Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why doesn't George W. Bush want to win in Iraq?

The Bush administration has far less interest in winning a war than in fighting one. The failure to put enough troops on the ground from day one, the failure to plan for a post-war Iraq, the failure to put qualified people in charge of and to administer the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the failure of the CPA to quickly do the necessary political work during the short time the window of opportunity was that open to them following the downfall of the Baathist regime, the failure to do the necessary reconstruction work for the Iraqi infrastructure in a timely manner and using reconstruction monies to employ Iraqis rather than squandering those funds on American contractors who failed at their tasks, and so on only points to an administration acting in bad faith.

However, that’s only half of it. There is necessary political work on the domestic front that should have been and still needs to be done. The failure to provide the type of leadership to unite the nation behind this war has been utterly lacking. Nothing is more important during a time of war than to do what has to be done to unite a nation. Not only does this administration seem to do whatever they can to keep the country divided but there are times they almost seem to lose interest in the war while American troops are fighting and dying.

Peter Beinart writes in this week’s New Republic, “From the beginning, Bush has preferred the war on terrorism as a wedge issue to the war on terrorism as a unifying national cause.” The debate in the U.S. Senate last week turned into a shouting match over very little of substance. The president himself sunk to the “cut and run” rhetoric for partisan purposes forcing Democrats to react in kind. The nation is not well served by this behavior by anyone in national leadership. However, it is the president who sets the example. As Beinart puts it, “It's hard to serve the national interest when the president of the United States does not.” Beinart writes,

Why doesn't George W. Bush want to win in Iraq? Seriously. The past several
weeks have forced him to choose between two big goals: demonizing Democrats to help the GOP retain control of Congress and fostering a domestic climate that
gives the new Iraqi government the best chance to survive. And, again and again,
he has chosen door number one. This is what ex-Bush officials like Paul O'Neill
and John DiIulio warned us about--and what Hurricane Katrina reaffirmed: that
what matters in this administration is not policy, but politics. For all his
talk about America's historical mission to defeat tyranny and spread freedom,
there is only one mission to which George W. Bush has shown consistent devotion: winning elections. He acts less like the president than like the head of the
Republican National Committee.

Success of the mission and the withdrawal of American troops are going to require some compromises by the American people including, but not limited to, amnesty for Iraqi insurgents who may be responsible for the deaths of American servicemen. Otherwise, the conflict will never end. However, the American people are not being prepared for this by the administration.
For Americans, however, resisting a public withdrawal date is only the
beginning. The truly gut-wrenching part will be looking the other way if Iraq's
government allows insurgents who murdered heroic young Americans to go free. In blood-soaked societies, some kind of amnesty is crucial. Amnesties helped
overcome the Islamist insurgency that ravaged Algeria in the 1990s, and they
helped peacefully transfer power in South Africa, through the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. Like black South Africans who saw their families
slaughtered under apartheid, some Iraqi Shia and Kurds who saw their families
slaughtered by Saddam Hussein will have to accept a public acknowledgement of
the truth but no full justice. And some grieving American families will have to
as well. The United States can get Iraqi leaders to fudge this on paper. But, on
the ground, an amnesty for some violent anti-U.S. insurgents may prove crucial
to persuading Sunni nationalists to break with the foreign jihadists, lay down
their arms, and give Iraq's new government a chance at life.

You can read Beinart’s essay here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Why conservatives can't govern

Conservatives trying to govern is a lot like a drunk trying to drive – they think they are doing just fine but everyone else on the road needs to watch out. Alan Wolfe follows up on his interesting article on why conservative ideology is at the root of incompetent governing . They just can’t help themselves. He writes,

Conservatives fail because those who hate government cannot run it very well – the theme of my recent article in the July/August issue of The Washington Monthly. But then there is also what can be called conservative management theory. Conservatives have strong ideas about how organizations ought to be run – and those ideas invariably make them run badly.

One such idea is that no information hostile to those in charge
should ever leak out. The result, however, is that no good information ever
leaks in. The smaller the number of decision-makers, the less the knowledge on
which decisions are based. It is not good to keep a tight ship if the ship
always sinks.

You may read his comments here. Sisyphus previously cited his full article here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Is it too early to worry about an American theocracy?

Russell Cobb argues in Slate today that Americans may be too quick to view the so-called Christian Right (a.k.a. Christianists) as monolithic. He points out that there are fissures in the movement that are beginning to crack. That is a point presented in this blog (see Christianist crack up).

He uses Michelle Goldberg’s new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, to explain his point:
The specter of an American theocracy, the title of Kevin Phillips'
broadside against the Bush administration, has obscured the signs of dissent in
what can look like a Christian monolith. Michelle Goldberg, a Salon reporter and
the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, misses some of
the signs, too, in her otherwise astute study. It's not just that she blurs the
more fringe personalities, lumping together conspiracy-minded nut jobs (like
theocrat Howard Phillips, who believes that "enemies of Christ in this fallen
world must be conquered") with veteran conservative blowhards like William
Bennett. As she describes how the Christian Right moved from the margins of
acceptability to the Republican mainstream, she also overlooks generational
tensions and large-scale dissatisfaction with the Bush administration among many conservative, white evangelicals (only 34 percent of whom, according to a June 6
Pew research poll, "strongly back" the president).

In her subtitle, Goldberg uses the term Christian nationalism to
describe a "totalistic political ideology" that encompasses a wide variety of
conservative groups—two of the most prominent being the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Goldberg ranges far and wide over the "parallel universe"
of Christian nationalism and argues that, for all its contradictions, a central
ideology motivates all the disparate groups on the Christian right. This
ideology is called "Christian Reconstruction" and it traces its origins to a
little-known but highly prolific thinker named R.J. Rushdoony, who died in 2001.
Rushdoony, the son of Armenian immigrants, taught that the American Revolution was actually a "conservative counterrevolution" against the Enlightenment. He
argued that the Constitution prohibited an establishment of religion because
Christianity was already the de facto religion of individual states. Viewing the
separation of church and state as a myth foisted on Christians by liberal
elitists, Rushdoony made it his lifelong project to reconstruct an imagined
Christian nation. It's a project whose legacy is carried on—in Goldberg's
estimation—by everyone from George W. Bush to Jerry Falwell. Yet Rushdoony plays an outsized role in Kingdom Coming; even ultraconservatives like Ralph Reed have distanced themselves from Christian Reconstruction.

You can read the entire article here.

Monday, June 26, 2006

When democracy and civil liberties are inconvenient

When the authorities go out of their way to make sure things like democracy and civil liberties don’t get in the way of fighting for things like democracy and civil liberties (or so they claim) then you know something out of kilter.

We keep hearing over and over again how things are different since 9-11 – that we have never fought a war like this before. Yet, it is less that two decades ago that brought the end of the Cold War – a war fought over roughly a half century on as many fronts and in as many ways imaginable. It was also a war unlike any we had ever fought before. There were a number of lessons learned from the Cold War but one of the more important ones was the need to give high priority to practicing democracy and respecting civil liberties despite the tensions created when confronting a foe who does neither. The moral high ground is not an abstraction but a reality that unifies the citizenry and strengthens ties with needed allies.

Compare that with the current situation.

Three years ago, CIA operatives kidnapped a man off the streets of Milan. He was tortured and then disappeared. Our allies, the Italians, were not impressed and are bring criminal charges against the U.S. agents. Then earlier this year it became public that individuals from around the globe caught up in the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition were being held in facilities in Europe causing an uproar and seriously testing the strength of the U.S.-European alliance. Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice writes:

The exposure of this CIA kidnapping ring is part of the growing
revulsion throughout Europe and other parts of the world against such American
gangsterism. As Judge Sparato said in Florence: "We know it's a great mistake to
fight terrorism in this way."

For example, by its own involvement in torture, the CIA has given
Al Qaeda and its offshoots an effective recruiting tool. And even among people
across the globe who have supported American efforts to export democracy, these crimes make a mockery of the president's recurring assurances—most recently on
June 14—that "we are a nation of laws and the rule of law. . . . This is a
transparent society."

Now, further angry attention is being focused throughout Europe on
an explosive report by the 46-nation Council of Europe, which enforces the
European Convention on Human Rights. It documents the secret collusion of
certain European countries with the CIA in what the report's chief
investigator—former prosecutor Dick Marty of Switzerland—calls "a spider's web
across the globe." This exposure—says the London-based Financial Times—"is
likely to make it more difficult for European countries to cooperate with U.S.

This isn’t, of course, a rogue security apparatus. Rather it is all too symptomatic of the arrogance of power displayed by the current administration. Michael Kinsley writes in the Washington Post:
For years, all the intelligence agencies have been tussling with the
American Civil Liberties Union over documents about the innovative Bush
administration policy of locking people up in foreign countries where they can
be tortured without the inconvenience of anyone knowing about it or bringing up,
you know, like, the Constitution. It is not yet clear -- though there is little
reason for optimism -- whether the courts will let them get away with it, but
the official position of the executive branch under President Bush is that the
U.S. government can lock you up anywhere in the world, torture you and tell no
one about it. And if someone does find out and starts talking trash like "habeas
corpus" or "Fourth Amendment," too bad: It's all okay under the president's
inherent powers as commander in chief. Congress -- unbeknownst to Congress --
approved it all in its resolution shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, urging the
president to fight terrorism. And the president deputized the CIA and other
agencies to go forth and use this authority, in documents that you can't have
and that may or may not exist.

Meanwhile, in another federal court, the ACLU has been arguing with
the National Security Agency about the wiretapping of international phone calls
to and from the United States. The 1978 intelligence reform law made clear as
cellophane that these agencies had no authority to wiretap citizens of this
country and in this country without permission from a judge. So clear, in fact,
that the president doesn't deny that his wiretapping program violates the 1978
law. Instead, he says that Congress overruled that law in its 2001 resolution to
oppose terrorism. That, plus the usual inherent powers of the presidency.

It's true that you and I are not being grabbed on the streets and
sent to a former secret police torture-training camp in Godforsakistan. Nor is
the government eavesdropping on your international phone calls or mine.
Probably. Because I like you, I'll forgo the usual ominous warning about how
they came after him and then they came after her and then they came after you.
I'll even skip the liberal sermonette about how even bad guys have rights.

But your rights and mine are not supposed to be at the whim of the
government, let alone the president. They are based in the Constitution and the
willingness of those we put in power to obey it -- even as interpreted by judges
they may disagree with. The most distressing aspect of this story is the
apparent attitude of our current rulers that the Constitution is an obstacle to
be overcome -- by conducting dirty business abroad or by wildly disingenuous
interpretations of laws and the Constitution.

Just look at what these supposed worshipers at the shrine of
"strict constructionism" and "original meaning" have done to the 2001
anti-terrorism resolution. Did any senator who voted for this resolution have
any idea that he or she was, in essence, voting to repeal all the protections
for individuals against government agency abuse that Congress enacted in 1978?

The fact that there are countries in this world where the
government can torture people in secret and without fear of courts is supposed
to be a tragedy -- not a convenience.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Anniversary of Stonewall riots mark Gay Pride Weekend

It will be 37 years this week since the Stonewall riots in New York on June 28th and the beginning of the contemporary gay rights movement. The weekend is commemorated as Gay Pride weekend and is marked in many cities with parades.

It was in the early morning hours that police raided the Stonewall, a small gay bar in Greenwich Village. This was a pretty routine activity for the police and gay men and lesbian had more or less come to accept this harassment as the price to pay for who they were. However, this evening was different. The patrons fought back. The riot was quelled but the evening of the 28th brought more rioting. After that evening demonstrations took place followed by new organizations with the purpose of fighting for the rights of sexual minorities. There were many twists and turns in the movement to come but clearly June 28, 1969 marked a turning point in the consciousness of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.

You can read a reminiscence of Gay Pride weekend here.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Was Jesus a Republican?

Just where in the Bible does Jesus spell out the Christian position on Presidential powers or Social Security or nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court or casino gambling on Indian reservations? Admittedly, it has been some time since I have studied the good book but I just don’t remember those issues in either the New or Old Testaments. Yet these matters as well as many others have become issues of concern for Christianists exercising their power in Washington.

Popular history plays up the Puritans seeking religious freedom in the New World but downplays what happened after they got here. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion but were unwilling to share that freedom with others. They suppressed other Christian expressions of religion – particularly by Baptists and Quakers – and they maintained a theocracy where the boundaries between church and state were practically indistinguishable.

Of course, the colony ultimately failed to thrive under those conditions and only after secular rule removed the yoke of governance from the churches did Christianity revive under the Great Awakenings. The reality was far more complex than the picture I am painting in these few sentences but in general the First, Second and Third Great Awakenings were precursors to revolutionary or reform movements and all operated outside state power. Contemporary Christianists (a.k.a. the religious right) have turned evangelistic Christianity on its head by seeking political power through governance and becoming a reactionary force in our society. They are becoming the modern day Puritans.

Randall Balmer is a professor of religious history and is an evangelical Christian. He is quite upset by what he sees going on in the name of his religion. He has a book scheduled for publication later this year and an essay from that book was published the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday.

I do not share Mr. Balmer’s theology but I can understand the distress of evangelical Christians as to how their movement has been taken over by rightwing political power brokers. It distresses me that rightwing elements in our society have run moderates out of the Republican Party and use the cloak of evangelical Christianity to give their actions the impression of some sort of purity. The wolf in sheep’s clothing seems quite welcome by the flock.

Balmer discusses some of the issues taken by the religious right:

And what has the religious right done with its political influence?
Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party — and I'm
aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals
of the religious right — the purpose of all this grasping for power looks
something like this: an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the
continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime
allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a
rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would
be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is
very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the
religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology,
thereby transforming students into catechumens.

America's grossly disproportionate consumption of energy continues
unabated, prompting demands for oil exploration in environmentally sensitive
areas. The Bush administration has jettisoned U.S. participation in the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change, which called on Americans to make at least a token
effort to combat global warming. Corporate interests are treated with the kind
of reverence and deference once reserved for the deity.

The Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and
the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to
have trickled down into public policy. On judicial matters, the religious right
demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with regard
to abortion. At the same time, it approves a corresponding expansion of
presidential powers, thereby disrupting the constitutionally mandated system of
checks and balances.

The torture of human beings, God's creatures — some guilty of
crimes, others not — has been justified by the Bush administration, which
also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct surveillance on
American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of obtaining a court
order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting of the rule of law
that emanates from the nation's capital these days make Richard Nixon look like
a fraternity prankster.

Where does the religious right stand in all this? Following the
revelations that the U.S. government exported prisoners to nations that have no
scruples about the use of torture, I wrote to several prominent religious-right
organizations. Please send me, I asked, a copy of your organization's position
on the administration's use of torture. Surely, I thought, this is one issue
that would allow the religious right to demonstrate its independence from the
administration, for surely no one who calls himself a child of God or who
professes to hear "fetal screams" could possibly countenance the use of torture.
Although I didn't really expect that the religious right would climb out of the
Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings, I thought perhaps
they might poke out a foot and maybe wiggle a toe or two.

I was wrong. Of the eight religious-right organizations I
contacted, only two, the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion
and Democracy, answered my query. Both were eager to defend administration
policies. "It is our understanding, from statements released by the Bush
administration," the reply from the Family Research Council read, "that torture
is already prohibited as a means of collecting intelligence data." The Institute
on Religion and Democracy stated that "torture is a violation of human dignity,
contrary to biblical teachings," but conceded that it had "not yet produced a
more comprehensive statement on the subject," even months after the revelations.
Its president worried that the "anti-torture campaign seems to be aimed
exclusively at the Bush administration," thereby creating a public-relations

I'm sorry, but the use of torture under any circumstances is a
moral issue, not a public-relations dilemma.

Balmer then writes about some of the individuals either representing the religious right or associated with them:

In addition to distorting the teachings of Jesus, the religious right has
also been cavorting with some rather unsavory characters in its quest for
political and cultural power. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who last year pleaded
guilty to accepting $2.4-million worth of bribes, had earned a 100-percent
approval rating from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition while a member of the
House of Representatives. During more than two decades as a member of the state
Legislature, Jim West, a former mayor of Spokane, Wash., sponsored various bills
aimed at curtailing the rights of gays and lesbians, as well as a bill that
would have outlawed any consensual sexual contact between teenagers; the voters of Spokane recalled West last December, after he admitted to arranging gay sexual liaisons over the Internet and offering city jobs in exchange for sexual favors.

For the better part of three decades now, we've been treated to
the moral sermonizing of William J. Bennett, who wrote The Book of Virtues and
served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of education and as one of Bill Clinton's
most relentless critics. We now know that Bennett is a compulsive gambler. Ralph
Reed, currently a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia — the
first step on his road to the White House — has always preached against gambling
as part of his "family values" rhetoric. He has also done consulting work for
Enron (which engaged in other forms of gambling) and accepted as much as
$4.2-million from Indian tribes intent on maintaining a regional monopoly for
their casinos. "I need to start humping in corporate accounts," he wrote to the
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Tony Perkins, a graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty
University and head of the Family Research Council, arguably the most
influential religious-right organization aside from Focus on the Family, has had
ties to white-supremacist organizations in his native Louisiana.

The purpose in ticking off a roll call of rogues associated with the religious right
(and the list could have been longer) is not to single individuals out for
obloquy and certainly not to suggest the absence of moral failings on the other
side of the political spectrum — though I must say that some of this behavior
makes Bill Clinton's adolescent dalliances pale by comparison. The point,
rather, is to argue that those who make it their business to demand high
standards of moral rectitude from others ought to be able to approach those
standards themselves. My evangelical theology tells me that we are, all of us,
sinners and flawed individuals. But it also teaches the importance of
confession, restitution, and amendment of behavior — whether it be an adulterous
tryst, racial intolerance, or prevarication in the service of combating one's
enemies. We have seen nothing of the sort from these putatively Christian power

"Do not be misled," St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "Bad
company corrupts good character." Jesus himself asked: "What good would it be
for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?" The coalition with the
Republican Party is blasphemy, pure and simple.
You can read his entire essay here.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Does Megan's Law work?

Megan’s Law is generic term for the set of requirements to publicize the names and addresses of convicted pedophiles upon their release from prison. Megan was a young girl who was brutally raped and murdered by a man in her neighborhood. Unbeknownst to the neighbors until after his arrest the man had previously been convicted of molesting children. Megan’s Law and similar legislation was adopted throughout the country including Virginia.

On the face of it, what could be more reasonable? What parent doesn’t want to protect their children particularly from weirdoes who would sexually abuse them? However, does it really work?

Unless we are going to imprison pedophiles for life or just execute them, they will be with us. They are sick people who have difficulty with adult relationships. What these people need is professional help, not to be ostracized. This is not a sentiment of pity but of self interest of someone with children who also cares about the other children in the community.

The United Kingdom is now considering Sara’s Law. The tragic story is similar and so is the proposed law. Study of the U.S. Megan’s Law is underway but there is controversy that the British proposal is media driven rather than well thought out.

Johann Hari offers his opinion why Sara’s Law (based upon the U.S. Megan’s Law counterpart) is wrongheaded:
Far from protecting little girls like Megan, the law named after her
actually increases the number of children who are raped and murdered.

To understand why, you have to talk to the people who work with paedophiles
and have a proven track record of bringing their reoffending rates crashing
down, saving countless Megans and Sarahs. They are invariably the strongest and
fiercest opponents of Megan’s Law. Pam Welch, a prison officer who works
in-depth with paedophiles, explains, “It is when these people feel isolated and
friendless that the risk of reoffending is highest. They feel that if the world
considers them a monster they might as well behave like a monster. At least then
there might be some feeling of pleasure, and some measure of control.”

Megan’s Law guarantees that a released paedophile will be put in this
position. Instead of being able to find a job, build normal adult relationships
and being given help to resist their darkest urges, they are plunged into a
scalding bath of hatred. One newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, documented the effect of Megan’s Law in Newburgh, a small town in up-state New York. When a sex offender named John Duck Jr. was released on parole to live with his elderly
parents, their neighbours were told about his crimes by hundreds of police
knocking door-to-door with leaflets. All three family members received a cascade
of death threats. A howling picket was established outside their house for
weeks, demanding Duck “get out now!!” – presumably to a mythical place with no
children. (He couldn’t anyway – it was a condition of his parole to remain at
that address). He was shunned everywhere he went, unemployable and friendless.
The few neighbours who did speak to him received threats of their own.

It’s hard to think of a situation more likely to make a sex offender
relapse and destroy another child’s life. That’s why, despite Megan’s Law being
introduced in every state, rates of child rape and murder by strangers have not
fallen; in many, they have increased.

The only programmes with a proven track record of reducing reoffending
adopt precisely the opposite approach to Megan’s Law.

You may read his entire article here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

New online resources for the well informed

I would like to call your attention to a new online magazine, Democracy, and a new blog, PostGlobal.

Democracy just launched yesterday. It is edited by Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny who saw the need for a place for progressive ideas to be presented and debated. As Baer puts it,

So, despondent after another Election Day, Andrei and I decided that as progressives begin to rebuild their infrastructure, that a key part of that needed to be a journal of ideas, where these big ideas can be floated and debated – in our pages, in other’s pages, and importantly in the growing blogosphere. The lesson of the conservatives was clear: these journals – while small in readership – have an outsized impact on the overall movement.

PostGlobal is a blog of the Washington Post started about a week ago. It poses questions regarding global issues at least twice a week and solicits responses from experts and journalists from around the world plus an extra “Editor’s Box” for assessment on late breaking stories. It is managed by writers David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria.

You will be able to find links for both of these in the right-hand column.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Politics and the World Cup

Is the World Cup political? No but certain political systems seem to have the advantage in winning. According to Franklin Foer:

Political theory, for all its talk about equality and virtue, has strangely
evaded this question. But, after 17 World Cups, there's now a mass of empirical
data, and, using the most sophisticated methods available, we can now determine the political and economic conditions that yield soccer glory.
To begin, we
must first reach back into the dustbin of history. Communism, despite its gulags
and show trials, produced great players and rock-solid teams. The Hungarian
squad of the early '50s has gone down in history as one of the best to never win
a championship. A few decades later, in 1982, the Poles finished third in the
tournament, drawing with Paolo Rossi's Italy and beating Michel Platini's France
en route. These triumphs are reflected in the overall record. In World Cup
matches against non-communist countries, the red hordes bested their capitalist
foes more often than not -- by my count, 46 wins, 32 draws, 40 losses.
But the fact remains that a communist country has never won the World Cup.

Read his entire argument here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Midterm elections and alternative visions

Every time I hear complaints about the Republican Congress and the conversation turns to the midterm elections coming up this fall inevitably there is a comment to the effect, “the Democrats are disorganized” or “the Democrats don’t stand for anything.” While there are certainly elements of truth to both of those statements I think they also betray a lack of understanding of how our system of governance works and the advantages to the party holding the White House.

The party that controls the White House can speak with one voice if the leadership is exerted. Minus the White House, the congressional wing of the party has difficulty coming together on most issues to present broad visions distinguishing it from the other party. There is an elected leadership in congress but we are not a parliamentary system in which the executive and legislative are merged. Party discipline in the sense of parliamentary systems just does not exist in our government which separates powers. (Personally, I would prefer a parliamentary system both for the clarity of its politics but also for its flexibility and responsiveness to the public.)

So does it make a difference that Democrats are not offering a clear-cut alternative program in upcoming congressional elections this midterm? Probably not. Presidential elections are when voters are given a choice of programs and vision but midterm congressional elections generally reflect whether or not the public is happy with the party in power.

Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo put it this way today:
Political insiders consistently overstate the importance of slogans and
programs. Political tides aren't unleashed or weathered because of message
discipline or thematic fine-tuning. They come about because of failures or
victories abroad, big motions in the economy, or judgments coalescing in the
public mind in ways that are as inscrutable in their origins as they can be
transparent in their effects.

1994 is a classic example. The Contract with America is now judged
a seminal political act whereas in fact, I would say, it had little if anything
to do with the result of that watershed election. 1994 happened because Bill
Clinton was very unpopular two years into his first term. A new wave of
right-wing politics -- bound up with but not limited to talk radio -- had been
building steam since the beginning of the Bush years. Clinton's unpopularity
both stemmed from that wave and helped crystallize it. Add to these factors the
fact that redistricting, a wave of retirements and unified Democratic control in
Washington for the first time in a generation all made the South ripe for
finally flipping over into the hands of the Republican party at the
Congressional level.

Let's be honest. What is this election about?

It's not about the Democrats. 2008 may be about the Democrats.
Maybe 2010. Not 2006. 2006 is about George W. Bush and the Republican party.
And, specifically, how many people are fed up with what's happened over the last
six years and want to make a change? The constitution gives the people only one
way to do that in 2006 -- put a hard brake on the president's power by turning
one or both houses of Congress over to the opposition party.

And Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia cites exceptional presidential poll ratings (either unusually low or high), foreign war (popular or unpopular), sour economy, major scandal, and intense hot-button social or domestic issues as the factors most likely to impact on mid-term elections.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Iraq: No good choices

Several weeks ago, Senator Biden suggested a solution to the future of Iraq. His proposal was to divide the country up into three quasi-autonomous regions under a federal system of government. Whether this was a good idea or not at least it was geared to start discussions about alternatives to the current situation. It was quickly shot down and the debate in congress has quickly deteriorated into partisan up or down votes to go or stay not to better the lives of Iraqi people but to embarrass opponents. As Tim Grieve put it in Salon:

Republican congressmen like Walter Jones and Ron Paul hoped that the
House of Representatives might have a serious debate about the future of a war
that has claimed 2,500 American lives. Dennis Hastert, John Boehner and others
in the Republican leadership thought it was more important to jam Democrats and other war critics with an all-or-nothing vote on a support-the-troops-or-else resolution.

Guess which side prevailed?

Is the debate in Congress over Iraq between false choices –leave entirely by the end of the year or stay the course? Leaving the country by the end of the year without strong and loyal armed forces to fill the void would seem to invite the ongoing sectarian violence to escalate into full blown civil war. Chaos on that scale is then an invitation for neighbors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria to aggravate the situation by taking sides as well as for Turkey to do mischief in the Kurdish north. A regional war is not necessarily out of the question. As awful as the current situation is there are far worse scenarios. The present situation for the Iraqi people is just awful. Consider this article about the Al-Tub al-Adli in Baghdad in today’s London Times:
The single-storey Al-Tub al-Adli morgue, whose nondescript appearance
belies the horrors within, has become synonymous with the seemingly unstoppable
violence that has turned Baghdad into the most frightening city on earth.

It is here that bodies from the nightly slaughter are dumped each
morning. The stench of decaying flesh, mingled with disinfectant, hits you at
the checkpoint 100 yards away.

Each corpse tells a different story about the terrors of Iraq. Some
bodies are pocked with holes inflicted by torturers with power drills. Some show
signs of strangulation; others, with hands tied behind the back, bear bullet
wounds. Many are charred and dismembered.

So far this year, according to health ministry figures, the mortuary
has processed the bodies of about 6,000 people, most of whom died violently.
Some were killed in American military action but many more were the victims of
the sectarian violence that US and Iraqi forces are struggling to contain.

It is clear more security forces are needed on Iraqi streets, not less, otherwise this situation can, and probably will, get worse if that is possible to imagine. Yet, staying the course is hardly tenable either. Stabilization (let alone democracy) requires, at a minimum, two things. The first is a strong armed forces loyal to the Iraqi nation as a whole as opposed to loyal to sub-groups within (or outside) the nation but the problem is the only forces capable of establishing order are the sectarian militias. The second is substantial reconstruction of the country after years of neglect by the Hussein government and damage by the war. The problem is the initial reconstruction was botched by mismanagement and now is too dangerous to proceed due to the deteriorating security situation. Just as there was no plan for post-war Iraq there is no plan for post-post-war Iraq. Staying the course is very passive because is means events are in control of us and not the other way around.

Add to this the growing impatience of the American people who have been supportive of the administration as long as there were signs of progress. We are being told over and over again we are turning a corner every time some glimmer of good news comes out of Iraq. However, many of us are old enough to remember light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel pep talks from the White House and Pentagon during the Vietnam War.

Right now the administration is betting on the new national leadership in Iraq. On the one hand the new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, does seem to be the strongest leader the Iraqis and the U.S. can hope for at this time. On the other hand, he is the third Prime Minister in three years, does not have reliable armed forces to back him up, and dependence on the U.S. armed forces can only weaken him politically in the long run. For our foreign policy there is a lot, if not too much, riding on the success of Maliki.

Even the good news about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi serves as a reminder of how close Osama Bin Laden was to capture or death in the mountains of Tora Bora in December of 2001. The U.S. military failed to commit resources after requests by CIA operatives on the ground had pinpointed Bin Laden allowing him and many of his Al-Qaeda cohorts plus Taliban to escape into Pakistan. The failure to accomplish the mission has left Al-Qaeda to plan for more attacks against U.S. targets as is reported in this week’s Time magazine and for a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan leading to some of the most intensive fighting in recent months since 2001.

Impatience of the American people is largely a product of the lack of leadership from the administration. The American people needed to be leveled with. If a war is worth fighting then it is worth the leadership being honest about it. Instead we have we are presented with rosy pictures and empty rhetoric about democracy. There are no good choices now – only bad and worse but even those are not clear which is which. If a war is worth fighting there should be discussions about alternatives to overcome failed policies. Instead there are up and down votes in Congress. If a war is worth fighting then it is imperative that plans be made and followed for the whole process from beginning to end, that there be contingencies in reserve if plan A doesn’t work, and that those plans be competently administered. Instead, this administration seems to be making it up as they go along and Donald Rumsfield’s job security seems to take precedent over the security of American troops and Iraqi civilians.

If a war is worth fighting then it is worth doing what needs to be done to make it an international force. Instead, with the exception of Great Britain, the “coalition of the willing” the administration has been able to put together is mostly small countries offering troops numbering in the tens and hundreds. If a war is worth fighting, then Americans need to be asked to make sacrifices. Instead, the administration pushes through war-time tax-cuts and urges the American people to go shopping. It is no wonder there is such a disconnect by the American people – war and peace are no different. If George Bush were President during WWII we would probably be eating rice and sauerkraut for breakfast now.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Conservative ideology and governance don’t mix

What do the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina and the Department of Defense’s response to the war in Iraq have in common? Both are examples of governance by conservative ideologues – under-funded, overdependence on privatization, poor or no planning to accomplish the stated goals, and, most importantly, a lack of respect and faith in the one institution that is capable of making a difference in the lives of people affected – the federal government.

For the first time since 1932 conservatives have control of the White House, both houses of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. However, they have little or nothing to show for their turn at power. Conservatives are now turning on the Bush administration accusing the President of not being conservative enough.

Alan Wolfe, in the cover story of this month’s Washington Monthly, argues that the problems with the Bush administration is not just incompetence (although that is a big factor) but ideology – specifically, conservatism. He writes:
Conservative dissidents seem to have done an admirable job of
persuading each other of the truth of their claims. Of course, many of these
dissidents extolled the president's conservative leadership when he was riding
high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of
Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China
and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If
leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political
ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and
start questioning the ideology.

The collapse of the Bush presidency, in other words, is not just due to
Bush's incompetence (although his administration has been incompetent beyond
belief). Nor is it a response to the president's principled lack of intellectual
curiosity and pitbull refusal to admit mistakes (although those character flaws
are certainly real enough). And the orgy of bribery and special-interest
dispensation in Congress is not the result of Tom DeLay's ruthlessness, as
impressive a bully as he was. This conservative presidency and Congress
imploded, not despite their conservatism, but because of it.

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the
size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an
ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world
problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for
entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather,
from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the
money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to
the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his
Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes
must be cut, and the more they are cut--especially in ways benefiting the
rich--the better.

But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find
themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to
improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing
government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe
to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable
to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split
the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that
validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result
is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

Read the entire article here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Happy Flag Day!

June 14th is Flag Day in the United States. There seems to be something about the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance that drives people up the wall.

First, we have an organization called the Concerned Women for America (CWFA) holding a press conference today in support of the “Pledge Protection Act” sponsored by a couple of Congressmen in the House of Representatives. The purpose of this legislation would be to protect the phrase “under God” in the oath. The press release said, “Men of faith intentionally included the phrase ‘under God’ in an oath that serves as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism to our great country.” The press release insinuates the founding fathers were the “men of faith” referred to and adopted the flag, Flag Day and the Pledge as a package in 1777.

Andrew Sullivan cuts to the quick:
…. the pledge was not created or conceived by the founding fathers, whose
deist, cafeteria Christianity CWFA would now almost certainly deride as "secular
humanism". (Very few of the founders believed Jesus was divine. Can you imagine
what CWFA would say about a politician today who shared Jefferson's worldview?) The pledge was invented by a socialist in 1892; and the phrase "under God" was added as recently as 1954. I have no problem with it, I might add, and find the campaign to banish such harmless invocations of the deity to be petty and counter-productive. But CWA's hysteria and rewriting of American history need to be exposed. They're welcome to their version of Christianity. They're not welcome to their version of reality.
Then we have the United States Senate scheduled to vote on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to outlaw the desecration of American flags. This would be the first amendment ever to restrict the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Isn’t it great to have a Congress focused on such matters rather than lesser issues such as oversight of the executive branch, a war in Iraq, the health care crisis, absence of a sensible energy policy, future problem financing Social Security, etc.?

The picture to the right was taken in 1899. The picture to the left shows the “Bellamy salute.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Iraq and Catch-22

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about a panel she moderated recently at Princeton. Panelists were given ten minutes to describe what they thought Iraq would likely look like in 2010. One of the panelists was Ray Close, a retired CIA Arabist. As she points out, he offered a sobering prognosis.

Close identifies a number of very real potential crises in the region ranging from the western Indian border to the Mediterranean Sea in addition to Iraq which are part of the same picture. This would include toppling of governments, chaos, and possible militant Islamic takeovers of Pakistan (armed with nuclear weapons), Egypt (the most populous country in the region), and Saudi Arabia (the most oil rich in the region). Situations are already simmering in Afghanistan, Iran and Israel-Palestine. And, of course, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of another major terrorist attack on the United States.

Finally, he addresses Iraq and lays out why there is unlikely to be any satisfactory conclusion to the conflict there anytime soon..
1. FIRSTLY: At the moment, a continued large US military presence in
Iraq is the most effective barrier to a complete breakdown into civil war. To
put that proposition another way: I do not buy Congressman Murtha’s argument
that immediate and precipitate withdrawal is either practical or indeed
conscionable in terms of our responsibilities and obligations to the Iraqi
people. Much of what we are struggling to accomplish in Iraq today is generally
admirable and praiseworthy on the tactical level, and will continue to be
essential on the strategic level for the immediate future.

CATCH-22: The American military presence is also the main cause and
inspiration behind growing opposition BOTH to the US occupation AND to the
credibility and legitimacy of those leadership elements in Iraqi society on whom
a future of unity, stability and political moderation critically depend. I have
always maintained that in the final analysis, the person or the group that ends
up running Iraq, if the country remains in one piece, will have established his
or its credibility and legitimacy by the degree to which it has successfully
DEFIED and OPPOSED the American military occupation, not cooperated with it.

2. SECONDLY: Before a strong and stable central government can be
established and economic recovery sustained, the violent insurgency and general
lawlessness must be brought under strict control, and the central government
must command and control the loyalty of security forces that can function
independently of US occupation forces. Stated differently, organized
governmental authorities must possess a monopoly over the employment of lethal
force in the society, or effective governmental authority will never

CATCH-22: The only forces even potentially capable of establishing
order are the fiercely competitive and mutually hostile ethnic and sectarian
militias, which are growing larger and more powerful every day, and which are
becoming more and more determined to maintain their independence of action as
each respective ethnic or sectarian group feels threatened by the others. At the
same time, many individuals and even organized units of militiamen who owe their loyalties primarily to competing factions in society have become embedded within
the existing government security and military organizations, to the point where
an attempt to weed them out would destroy the cohesion and the effectiveness of
the central government’s already weak and very limited forces. The United States
cannot and will not disarm these rogue militias by itself, either by force or by
persuasion. In many cases, of course, they are the most efficient and reliable
forces in the country, as is particularly true in the case of the Kurdish
Peshmerga. And the United States cannot make common cause with one Iraqi faction against another without provoking civil war. Even standing by as passive
observers of this situation has its serious risks and drawbacks.

3. THIRDLY and finally: To do the Iraq thing right, either militarily
or in terms of economic reconstruction and political institution-building, will
take many more years, even under the best possible conditions. No one, American
or Iraqi, supporter or critic of the Bush Administration, has predicted anything
less than several years of continuing struggle to overcome the many obstacles
that presently stand in the way of a stable and unified Iraq.

CATCH-22: The American people are already rapidly running out of
patience. They will not tolerate the expense and the tragic loss of life, both
Iraqi and American, long enough to accomplish the job. So where a “cut and run”
strategy threatens to cause the whole undertaking to disintegrate, a “stay the
course” alternative that looks beyond the next two or three years holds no more
chance of bringing satisfactory results. Simply stated, expectations and
objectives, however nobly inspired, bear no reasonable relationship to time
availability. Finally, remember my point that failure in Iraq will make every
single other potential disaster in the region much more likely to occur and much
more apt to produce equally tragic and wasteful results. Unfortunately, that
true vice versa, as well.

You can read the entire article here.

Close’s analysis doesn’t have to completely accurate to make the point some very serious and creative thinking is called for, as well as strong and competent leadership, to minimize destructive chaos that can result when events begin to spin out of control.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Guantánamo again

This weekend three detainees at the Guantanamo detention center committed suicide by hanging themselves. Imprisoned there are men who have not been declared prisoners of war or criminals. They have been placed at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba to avoid the jurisdiction of American courts. The murky status of these men and their treatment at this facility has been an embarrassment to the American people and a source of alienation of some of our closest allies who have called for it to be closed. And by no stretch of the imagination has Guantanamo won hearts and minds of anyone in the Middle East.

There have been multiple suicide attempts before these three were finally successful. U.S. officials have tried to avoid the appearance of these suicides as acts of desperation. Der Speigel reports,

Some US officials deflected the rising chorus of criticism. Rear Admiral
Harry Harris, the camp's commander, said the prisoners had "no regard to life,
neither ours nor their own. And I believe this was not an act of desperation,
rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against the US."
Colleen Graffy,
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, said the suicides were "a good PR move to draw attention" to the plight of Guantánamo

Suicide as asymmetric warfare waged against the U.S.? Perhaps we should be grateful to Admiral Harris for protecting us from this attack but somehow I don’t feel any safer. As far as Ms. Graffy is concerned, her comment seems to be an admission the plight of these men deserve our attention.

It is all very sleazy. As Andrew Sullivan puts it,
Every time I have tried to write something about the cancer and shame of
Guantanamo, and the thought that the United States has strapped dozens of
randomly captured individuals in metal restraints in order to force-feed them, I
find myself so flummoxed that I give up. It has come to this? Remember: scores
of these inmates have almost no evidence against them or have been detained on
evidence tainted by torture, and have no way out of an insane system. Remember
also: it is perfectly obvious that whatever interrogation techniques we may have
used against these people, we have completely failed to get their cooperation to
an almost farcical degree. And when some then commit suicide, which is one
rational response to the situation, a U.S. general describes their deaths as a
form of "asymmetrical warfare"? Again, it is hard to know what to say. These
defenseless suicidal inmates are a threat to the U.S. military?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Is there a growing tolerance and acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships?

Virginia voters will decide the fate of a broadly worded amendment to the Virginia Constitution on the ballot this fall to prohibit same sex marriage as well as prohibit any relationship regardless of sexual orientation approximating marriage. There is an active VOTE NO VIRGINIA campaign to oppose it. Although the odds are probably in favor of its passage, that is not a forgone conclusion. Not too many years ago it would have been a forgone conclusion. A shift in attitudes is taking place and legislation such as this is a reaction to those shifts.

Last week the United States Senate defeated for a second time an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing same sex marriage. Any constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds (67) majority. In 2004 forty-eight Senators voted in favor of the amendment. Last week forty-nine followed suit. According to Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), a proponent of the amendment, that’s progress.

Actually, it was progress but maybe not what Senator Brownback had in mind. With the power held by social conservatives at the national level in the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and as well as at the local and state levels not to mention the media, the fact that they have added only one vote to their block – not even a simple majority – indicates something else is at work. What is at work is that there is a growing tolerance and acceptance of gay men and lesbians. And what follows tolerance and acceptance is an understanding of needs and rights.

Stephen Chapman explains it this way:

The hard Right thinks the citizenry absolutely detests "activist
judges," but when the Supreme Court issued a stunning decision overturning state
laws against sodomy in 2003, the public barely blinked.

In fact, 74 percent said they favored striking down such statutes.
If Brownback and his allies think the public is with them on gay issues, where
is the federal anti-sodomy amendment?

The greatest consolation for them is that same-sex marriage is still unpopular. But more than half of Americans endorse either gay marriage or civil unions, which are marriages in all but name. Two states (Vermont and Connecticut) have legalized civil unions, without attracting 1 percent of the attention that has gone to Massachusetts. Once considered a radical step, this has taken on the look of a soothing, sensible compromise.

A more telling sign is the huge shift in opinion on discrimination.
In 1977, when Gallup asked if homosexuals should have "equal rights in terms of
job opportunities," 56 percent said yes and 33 percent no. Nowadays, opposition
to this form of gay rights has only slightly broader appeal than the Socialist
Workers Party. This year, 89 percent of Americans favored equal employment
rights, with only 9 percent disagreeing.

That evolution suggests attitudes on gay marriage are likely to
grow more positive, not less. The battle for tolerance has largely been won
among young people, who will be guiding policy in the not-too-distant future.
"They're much, much, much more accepting" of gay rights than their elders, says
American Enterprise Institute polling expert Karlyn Bowman.

Read his column here.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Where will the next Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appear?

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a killing machine. He made no distinction between soldiers and civilians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites, between men, women and children. His personal involvement in the killing is now permanently over. Good.

(Just by coincidence, the lead article in this month’s Atlantic was about al-Zarqawi. Read it here.)

The U.S. armed forces are to be congratulated on staying after this monster until his career has ended. There is a certain amount of justice also in the fact that the last thing he saw just before he died was American soldiers.

How this will impact the current situation in Iraq is still to be seen. President Bush’s reaction was much more reserved than when he pronounced “mission accomplished” following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government and he dared terrorists from around the world to “bring it on.” The death of al-Zarqawi and the crack down on his network is certainly a positive development for the short run.

Whether or not it will turn out to be a positive development for the long run or simply have minimal impact depends on two big ifs: IF this can create a lull in the sectarian violence to buy time for the authorities and IF those in charge are capable to quickly take advantage of that lull. Neither of these is guaranteed. We can hope but I am not particularly optimistic. The momentum for this low level civil war may be too far gone to stop now and the U.S. may have overemphasized Zarqawi’s influence anyway. And it is a mistake to assume the talent and will power is present to do the necessary political work even if such a lull does take place. After all, look at how the Coalition Provisional Authority (the official U.S. occupation force for the first year following the fall of Saddam Hussein) squandered the window of opportunity it had with much less violence and far greater resources.

Beyond the immediate situation there is a lesson to be learned and it is nothing new. When the Coalition Provisional Authority abolished the Iraqi police and armed forces and did not have the manpower to control the borders or to bring order to the streets Iraqi cities or towns south of the Kurdish areas in the north it created a void. (The Kurds already had a quasi government from the autonomy they enjoyed as a result of the no-fly zones established after the Gulf War in 1991.) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was able to take advantage of this void.

Voids in states are dangerous and an invitation to the worse elements to move in and take over. It is at our peril when nations are allowed to collapse. Following the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989 the West abandoned that country to the Taliban who took power in 1992 and became hosts to al-Qaeda. There is Lebanon which the West abandoned following the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in 1983 proving the effectiveness of suicide bombing and giving rise to Hezbollah. The West abandoned Somalia in 1995 after casualties became unacceptable to U.N. forces. Just last week militant Islamic militias seized Mogadishu and effectively the country after the CIA failed to marginalize them indirectly by funding opposition warlords.

There can be no quick fixes such as was expected in East Timor. Zimbabwe is on the verge of imploding. The disintegration of Congo goes on with little notice or care around the world. When order disappears either preceded or followed by the collapse of the government a void is created. And that void is filled criminals and extremists.

There are other Abu Musab al-Zarqawis out there waiting for their opportunity. We have to accept some responsibility whether they get it or not.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Soccer and growing up

The first games of the World Cup begin tomorrow. (The United States’ first game isn’t until Monday.) The World Cup competition has taken place every four years since 1930, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, and is the most significant soccer (or football) tournament in the world. You can check out the latest at the BBC here and the World Cup site here.

The games this year are in Germany. There has been concern about potential conflicts involving racist and right-wing elements from German society. However, soccer helped provide post-war Germany with one of its defining moments of recovery and rebirth. According to Der Speigel:

Every country has those stories that help build its collective national
consciousness. Some, of course, have receded into the mists of time only to be
kept alive by a collection of monuments or statues. The grizzled looking
horseback warriors in Budapest provide a particularly intimidating example --
Attila and his gang don't look terribly pleasant modelled in marble. In the
United States, on the other hand, no school child makes it long without learning
of the heroic American colonists like Paul Revere shaking off the imperial
British forces seeking to oppress them during in the Revolutionary War.

And Germany? Germany has the World Cup. Specifically, the
global football championship of 1954 held in Switzerland. The Miracle of Bern.
In one 90 minute match against Hungary, modern-day Germany was born.
You may read the whole article here.

However, soccer not only can provide the background story for national rebirth but also provide a background story about a boy growing up.

My older son started playing soccer when he was in kindergarten at John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. The kids were cute to watch. They would all gather around the ball and kick it a few inches with their little legs. A whole cluster of kids – practically everyone form both teams -- would slowly work their way down the field and back around the ball. As they got older they began to spread out more from one another and kick the ball farther.

My son played school soccer until about the 4th grade and then tried out for the Richmond United “travel team.” Travel teams played at a much higher skill level than the schools and actually traveled out of town for games.

Soccer became a part of our lives. He would have practice once or twice a week plus a game every Saturday each fall and spring. I never played soccer when I was a kid. In fact, I had never even heard of it so my soccer experience was completely a vicarious experience as a father.

I watched my son grow up while playing soccer. Just between you and me, for the first few years I often wondered how he even made the team. He seemed to almost run away from the ball and spent a lot of time on the bench. Obviously the coach saw the potential for something I didn’t and suddenly one season it became very clear what the coach saw. It was as if something clicked. Suddenly the boy who always played the field from a position as far from the action as he possibly could became very aggressive and was instinctively putting all the skills he had learned over the years to use. Watching that transformation on the soccer field made me also realize that regardless of whatever goofy things he would do as a teenager he was going to turn out O.K. as an adult.

Within a year or two he graduated from being a bench warmer to one of the main players for whatever team he happened to be playing on that season. In fact, it got to the point that whenever he was injured the other parents would panic.

Watching him grow up on the soccer field had its poignant moments. Both of my parents passed away before he started school and never saw him play this game that became such an important part of his life. There were so many times I watched him play I imagined they were standing there with me and I would have to explain the strategy and they would ask me questions about the rules (as if I could reasonably explain what offsides meant). It was a game as alien to them as it was to me before my son started to play. I would have to resort to analogies to Indiana high school basketball, the ultimate Hoosier sport.

My son is grown now. Well, let me clarify. He will be starting his sophomore year in college this fall. He has played on some adult leagues since graduating from high school. I still love watching him play. He and I will catch some of the World Cup games together over the coming month.

(Graphic above is by Felipe Micaroni Lalli)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Webb receives nod of DSCC in VA Primary

The Democratic nomination for the Senate race and perhaps even the Senate seat itself were pretty much former-Governor Mark Warner’s for the taking. However, he heard the Siren call of the Presidency and is instead campaigning in New Hampshire rather than Virginia. Virginia’s junior Senator, Republican George Allen, is himself contemplating a run for the Presidency but decided to squeeze in one more Virginia election before entering the national stage.

It is six days to the Virginia Democratic Primary on June 13th. There have been some articles in the media and I have received mailings from each campaign. Beyond that I have seen very little activity and no polls. There is a fair amount of buzz on Virginia’s Democratic blogs and while they certainly represent activists they don’t represent the “John Q. Public” voters who really decide these races. I think it is fair to say this election will have a very low turnout and as a result the outcome could go either way which means the candidate who identifies and turns out his voters will win.

James Webb served as the Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and Harris Miller is a successful businessman who has been active with the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. My guess is Webb will have some slight advantage in name recognition whereas Miller will (or should) have some advantage with a base in Northern Virginia.

James Webb seems to have a disproportionate amount of support from Democrats on the national level while Miller seems to be doing well on the local and state level as far as endorsements go. That assessment does not reflect an actual count of who is which corner but just a general impression.

I don’t claim to have any inside information but my guess is local Democrats work very hard and they are more likely to support one of their own over someone whose Democratic credentials are recently acquired. National Democrats, on the other hand, are strictly looking for whatever candidate is most likely to knock off George Allen in November and help change the dynamics in the United States Senate. If that was not clear with the endorsements of John Kerry and Harry Reid before it certainly became obvious today when Charles Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came out publicly for Webb today.

From this afternoon’s Daily Press:
The national committee rarely gets involved in individual primary
races, especially contests as close as the Webb-Miller race has become. And with
just six days till the primary election, the DSCC is clearly signaling to
Democratic voters that it would prefer Webb over Miller in the November contest
with Republican Sen. George Allen.

Larry Sabato, a political analyst and political science professor at
the University of Virginia, said, "If Democrats are listening, this says loud
and clear that if Webb is the winner, the national people are going to put
substantial money into Virginia and if Webb loses, best of luck to Virginia
Democrats…. This is as dramatic as it gets."

My gut reaction is the assessment of the National Democrats is probably right. George Allen’s freshman term as Senator may have been lackluster but he has won two statewide elections – the first being as governor – and despite the public’s disenchantment with the Republican establishment in Washington he does have the advantage of incumbency. He will not be beaten easily.

Webb seems to have the characteristics that can appeal to independents and some Republicans. There may be those who may argue the Democrats need a candidate who can hold the base. I don’t think that is a problem. Given the current state of affairs in the country the Democratic base isn’t going anywhere except out to defeat Republicans.

Both Webb and Miller are scheduled appear on Hardball (MSNBC) with Chris Mathews on Thursday, June 8th.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Piggy-backing on the Enlightenment

Johann Hari, a British journalist, sees a growing problem with the anti-scientific belief systems ranging from Christian and Islamic fundamentalists on the one hand to upholders of alternative science such as “the deniers of anthropogenic global warming, the peddlers of ‘alternative’ medicine, the animal rights activists who claim that experimenting on animals is totally useless.” At the same time these very same people benefit from the advances of the very science they denounce. He argues,

For too long, people have been allowed to piggy-back on the Enlightenment,
enjoying its incredible fruits but jeering at it as “soulless” or fundamentally
flawed. But how many people would cling to these irrationalist anti-science
theories if they actually had to feel the consequences in their own blood and

He has recommended a solution to this problem: “We should all carry Ethical Consistency cards that declare our beliefs about science and are checked before we receive any medical treatment.” No doctor would then give treatment derived from a system the cardholder objected to or did not believe in. Among the potential boxes on the card to check off would be:

Box one: Creationists
Box two: Believers in alternative medicine
Box three: Postmodernists who thinks rational “Western” science is just “one discourse among many.”
Box four: Global warming deniers.
Box five: Religious fundamentalists who believe women are irrational and inferior and should be confined to the home
Box six: Right-to-lifers who oppose stem cell research.

You may read his column in its entirety here.

Monday, June 05, 2006

If no Plan B then go to Plan A

What is a 42-year-old, happily married woman with two children to do to prevent a possible pregnancy after intimate relations with her husband? Emergency contraception (a.k.a. Plan B) is a relatively safe option that should be available but is becoming more and more difficult for women to obtain because of the politics of the so-call right-to-life movement.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, a woman using the name of Dana L. (out of concern for her family’s privacy) wrote of her attempts to obtain Plan B within the 72-hour period of sexual intercourse with her husband. Her age and medications she needed were health factors making pregnancy risky. She and her husband were involved with their children and considered their family complete.

Because Plan B is not available over the counter and because of the obstacles she faced in getting a prescription over the weekend, the 72-hour period the drug would have been effective lapsed. Unfortunately, she became pregnant. Without the emergency contraception she needed she was forced to have an abortion.

She explains the politics of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) action on Plan B to block its availability over the counter:

It turns out that in December 2003, an FDA advisory committee, whose
suggestions the agency usually follows, recommended that the drug be made
available over the counter, or without a prescription. Nonetheless, in May 2004,
the FDA top brass overruled the advisory panel and gave the thumbs-down to
over-the-counter sales of Plan B, requesting more data on how girls younger than
16 could use it safely without a doctor's supervision.

Apparently, one of the concerns is that ready availability of Plan
B could lead teenage girls to have premarital sex. Yet this concern -- valid or
not -- wound up penalizing an over-the-hill married woman for having sex with
her husband. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

She then pointed out the hurdles involved in trying to get a prescription on a weekend:

Meanwhile, I hadn't even been able to get Plan B with a prescription
that Friday, because in Virginia, health-care practitioners apparently are
allowed to refuse to prescribe any drug that goes against their beliefs.
Although I had heard of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth
control on religious grounds, I was dumbfounded to find that doctors could do
the same thing.

Moreover, they aren't even required to tell the patient why they
won't provide the drug. Nor do they have to provide a list of alternative
sources. I had asked the ob-gyn's receptionist if politics was the reason the
doctor wouldn't prescribe Plan B for me. She refused to answer or offer any
reason, no matter how much I pressed her. By the time I got on the phone with my
internist's office and found that he would not fill a Plan B prescription
either, I figured it was a waste of time to fight with the office staff. To this
day, I don't know why my doctors wouldn't prescribe Plan B -- whether it was
because of moral opposition to contraception or out of fear of political
protesters or just because they preferred not to go there.

Steve Benen at Political Animal writes that one FDA advisory panel member called it the safest drug brought before them. Evidence showed Plan B would curtail abortions and unwanted pregnancies. However, the “right-to-life” leadership has determined emergency contraception is the equivalent of abortion and must be restricted. The appointees to the FDA of the Bush administration reflect this hard core position.

It is a sad day when a woman in the United States in the 21st century cannot easily and quickly obtain emergency contraception.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

What would Harry do?

In Thursday’s Washington Post, Peter Beinart wrote that at President Bush’s presentation at the West Point commencement last week he invoked the name of Harry Truman no fewer than seventeen times. In fact, as he points out, conservatives like to like to try to claim Truman as one of their own. The problem is they don’t like to give the whole picture of Truman. Beinart explains:
At West Point, Bush quoted Truman's famous declaration in his March
1947 speech proposing military aid to the besieged governments of Greece and
Turkey: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who
are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside

But there are other Truman classics that Bush conveniently
overlooked. For instance: "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our
strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please."
Truman did not believe merely in promoting democracy and peace; he believed that doing so required powerful international institutions, which could invest
American power with the credibility that the Soviets lacked.

Bush, by contrast, more than any president in recent history, has
sought to liberate the United States from international treaties and
institutions -- from the Kyoto global warming treaty to the International
Criminal Court to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. To be sure, even Bill
Clinton sometimes had trouble getting international agreements through Congress.
But in the Bush administration, opposing infringements on U.S. sovereignty has
become a cardinal foreign policy principle. In Bush's view, American power
legitimizes itself -- we don't need to listen to other countries, because sooner
or later they will realize that we were right and they were wrong.

Truman also believed that spreading democracy required combating
economic despair. He allocated between 2.5 and 5 percent of U.S. national income
over four years to the Marshall Plan, in the belief that unless Europe's fragile
postwar democracies improved their people's lives, they were likely to fail.
Then, in his 1949 State of the Union address, he went further and proposed a
Marshall Plan for the Third World. In fact, while Truman increased military
spending, he and his advisers repeatedly described economic development as more important to the anti-communist cause.

Imagine how possibly different things might have turned out from the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan if rebuilding those countries had been made a top priority following rather swift military victories and the resources to accomplish the rebuilding of those two countries had been committed to those ends.

Read the entire article here.

Speaking of Beinart, his recently published book,” The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” is creating quite a buzz. I haven’t read the book yet but promise to do so and write a short review. (However, I am reading a book that covers at least some of the same terrain from the 1940’s and 50’s, “When America was Great – The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism” by Kevin Mattson. I promise a short review of it when I finish.)

I do follow Beinart’s writings in the New Republic and generally like what he has to say. In a nutshell, he argues liberalism has been adrift for many years and needs to refocus on its strengths. Michael Singer has written a review of Beinart’s book at Democracy Arsenal which can be read here.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Home grown terrorists

Since September 11th, we have become accustomed to thinking of terrorists as a violent lunatic fringe from abroad (or, more specifically, from the Middle East). There is a tendency to forget there is a home grown variety that has been around for a long time. Just three months prior to the September 11th attacks, Timothy McVeigh was executed for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing 167 people. (A 168th was killed in the rescue effort.) While it was never clear McVeigh belonged to any organized group he had some association with the survivalist movement and certainly was identified himself as anti-government. He was reportedly a reader of the Turner Diaries, a rightwing fantasy about a race war in the United States and asserted at his trial he was seeking to avenge Waco and Ruby Ridge.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of McVeigh’s execution on June 11th there were two other reminders this past week of native terrorists.

Last week a commission investigating the 1979 murder of community activists by members of the American Nazi Party and Klu Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina, released its report of its investigation in what has become known as the Greensboro Massacre.

Activists, associated with the Communist Workers Party, had been working in Greensboro’s low income neighborhoods and organizing local textile workers. They organized a Death to the Klan rally. The police, who had a paid informant in the local Klan and knew of the Klan’s intention to go to the rally, did nothing for the potentially explosive situation. On this point the commission was particularly critical of the police. ``The (Greensboro Police Department) showed a stunning lack of curiosity in planning for the safety of the event,'' according to the report. The Klan and Nazis arrived, killed five people and wounded ten others. You can watch a short video taken at the scene here. Despite the cold blooded murders, they were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. (Photographs of the five victims can be found here. It is always important to remember the victims.)

The Greensboro Massacre and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building were years ago but the violent rightwing fringe groups are still with us and are still a threat.

In the 6/5/06 issue of Time magazine, Jeffrey Ressner describes Nordic Fest, an annual gathering of Nazis, white supremacists, and various other rightwing nuts. These fine folks gather every Memorial Day near the former mining town of Dawson Springs, Kentucky. This year the theme was immigration. Ressner described a couple of the participants:

Among the scheduled guest speakers was Hal Turner, a New Jersey Internet
radio talk-show host who recently instructed his audience to "clean your
guns, have plenty of ammunition ... and then do what has to be done" to
undocumented workers.

Mark Martin, 43, of Covington, Ohio,
is a chef at a French restaurant and tends his backyard organic garden. But he
also dons the black and brown uniform of western Ohio's National Socialist
(read: Nazi) Movement. "There's nothing neo about us," he says. Martin admits he
frequently harasses day laborers and threatens them with deportation. "As
Americans, we have the right to make a citizen's arrest and detain them," he
insists. "And if they try to get away, we have the right to get physical with

You can read the entire article here.

Contrary to the fantasies of these characters they do not represent a mass movement nor are they about to overthrow the government. However, as Greensboro and Oklahoma City have shown us, they do remain with us and they do remain dangerous.