August 29, 2006

Tough Day, Great Opportunity

This is the not the most timely post, as the consituent elements are at least two weeks old. However, the video portion is simply too outstanding to miss, and I wanted to make sure that those who had not seen it would get a chance to do so if they happened to stumble across Sensen No Sen.

In my last post, No Cards Left to Play, I posited that President Bush and those around him are "continually blindsided by the fact that not everyone thinks like wealthy Republicans who believe history doesn't matter." While I had been coming to this realization over the past several years, it was fully crystalized when the New York Times recently reported that Mr. Bush expressed frustration to attendees of a private policy meeting that "Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq".

For a useful tour of the absurdity encompassed by that statement, The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi puts it in proper perspective with what is perhaps the most biting piece of satire since Steven Colbert's White House Correpsondents' Dinner performance.


August 24, 2006

No Cards Left to Play

On August 14th, not long after the ceasefire in Lebanon took place, President Bush declared, "Hezbollah attacked Israel. Hezbollah started the crisis, and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis." Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed a restrained version of that sentiment, stating that Israel had dealt Hezbollah a "harsh blow." Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, laid claim to a "strategic, historic victory."

Clearly, only one side of this debate can be correct. Unfortunately - but perhaps not unexpectedly, given past performance - it is not President Bush.

Hezbollah did indeed suffer losses, and was driven out of southern Lebanon, but the "Party of God" was clearly not routed. On the day prior to the ceasefire, Hezbollah poured more rockets into Israel than they ever had on any single day in the past, and the organization's intent - at least in this go-round - was neither to erase Israel from the map, nor dig in and repel the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) at the border. Rather, as Sheikh Nasrallah said early on, Hezbollah's goal was to survive, and survive it did.

Israel's stated objective, on the other hand, was the complete obliteration of Hezbollah, which was foolish, given Israel’s own previous experiences in Lebanon. It may be that Olmert, who lacks the military background of either opposition Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu or his own predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was more bellicose than required out of a need to prove his security credentials, but whatever the reason, a new poll finds that 63% of Israelis want Olmert to resign because of his failure.

So where was the United States in all of this?

Was the Bush Administration applying lessons learned in Iraq to Lebanon? Was it counseling Israel to be careful about both its rhetoric and its military goals because of their potential impact on future security and relations among the countries of the region? Was the U.S. diplomatic corps in full throat, hounding all parties for an end to the bloodshed that killed more than 1,100 Lebanese and nearly 160 Israelis? Was it continuing to build on a Middle East peace effort that works to incrementally address the underlying causes of tensions in the Levant?

For those not already familiar with this White House's heady record of failure, the answers are as follows. No lessons have been learned in Iraq, since the stated policy in our ill-conceived occupation of that country is to stay the course, and therefore, none were applied to Lebanon. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only backed the shakiest of ceasefires once it became clear that the administration's historically unsupported dream of making an example of Hezbollah - and that Israel's war against Hezbollah would provide a template for an invasion of Iran - wasn't going to bear fruit. And any peace process focused on Israel and the Palestinians was abandoned when the latter elected Hamas to a parliamentary majority.

The ground has shifted under Israel's feet, and not for the better. For forty years, Israel has been regarded as essentially invincible by its opponents in the region, and no country has directly attacked the Jewish state. In surviving, Hezbollah has demonstrated that Israel is casualty-averse, and crossed a threshold of success against its sworn enemy that, while perhaps low from a military perspective, is of nearly unprecedented significance among the countries of the Middle East. If Hezbollah can effectively fight Israel to a standstill through tactics that force the IDF to absorb more casualties than are acceptable, might not a state, with greater resources, inflict even more damage? If that is possible, then might it not be possible that Israel could be defeated? Such are the thoughts that are almost undoubtedly running through the minds of Israel's enemies.

The most potent of those enemies, and the region's rising force, is Iran, which has been working steadily to consolidate power in the Islamic world. Tehran has bolstered the rise of the Shia in Iraq, buttressed Hezbollah's victory against Israel, and remains firmly in control of the ongoing controversy over its nuclear ambitions, which it continues to manipulate adeptly. In the aftermath of Israel's failure, Iran clearly believes that its star is on the rise, and it is at least somewhat justified in that thinking. Tehran's ambition - despite all manner of wild rhetoric from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - is not to destroy the United States. Instead, it is to become the pre-eminent regional power in the Middle East, and the leading alternative to Western influence.

Iran has played the Bush Administration masterfully. With Israel paralyzed for the moment and the U.S. entangled in what is finally being recognized as civil war in Iraq, the likelihood that the United States or its allies will be able to use military force for "regime change" - or even just to curtail Iran's ambitions - is at a nadir. The United Nations Security Council has developed a list of sanctions for other nations to implement against Iran, but the industrialized world will not do anything to interrupt Iranian oil exports, and neither China nor Russia can be counted on to support them, with the latter already having stated it will not back sanctions at this time.

In 2002, as chronicled in Ron Suskind's excellent The One Percent Doctrine, Vice President Dick Cheney said the following:
The elected leaders of this country have a responsibility to consider all of the available options, and we are doing so. What we must not do in the face of a mortal threat is to give in to wishful thinking or willful blindness. We will not simply look away, hope for the best, and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve.
The irony is palpable. Rather than work diligently to understand the region and create leverage diplomatically, the Bush Administration solution was to blunder into Iraq, ignoring facts and advice that ran counter to their desires, and fervently hoping that somehow the surrounding nations would embrace Jeffersonian democracy and American capitalism, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. To illustrate just how far this White House has fallen from Cheney's lofty proclamations, President Bush just last week stated, "We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president," apparently more than willing at this point to let his successor figure out an exit strategy.

We sit exposed, victims of our president's bravado and ignorance, increasingly demonized, mocked and outmaneuvered because our diplomatic corps is strangled by the likes of John Bolton and Condoleezza Rice. Our regional proxy has been neutered for the moment, and every fresh blunder from the White House emboldens our adversaries. Because President Bush lives in a world of good and evil where heartfelt wishes do, in fact, trump reality, and the only required accountability is loyalty to ideology, the United States has no cards left to play in the Middle East without resorting to nuclear war.

If there was any remaining doubt that this president and his band of hacks has thoroughly blown it, it should be long dead in the wake of this utter disaster in policy and forward planning. While successful foreign policy certainly doesn't require one to agree with adversaries or even allies, the Bush White House is hamstrung by a fundamental inability to view events from the perspective of others. It is continually blindsided by the fact that not everyone thinks like wealthy Republicans who believe history doesn't matter. It is a willful child refusing to learn from its own experience, guided solely by an irrational belief that "this time, things will all work out." As a nation, we pay the price for this irrational belief, and will continue to do so, as long as George W. Bush is president.

August 20, 2006

The Radicalization of the Center

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall has a reader eMail and a short piece that resonate with me, and I believe, with a lot of people in this country. In it, he discusses the betrayal visited on moderates by the Bush Administration, and the activism and growing cynicism that has resulted.

Kevin Drum echoes the sentiment at Poltical Animal, as does David Schraub at The Debate Link.

August 18, 2006

Does Congress Have The Will?

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor and President George W. Bush

On Thursday, Federal District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor dealt the Bush Administration a significant blow in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a group of journalists to have the president’s National Security Agency (NSA)-administered warrantless surveillance program declared illegal and unconstitutional. Judge Taylor’s forcefully written opinion left little doubt that she believes that President Bush has repeatedly violated the law by circumventing the FISA Court, through which he is legally required to obtain warrants for covert surveillance. (See Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes: Who Watches the Watchmen?) More importantly however, Judge Taylor declared that the program was unconstitutional, stating that the government has “violated the Constitutional rights of their citizens including the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and the Separation of Powers Doctrine.”

Although the White House and Congressional Republicans have attempted to link the NSA program to success in prosecuting the “War on Terror,” to date, there has been no evidence that the initiative has led to the capture of terrorists or the prevention of terrorism, including the recently-revealed British liquid explosives plot. Regardless, however, of the program's effectiveness or lack thereof, the heart of the ACLU’s legal challenge has nothing to do with whether that organization or anyone else believes that terrorists should be caught, or whether the government should do everything in its power to catch them. Rather, it is an attempt to return clarity to the definition of the very power the government wields in the face of repeated statements that illegal acts are legal. It is an act of faith in our system of government, and a refusal to be cowed by either foreign enemies or fear mongering from within our own borders.

There has been ample declaration that “September 11th changed everything,” and widespread implication that those who cherish the Constitution and the civil liberties so dearly won by our forefathers are no longer relevant for exhibiting a “pre-9/11 mindset.” Attorney General Gonzales and others have asserted that the President has “inherent” power to guide the country as he sees fit, without encumbrance from oversight. Judge Taylor’s opinion reminds us succinctly that the “Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace,” and that “no emergency can create power.” Judge Taylor also firmly contradicts nascent theories of unrestrained presidential power, pointedly noting, “We must first note that the Office of the Chief Executive has itself been created, with its powers, by the Constitution. There are no hereditary Kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution. So all 'inherent powers' must derive from that Constitution.”

While the egregious legislation that Senator Arlen Specter is working to advance would provide some measure of legal cover for the Bush Administration (See The Senate's Neville Chamberlain of the Constitution), there is at least hope that that bill will be stillborn, given Judge Taylor’s focus on the underlying constitutionality of attempts to circumvent the Separation of Powers Doctrine. That potential success aside, the battle is far from over. The White House is already appealing Taylor’s decision, and the warrantless spying program rumbles on, unscathed until that appeal is heard and a ruling made.

While some legal scholars have said that Taylor's opinion is not thoroughly or rigorously reasoned (See Ongoing Misperceptions of Judge Taylor's Opinion at Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory and don't miss Lawrence Tribe's outstanding eMail to The New York Times at Balkinization), there is a strong chance that a good portion of it will stand. It is a reasonable supposition therefore, to believe that the defendants in this case – the Bush White House and the NSA – will remain guilty of some degree of law-breaking, some degree of violating the Constitution, or both.

What then?

Does Congress have the will to impeach the president, as would clearly be demanded by such an eventuality? Given the Republican-controlled Congress’ appalling abandonment of its oversight role (See Abject Failure in the Parliament of Whores), the answer is more than likely no. But, if impeachment of a president who has broken the law, violated the Constitution or both MUST take place to restore the rule of law, what can be done?

The answer lies at the ballot box.

Congress is the the key to pursuing justice against any president who breaks the law or violates the Constitution, and because of midterm elections, the fastest source of relief. If those elected to serve and protect the Constitution do not have the will or ability to carry out their duty, it is time to find others who do.

August 14, 2006

Don't Be Afraid

Don't Be Afraid

Some of you may remember Ze (pronounced "Zay") Frank's very-funny website from several years ago, "How to Dance Properly." Links to it made the rounds, as good virals do, and it launched Frank to stardom on the 'net.

In addition to being funny-smart however, Ze Frank also has a serious-smart side, as evidenced by a recent episode from one of his myriad projects, "The Show with Ze Frank". It's called "Don't Be Afraid," and in it, Ze makes some excellent observations about what the recent terror plot in Britain really means for everyday life, as well as the true language of terror.

Check it out here. (Hat tip to Paul Allen.)

August 9, 2006

Ignorance and Short-Sightedness Coming Home to Roost

In June, there were signs of hope that the United States might be able to close a deal among the various competing factions in Iraq to at least avoid the now-burgeoning civil war, if not fully realize a unified, democratic nation. The Sunnis had apparently bought into the political process, and there was speculation that the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was brokered by Sunni leadership, as evidenced by the announced completion of the Iraqi cabinet on the day of his death, and the declared intention of the United States to begin drawing down troops.

So what went wrong?

As StratFor described in their excellent analysis "Break Point: What Went Wrong," (subscription required, or enter site as a guest through Google, after searching on the title), the answer lies with the Shia, on whom the U.S. was depending as the majority population in Iraq to be the foundation of any new society. Instead of reciprocity for Sunni movement toward unification however, the Shia community factionalized and ratcheted up its sectarian slaughter. The Sunnis, after waiting a bit to see if things would cool down, soon realized they had no choice but to respond and did so in kind. The Shia leadership with whom the United States has been talking either no longer has control of the militias as it once did, or is choosing not to exercise it.

The Shias have apparently looked at their options and decided that they would be better off gaining total control of an area in the south that would at best be loosely federalized into a greater Iraq (if not completely autonomous) than they would be with partial control and co-government of the entirety of Iraq alongside the Sunnis and the Kurds. This idea is one that the Kurds in the north appear more than happy to follow, as they have been practicing self government for over a decade, and have actually begun efforts to market tourism in “Iraqi Kurdistan.”

None of this is new, however; the concept of an autonomous Shi’ite southern region was originally floated over a year ago. What, then, is behind this elevated sense of pure self-interest? The answer again lies with the Shia, but this time with those in Iran and Lebanon rather than in Iraq. As StratFor put forth in another recent analysis, "Iraq: Shi'ite Worries in the Wake of Lebanon" (subscription required, or enter site as a guest through Google, after searching on the title):

What has happened is that the Iraqi Shia are looking with great concern at the developing dynamic in the Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation. They see the Lebanese crisis in terms of a Shi’ite-Sunni struggle in which the Arab states and Washington have joined hands against Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally. The Iraqi Shia fear this could have implications within Iraq, under a scenario in which the Iraqi Sunnis would exploit the situation to their advantage by aligning more closely with the United States.

This brings us to Israel's current invasion, spurred by the kidnapping of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah militants based in Southern Lebanon. Although there had been occasional flare-ups since Israel’s withdrawal from its last incursion into Lebanon in 1982, the border between the two countries remained relatively peaceful. With a weak army, the Lebanese government effectively ceded much of the southern part of the country to Hezbollah, which gained support among the local populace by providing quasi-governmental services and a general sense of order.

Syria, meanwhile, which had tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, kept a relatively firm hand on Hezbollah. As a poor country, it was very much interested in maintaining the steady stream of income it siphoned from Lebanon, and had no desire to provoke the Israelis into another invasion. That controlling influence disappeared however, when Syria was pressured into withdrawing its forces during 2005's Cedar Revolution by the Lebanese populace, the United States and the international community, after it was blamed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the newly elected prime minister. (Despite some legitimate question about the evidence to support such a contention.)

All of this brings into stark relief the fact that the Bush Administration does not have any kind of unified policy toward the Middle East. It has acted in a wholly tactical manner since its single half-baked attempt at strategic deployment into Iraq began that country's descent into chaos, and ignorance of the interplay between the region’s peoples has led to short-sighted and often foolish courses of action. Iraq never should have been invaded without an ironclad plan for the occupation; relations with Iran should never have been poisoned with talk of an “Axis of Evil;” the Syrians should never have been pushed out in a manner that left a power vacuum in Lebanon; and Israel should never have been allowed to continue hammering on the Palestinians - who serve as a kind of unifying cause celebre among the various religions, ethnicities and factions in that part of the world - without meaningful comment or action on the part of the United States. Foresight and reality-based planning remain sorely lacking among President Bush’s core team, and the administration’s insensitivity and crass posturing are only making things worse.

As Michael Scheuer, the former CIA operative who headed up efforts to capture Osama bin Laden writes in his book "Imperial Hubris":

As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each – a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden's only indispensable ally.

Changing course based on plentiful evidence of failure is not flip-flopping or cowardly or defeatist; it is both the smart and the right thing to do. As amply demonstrated in yesterday's disclosure of an alleged plot to down international flights using liquid explosives, the main threat to the United States and our allies remains non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Wasting equipment, money and most importantly, lives in Iraq shifts our focus from where it should be, makes us less safe, and reduces our ability to respond to new threats.

The first step in getting on course is to replace the tin ears that have been conducting American foreign policy and replace them with more effective individuals. Fresh faces with actual experience, knowledge and records of success are required. The American people may be stuck with George W. Bush for the next two-plus years, but that doesn’t meant that Dick Cheney can’t be removed from policy decisions and Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice summarily fired.

It’s time to stop fiddling while the Middle East burns down around our ears.

August 2, 2006

The Constitution as Inconvenience

May as well just burn it...

Through its late June judgment in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court dealt a serious setback to the Bush Administration's contention that it could deal with prisoners suspected of terrorist activity largely unencumbered by the rule of law. The rejection of the government’s position culminated in the release of the plaintiff in the case, Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, and a new effort by the White House to regain the ground it believes it has lost. This retrenchment is taking the form of draft legislation that President Bush is developing to send to Congress.

Given the rebuke dealt the Bush White House by the Court with regard to policies surrounding individuals captured in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it might be expected that new legislation would seek to incorporate the implications of the opinion in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. That expectation, however, would be wrong.

The Washington Post today published a story about the contents of the new draft bill, and, in summary, it would do the following:

  • Legalize the type of military tribunal declared illegal by the court and give it jurisdiction over 25 types of crime, centered around direct involvement in terrorism
  • Grant the Secretary of Defense discretion to add additional crimes to the jurisdiction of the new military court at will
  • Deny defendants the right to confront accusers
  • Refuse any guarantee of a public or speedy trial
  • Reject the right of the accused to choose his or her own military counsel. Said counsel would also not be assured equal access to evidence held by prosecutors.
  • Permit hearsay evidence
  • Allow evidence obtained through physical coercion
  • Deny prisoners any promise that they would even be present at their own trials, if that is deemed crucial to protecting national security

Judging from this, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is employing Franz Kafka to craft legal policy. If by some stretch of the imagination one fails to see this as a violation of basic human rights because it is designed to apply only to “terrorists,” in timely fashion, José Padilla is once again in the news to remind us that U.S. citizens are not to be spared the vagaries of Bush Administration interpretations of the Constitution.

Padilla, it may be remembered, was arrested with great fanfare in Chicago on May 8, 2002, because the government alleged that he was part of a plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States. A U.S. citizen, he was still designated an “enemy combatant” by President Bush, imprisoned in a military jail, and denied access to counsel for over two years. The “enemy combatant” designation has recently been dropped, because the government has been unable to produce evidence to support it, and was facing an imminent Supreme Court challenge to his continued detention in a Navy brig. Padilla is now charged with being part of a domestic “support cell” for Islamist terrorism, and will be tried next year.

Putting all of this together, we have a president that has a track record of declaring citizens of this country Рsuch as Jos̩ Padilla - enemies of the state, and imprisoning them without the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. Further, determined to skirt the refusal of the Supreme Court to buy into the structure of the tribunals he has pursued, Mr. Bush is now attempting to expand his reach to void additional constitutional and legal guarantees. Finally, this expansion of power, while ostensibly limited to foreign terrorists, is clearly set up to permit easy application to American citizens (see the second bullet above, in particular), and the record of this Congress in exercising oversight is at, or near, a historical low.

As John D. Hutson, U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General from 1997 to 2000, put it, this legislation, if passed, would permit the government to tell a prisoner: "We know you're guilty. We can't tell you why, but there's a guy, we can't tell you who, who told us something. We can't tell you what, but you're guilty." Maybe we should just relax because the terrorists who supposedly “hate our freedom” will have significantly less of them to worry about.

Feel safer yet?