Sunday, December 31, 2006

Back home again in Indiana

I’m back from a short holiday trip home to Liberty, Indiana. Liberty is a small town close to the Ohio state line. It is located in Union County – one of the smallest counties (in population) in the United States. It’s the community where I grew up.

The community is rural – farming is still predominant but the number of farmers is declining. There used to be a greater variety of small industry than there is now. Walmarts in surrounding towns are putting a real crunch on local merchants. The railroad still runs through Liberty but the train doesn’t stop there anymore. It’s a lot like small towns and rural communities across the United States.

Despite ups and downs of the area’s economy, the residents remain proud of their little community. The Union County Courthouse, located in the center of Liberty, is quite a magnificent work of architecture. Across the street from the courthouse is the Blue Heron Art Gallery featuring a variety of works including some by local artists. Whitewater State Park is in Union County just south of Liberty and the Brookville Reservoir is south and west of Whitewater. Each provides ample outdoor recreation for locals and tourists alike.

Students from nearby Miami University have worked with local resident photographing the community and preserving stories. The final product is called Portrait of Liberty and can be found here. Check it out and get a feel for small town America.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

How realistic is the reality of Realism?

With the collapse of Bush foreign policy in Iraq a vacuum has been created. Liberal Internationalism is not an option under this White House. Vice President Cheney and the Neo-Conservatives are rushing to patch the holes their sinking ship and may succeed. If they don’t then that leaves Realism

Can the Realist school of foreign policy making a comeback? James Baker, former Secretary of State and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, is certainly a member and proponent of that camp. What is Realism? Here is a short definition published before on this blog:
The Realists believe the United States should only do what is in its interest. They do not believe in values, only interests. There are no friends, only temporary allies. Thus support for Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran, which he started, then turning around and going to war against Saddam Hussein three years later when he invades Kuwait, then leaving him in power when he is defeated in that war, then encouraging the Iraqi people to rise up against him, and then doing absolutely nothing to support the Iraqi people when he crushes this rebellion is no contradiction to the Realists but simple adjustments to policy made to maintain the balance of power which is perceived to be in American interests.
Is this desirable as an alternative to the current policies? Timothy Garton Ash thinks not. Here is his piece in today’s Guardian:
In world politics, 2007 may be the year of realism. If that means getting rid of dangerous illusions, it's a good thing. If it means abandoning idealism, it's a bad thing. In the way of things, it will probably mean some of both. Back in 2002, a senior adviser to President Bush told the journalist Ron Suskind that people in "the reality-based community" - journalists, for example - had got it seriously wrong. "That's not the way the world really works any more," the adviser said. "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." So, while ignoring the reality-based evidence for global warming, and relying on what wits described as "faith-based intelligence" for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bushies set about transforming the world through a democratic revolution kickstarted by the use of force. The empire struck.

Five years on, the reality has struck back. As we move into 2007, all the talk is of sobering realities - Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change and global economics. … Insufficient action will be taken in 2007, you can be sure of that, but at least the reality is no longer denied.

… Bush is no longer pretending that "we're winning" in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) has reaffirmed the centrality of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to the future of the west's relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Even if the Bush administration is not prepared to talk directly to Iran and Syria, the idea of crusading against an ostracised "axis of evil" is comprehensively discredited. Of the three alleged members of that axis, Iraq is now more of a recruiting ground for terrorists than it was five years ago, North Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran is stronger than ever. So much for a faith-based foreign-policy.

Unfortunately, this new realism comes packaged with an older realism, or realpolitik - an approach, last seen in the administration of Bush Sr, which insists you must take your allies where you find them and not worry too much about the way they treat their subjects. The national interest, and the west's economic and security interests, justify good relations with friendly autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. James Baker, co-chair of the ISG, and Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Bush Sr, are leading representatives of this approach. Although Bush Jr is resisting this return of the father, the trend in Washington is clearly from Bush II back towards Bush I.

A country to watch in tracking this trend is Iran. Before the invasion of Iraq, we wanted two things from Iran. First, to slow down, and preferably halt, its nuclear programme. And, second, to speed up the process of domestic political change, leading to more respect for human rights, pluralism and, eventually, democracy. Now we want three things from Tehran: those two plus its help in stabilising Iraq, through its influence with the Shia majority there. Iran is stronger and more hostile, yet we want more from it. There is no way we will get all three at once. So which area will the west go soft on in 2007? I bet it will be human rights and democratisation.

Signs of the new old realism are also to be found in the policy of the west's most articulate serving exponent of idealistic liberal internationalism, Tony Blair. Recently, London rolled out the red carpet for the friendly dictator of Kazakhstan. In southern Iraq, British troops are preparing their withdrawal, leaving something well short of democracy. In Dubai before Christmas, Blair said that in the struggle against terrorism, and facing the threat from Iran, we must strengthen our ties with "moderate", albeit authoritarian, Arab states. Challenged about the authoritarian character of the United Arab Emirates - where, in recent elections to an advisory council, just 1% of citizens were allowed to vote - Blair told the Financial Times: "It's got to move at its own pace, but the direction is very clear."

I'm waiting for someone to pen a new version of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous article of 1979, "Dictatorships and double standards", in which she argued that friendly, anti-Soviet, rightwing autocracies should be treated differently from pro-Soviet, leftwing totalitarian regimes. Double standards? Yes, please. Today, a friendly autocracy will be defined partly by its positioning in the struggle with jihadist terrorism and partly by its readiness to sell its energy and natural resources to the west. Since China is competing for those resources and does not give a damn about the human rights records of its suppliers, our capacity to impose political conditions on our suppliers is correspondingly reduced.

What should this policy be called? Most people have forgotten that Bush Jr came to power in 2001 preaching a "new realism", in contrast to what he pilloried as the unfocused, liberal idealist interventionism of the Clinton years. However, after the 9/11 attacks and especially in his second term, he came to advocate a breathtakingly idealist policy of global democratisation. The American political writer Robert Kagan described Bush's new approach as a "higher realism". So that was the new new realism. Now we have the new new new realism, or new3 realism. If new2 realism had an unrealistically large admixture of idealism, believing that democracy would spread across the Middle East as it had across eastern Europe after 1989, new3 realism risks swinging back to the opposite extreme, making the old mistake of believing that a durable order can be built on friendly autocracies. So let us indeed have a reality-based international community in 2007, but let's not have too much realism. In the long run, nothing could be less realistic.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fighting war on the cheap – you get what you pay for

The neo-conservatives made their deal with the devil – they accepted Bush’s tax cuts in exchange for calling the shots on foreign policy. The problem is the tax cuts have undermined our ability to fight wars including, as if no one has notice, the one we are in the middle of right now. This from Jonathan Chait in the L.A. Times:
FOR A LONG TIME now, President Bush's critics — and even many of his erstwhile admirers — have been wondering why he let the neoconservatives fool him on Iraq. "All [the neoconservatives] care about is ideology," complained MSNBC's Chris Matthews a few months ago. "The president bought it hook, line and sinker."

There's a lot of truth to that. Neoconservatives had been gung-ho for years on the idea of invading Iraq, establishing a democracy and watching the transformative power of liberty work its magic. It is indeed curious how and why Bush let the neocons sucker him.

But fewer people seemed to have noticed that the reverse is also true: Bush suckered the neocons.

On the surface, to be sure, they appear to be getting their way once again. News reports are suggesting that Bush plans to send more troops to Iraq. Neoconservatives have been urging this very course of action for a long time. Indeed, they've been advocating more troops in general for years — even before the war started. And that's not surprising. If you believe in expanding the worldwide application of American power, you need a military to do it. If you read old issues of the Weekly Standard, which is the bulletin board of neoconservatism, you can find calls for a bigger military going back to the Clinton administration.

It's probably too late to make a difference in Iraq. Bush may have come to believe in the neoconservative mission for the nation's military. But he never accepted the corollary about increasing the military. So he ended up pursuing Dick Cheney's foreign policy with Bill Clinton's army.

In hindsight, we can see that the neocons made two huge blunders. The first was to go along with Bush's enormous tax cuts. When Bush took office in 2001, any halfway honest budget analyst would tell you that he was making a lot of promises that didn't add up. The neocons calculated that, if they supported the tax cuts like good party soldiers, Bush would grant them their defense budget increases later on.

So the Standard enthusiastically boosted the tax cuts. Neoconservative defense hawk Frank Gaffney concurred in a fawning open letter to Bush. "Those of us who look forward to helping you succeed in your efforts to rebuild our defense posture appreciate that your success in reducing taxes is a first and highly synergistic step toward that goal," he wrote. "Consequently, you can count on us in the national security community to support you in both of these important endeavors."

Whoops. It turned out there wasn't any money left over for a big troop increase, an eventuality nobody could have foreseen unless they knew how to add and subtract. Enraged at the lack of a defense hike, the Standard published an editorial calling on then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to resign in protest of "the impending evisceration of the military."

The Standard lamented its own gullibility. "Those of us who expressed concern about the Bush administration's shorting of the military were told not to worry," the editors wrote. "Bush had to pass his tax cut first. Then the damage would be repaired in the [fiscal year] 2002 and FY 2003 budgets. But that's not the way things have turned out."

Let me translate this passage: We thought Bush was just lying to the American public, but now we discover he was lying to us also!

Let me quote one more passage from that editorial, because it's really incredible. The Standard warned that Bush's budget would make an invasion of Iraq all but impossible: "In practice, assembling a heavy armored force of even four divisions to defeat Saddam's army and then occupy Iraq would require every heavy unit based in Korea, Europe and the United States." Yet, just a few months later, the neocons demanded the very war that they said would be impossible, to be waged by that same eviscerated military.

But if they had only withdrawn their support earlier, before the big tax cut and before Bush invaded with too small of an army to win, the United States would be in much better shape today — and so would the neocons.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The history of Christmas

When you hear talk about the “war on Christmas” it is worth remembering that the holiday we know as Christmas evolved from many different sources – mostly non-Christian. The Christian hierarchy in the early days of the church claimed December 25th as the birth date of Jesus with little or no evidence in the Bible to back up the claim but it did conveniently co-opt the various seasonal celebrations taking place. However, the wildness of the celebrations never ceased and the Puritans, first in England and later in New England, outlawed it.

The holiday festivities crept back into communities but it is important to note that Christmas at that time was nothing remotely similar to what we think of Christmas today. It was celebrated in the streets with a lot of drinking. Bands of the poor would demand entry into the homes of the well-to-do and demand food and drink -- "we want some figgy puddying". Encounters sometimes became violent and, with urbanization, potentially revolutionary. It was a reform movement in the early nineteenth century to bring Christmas into the home and instead of giving to the poor off the streets, giving was shifted towards the children of the household.

I recommend a very good book, The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum for more on the development of Christmas in the United States. In the meantime, Orlando Patterson has published a short piece on Christmas in the New York Times:
Christmas seems to bring out the worst in America’s culture warriors. The Christian right continues its crusade against those waging “war against Christmas.” Multiculturalists have nearly banished “Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night” from the public domain and are now going after outdoor Christmas trees. Atheist activists like Sam Harris are goaded into defending the outing of their Christmas trees with the argument that it’s all secular anyway.

Harris is only partly right. The whole truth about Christmas is far more interesting and reveals why all can enjoy it. It is the perfect example of America’s mainstream process, a national rite that dissolves the boundaries between sacred and secular, pagan and civilized, insiders and outsiders.
From the very beginning Christians have always had a tenuous hold on the holiday. The tradition of celebrating Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December was invented in the fourth century in a proselytical move by the Church Fathers that was almost too clever. The pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations of the rebirth of the sun, especially the Roman Saturnalia and Iranian Mithraic festivals, were recast as the Christian doctrine of the re-birth of the Son of God. Like many such syntheses, it is often not clear who was culturally appropriating whom. Certainly, throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas festivities like the 12 days of saturnalian debauchery, the veneration of the holly and mistletoe, and the Feast of Fools were all continuities from pagan Europe.

For this reason, the Puritans abolished Christmas. As late as the 1860s, Christmas was still a regular work and school day in Massachusetts. By then, however, its reconstruction was well on the way in the rest of the nation. America drew on the many variants of Christmas brought over by immigrants. It is telling that, in the making of Santa Claus, it is the English Father Christmas, derived from the pagan Lord of Misrule, rather than the more Christian Dutch St. Nicholas that dominates.

The commercialization of the holiday began as early as the 1820s, and by the last quarter of the 19th century a thoroughly unique American complex had emerged — ornaments, Christmas trees and the wrapping of gift boxes. Christmas further evolved in the 20th century with department store displays, Santas and parades, the outdoor Christmas tree spectacle, postage cards and secular Christmas songs. All American ethnic groups contributed to this national ritual.

The re-Christianization of the holiday emerged in tandem with its commercialization during the 19th century. Secularists did not distort or steal Christmas from Christians: in America they made it together. What’s more, as the cultural historian Karal Marling shows, the festival’s most compassionate aspect, charity, came mainly from the influence of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” which, however, drew heavily on the largely invented accounts of a romanticized Merrie Olde England by the American travel writer Washington Irving.

The outcome of all this is a uniquely American national festival perfectly attuned to the demotic pulse of the common culture: its openness and vitality, its transcending appropriation of eclectic sources, its seductive materialism. It is, further, a mainstream process that dovetails exquisitely with more local expressions of America like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the former a reinvention of a minor Jewish rite, the latter a pure invention, in a manner similar to the wholly fictitious Scottish highland tradition that pipes up around the New Year. Kwanzaa borrowed heavily from Hanukkah, right down to the menorah, in fashioning the American art of mirroring the mainstream while doing one’s own ethnic thing. Decorating public Christmas trees with menorahs should be a soothing natural development in this glorious hall of cultural mirrors.

Ejecting Christmas from the public domain makes little sense, and not simply because religion only partly contributed to its emergence as a national rite. It should be possible to enjoy Christmas while recognizing its muted Christian element, even though one is neither religious nor Christian, in much the same way one might enjoy the glories of a Botticelli or Fra Angelico in spite of the unrelenting Christian presence in their art. In much the same way, indeed, that one might enjoy jazz, another gift of the mainstream, without much caring for black culture; or the American English language that unites us, in spite of Anglo-Saxon roots that are as deep as those of Father Christmas.

Iraq: Freed from tyranny and delivered into anarchy

Kenneth Pollack has written an important analysis of what has gone wrong in Iraq for the Brookings Institute entitled, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Failure in Iraq: A Retrospective Analysis of the Reconstruction”. The seven deadly sins, by the way, are ignorance, arrogance, neglect, stubbornness, panic, haste, and denial.

The essay is much too long to reprint but here is the introduction:
It never had to be this bad. The reconstruction of Iraq was never going to be quick or easy, but it was not doomed to failure. Its disastrous course to date has been almost entirely the result of a sequence of foolish and unnecessary mistakes on the part of the United States.

Perhaps at some point in the future, revisionist historians will try to claim that the effort was doomed from the start, that it never was possible to build a stable, let alone pluralistic, new Iraq in the rubble of Saddam Hussein's fall. However, that is decidedly not the view of the experts, the journalists covering the story, or the practitioners who went to Iraq to put the country back together after the 2003 invasion. Americans returning from Iraq--military and civilian alike--have proven unanimous in their view that the Iraqis desperately want reconstruction to succeed and that they have the basic tools to make it work, but that the United States has consistently failed to provide them with the opportunities and the framework to succeed.
Indeed, perhaps the most tragic evidence of this unrealized potential is that even three-and-a-half years after Saddam's fall, with Iraq mired in a deepening civil war and no sign of real progress on the horizon, over 40 percent of Iraqis still clung to the belief that Iraq was headed in the right direction--with only 35 percent saying it was headed in the wrong direction.

If Iraq does slide into all-out civil war, the Bush Administration will have only itself to blame. It disregarded the advice of experts on Iraq, on nation-building, and on military operations. It staged both the invasion and the reconstruction on the cheap. It never learned from its mistakes and never committed adequate resources to accomplish either its original lofty aspirations or even its later, more modest goals. It refused to believe intelligence that contradicted its own views and doggedly insisted that reality conform to its wishes. In its breathtaking hubris, the Administration engineered a Greek tragedy in Iraq, the outcome of which may plague us for decades.
You can read the entire essay here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holding up the mirror: Does Virgil Goode reflect the views of his constituents?

I am old enough to remember when George Wallace ran for president and one of the things I used to hear people say in admiration about Wallace was that “he says what he thinks.” This reflected in part the typical paranoia around the fringes of American politics that believed somehow all our leaders were all lying to us and it reflected in part the extremely frustrating habit of many politicians who were constantly qualifying every position they took on any given issue in order to offend the least number of people. Wallace’s bluntness seemed refreshing.

Of course, Wallace wasn’t necessarily saying what he really thought. He was a demagogue who was quite willing to say anything would lead him to power. He found his niche and played it up. His niche was reactionary, nativistic and racist. The reality was what he had to say wasn’t refreshing at all.

I am sure there are people in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District who sincerely believe Congressman Goode “says what he thinks” and somehow that is a virtue. However, I’m sorry to say it is the same old demagoguery that’s been on the political fringes for a very long time – anti-immigrant, anti-cosmopolitan and Christianist. These are not the views of a great America but of American smallness and petty bigotry. The honorable Virgil Goode has found his niche that has paved his way to power in the state legislature for twenty-four years and a decade in the U.S. Congress. The one good thing about the publicity around the anti-Muslim letter Mr. Goode sent to constituents is that it holds a mirror up to the voters of the Fifth Congressional District. Does this reflect who they really are or not? In two years they have to decide.

The Roanoke Times weighs in with this editorial today:
Virgil Goode isn't about to apologize for his racist diatribe that equates Muslims with illegal immigrants and terrorists. He shouldn't apologize for his beliefs because that would just pile the sin of hypocrisy onto the heap of bigotry.

But his constituents in Virginia's 5th Congressional District should be hopping mad, because Goode now has the nation believing that they are as small-minded as he is.

Goode never intended for everyone to know that he fears now that one Muslim has been elected to Congress, illegal immigrants and terrorists will pour over our boundaries. His letter -- the one that has made national news for a few days running -- was intended to go out to only his xenophobic supporters.

One copy mistakenly went to a non-supporter in what Goode's office claimed was a "clerical error." Too late. They couldn't take it back or deny it. Instead, Goode defends his stance and claims it mirrors his constituents' views.

Would that include his thousand or so constituents of Arab descent? Or those of African descent who make up about 23 percent of his district?

They can keenly recall a Virginia that tried to bar them from entering "white" society with the same repugnant fears.

Do the residents of the 5th District share Goode's modern-day bigotry? If so, do they think Goode is one of them? Really, that affinity has been his appeal throughout his political career.

The people of his district look the other way when he gets wrapped up in a campaign finance scandal; they excuse him in Martinsville where the town is on the hook to pay back a substantial grant because of a Goode scheme with disgraced MZM officials. They have forgiven him so easily because they believe good-old Goode is "one of us."

Goode certainly seems to think he's among like-minded folks. As long as he insulates himself with people who reflect his thoughts and avoids those who would challenge him to rethink his biases, there's no reason for him to believe differently.

Every broad-minded thinker in the 5th District must cringe at the thought of outsiders believing Goode is representative of them.

Goode's got another two years in Congress, but his constituents will have little representation during that time. No one, other than of a handful of his bigoted supporters, will ever take Goode seriously again. Not that he'll notice.

Goode's fatwa

The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page story today summing up the reactions of the last several days to the attack on the religion of others by Congressman Virgil Goode in a letter to constituents. The article included a number of comments by readers emailed to the newspaper. Here is one from a veteran who recently served in Iraq:

The letter didn't sit well with Steven McKinley of Richmond, a retired Marine colonel. McKinley wrote: "If Congressman Goode is so adamant about his feelings, I say pick up a rifle and volunteer for the reserves. We could certainly give a God-fearing man like him a waiver and let him serve his country in Iraq. Having spent the better part of 2005 in Al Anbar Province, I served with Marines of all religious affiliations. Funny how when you are fighting a war, you never get around to asking the guy next to you where he goes to church."

Then we turn to the editorial page. I have always found the editorials of the Richmond Times-Dispatch somewhat problematic in the past. However, I think they hit the nail on the head with this one this morning:
George Allen's "macaca" incident supplied late-night comics with enough material to last all season. Allen's defeat last month may have led 5th District Congressman Virgil Goode to conclude he should fill the void.

The reality of the first situation wasn't funny. The second situation isn't, either.

The Republican Goode is wrong not only to take offense at a newly elected Minnesota representative who wants to swear the oath of office while holding a Quran, but to express his exclusionist views in a letter to constituents. The congressman-elect in question is an American native who con- verted to Islam. Goode's fatwa insults Keith Ellison personally even as it mocks the religious freedom Americans say they hold dear. It is conduct unbecoming a member of the House of Representatives -- and a Virginian.

Goode's statements in interviews have deepened his self-inflicted wounds. He apparently believes Muslims eventually will win a majority in the House -- perhaps sooner rather than later. And never mind that according to certain surveys the most common form of conversion in the United States is from non-Christian faiths to Christianity. The U.S. may not be a "Christian nation" according to the definition of passionate sectarians; American religion may be growing more visibly diverse. But Christianity's status as the country's dominant creed is not under siege. If "Christian nation" refers to the preferences and practices of the people, then America will remain Christian for generations to come, world without end.

Goode argues that Islam undermines American values. The radical imams stoking jihadist hatred of America accuse the West of undermining Islamic values. A certain strain in Islam indeed threatens America and other "infidels," but Goode's statement suggests the temptation to demonize is universal.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Why the “surge” is a bad idea

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is promoting recommendations by Frederick Kagan for a “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq and in Baghdad in particular. Once the Baghdad is secured, the Sunnis will be defeated and the Shiite militias will simply lay down their arms. The Bush administration, not happy with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, is looking for alternatives. Hints have come out of the White House that the “surge” is an option being seriously considered.

However, there are serious problems with the Kagan/AEI recommendations. Fred Kaplan in Slate touches on some of them:
… Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.

The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.

He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.

Kagan is inconsistent on how many troops need to surge in the first place. In an article for the Dec. 4 issue of the Weekly Standard, he calculated a need for 80,000 extra U.S. troops by spring 2007 but concluded, offhandedly, that 50,000 would be adequate. In his briefing, dated Dec. 17, that number is down to 21,000, with no explanation for the difference and, as far as I can tell, no difference in the analysis. Maybe someone told him 50,000 would be completely impossible.

Either way, where are they coming from? It's worth emphasizing that Kagan calculates that at least 150,000 combat troops will be needed to secure Baghdad alone. In all of Iraq, he estimates, the United States has only 70,000 combat troops now. He proposes moving 63,000 of them into Baghdad (leaving the other 7,000—two brigades—in Anbar province). The other 87,000 would be a mix of the "surge" and of Iraqi soldiers.

The surged forces themselves, whether they total 21,000 or 50,000, would come from a change in troop rotation—pushing up the movement of troops coming in and stopping those troops scheduled to go out, i.e., keeping them from leaving Iraq. Besides demoralizing the troops, many of whom are on their third tours of duty, this would also create a logistical nightmare; supplies would be needed for twice as many soldiers; supply lines would have to be denser and more densely protected.

Kagan acknowledges that putting all these additional American soldiers on the street might trigger still-greater waves of violence, both sectarian and anti-occupation. …

Kagan also explicitly states that U.S. forces should focus their efforts in the Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of Baghdad, the source of most sectarian fighting. He ignores the internecine fights among the Shiite militias. Is this intentional? Is he tacitly proposing—as Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing these days—that the United States take the Shiite side in the Iraqi civil war? If so, his briefing's advocates should make this clear, so the audiences know what they're getting into. If not, and we have to go clear, say, Sadr City too, do we need still more troops?

However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)

In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.

Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.

Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?

How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."

This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.

There may be no good solution to the sand-dune quagmire of Iraq. Kagan's proposal is getting more attention than it deserves because officials—and the rest of us, too—are so desperate for some, for any, head-lifting way out.

Views on respecting American Muslims

President George W. Bush (Republican), 12/5/02:

Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace.

Senator John W. Warner (Republican – Virginia) 12/21/06:

…said in a statement yesterday that he respects "the constitutional right of members of Congress, indeed, of every U.S. citizen, freely to exercise the religion of their choice, including those of the Islamic faith utilizing the Quran in accordance with the tenets of their religion."

Representative Virgil Goode (Republican – 5th CD, Virginia) 12/7/06:
… I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to … end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall of my office.”

Goode for nothing

The distinguished Representative of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District is refusing to apologize for comments he made in a letter to constituents critical of Muslims in the United States and of Congressman-elect Keith Ellison who is a convert to Islam. He held a press conference yesterday in Rocky Mount to answer criticism he has received in response to the letter. According to the Richmond Times-Disptach, he was surrounded by Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies to protect him. The deputies turned away some reporters and barred constituents from the press conference. He refused to answer many questions.

The Congressman’s refusal to reconsider his mean spirited position shows a degree of cowardice. He is afraid of admitting he was wrong. He is afraid of people who are different from him. He is afraid of democracy in any circumstances other than a mono-culture. Virgil Goode’s America would consist of people who look and pray like him. Now that would be distressing.

Of course, Congressman Goode has never been known as an intellectual heavy-weight on Capitol Hill. It is quite possible he has convinced himself he is doing something noble and brave – a lone voice standing against Muslims rushing up our shores and seizing power in Congress: Virgil versus the Muslim hordes. It is a shame he does not have the good sense to realize his antics reflect poorly on the people of his district.

Michael Paul Williams is columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch every thinking person in Richmond reads. This is his take on Virginia’s 5th District Representative:
One thing's for sure: Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. is no Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the basis for the First Amendment, says "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no way diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities."

Goode, R-5th, would ban the Quran and not only keep Muslims out of Congress, but also out of the country.

Goode wrote as much in a diatribe directed at Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress.

"When I raise my hand to take the oath on swearing-in day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way," he wrote in a letter to constituents.

"The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

The Christian representative from Virginia knows better.

Goode knows Congress is sworn in as a group and no religious book is required. Use of the Quran, Torah, Bible or other holy book would take place during private ceremonies and photo ops.

He realizes Ellison was duly elected by U.S. citizens, not illegal immigrants.

And he knows we are a nation of immigrants founded on the promise of religious freedom.

But Goode, in conflating faith and citizenship, chose to pander. And in Ellison, a U.S.-born convert from Catholicism to Islam, his ramped-up xenophobia found a convenient target.

"I fear that in the next century, we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped," he wrote.

Goode's idea of traditional values and beliefs doesn't include some of the basic tenets of our democracy.

The same applies to talk-show host Glenn Beck, who during his interview of Ellison trampled "innocent until proven guilty" in issuing this challenge: "Sir, prove to me that you are not working for our enemies."

Goode's situation demonstrates once again how the GOP can't quite quit its tawdry embrace of intolerance. It was left to Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, to state the obvious: "The Founding Fathers never intended religion to be a barrier to federal representation."

The dissonance between the words of Goode and Jefferson was not lost on Imad Damaj, president of the Richmond-based Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.

"The letter is shocking coming from a congressman," said Damaj, who urged Goode to meet with Muslims in his district. "I hope that the people in Virginia will reaffirm their commitment to religious freedom. This is the birthplace of religious freedom."

Ellison issued a response yesterday to Goode that said: "On January 4th, no matter the faith, gender, or culture of the congressperson, all of us will swear to uphold one Constitution the Constitution of the United States."

As he holds up his right hand, Goode should remember what he's swearing to uphold.

The make-believe “war on Christmas”

We all (or, at least most of us) know that Santa Claus is make-believe. We also know that despite that fact, the myth of Santa Clause serves a purpose of epitomizing the spirit of giving during the holiday season.

The same can be said about the so-called “war on Christmas.” It is make-believe but it serves a purpose. The difference between the Santa Clause myth and this Christmas war myth is that the former is geared to bring out the best in people whereas the latter is geared to bring out the worse. The purpose of the war-on-Christmas myth is to create anger and mistrust and to feed the paranoia present on the right-wing fringes of American society.

Dan Radmacher, the editor of the editorial page of the Roanoke Times, wrote a very good column last week in his paper about the subject. He has come under attack by the hyena of fringe politics, Bill O’Reilly, who just happens to be mentioned in the column. Here is what Mr. Radmacher wrote:
I remember a time when people of faith bemoaned the over-commercialization of Christmas.

Now some are shouting persecution because sales clerks at some stores are wishing customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" or because the tree behind the City Market building was called a holiday tree in press releases instead of a Christmas tree last year.

When it comes to persecution, Christians have come a long way from being fed to the lions, my friends.

All this "War on Christmas" nonsense was manufactured in 2004 by that sanctimonious hypocrite Bill O'Reilly to bump up ratings -- and maybe distract attention from that whole unfortunate sexual harassment/phone sex episode.

He and Sean Hannity teamed up to try to browbeat Macy's, Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers into shouting, "Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!" at their customers until everyone feels the love of Jesus deep in their eardrums.

More recently, they've been singling out retailers who trumpet "Holiday sales" rather than "Christmas sales" in advertisements.

Amusingly enough, last year O'Reilly and friends got busted red-handed selling "holiday" ornaments on the Fox News Web store. The blurb for one ornament even said, "Put your holiday tree in the 'No Spin Zone' with this silver glass 'O'Reilly Factor' ornament."

Whose side are you on, Bill?

I'll admit that I find it silly to refer to "holiday trees." However, those who pride themselves on being good Christians might realize that the Christmas tree is pagan in origin, and that the Bible criticizes the practice: "For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not" -- Jeremiah 10:3-4.

But what's so wrong with "Happy Holidays" as a season greeting? The word holiday, after all, is derived from holy day.

More to the point, what is un-Christian about taking a little extra care not to make a non-Christian feel excluded this time of year? You don't love your neighbors by rubbing their faces in beliefs they do not share.

But the biggest reason many Christians like me can't get agitated about the so-called "War on Christmas" is that there is so little evidence that such a war is happening.

Christmas decorations started going up in the malls before Halloween, for heaven's sake.

Last I looked, Christmas retained its status as a federal holiday. Christmas specials still fill the airwaves

And in a nation where, as O'Reilly likes to point out, something like 90 percent of the population celebrates Christmas in one fashion or another, I don't believe a war on Christmas is even possible.

Other than a pathetic attempt to boost O'Reilly's ratings, I think the whole brouhaha is little more than an excuse for the Christian majority to excuse holiday excesses that only recently were cause for guilt.

There's an unattractive undercurrent of intimidation in all of this.

As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote last year during a similar outbreak of Yuletide battle fever, "There is an ugly, bullying aspect to this dispute, in which the pro-Christmas forces are not only asking, reasonably, that their religion be treated with equal status and respect but in which they are attacking legitimate efforts at inclusivity."

O'Reilly is not the first to allege a war on Christmas. An article last year on the anti-Fox News Web site News Hounds recalled that Henry Ford made the same allegation in his anti-Semitic tract, "The International Jew."

It was also a favorite refrain of the John Birch Society in the late 1950s.

What happened to the days when the main concern of Christians at Christmas was that the true meaning of the season would be lost amidst all the hoopla over Santa Claus, Rudolph and the unrelenting pressure to spend, spend, spend?

Here's a hint, Mr. O'Reilly: The true meaning has nothing to do with whether the Wal-Mart greeter says, "Merry Christmas" to you when you walk in the door.

If there is a war on Christmas, I think people like Bill O'Reilly are on the wrong side.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Virgil Goode’s America

Representative Goode appeared on the Fox channel Cavuto show tonight defending his recent letter to constituents containing unfriendly remarks about Muslims. You can see it here on Think Progress. (For those of you who have not met Congressman Goode, the Forrest Gump routine is not an act.) The distinguished Congressman’s remarks are even drawing comment from our good friends across the pond at Harry’s Place who are nominating him for “Arsehole of the Year.”

Here’s a solution to Mr. Goode’s concerns about Muslim hordes overrunning the United States. We’ll just make Jesus the king of the United States or maybe just of Mr. Goode’s congressional district. Of course, he would have to compete with Poland which is considering a similar measure according to the BBC.

Goode on Fox at four

According to TPM Muckraker, Representative Virgil Goode will appear on the Fox channel at 4:00 to explain his anti-Muslim remarks in a letter sent to constituents this past week and indirect references to Congressman-elect Keith Ellison who happens to be a Muslim. The letter has caused quite a national controversy since it first appeared on the blog of Waldo Jaquith. According to today’s New York Times:
Mr. Goode declined Wednesday to comment on his letter, which quickly stirred a furor among some Congressional Democrats and Muslim Americans, who accused him of bigotry and intolerance.

They noted that the Constitution specifically bars any religious screening of members of Congress and that the actual swearing in of those lawmakers occurs without any religious texts. The use of the Bible or Koran occurs only in private ceremonial events that take place after lawmakers have officially sworn to uphold the Constitution.

Mr. Ellison dismissed Mr. Goode’s comments, saying they seemed ill informed about his personal origins as well as about Constitutional protections of religious freedom. “I’m not an immigrant,” added Mr. Ellison, who traces his American ancestors back to 1742. “I’m an African-American.”

Since the November election, Mr. Ellison said, he has received hostile phone calls and e-mail messages along with some death threats. But in an interview on Wednesday, he emphasized that members of Congress and ordinary citizens had been overwhelmingly supportive and said he was focusing on setting up his Congressional office, getting phone lines hooked up and staff members hired, not on negative comments.

“I’m not a religious scholar, I’m a politician, and I do what politicians do, which is hopefully pass legislation to help the nation,” said Mr. Ellison, who said he planned to focus on secular issues like increasing the federal minimum wage and getting health insurance for the uninsured.

“I’m looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him,” Mr. Ellison said, speaking by telephone from Minneapolis. “I want to let him know that there’s nothing to fear. The fact that there are many different faiths, many different colors and many different cultures in America is a great strength.”
Tune in at 4:00 to see if Mr. Goode is looking forward to getting to know Mr. Ellison. In the meantime you can let Congressman Goode know what you think by writing to him at

War planning is detached from strategic purposes, history, and political and social dynamics.

After much hoopla, the Baker-Hamilton Commission (a.k.a. the Iraq Study Group or ISG) report seems dead on arrival at the White House. The Bush administration seems ready to dismiss its analysis and recommendations and instead adopt recommendations of a report from the American Enterprise Institute or AEI (more on that below) calling for a temporary increase in the number of troops in Iraq in what has become known as the “surge.”

However, windows of opportunity do not remain open forever – they open and then close. Increasing the number of troops in Iraq was exactly the right thing to have done three and a half years ago. The administration that has ignored security in Iraq for years has suddenly discovered it. The new mantra is “we need to establish security first before the political work can be done.” That was true the first day American troops set foot in Baghdad but after years of sectarian fighting and civil war it is the politics that is now driving the violence. Increasing troops on the ground may have some effect on reducing the violence temporarily but until the political work is done in Iraq and with its neighbors there is no reason to expect anything other than ongoing warfare in Iraq. This is only another example of lack of planning – Bush is just making it up as it goes along and refuses to learn from his mistakes. As Sidney Blumenthal points out, “For him, there's no past, especially his own. There's only the present. The war is detached from strategic purposes, the history of Iraq and the region, and political and social dynamics, and instead is grasped as a test of character. Ultimately, what's at stake is his willpower.”

(And it is worth noting here there seems to be a tendency to forget we are fighting a second war – Afghanistan – that has been neglected. Unlike Iraq, that war is direct result of attacks on the United States on September 11th and also unlike Iraq the effort in Afghanistan is international. But with resources drained from this front to pour into Iraq the Taliban is making gains in parts of the country. How soon will it be before we have a Baker-Hamilton Commission to examine our failures there too?)

Sidney Blumenthal has written in today’s Guardian about the report AEI report that has the attention of President Bush :
Bush's touted but unexplained "new way forward" (his version of the ISG's "the way forward") may be the first order of battle, complete with details of units, maps and timetables, ever posted on the website of a thinktank. "I will not be rushed," said Bush. But apparently he has already accepted the latest neoconservative programme, artfully titled with catchphrases appealing to his desperation - "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq" - and available for reading on the site of the American Enterprise Institute.

The author of this plan is Frederick W Kagan, a neoconservative at the AEI and the author of a new book, Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy, replete with up-to-date neocon scorn of Bush as "simplistic", Donald Rumsfeld as "fatuous", and even erstwhile neocon icon Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defence and currently president of the World Bank, as "self-serving". Among the others listed as "participants" in drawing up the plan are various marginal and obscure figures including, notably, Danielle Pletka, a former aide to the senator Jesse Helms; Michael Rubin, an aide to the catastrophic Coalition Provisional Authority; and retired Major General Jack Keane, the former deputy army chief of staff.

This rump group of neocons is the battered remnant left of the phalanx that once conjured up grandiose visions of conquest and blowtorched ideological ground for Bush. Although neocons are still entrenched in the vice-president's Office and on the National Security Council, they mostly feel that their perfect ideas have been the victims of imperfect execution. Rather than accepting any responsibility for the ideas themselves, they blame Rumsfeld and Bush. Meyrav Wurmser, a research fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, whose husband, David Wurmser, is a Middle East adviser on Dick Cheney's staff, recently vented the neocons' despair to an Israeli news outlet: "This administration is in its twilight days. Everyone is now looking for work, looking to make money ... We all feel beaten after the past five years." But they are not so crushed that they cannot summon one last ragged Team B to provide a manifesto for a cornered president.

Choosing Victory is a prophetic document, a bugle call for an additional 30,000 troops to fight a decisive Napoleonic battle for Baghdad. (Its author, Kagan, has written a book on Napoleon.) It assumes that through this turning point the Shiite militias will melt away, the Sunni insurgents will suffer defeat and from the solid base of Baghdad security will radiate throughout the country. The plan also assumes that additional combat teams that actually take considerable time to assemble and train are instantly available for deployment. And it dismisses every diplomatic initiative proposed by the Iraq Study Group as dangerously softheaded. Foremost among the plan's assertions is that there is still a military solution in Iraq - "victory."

The strategic premise of the entire document rests on the incredulous disbelief that the US cannot enforce its will through force. "Victory is still an option in Iraq," it states. "America, a country of 300 million people with a GDP of $12 trillion, and more than 1 million soldiers and marines can regain control of Iraq, a state the size of California with a population of 25 million and a GDP under $100bn." By these gross metrics, France should never have lost in Algeria and Vietnam. The US experience in Vietnam goes unmentioned.

Bush's rejection of the Iraq Study Group report was presaged by a post-election speech delivered on December 4 by Karl Rove at the Churchill dinner held by Hillsdale College, a citadel of conservative crankdom. Here Rove conflated Winston Churchill and George Bush, Neville Chamberlain and James Baker, and the Battle of Britain and the Iraq war. "Why would we want to pursue a policy that our enemies want?" demanded Rove. "We will either win or we will lose ... Winston Churchill showed us the way. And like Great Britain under its greatest leader, we in the United States will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

A week later, on December 11, Bush met at the White House with Jack Keane, from the latest neocon Team B, and four other critics of the ISG. But even before, on December 8, in a meeting with senators, he compared himself to an embattled Harry Truman, unpopular as he forged the early policies of the cold war. When Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill, offered that Truman had created the Nato alliance, worked through the UN and conducted diplomacy with enemies, and that Bush could follow his example by endorsing the recommendations of the ISG, Bush rejected Durbin's fine-tuning of the historical analogy and replied that he was "the commander in chief."

The opening section of the ISG report is a lengthy analysis of the dire situation in Iraq. But Bush has frantically brushed that analysis away just as he has rejected every objective assessment that had reached him before. He has assimilated no analysis whatsoever of what's gone wrong. For him, there's no past, especially his own. There's only the present. The war is detached from strategic purposes, the history of Iraq and the region, and political and social dynamics, and instead is grasped as a test of character. Ultimately, what's at stake is his willpower.

Repudiated in the midterm elections, Bush has elevated himself above politics, and repeatedly says, "I am the commander in chief." With the crash of Rove's game plan for using his presidency as an instrument to leverage a permanent Republican majority, Bush is abandoning the role of political leader. He can't disengage militarily from Iraq because that would abolish his identity as a military leader, his default identity and now his only one.

Unlike the political leader, the commander in chief doesn't require persuasion; he rules through orders, deference and the obedience of those beneath him. By discarding the ISG report, Bush has rejected doubt, introspection, ambivalence and responsibility. By embracing the AEI manifesto, he asserts the warrior virtues of will, perseverance and resolve. The contest in Iraq is a struggle between will and doubt. Every day his defiance proves his superiority over lesser mortals. Even the joint chiefs have betrayed the martial virtues that he presumes to embody. He views those lacking his will with rising disdain. The more he stands up against those who tell him to change, the more virtuous he becomes. His ability to realise those qualities surpasses anyone else's and passes the character test.

The mere suggestion of doubt is fatally compromising. Any admission of doubt means complete loss, impotence and disgrace. Bush cannot entertain doubt and still function. He cannot keep two ideas in his head at the same time. Powell misunderstood when he said that the current war strategy lacks a clear mission. The war is Bush's mission.

No matter the setback it's always temporary, and the campaign can always be started from scratch in an endless series of new beginnings and offensives - "the new way forward" - just as in his earlier life no failure was irredeemable through his father's intervention. Now he has rejected his father's intervention in preference for the clean slate of a new scenario that depends only on his willpower.

"We're not winning, we're not losing," Bush told the Washington Post on Tuesday, a direct rebuke of Powell's formulation, saying he was citing General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs, and adding, "We're going to win." Winning means not ending the war while he is president. Losing would mean coming to the end of the rope while he was still in office. In his mind, so long as the war goes on and he maintains his will he can win. Then only his successor can be a loser.

Bush's idea of himself as personifying martial virtues, however, is based on a vision that would be unrecognisable to all modern theorists of warfare. According to Carl von Clausewitz, war is the most uncertain of human enterprises, difficult to understand, hardest to control and demanding the highest degree of adaptability. It was Clausewitz who first applied the metaphor of "fog" to war. In his classic work, On War, he warned, "We only wish to represent things as they are, and to expose the error of believing that a mere bravo without intellect can make himself distinguished in war."
You may read the entire piece here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Congressman Goode’s “macaca moment”

Virgil Goode served almost a quarter of a century in the Virginia Senate and as a member of the majority party was considered one of the least effective Senators of either party. Goode was then elected to the United States Congress in 1996 as a Democrat and switched to the Republican Party in 2002. His decade long career in the U.S. House of Representatives was notable only when in 2005 with his association with the defense contractor MZM that was linked to the bribery scandal of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. A Martinsville employee of MZM was convicted of making illegal contributions to Goode. Goode, rather than return the tainted money, used it to buy good will in his district by donating it to local charities.

Congressman Goode’s otherwise unremarkable career has now reached a new low. His office mistakenly sent a letter to the wrong constituent who promptly turned it over to a Charlottesville newspaper. It seems Mr. Goode does not like Muslims and is particularly offended that a member of that faith has been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

His letter as printed in the C-ville Weekly:
Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-4605
December 7, 2006

Mr. John Cruickshank
7—— S—————————— Dr.
Earlysville, VA 22936

Dear Mr. Cruickshank:

Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall of my office.” Thank you again for your email and thoughts.

Sincerely yours,
Virgil H. Goode, Jr.
70 East Court Street
Suite 215
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151

The world’s most dangerous roads

If crossing four lanes of busy traffic to catch an upcoming exit on Washington’s beltway gets your adrenalin running you should check out the following. The web site Dark Roasted Blend has compiled what they consider the five most dangerous roads and trails in the world. They are:

1. Russian Siberian Road to Yakutsk

2. Bolivia's "Road of Death"

3. Russian-Georgian "Military" Mountain Roads

4. Tibet & Bangladesh Roads

5. Most Dangerous Tourist Hiking Trail (China)

You can find photographs and commentary at their website for here for Part I and here for Part II. Thanks to FP Passport for the tip.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Nativity

The holidays would not be complete without plastic figurines of the baby Jesus, three wise men, shepherds, Mary, Joseph and an assortment of animals cluttering private yards and, occasionally but always inappropriately, public spaces. The cult of nativity imagery is quite ingrained as part of contemporary observance of the holiday season. Where did it come from?

This from the Telegraph:
… what can be 'right' about the images of the Nativity we've been sold for so long?

The cumulative froth of centuries of Christmases sodden with sentiment and superstition and, latterly, the Victorians' anglicised vision of Bethlehem as some snowy hamlet in the deep and dreamless sleep of the Home Counties, more Reigate than Ramallah, isn't easily dislodged.

And the gospel narratives themselves raise more questions than they answer.

To begin with, it's odd that just two of the four Gospels have anything to say about the Nativity. Mark and John offer no comment at all.

Only Matthew and Luke, both written 60-70 years after Jesus's death, give the story.

And, according to Geza Vermes, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and author of a recently published study,The Nativity, it isn't even the same story.

'In our traditional understanding Matthew and Luke are nicely fitted together and their contradictions ignored,' says Vermes.

'But what they say is totally different. And what's more, it appears nowhere else in the New Testament. No repetition. No reference. From which I conclude that it's a secondary addition: a splendid prologue to the life of Jesus supplied by men who had a reason to supply it.'

In other words, the nativity stories were written to appeal to a specific audience and persuade them that Jesus was the son of God.

For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, the objective was to show how Jesus's birth fulfilled the prophesies of the Torah. For Luke, a gentile writing for gentiles, the objective was to explain Jesus in terms that a pagan audience reared on myths of gods impregnating mortals would understand.

Unravelling all this is as subtly complicated as only theology can be. But taking the key players one by one, the picture looks like this.

The Virgin Mary is actually called Miriam – she was Jewish, after all – and her virginal status is important to Luke because it fits the Classical image of maidens begetting divine children.

Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has an Annunciation made to Mary by an angel. Western painters stress her detachment from the mess of birth by showing her in seated composure.

Painters of Eastern icons let her lie down. And nowhere does The Bible tell us she wears blue. Her wardrobe largely derives from medieval meditations and visionary experiences, such as those of St Bridget, who had a keen eye for detail.

Joseph is usually depicted as a bit-part actor in the drama and as old, although The Bible does not indicate his age. Some pictorial traditions make him a comic figure and certain cathedrals had a vested interest in adding homely details – notably Aachen, which became the proud possessor of St Joseph's stockings, which had been cut up to make clothes for the infant Jesus.

Jesus In paintings, he is usually depicted naked with what would these days be thought an unseemly attention to his penis.

It's uncircumcised, though when the deed is done it will generate a healthy industry in souvenirs. According to one estimate there were enough holy foreskins circulating in medieval times to upholster a suite of furniture.

The Three Kings Only Matthew mentions them. He doesn't call them kings. And he doesn't say how many there are. The earliest nativity scenes show just two, and their number and status were upgraded later, on the grounds that there were three gifts, one of which was frankincense, associated with royalty.

More practically, though, the upgrading of the kings was also connected with the church's desire to allot a role in Christian life to rich potentates (who would otherwise be struggling through the eyes of needles) and get their money.

The kings also symbolised the universal outreach of the Church, to Europe, Africa and Asia. And again, certain cathedrals had a special interest in them: Cologne claimed their bodies and declared them to have died at the respective ages of 109, 112 and 116.

The Ox and Ass There is no mention of them in the Gospels. But if Jesus was born in a stable it would be reasonable to assume their presence. And the first person to make a point of it was St Francis, who is said to have begun the tradition of cribs and nativity re-enactments in the 13th century.

The Shepherds are found only in Luke. Important as a statement of the access ordinary people have to Jesus.

The Star In Matthew but not Luke, and the subject of endless debate as to what, if anything, it might have been. There is no unchallengeable recorded evidence of starry phenomena around this time.

But Mike Rich, the screenwriter of The Nativity, has opted to trust Matthew on the grounds that it could have been a rare alignment of the star Regulus (known in Babylonian as Sharu) with Venus and Jupiter.

Part of what he calls the 'wow factor' in working on the movie was discovering that 'Sharu is the Babylonian for king, while Venus is the mother planet and Jupiter the father. Father, mother and king – that's an intriguing combination.'

The Stable Only Luke suggests a stable, and he's probably referring to a cave, which would have been a more likely place to keep animals. Matthew, by contrast, talks about a 'house'. And that's because he tells a different story about …

Bethlehem Both Matthew and Luke agree that the birthplace is Bethlehem, which is important as the fulfilment of prophesy: it establishes Jesus as successor to King David, who was also born there.

But Luke has Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem as temporary residents, for the census – which is why they ended up in a stable when there was no room at the inn. Matthew says nothing about a census, stable or inn, and gives the impression that Mary and Joseph are permanent residents in that 'house'.
You may read the entire article here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Do you want a democracy like they have in Iraq?"

The goal of the struggle against terrorists from the Middle East was to establish Iraq as a model of democracy. A thriving Iraqi democracy would not only contrast to the extremist ideologies of groups like Al Qaeda but would also contrast to the old order of monarchies and dictatorships that dominate so many of the countries of that region. The citizens of those various countries, inspired by what they would see in Iraq, would demand progressive change.

Instead, through the particular genius of the Bush administration, Iraq has become a model of chaos and death. No one in their right minds would want to recreate that in their home countries.

This is Fareed Zakaria’s assessment in Newsweek:
For all his intellectual shortcomings, Bush recognized that the roots of Islamic terror lie in the dysfunctions of the Arab world. Over the last 40 years, as the rest of the globe progressed economically and politically, the Arabs moved backward. Decades of tyranny and stagnation—mostly under the auspices of secular, Westernized regimes like those in Egypt and Syria—have produced an opposition that is extreme, religiously oriented and, in some cases, violent. Its ideology is now global, and it has small bands of recruits from London to Jakarta. But at its heart it is an Arab phenomenon, born in the failures of that region. And it is likely only to be cured by a more open and liberal Arab culture that has made its peace with modernity. Look for example at two non-Arab countries, Malaysia and Turkey, whose people are conservative and religious Muslims. Both places are also reasonably successful economies, open societies and functioning democracies. As a result, they don't produce swarms of suicide bombers.

Iraq after Saddam presented a unique opportunity to steer history on a new course. But instead the Bush administration drove it into a ditch. As a result, the effort to create an Iraqi model for the Middle East has failed. No matter what happens over the next year or two, the country has developed into more of a warning about the dangers of democracy than a symbol of its promise. When people around the world—and, most important, in the region—look at Iraq, they see chaos, religious extremism and violence.

Donald Rumsfeld frequently says, as he did again in his last appearance at the Pentagon, that if you were to "fly over" Iraq as he does, you would see that the violence is greatly exaggerated. In fact, were Rumsfeld to have dared to brave the roads of Iraq—as reporters do every day—he would have discovered that the reverse is true.

The Iraq Study Group report—which Rumsfeld boasts he has not really read—points out that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq ... A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn't hurt U.S. personnel doesn't count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence."

Now look at the "safe" areas. The south of the country, which the administration claims is stable, is run by fanatical religious parties, militias and street gangs, most of whom impose Iranian-style restrictions on people's rights and liberties. For minorities (like Christians) and for women, the new Iraq has been one of persecution and punishment. In many Sunni areas in the center of the country, a Taliban-style puritanism is being enforced. Amid the chaos, the groups that can provide security tend to be the most thuggish and extreme in their political views. And wherever there are mixed populations—throughout Iraq's cities—a gruesome campaign of ethnic cleansing has produced hundreds of thousands of internal refugees. Almost 2 million Iraqis—8 percent of the population—have fled the country entirely.

In the wake of this "model," not a single Arab regime feels any pressure to reform. They say to their people, "Do you want a democracy like they have in Iraq?" (The refrain echoes beyond the region. Vladimir Putin makes the same point in Russia, to justify his own usurpations of power.) Look around. The Saudi royals are stronger than ever. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has jailed his opponents. The Syrian regime, once troubled, is more confident. Iran is ascendant. And the United States has become radioactive. Were America to come out in favor of clean water, we would find people opposed in the Arab world today.

George W. Bush needs to understand that he now has to choose between Iraq and his broader Middle East project. Only by realizing that Iraq has gone awry and reducing America's involvement there can he credibly push a different, more incremental reform in other countries. If, instead, he insists on digging deeper in Iraq, America's war will drown out all else. For the sake of his own freedom agenda, President Bush must move beyond Iraq.

Powell: There are not enough troops and it wouldn’t make any difference anyway

Amid proposals that the level of U.S. troops should be increased in Iraq, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said today on CBS’s Face the Nation that we don’t’ have the additional troops to send so basically this would mean extending tours of existing troops and accelerating the arrival of other troops for new tours of duty.

This is a transcript via Think Progress:
POWELL: Let’s be clear about something else, Bob, that gets a little confusing. There are really no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops.

SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you about that because… do we have the troops? You seem to be suggesting that we don’t.

POWELL: I’m suggesting that what general Shoemaker said the other day before a committee looking at the reserve and national guard, That the active army is about broken. General Shoemaker is absolutely right. All of my contacts within the army suggest that the army has a serious problem in the active force.

SCHIEFFER: Let’s… you’ve talked about… I take it you think that the 160,000 troops are not going to be any more successful than 140,000.

POWELL: Nobody has made the case to me that 140,000… I have not seen a case that persuades me that it would be better at 150 and 160. Frankly, that would take a surge that you have to pay for later by not having troops that can come in and replace some of the 140,000 there.
He also believes we are less safe than we were four years ago and are less able to influence events elsewhere in the world.

This from CBS:
The United States is losing the war in Iraq but sending more troops to Baghdad is not the best way to change course, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Face The Nation.

Powell said he agreed with the assessment of the Iraq Study Group co-chairmen, Lee Hamilton and James Baker, that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating," and he also agreed with recently-confirmed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the U.S. is not winning the war.

"So if it's grave and deteriorating and we're not winning, we are losing," Powell told Bob Schieffer in an exclusive interview. "We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."

President George W. Bush is considering several options for a new strategy in Iraq. The most likely choice would be to send tens of housands of additional troops for an indefinite period to quickly secure Baghdad.


Powell, also a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he did not see the military benefit of flooding Baghdad with American troops.

"I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work," he said, adding that the Iraqi government and security forces must take over.

"It is the D.C. police force that guards Washington, D.C., not the troops that are stationed at Fort Myer," Powell said. "And in Baghdad, you need a police force to do that, and in the other cities, you need a police force to do that, and not the American troops."

Powell also doubted that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are large enough to support such an operation.

"The current active Army is not large enough and the Marine Corps is not large enough for the kinds of missions they're being asked to perform," Powell said. "We need to let both the Army and the Marine Corps grow in size, in my military judgment."

Asked directly what the U.S. should do in Iraq, Powell said:

"I think that what we should do is to work with the Iraqi government, press them on the political peace, do everything we can to provide equipment, advisers, and whatever the Iraqi armed forces need to become more competent, and to train their leaders so that those leaders realize their responsibility to the government."

Powell, who as a member of the Bush Administration pushed the international community to sanction the invasion of Iraq, said that we are not safer now after nearly four years of fighting.

"I think we are a little less safe, in the sense that we don't have the same force structure available for other problems," Powell said. "I think we have been somewhat constrained in our ability to influence events elsewhere."