Baton Rouge paper, The Advocate.

Mr. Vitter is not known for being so forgiving a soul when it comes to others’ transgressions. Even more than Mr. Condit, who once co-sponsored a bill calling for the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, Mr. Vitter is a holier-than-thou family-values panderer. He recruited his preteen children for speaking roles in his campaign ads and, terrorism notwithstanding, declared that there is no “more important” issue facing America than altering the Constitution to defend marriage.

But hypocrisy is a hardy bipartisan perennial on Capitol Hill, and hardly news. This scandal may leave a more enduring imprint. It comes with a momentous pedigree. Mr. Vitter first went to Washington as a young congressman in 1999, to replace Robert Livingston, the Republican leader who had been anointed to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. Mr. Livingston’s seat had abruptly become vacant after none other than Mr. Flynt outed him for committing adultery. Since we now know that Mr. Gingrich was also practicing infidelity back then — while leading the Clinton impeachment crusade, no less — the Vitter scandal can be seen as the culmination of an inexorable sea change in his party.

And it is President Bush who will be left holding the bag in history. As the new National Intelligence Estimate confirms the failure of the war against Al Qaeda and each day of quagmire signals the failure of the war in Iraq, so the case of the fallen senator from the Big Easy can stand as an epitaph for a third lost war in our 43rd president’s legacy: the war against sex.

During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush and his running mate made a point of promising to “set an example for our children” and to “uphold the honor and the dignity of the office.” They didn’t just mean that there would be no more extramarital sex in the White House. As a matter of public policy, abstinence was in; abortion rights, family planning and homosexuality were out. Mr. Bush’s Federal Communications Commission stood ready to punish the networks for four-letter words and wardrobe malfunctions. The surgeon general was forbidden to mention condoms or the morning-after pill.

To say that this ambitious program has fared no better than the creation of an Iraqi unity government is an understatement. The sole lasting benchmark to be met in the Bush White House’s antisex agenda was the elevation of anti-Roe judges to the federal bench. Otherwise, Sodom and Gomorrah are thrashing the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition day and night.

The one federal official caught on the D.C. Madam’s phone logs ahead of Mr. Vitter, Randall Tobias, was a Bush State Department official whose tasks had included enforcing a prostitution ban on countries receiving AIDS aid. Last month Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network succeeded in getting a federal court to throw out the F.C.C.’s “indecency” fines. Polls show unchanging majority support for abortion rights and growing support for legal recognition of same-sex unions exemplified by Mary Cheney’s.

Most amazing is the cultural makeover of Mr. Bush’s own party. The G.O.P. that began the century in the thrall of Rick Santorum, Bill Frist and George Allen has become the brand of Mark Foley and Mr. Vitter. Not a single Republican heavyweight showed up at Jerry Falwell’s funeral. Younger evangelical Christians, who may care more about protecting the environment than policing gay people, are up for political grabs.

Nowhere is this cultural revolution more visible — or more fun to watch — than in the G.O.P. campaign for the White House. Forty years late, the party establishment is finally having its own middle-aged version of the summer of love, and it’s a trip. The co-chairman of John McCain’s campaign in Florida has been charged with trying to solicit gay sex from a plainclothes police officer. Over at YouTube, viewers are flocking to a popular new mock-music video in which “Obama Girl” taunts her rival: “Giuliani Girl, you stop your fussin’/ At least Obama didn’t marry his cousin.”

As Margery Eagan, a columnist at The Boston Herald, has observed, even the front-runners’ wives are getting into the act, trying to one-up one another with displays of what she described as their “ample and aging” cleavage. The décolletage primary was kicked off early this year by the irrepressible Judith Giuliani, who posed for Harper’s Bazaar giving her husband a passionate kiss. “I’ve always liked strong, macho men,” she said. This was before we learned she had married two such men, not one, before catching the eye of America’s Mayor at Club Macanudo, an Upper East Side cigar bar, while he was still married to someone else.

Whatever the ultimate fate of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign, it is the straw that stirs the bubbling brew that is the post-Bush Republican Party. The idea that a thrice-married, pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights candidate is holding on as front-runner is understandably driving the G.O.P.’s increasingly marginalized cultural warriors insane. Not without reason do they fear that he is in the vanguard of a new Republican age of Addams-family values and moral relativism. Once a truculent law-and-order absolutist, Mr. Giuliani has even shrugged off the cocaine charges leveled against his departed South Carolina campaign chairman, the state treasurer Thomas Ravenel, as a “highly personal” matter.

The religious right’s own favorite sons, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, are no more likely to get the nomination than Ron Paul or, for that matter, RuPaul. The party’s faith-based oligarchs are getting frantic. Disregarding a warning from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who said in March that he didn’t consider Fred Thompson a Christian, they desperately started fixating on the former Tennessee senator as their savior. When it was reported this month that Mr. Thompson had worked as a lobbyist for an abortion rights organization in the 1990s, they credulously bought his denials and his spokesman’s reassurance that “there’s no documents to prove it, no billing records.” Last week The New York Times found the billing records.

No one is stepping more boldly into this values vacuum than Mitt Romney. In contrast to Mr. Giuliani, the former Massachusetts governor has not only disowned his past as a social liberal but is also running as a paragon of moral rectitude. He is even embracing one of the more costly failed Bush sex initiatives, abstinence education, just as states are abandoning it for being ineffective. He never stops reminding voters that he is the only top-tier candidate still married to his first wife.

In a Web video strikingly reminiscent of the Vitter campaign ads, the entire multigenerational Romney brood gathers round to enact their wholesome Christmas festivities. Last week Mr. Romney unveiled a new commercial decrying American culture as “a cesspool of violence, and sex, and drugs, and indolence, and perversions.” Unlike Mr. Giuliani, you see, he gets along with his children, and unlike Mr. Thompson, he has never been in bed with the perverted Hollywood responsible for the likes of “Law & Order.”

There are those who argue Mr. Romney’s campaign is doomed because he is a Mormon, a religion some voters regard almost as suspiciously as Scientology, but two other problems may prove more threatening to his candidacy. The first is that in American public life piety always goeth before a fall. There had better not be any skeletons in his closet. Already Senator Brownback has accused Mr. Romney of pushing hard-core pornography because of his close association with (and large campaign contributions from) the Marriott family, whose hotel chain has prospered mightily from its X-rated video menu.

The other problem is more profound: Mr. Romney is swimming against a swift tide of history in both culture and politics. Just as the neocons had their moment in power in the Bush era and squandered it in Iraq, so the values crowd was handed its moment of ascendancy and imploded in debacles ranging from Terri Schiavo to Ted Haggard to David Vitter. By this point it’s safe to say that even some Republican primary voters are sick enough of their party’s preacher politicians that they’d consider hitting a cigar bar or two with Judith Giuliani.

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