Monday, March 31, 2008

Where's the outrage, Clinton style

Good article by Christopher Hitchens of Slate ( about Hillary Clinton's claim that she "misspoke" about the whole sniper-fire-in-Bosnia thing. I've been amazed at the pass she's gotten for this. Clinton flagrantly lied, in fact told a whopper, in a sad attempt to bolster her foreign policy credentials and make her look like she was doing something important while her husband was President.

I'm still amazed that someone can seriously talk about a phony claim of coming under sniper fire as misspeaking with a straight face. Last I checked, it's pretty hard to get confused about whether you're being shot at. If you are, you remember it pretty clearly. If you're not, then you're really under no illusions that you are.

I'm not a big fan of Hitchens at all, and stretching the point out to lay the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs on her shoulders might be a bit of a reach. But I am glad to see someone take Clinton to task about this.


The Tall Tale of Tuzla
Hillary Clinton's Bosnian misadventure should disqualify her from the presidency, but the airport landing is the least of it.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, March 31, 2008, at 11:26 AM ET
The punishment visited on Sen. Hillary Clinton for her flagrant, hysterical, repetitive, pathological lying about her visit to Bosnia should be much heavier than it has yet been and should be exacted for much more than just the lying itself. There are two kinds of deliberate and premeditated deceit, commonly known as suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. (Neither of them is covered by the additionally lying claim of having "misspoken.") The first involves what seems to be most obvious in the present case: the putting forward of a bogus or misleading account of events. But the second, and often the more serious, means that the liar in question has also attempted to bury or to obscure something that actually is true. Let us examine how Sen. Clinton has managed to commit both of these offenses to veracity and decency and how in doing so she has rivaled, if not indeed surpassed, the disbarred and perjured hack who is her husband and tutor.

I remember disembarking at the Sarajevo airport in the summer of 1992 after an agonizing flight on a U.N. relief plane that had had to "corkscrew" its downward approach in order to avoid Serbian flak and ground fire. As I hunched over to scuttle the distance to the terminal, a mortar shell fell as close to me as I ever want any mortar shell to fall. The vicious noise it made is with me still. And so is the shock I felt at seeing a civilized and multicultural European city bombarded round the clock by an ethno-religious militia under the command of fascistic barbarians. I didn't like the Clinton candidacy even then, but I have to report that many Bosnians were enthused by Bill Clinton's pledge, during that ghastly summer, to abandon the hypocritical and sordid neutrality of the George H.W. Bush/James Baker regime and to come to the defense of the victims of ethnic cleansing.

I am recalling these two things for a reason. First, and even though I admit that I did once later misidentify a building in Sarajevo from a set of photographs, I can tell you for an absolute certainty that it would be quite impossible to imagine that one had undergone that experience at the airport if one actually had not. Yet Sen. Clinton, given repeated chances to modify her absurd claim to have operated under fire while in the company of her then-16-year-old daughter and a USO entertainment troupe, kept up a stone-faced and self-loving insistence that, yes, she had exposed herself to sniper fire in the cause of gaining moral credit and, perhaps to be banked for the future, national-security "experience." This must mean either a) that she lies without conscience or reflection; or b) that she is subject to fantasies of an illusory past; or c) both of the above. Any of the foregoing would constitute a disqualification for the presidency of the United States.

Yet this is only to underline the YouTube version of events and the farcical or stupid or Howard Wolfson (take your pick) aspects of the story. But here is the historical rather than personal aspect, which is what you should keep your eye on. Note the date of Sen. Clinton's visit to Tuzla. She went there in March 1996. By that time, the critical and tragic phase of the Bosnia war was effectively over, as was the greater part of her husband's first term. What had happened in the interim? In particular, what had happened to the 1992 promise, four years earlier, that genocide in Bosnia would be opposed by a Clinton administration?

In the event, President Bill Clinton had not found it convenient to keep this promise. Let me quote from Sally Bedell Smith's admirable book on the happy couple, For Love of Politics:

Taking the advice of Al Gore and National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Bill agreed to a proposal to bomb Serbian military positions while helping the Muslims acquire weapons to defend themselves—the fulfillment of a pledge he had made during the 1992 campaign. But instead of pushing European leaders, he directed Secretary of State Warren Christopher merely to consult with them. When they balked at the plan, Bill quickly retreated, creating a "perception of drift." The key factor in Bill's policy reversal was Hillary, who was said to have "deep misgivings" and viewed the situation as "a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform." The United States took no further action in Bosnia, and the "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs was to continue for four more years, resulting in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.

I can personally witness to the truth of this, too. I can remember, first, one of the Clintons' closest personal advisers—Sidney Blumenthal—referring with acid contempt to Warren Christopher as "a blend of Pontius Pilate with Ichabod Crane." I can remember, second, a meeting with Clinton's then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin at the British Embassy. When I challenged him on the sellout of the Bosnians, he drew me aside and told me that he had asked the White House for permission to land his own plane at Sarajevo airport, if only as a gesture of reassurance that the United States had not forgotten its commitments. The response from the happy couple was unambiguous: He was to do no such thing, lest it distract attention from the first lady's health care "initiative."

It's hardly necessary for me to point out that the United States did not receive national health care in return for its acquiescence in the murder of tens of thousands of European civilians. But perhaps that is the least of it. Were I to be asked if Sen. Clinton has ever lost any sleep over those heaps of casualties, I have the distinct feeling that I could guess the answer. She has no tears for anyone but herself. In the end, and over her strenuous objections, the United States and its allies did rescue our honor and did put an end to Slobodan Milosevic and his state-supported terrorism. Yet instead of preserving a polite reticence about this, or at least an appropriate reserve, Sen. Clinton now has the obscene urge to claim the raped and slaughtered people of Bosnia as if their misery and death were somehow to be credited to her account! Words begin to fail one at this point. Is there no such thing as shame? Is there no decency at last? Let the memory of the truth, and the exposure of the lie, at least make us resolve that no Clinton ever sees the inside of the White House again.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
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Friday, March 28, 2008

Oh, yeah, Pakistan

Interesting editorial from the New York Times (, reminding us that Pakistan's still out there, still very dangerous, and the current President's unwavering support for Pervez Musharraf in the face of his "democracy agenda" might not be working so well for us now that Musharraf is on the ropes.


Sense and Insensitivity in Pakistan
Published: March 28, 2008

Since winning parliamentary elections last month, the leaders of Pakistan’s new coalition government have shown good judgment: putting aside destructive personal rivalries and moving quickly to revive their country’s moribund democracy.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they have also made clear that they do not trust the Bush administration, which bet everything on President Pervez Musharraf’s destructive authoritarian rule. And the new leaders are talking about reviewing Pakistan’s role in the Washington-led war on terrorism. That is very worrying.

The Bush administration bullied and bought Mr. Musharraf’s loyalty — and he never stayed bought. It is unlikely that President Bush can now overcome Pakistanis’ visceral mistrust. But with the right mix of aid, attention and humility, the administration can help strengthen the new government. With more aid, and more humility, it can also argue the case for why fighting extremism is in Pakistan’s clear interest.

Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and the leader of one party in the coalition government, bluntly told American officials who visited Islamabad this week that there would be no more “one-man show” in Pakistan. The new government is working hard to marginalize Mr. Musharraf and undo his worst abuses, starting with the release of judges detained last year.

Amid a bloody surge in suicide bombings, officials in Islamabad are also talking about trying to negotiate a deal with local Taliban militants. They don’t seem to have a clear plan yet, but it is hard to see how they would be more successful than Mr. Musharraf. His deal with tribal leaders in the Afghan border region failed spectacularly as troops retreated to barracks and extremists moved east toward Pakistan’s more populated areas. Things also got much worse in Afghanistan.

This is a risky course, and Washington will have to work hard to help the government understand that — without provoking even more resentment and mistrust.

There are other dangers ahead. Although Mr. Musharraf has pledged to work with the new government, Mr. Sharif is demanding the president’s resignation, and some fear that if pushed, the former general might try another coup. The new government is also going to have to work out a relationship with the United States. Washington has given Islamabad more than $10 billion since 9/11, and the new government will need continued help.

President Bush can show his commitment to democracy and stability by increasing nonmilitary aid for projects that would strengthen the country’s battered democratic institutions and improve Pakistanis’ lives.

The administration proved, once again, how little it understands the basics of diplomacy. On the day the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, the two visiting American diplomats chose to meet with Mr. Musharraf. That timing left the impression that Washington is still not listening to Pakistanis.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It is next door to Afghanistan. Does Washington need any more reasons to worry about what happens there? Or any more proof that it cannot afford to keep making such mistakes?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

More grown-up talk about Iraq

Excellent article by Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar of AlterNet ( about the reasons for the current uptick in violence in Iraq, and a much more mature, informed, and nuanced explanation of the circumstances in Iraq. It shouldn't be a shock to anyone that things there are more complicated than the cartoon caricature presented by the current President, and impossible to distill into a 30-second spot for Katie Couric. Things like this should be mandatory reading for anyone discussing or taking a position on Iraq and the war.


Heavy fighting has spread across Shia-dominated enclaves in Iraq over the past two days. The U.S.-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered 50,000 Iraqi troops to "crack down" -- with coalition air support -- on Shiite militias in the oil-rich and strategically important city of Basra, U.S. forces have surrounded Baghdad's Sadr City and fighting has been reported in the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniya, Karbala and Hilla. Basra's main bridge and an oil pipeline connecting it to Amara were destroyed Wednesday. Six cities are under curfew, and acts of civil disobedience have shut down dozens of neighborhoods across the country. Civilian casualties have reportedly overwhelmed poorly equipped medical centers in Baghdad and Basra.

There are indications that the unilateral ceasefire declared last year by the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is collapsing. "The cease-fire is over; we have been told to fight the Americans," one militiaman loyal to al-Sadr told the Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher by telephone from Sadr City. Dagher added that the "same man, when interviewed in January, had stated that he was abiding by the cease-fire and that he was keeping busy running his cellular phone store."

A political track is also in play: Sadr has called on his followers to take to the streets to demand Maliki's resignation, and nationalist lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament, led by al-Sadr's block, are trying to push a no-confidence vote challenging the prime minister's regime.

The conflict is one that the U.S. media appears incapable of describing in a coherent way. The prevailing narrative is that Basra has been ruled by mafialike militias -- which is true -- and that Iraqi government forces are now cracking down on the lawlessness in preparation for regional elections, which is not. As independent analyst Reider Visser noted:

On closer inspection, there are problems in these accounts. Perhaps most importantly, there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) ... [and the] facts of the ongoing operations, which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [SIIC], as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (sic) (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.

The conflict doesn't conform to the analysis of the roots of Iraqi instability as briefed by U.S. officials in the heavily-fortified Green Zone. It also doesn't fit into the simplistic but popular narrative of a country wrought by sectarian violence, and its nature is obscured by the labels that the commercial media uncritically apply to the disparate centers of Iraqi resistance to the occupation.

The "crackdown" comes on the heels of the approval of a new "provincial law," which will ultimately determine whether Iraq remains a unified state with a strong central government or is divided into sectarian-based regional governates. The measure calls for provincial elections in October, and the winners of those elections will determine the future of the Iraqi state. Control of the country's oil wealth, and how its treasure will be developed, will also be significantly influenced by the outcome of the elections.

It's a relatively straightforward story: Iraq is ablaze today as a result of an attempt to impose Colombian-style democracy on the unstable country: Maliki's goal, shared by the like-minded allies among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that dominate his administration, and with at least tacit U.S. approval, is to kill off the opposition and then hold a vote.

To better understand the nature of this latest round of conflict, here are five things one needs to know about what's taking place across Iraq.

1. A visible manifestation of Iraq's central-but-under-teported political conflict (not "sectarian violence")

Iraq, which had experienced little or no sectarian-based violence prior to the U.S. invasion, has been plagued with sectarian militias fighting for the streets of Iraq's formerly heterogeneous neighborhoods, and "sectarian violence" has become Americans' primary explanation for the instability that has plagued the country.

But the sectarian-based street-fighting is a symptom of a larger political conflict, one that has been poorly analyzed in the mainstream press. The real source of conflict in Iraq -- and the reason political reconciliation has been so difficult -- is a fundamental disagreement over what the future of Iraq will look like. Loosely defined, it is a clash of Iraqi nationalists -- with Muqtada al-Sadr as their most influential voice -- who desire a unified Iraqi state and public-sector management of the country's vast oil reserves and who forcefully reject foreign influence on Iraq's political process, be it from the United States, Iran or other outside forces.

The nationalists now represent a majority in Iraq's parliament but are opposed by what might be called Iraqi separatists, who envision a "soft partition" of Iraq into at least four semiautonomous and sectarian-based regional entities, welcome the privatization of the Iraqi energy sector (and the rest of the Iraqi economy) and rely on foreign support to maintain their power.

We've written about this long-standing conflict extensively in the past, and now we're seeing it come to a head, as we believed it would at some point.

2. U.S. is propping up unpopular regime; Sadr has support because of his platform

One of the ironies of the reporting out of Iraq is the ubiquitous characterization of Muqtada al-Sadr as a "renegade," "radical" or "militant" cleric, despite the fact that he is the only leader of significance in the country who has ordered his followers to stand down. His ostensible militancy appears to arise primarily from his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

He has certainly been willing to use violence in the past, but the "firebrand" label belies the fact that Sadr is arguably the most popular leader among a large section of the Iraqi population and that he has forcefully rejected sectarian conflict and sought to bring together representatives of Iraq's various ethnic and sectarian groups in an effort to create real national reconciliation -- a process that the highly sectarian Maliki regime has failed to accomplish.

It's vitally important to understand that Sadr's popularity and legitimacy is a result of his having a platform that's favored by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis.

Most Iraqis:

Favor a strong central government free of the influence of militias.
Oppose, by a 2-1 margin, the privatization of Iraq's energy sector -- a "benchmark towards progress according to the Bush administration.
Favor a U.S. withdrawal on a short timeline (PDF) (most believe the United States plans to build permanent bases -- both are issues about which the Sadrists have been vocal.
Oppose al Qaeda and the ideology of Osama Bin Laden and, to a lesser degree, Iranian influence on Iraq's internal affairs.

With the exception of their opposition to Al Qaeda, the five major separatist parties -- Sunni, Shia and Kurdish -- that make up Maliki's governing coalition are on the deeply unpopular side of these issues. A poll conducted last year found that 65 percent of Iraqis think the Iraqi government is doing a poor job, and Maliki himself has a Bush-like 66 percent disapproval rate.

As in Vietnam, the United States is backing an unpopular and decidedly undemocratic government in Iraq, and that simple fact explains much of the violent resistance that's going on in Iraq today.

3. "Iraqi forces" are, in fact, "Iranian- (and U.S.-) backed Shiite militias"

Every headline this week has featured some variation of the storyline of "Iraqi security forces" battling "Shiite militias." But the reality is that it is a battle between Shite militias -- separatists and nationalists -- with one militia garbed in Iraqi army uniforms and supported by U.S. airpower, and the other in civilian clothes.

It has always been the great irony of the occupation of Iraq that "our" man in Baghdad is also Tehran's. Maliki heads the Dawa Party, which has long enjoyed close ties to Iran, and relies on support from SIIC, a staunchly pro-Iranian party, and its powerful Badr militia. The "government crackdown" is an escalation of a long-simmering conflict in the south between the Badr Brigade, the Sadrists and members of the Fadhila Party, which favors greater autonomy for Basra but rejects SIIC's vision of a larger Shiite-dominated regional entity in Southern Iraq.

4. Colombia-style democracy

Basra has been engulfed in a simmering conflict since before the British pulled their troops back to a remote base near the airport and turned over the city to Iraqi authorities. But the timing of this crackdown is not coincidental; Iraqi separatists -- Dawa, SIIC and others -- are expected to do poorly in the regional elections, while the Sadrists are widely anticipated to make significant gains. It is widely perceived by those loyal to Sadr that this is an attempt to wipe out the movement he leads prior to the elections and minimize the influence that Iraqi nationalists are poised to gain.

The United States, for its part, continues to take sides in this conflict -- in addition to providing airpower, U.S. forces are enforcing the curfew in Sadr City -- rather than playing the role of neutral mediator. That's because the interests of the Bush administration and its allies are aligned with Maliki and his coalition. That they are not aligned with the interests of most Iraqis is never mentioned in the Western press, but is a key reason why Bush's definition of "victory" -- the emergence of a legitimate and Democratic state that supports U.S. policy in the region -- has always been an impossible pipedream.

5. Chip off the old block: Maliki's attempt to criminalize dissent

It's unclear whether Sadr has lifted the cease-fire entirely, or simply freed his fighters to defend themselves. He continues to call for peaceful resistance.

Whatever the case may be, it's not entirely accurate to say that he "chose" this conflict. The reality is that while his army was holding the cease-fire, attacks on and detentions of Sadrists have continued unabated. Sadr renewed the cease-fire last month, but he did so over the urging of his top aides, who argued that their movement was threatened with annihilation. He later authorized his followers to carry weapons "for self-defense" to head off a mutiny within his ranks.

Ahmed al-Massoudi, a Sadrist member of Parliament, last week "accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) of planning a military campaign to liquidate the Sadrists."

The lawmaker told Voices of Iraq that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's "SIIC and the Dawa Party have held meetings with officers of the militias merged recently into security agencies to launch a military campaign outwardly to impose order and law, but the real objective is to liquidate the Sadrist bloc." "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is directly supervising this scheme with officers from the Dawa Party and the SIIC," he added. Despite his close ties with Tehran and deep involvement in Shiite militia activity, Hakim has been invited to the White House, where he was feted by Bush himself.

Sadr called for nationwide civil disobedience that would have allowed his followers to flex some political muscle in a nonviolent way. His orders, according to Iraqi reports were to distribute olive branches and copies of the Koran to soldiers at checkpoints.

The Maliki regime responded by saying that individuals joining the nationwide strike would be punished and that those organizing it are in violation of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Act issued in 2005. A spokesman for the prime minister promised to punish any government employees who failed to show up for work.

This is consistent with a long-term trend: the U.S.-backed government's obstruction of Iraqi efforts to foster political reconciliation among diverse groups of Iraq nationalists. (Read more about this here.)

Propaganda and the surge

The Maliki regime has set an ultimatum demanding that the militias -- the nationalist militias -- lay down their arms within the next two days or face "more serious consequences." Al-Sadr has also issued an ultimatum: The government must cease its attacks on his followers, or his followers will escalate. It is an extremely dangerous situation, especially given the fact that the main U.S. resupply routes stretch from Baghdad through the Shia-dominated southern provinces.

But the precariousness of the situation appears to be of little concern to the military command, which issued a statement saying that the violence was a result of the success of the U.S. troop "surge" (Bush called the "crackdown" a "bold decision'' that shows the country's security forces are capable of combating terrorists). It's yet another example of the administration putting U.S. geostrategic (and economic) interests ahead of Iraqi reconciliation and democratic governance.

The much-touted troop "surge" had little to do with the drop in violence in recent months -- it didn't even correlate with the lull chronologically and was certainly a minor causal factor at best. A number of factors led to the reduced violence, but Sadr's cease-fire had the greatest impact. Nonetheless, the Maliki regime, backed by the United States, continued a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Sadr's followers, denied them space to peacefully resist the occupation and forced his hand.

Given the degree to which the coalition has continued to stir a hornets' nest, we may be seeing a perfect illustration of the dangers of believing one's own propaganda play out as Iraq is once again set aflame.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Taking stock of Iraq and the GWOT

Excellent (if long) article by Mark Danner of ( discussing the strategic history of the Iraq war, how much it has weakened us, how we are now caught in a catch-22 of needing to leave a massive presence in the country to avoid a bloody regional war, and how we completely squandered a huge opportunity after 9/11 to lead the world.

It's worth the read. It's also really sad, because it's really accurate. The aftermath of the current President is going to be dealt with for at least the rest of my generation, and probably longer. And American soldiers continue to die.


[This essay was adapted from an address first delivered in February at the Tenth Asia Security Conference at the Institute for Security and Defense Analysis in New Delhi.]

To contemplate a prewar map of Baghdad -- as I do the one before me, with sectarian neighborhoods traced out in blue and red and yellow -- is to look back on a lost Baghdad, a Baghdad of our dreams. My map of 2003 is colored mostly a rather neutral yellow, indicating the "mixed" neighborhoods of the city, predominant just five years ago. To take up a contemporary map after this is to be confronted by a riot of bright color: Shia blue has moved in irrevocably from the East of the Tigris; Sunni red has fled before it, as Shia militias pushed the Sunnis inexorably west toward Abu Ghraib and Anbar province, and nearly out of the capital itself. And everywhere, it seems, the pale yellow of those mixed neighborhoods is gone, obliterated in the months and years of sectarian war.

I start with those maps out of a lust for something concrete, as I grope about in the abstract, struggling to quantify the unquantifiable. How indeed to "take stock" of the War on Terror? Such a strange beast it is, like one of those mythological creatures that is part goat, part lion, part man. Let us take a moment and identify each of these parts. For if we look closely at its misshapen contours, we can see in the War on Terror:

Part anti-guerrilla mountain struggle, as in Afghanistan;

Part shooting-war-cum-occupation-cum-counterinsurgency, as in Iraq;

Part intelligence, spy v. spy covert struggle, fought quietly -- "on the dark side," as Vice President Dick Cheney put it shortly after 9/11 -- in a vast territory stretching from the southern Philippines to the Maghreb and the Straits of Gibraltar;

And finally the War on Terror is part, perhaps its largest part, Virtual War -- an ongoing, permanent struggle, and in its ongoing political utility not wholly unlike Orwell's famous world war between Eurasia, East Asia, and Oceania that is unbounded in space and in time, never ending, always expanding.

Snowflakes Drifting Down on the War on Terror

President Bush announced this virtual war three days after September 11, 2001, in the National Cathedral in Washington, appropriately enough, when he told Americans that "our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

Astonishing words from a world leader -- declaring that he would "rid the world of evil." Just in case anyone thought they might have misheard the sweep of the President's ambition, his National Security Strategy, issued a few months later, was careful to specify that "the enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism -- premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents."

Again, a remarkable statement, as many commentators were quick to point out; for declaring war on "terrorism" -- a technique of war, not an identifiable group or target -- was simply unprecedented, and, indeed, bewildering in its implications. As one counterinsurgency specialist remarked to me, "Declaring war on terrorism is like declaring war on air power."

Six and a half years later, evil is still with us and so is terrorism. In my search for a starting point in taking stock of those years, I find myself in the sad position of pondering fondly what have become two of the saddest words in the English language: Donald Rumsfeld.

Remember him? In late October 2003, when I was in Baghdad watching the launch of the so-called Ramadan Offensive -- five simultaneous suicide bombings, beginning with one at the headquarters of the Red Cross, the fiery aftermath of which I witnessed -- then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was in Washington still denying that an insurgency was underway in Iraq. He was also drafting one of his famous "snowflakes," those late-night memoranda which he used to rain down on his terrorized Pentagon employees.

This particular snowflake, dated October 16, 2003 and entitled "Global War on Terrorism," reads almost poignantly now, as the Defense Secretary gropes to define the war that it has become his lot to fight: "Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he wrote. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Rumsfeld asks the right question, for beyond the obvious metrics like the number of terrorist attacks worldwide -- which have gone up steadily, and precipitously since 9/11 (for 2006, the last year for which State Department figures are available, by nearly 29%, to 14,338); and the somewhat subtler ones like the percentage of those in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world who hold unfavorable opinions of the United States (which soared in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and have fallen back just a bit since) -- apart from these sorts of numbers which, for various and obvious reasons, are problematic in themselves, the key question is: How do you "take stock" of the War on Terror? At the end of the day, as Secretary Rumsfeld perceived, this is a political judgment, for in its essence it has to do with the evolution of public opinion and the readiness of those with certain political sympathies to move from holding those opinions to taking action in support of them.

What "metrics" do we have to take account of the progress of this "evolution"? Well, none really -- but we do have the guarded opinions of intelligence agencies, notably this rather explicit statement from the U.S. government's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of April 2006, entitled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," which reads in part: "Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision" -- those metrics again -- "a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although still a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic distribution. If this trend continues, threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide."

Dark words, and yet that 2006 report looks positively sanguine when set beside two reports from a year later, both leaked in July 2007. A National Intelligence Estimate entitled "The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland" noted that al-Qaeda had managed -- in the summary in the Washington Post -- to reestablish "its central organization, training infrastructure and lines of global communication," over the previous two years and had placed the United States in a "heightened threat environment... The U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years."

This NIE -- the combined opinion of the country's major intelligence agencies -- only confirmed a report that had been leaked a couple days before from the National Counterterrorism Center, grimly entitled "Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West." This report concluded that al-Qaeda, in the words of one official who briefed its contents to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," "has regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," and has managed to create "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives." Another intelligence official, summarizing the report to the Associated Press, offered a blunt and bleak conclusion: al-Qaeda, he said, is "showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."

Given these grim results, one must return to one of the more poignant passages in Secretary Rumsfeld's "snowflake," released to flutter down on his poor Pentagon subordinates back in those blinkered days of October 2003. Having wondered about the metrics, and what could and could not be measured in the War on Terror, the Secretary of Defense posed a critical question: "Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?"

For me, the poignancy comes from Mr. Rumsfeld's failure to see that, in effect, he and his boss had already "fashioned" the "broad, integrated plan" he was asking for. It was called the Iraq War.

General Bin Laden

That the Iraq War is "fueling the spread of the jidahist movement," as the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate put it, has been a truism of intelligence reporting from the war's beginning; indeed, from before it began. "[T]he Iraq conflict has become the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating support for the global jihadist movement" -- this point from the 2006 NIE is truly an example of a "chronicle of a war foretold" (to borrow from Garcia Marquez). In fact, that NIE cites the "Iraq jihad" as the second of four factors "fueling the jihadist movement," along with "entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness"; "the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations"; and "pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims."

Any attempt to "take stock of the War on Terror" must begin with the sad fact that the story of that war has largely become the story of the war in Iraq as well, and the story of the Iraq War (all discussion of the so-called Surge aside) has been pretty much an unmitigated disaster for U.S. security and for the United States position in the Middle East and the world. Which means that telling the story of the War on Terror, a half dozen years on -- and "taking stock" of that War -- merges inevitably with the sad tale of how that so-called war, strange and multiform beast that it is, became subsumed in a bold and utterly incompetent attempt to occupy and remake a major Arab country.

That broader story comes down to a matter of two strategies and two generals: General Osama bin Laden and General George W. Bush. General bin Laden, from the start, has been waging a campaign of indirection and provocation: that is, bin Laden's ultimate targets are the so-called apostate regimes of the Muslim world -- foremost among them, the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the House of Saud on the Arabian peninsula -- which he hopes to overthrow and supplant with a New Caliphate.

For bin Laden, these are the "near enemies," which rely for their existence on the vital support of the "far enemy," the United States. By attacking this far enemy, beginning in the mid-1990s, bin Laden hoped both to lead vast numbers of new Muslim recruits to join Al Qaeda and to weaken U.S. support for the Mubarak and Saud regimes. He hoped to succeed, through indirection, in "cutting the strings of the puppets," eventually leading to the collapse of those regimes.

In this sense, 9/11 proved the culmination of a long-term strategy, following on a series of attacks of increasing lethality during the mid to late 1990s in Riyadh, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Aden. The 9/11 attackers used as their climactic weapon not transcontinental airliners or box cutters but the television set -- for the image was the true weapon that day, the overwhelmingly powerful image of the towers collapsing -- and used it not only to "dirty the face of imperial power" (Menachim Begin's description of what terrorists do), but also to provoke the United States to strike deep into the Islamic world.

It is clear from various documents and from the assassination, days before 9/11, of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, that bin Laden expected this American counter-strike to come in Afghanistan, which would have given al-Qaeda the opportunity to do to the remaining superpower what it had done -- so the myth went, anyway -- to the Soviet Union a dozen years before: trap its arrogant, hulking military in a quagmire and, through patient, unrelenting guerrilla warfare, force it to withdraw in ignominious defeat. In the event, of course, the Americans, by relying on air bombardment and on the ground forces of their Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance, avoided the quagmire of Afghanistan -- at least in that initial phase in the fall of 2001 -- and instead offered bin Laden a much greater gift. In March 2003, they invaded Iraq, a far more important Islamic country and one much closer to the heart of Arab concerns.

General Bush

Why did General George W. Bush do it? Lacking in legitimacy and on the political defensive, the President and his administration moved instantly to transform the War on Terror into an ideological crusade, one implicitly crafted as a New Cold War.

"They hate our freedoms," Bush told Congress and the nation a few days after the 9/11 attacks. "Our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with one another... We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions -- by abandoning every value except the will to power -- they follow in the path of fascism, and Naziism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Drawing a lurid picture of a New Cold War, with terrorists playing the role of communists, Bush rallied the country behind the War on Terror, obliterating the subtleties of the struggle against al-Qaeda and with them the critique of U.S. Middle East policy implicit in the assault. "This is not about our policies," as Henry Kissinger put it soon after the attack. "This is about our existence." In this view, the attack came not because of what the United States actually did in the Middle East -- what regimes it supported, for example -- but because of what it stood for: the universalist aspirations it symbolized. Iraq quickly became part of this crusade, the great struggle to protect, and now to spread, freedom and democracy.

One can argue long and hard about the roots of the Iraq War, but in the end one must tease out a set of realist compulsions (centrally concerned with the restoration of American credibility and American deterrent power) and idealist aspirations (shaped around the so-called Democratic Domino effect). The realist case was well summarized, once again, by Henry Kissinger, who, when asked by a Bush speechwriter why he supported the Iraq War, replied: "Because Afghanistan wasn't enough." In the conflict with radical Islam, he went on, "They want to humiliate us and we have to humiliate them." The Iraq war was essential in order to make the point that "we're not going to live in the world that they want for us."

Ron Suskind, in his fine book The One Percent Doctrine, puts what is essentially the same point in "geostrategic" terms, reporting that, in meetings of the National Security Council in the months after the 9/11 attacks, the main concern "was to make an example of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States."

Set alongside this was the "democratic tsunami" that was to follow the shock-and-awe triumph over Saddam. It would sweep through the Middle East from Iraq to Iran and thence to Syria and Palestine. ("The road to Jerusalem" -- so ran the neoconservative gospel at the time -- "runs through Baghdad.") As I wrote in October 2002, five months before the Iraq War was launched, this vision was detailed and well elaborated:

"Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq 'the first Arab democracy,' as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq -- secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil -- that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country's evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel's northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

"This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions, it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush's ultimate vision of 'freedom's triumph over all its age-old foes.'"

One can identify two factors underlying this vision: first, the great enthusiasm for a moralistic foreign policy based on universalized principles and democratic reform that dated back to containment's main rival, the "rollback" movement of the 1950s, and that had been revivified by the thrilling series of Eastern European revolutions of the late 1980s and by scenes of popular, American-aided democratic triumph (as it was then thought to be) in Afghanistan; and, second, the recognition that terrorism, at the end of the day, was a political problem that arose from a calcified authoritarian order in the Middle East and that only a dose of "creative destabilization" could shake up that order. "Transforming the Middle East," in Condoleezza Rice's words, "is the only guarantee that it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington."

The latter perception -- that terrorism as it struck the United States arose from political factors and that it could only be confronted and defeated with a political response -- strikes me as incontestable. The problem the administration faced, or rather didn't want to face, was that the calcified order that lay at the root of the problem was the very order that, for nearly six decades, had been shaped, shepherded, and sustained by the United States. We see an explicit acknowledgment of this in the "Bletchley II" report drafted after 9/11 at Defense Department urging by a number of intellectuals close to the administration: "The general analysis," one of its authors told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, "was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from, were the key, but the problems there are intractable. Iran is more important. ... But Iran was similarly difficult to envision dealing with. But Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable ..."

A Very Complicated War

In this sense, many of the Bush administration's leading Iraq War backers comprised a kind of guerrilla force within the U.S. government, fighting against a longstanding strategic alignment in the Middle East. This guerrilla status, which defined many of the government's most knowledgeable Middle East hands as enemies to be isolated and ignored, helps to account, at least in part, for a great many of the extraordinary incompetencies and disasters of the war itself. That the roots of the war lie in stark opposition to established U.S. policy also helps explain the central conundrum of the current U.S. strategic position in Iraq and the Middle East. This was defined for me with typical concision and aplomb by Ahmed Chalabi in Baghdad last year. "The American tragedy in Iraq," said Chalabi, "is that your friends in Iraq are allied with your enemies in the region, and your enemies in Iraq are allied with your friends in the region."

Chalabi's concision and wit are admirable (and typical); but his point, once you look at the map, is obvious. The United States has made possible the rise to power in Iraq of a Shiite government which is allied with its major geopolitical antagonist in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran. And the United States has been fighting with great persistence and distinctly mixed results a Sunni insurgency which is allied with the Saudis, the Jordanians, and its other longtime friends among the traditional Sunni autocracies of the Gulf.

This is another way of saying that the U.S. policy built on the famous meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King ibn Saud aboard Roosevelt's cruiser on the Great Bitter Lake near the end of World War II -- a policy that envisioned a vital, mutually beneficial, and enduring alliance between the Saudis and the Americans -- having been put in grave question by the Saudi insurgents at the controls of those mighty airliners of September 11th, now smashed full on into the strategic assault perpetrated by the Bush administration insurgents led by Paul Wolfowitz and his associates. Their "creative destabilization" was aimed not just at Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but at more than a half century of American policy in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda, opportunistic as always, was willing to play this game, seizing on the occupation of Iraq as the golden opportunity it most certainly was and focusing on the Shiite-Sunni divide on which U.S. policy was foundering. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's famous intercepted letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, in which the insurgent leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia told the al-Qaeda potentates -- the front office, as it were -- that his aim in Iraq was to "awaken the sleeping Sunnis" by launching a vast bombing campaign against the "Shiite heretic," describes precisely both the national and regional strategy: "If we manage to draw them into the terrain of partisan war, it will be possible to tear the Sunnis away from their heedlessness, for they will feel the weight of the imminence of danger."

This is a strategy that, after the bombing of the revered al-Askari mosque and shrine in Samarra in February 2006, bore terrible fruit. My map that shows divisions running through Baghdad will show, if you zoom out, those same divisions running through Iraq and beyond its borders. Like the former Yugoslavia, Iraq is a nation that gathers within itself the cultural and sectarian fault lines of the region; the Sunni-Shia divide running through Iraq in effect runs through the entire Middle East. The United States, in choosing this place to stage its Democratic Revolution, could hardly have done al-Qaeda a better favor.

At this moment, the Iraq War is at a stalemate. Confronted with a growing threat from those "enemies allied with its friends in the region," the Sunni insurgents, the Bush administration has adopted a practical and typically American strategy: it has bought them. The Americans have purchased the insurgency, hiring its foot soldiers at the rate of $300 per month. The Sunni fighters, once called insurgents, we now refer to as "tribesmen" or "concerned citizens."

This has isolated al-Qaeda, a tactical victory. But because these purchased Sunni fighters have not been accepted by the Shiite government -- the allies of our enemies -- the United States has set in motion a policy that will require, to keep violence at current levels, its own permanent presence in the country. This at a time when two in three Americans think the war was a mistake and when both surviving Democrat candidates vow to begin bringing the troops home "on day one" of a Democratic administration.

On the horizon, after such a withdrawal, is a re-ignition of the civil war at an even more brutal level, helped by the American rearming of the Sunni forces -- and indeed the American arming of Shia government forces as well. It is a curious reality, if we look again at the regional map, that the current geostrategic situation in the Middle East resembles nothing so much as the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, in which the United States, along with Egypt, the Saudis, and the Jordanians supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its great war against Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. We see a similar array of forces today, with these two differences: First, we must move the line of conflict about two hundred miles west, shifting it from the Iraq-Iran border to a line running through Baghdad along the Tigris River. Second, the United States is now arming and supporting both sides. And behind the current configuration and the supposed "success of the Surge" looms the darkening threat of regionalization -- a region-wide struggle fought over the body of Iraq in the wake of an American withdrawal. It has become, to appropriate a phrase, a Very Complicated War.

A Defeat Only American Power Could Have Brought About

Whether or not this darkest of dark visions comes to pass, that very complicated war in Iraq, as the intelligence analysts and our own eyes tell us, will continue to pay vast dividends into the account of political grievances with which terrorist groups recruit. This has only partly to do with the original al-Qaeda itself (or "al Qaeda prime," as some analysts now call it); for however much it has managed to "reconstitute" itself, the true game has moved elsewhere, toward "viral al-Qaeda" -- "spontaneous groups of friends," in the words of former CIA analyst and psychiatrist Marc Sageman, "as in [the] Madrid and Casablanca [bombings], who have few links to any central leadership, [who] are generating sometimes very dangerous terrorist operations, notwithstanding their frequent errors and poor training."

While U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have had considerable success attacking the various formal nodes of al-Qaeda prime on the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere, those struggles have about them the air of the past; we have really passed into a different era, the era of the amateurs. Today's network is self-organized, Internet reliant, and decentralized, dependent not on armies, training, or even technology but on desire and political will. And we have ensured, by the way we have fought this forever war, that it is precisely these vital qualities our enemies have in large and growing supply.

So how, finally, do we "take stock of the War on Terror"? Let me suggest three words:

1. Fragmentation -- brought about by "creative destabilization," as we see it not only in Iraq but in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere in the region;

2. Diminution -- of American prestige, both military and political, and thus of American power;

3. Destruction -- of the political consensus within the United States for a strong global role.

Gaze for a moment at those three words and marvel at how far we have come in a half-dozen years.

In September 2001, the United States faced a grave threat. The attacks that have become synonymous with that date were unprecedented in their destructiveness, in their lethality, in the pure apocalyptic shock of their spectacle. But in their aftermath, American policymakers, partly through ideological blindness and preening exaggeration of American power, partly through blindness brought about by political opportunism, made decisions that led to a defeat only their own actions -- that only American power itself -- could have brought about.

A small coven of America's enemies, using the strategy of provocation so familiar in guerrilla warfare, had launched in spectacular fashion on that bright September morning a plan to use the superpower's strength against itself. To use a different metaphor, they were trying to make good on Archimedes' celebrated boast: having found the perfect lever and place to stand, they proposed to move the Earth. To an extent I am sure even they did not anticipate, in their choice of opponent -- an evangelical, redemptive regime scornful of history and determined to remake the fallen world -- lay the seeds of their success.

Copyright 2008 Mark Danner

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Republican Resurrection

Very good article by Frank Rich of The New York Times ( about Hillary Clinton's missed opportunities (ironic, given the gigantic post-9/11 missed opportunity of the current President), the possible damage of an extended, ugly battle between her and Barack Obama, and the likelihood of a John McCain presidency as a result.

Nothing particulary new, but it's a great snapshot of the race as it sits now.


THE day before Barack Obama gave The Speech, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech of her own, billed by her campaign as a “major policy address on the war in Iraq.” What, you didn’t hear about it?

Clinton partisans can blame the Obamaphilic press corps for underplaying their candidate’s uncompromising antiwar sentiments. But intentionally or not, the press did Mrs. Clinton a favor. Every time she opens her mouth about Iraq, she reminds voters of how she enabled the catastrophe that has devoured American lives and treasure for five years.

Race has been America’s transcendent issue far longer than that. I share the general view that Mr. Obama’s speech is the most remarkable utterance on the subject by a public figure in modern memory. But what impressed me most was not Mr. Obama’s rhetorical elegance or his nuanced view of both America’s undeniable racial divide and equally undeniable racial progress. The real novelty was to find a politician who didn’t talk down to his audience but instead trusted it to listen to complete, paragraph-long thoughts that couldn’t be reduced to sound bites.

In a political culture where even campaign debates can resemble “Jeopardy,” this is tantamount to revolution. As if to prove the point, some of the Beltway bloviators who had hyped Mitt Romney’s instantly forgotten snake oil on “Faith in America” soon fell to fretting about whether “ordinary Americans” would comprehend Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton is fond of mocking her adversary for offering “just words.” But words can matter, and Mrs. Clinton’s tragedy is that she never realized they could have mattered for her, too. You have to wonder if her Iraq speech would have been greeted with the same shrug if she had tossed away her usual talking points and seized the opportunity to address the war in the same adult way that Mr. Obama addressed race. Mrs. Clinton might have reconnected with the half of her party that has tuned her out.

She is no less bright than Mr. Obama and no less dedicated to public service. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t have his verbal gifts — who does? But her real problem isn’t her speaking style. It’s the content. Mrs. Clinton needn’t have Mr. Obama’s poetry or pearly oratorical tones to deliver a game-changing speech. She just needs the audacity of candor. Yet she seems incapable of revisiting her history on Iraq (or much else) with the directness that Mr. Obama brought to his reappraisal of his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

On Monday she once again pretended her own record didn’t exist while misrepresenting her opponent’s. “I’ve been working day in and day out in the Senate to provide leadership to end this war,” she said, once more implying he’s all words and she’s all action. But Mrs. Clinton didn’t ratchet up her criticisms of the war until she wrote a letter expressing her misgivings to her constituents in late 2005, two and a half years after Shock and Awe. By then, she was not leading but following — not just Mr. Obama, who publicly called for an Iraq exit strategy a week before the release of her letter, but John Murtha, the once-hawkish Pennsylvania congressman who called for a prompt withdrawal a few days earlier still.

What if Mrs. Clinton had come clean Monday, admitting that she had made a mistake in her original vote and highlighting her efforts to make amends since? John Edwards, arguably a more strident proponent of invading Iraq in 2003 than Mrs. Clinton, did exactly that also in the weeks before her 2005 letter. He succeeded in lifting the cloud, even among those on the left of his party.

Instead Mrs. Clinton darkened that cloud by claiming that she was fooled by the prewar intelligence that didn’t dupe nearly half her Democratic Senate colleagues, including Bob Graham, Teddy Kennedy and Carl Levin. Even worse, she repeatedly pretends that she didn’t know President Bush would regard a bill titled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002” as an authorization to go to war. No one believes this spin for the simple reason that no one believes Mrs. Clinton is an idiot. Her patently bogus explanations for her vote have in the end done far more damage to her credibility than the vote itself.

That she has never given a forthright speech on Iraq is what can happen when your chief campaign strategist is a pollster. Focus groups no doubt say it would be hara-kiri for her to admit such a failing. But surely many Americans would have applauded her for confessing to mistakes and saying what she learned from them. As her husband could have told her, that’s best done sooner rather than later.

It’s too late now, and so the Democratic stars are rapidly aligning for disaster. Mrs. Clinton is no longer trying to overcome Mr. Obama’s lead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates by making bold statements about Iraq or any other issue. Instead of enhancing her own case for the presidency, she’s going to tear him down. As Adam Nagourney of The New York Times delicately put it last week, she is “looking for some development to shake confidence in Mr. Obama” so that she can win over superdelegates in covert 3 a.m. phone calls. If Mr. Wright doesn’t do it, she’ll seek another weapon. Mr. Obama, who is, after all, a politician and not a deity, could well respond in kind.

For Republicans, the prospect of marathon Democratic trench warfare is an Easter miracle. Saddled with the legacy of both Iraq and a cratering economy, the G.O.P. can only rejoice at its opponents’ talent for self-destruction. The Republicans can also count on the help of a political press that, whatever its supposed tilt toward Mr. Obama, remains most benevolent toward John McCain.

This was strikingly apparent last week, when Mr. McCain’s calamitous behavior was relegated to sideshow status by many, if not most, news media. At a time of serious peril for America, the G.O.P.’s presumptive presidential nominee revealed himself to be alarmingly out of touch on both of the most pressing issues roiling the country.

Never mind that Bear Stearns was disposed of in a fire sale, the dollar was collapsing, job losses hit a five-year high, and the price of oil hit an all-time high. Mr. McCain, arriving in Iraq, went AWOL on capitalism’s meltdown, delegating his economic adviser to release an anodyne two-sentence statement of confidence in Ben Bernanke.

This is consistent with Mr. McCain’s laissez-faire approach to economic matters. In January he proposed tasking any problems to “a committee headed by Alan Greenspan, whether he’s alive or dead.” This witty salvo must be very comforting to the large share of Americans — the largest since the Great Depression — who now owe more on their homes than they’re worth.

In Iraq, Mr. McCain did not repeat his April 2007 mistake of touring a “safe” market while protected by a small army. (CNN tried to revisit that market last week, but the idea was vetoed as too risky by the network’s security advisers.) Instead he made a bigger mistake. As if to emulate Dick Cheney, who arrived in Baghdad a day behind him, he embraced the vice president’s habit of manufacturing false links in the war on terror: Mr. McCain told reporters that Iran is training Al Qaeda operatives and sending them into Iraq.

His Sancho Panza, Joe Lieberman, whispered in his ear that a correction was in order. But this wasn’t a one-time slip, like Gerald Ford’s debate gaffe about Poland in 1976. Mr. McCain has said this repeatedly. Troubling as it is that he conflates Shiite Iran with Sunni terrorists, it’s even more bizarre that he doesn’t acknowledge the identity of Iran’s actual ally in Iraq — the American-sponsored Shiite government led by Nuri al-Maliki. Only two weeks before the Iraqi prime minister welcomed Mr. McCain to Baghdad, he played host to a bubbly state visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Whatever Mrs. Clinton’s or Mr. Obama’s inconsistencies about how to wind down the war, they are both models of coherence next to Mr. McCain. He keeps saying the surge is a “success,” but he can’t explain why that success keeps us trapped in Iraq indefinitely. He never says precisely what constitutes that “victory” he keeps seeing around the corner. His repeated declaration that he will only bring home the troops “with honor” is a Vietnam acid flashback recycled as a non sequitur. Our troops have already piled up more than enough honor in their five years of service under horrific circumstances. Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda proliferates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a survey by Foreign Policy magazine of 3,400 active and retired American officers finds that 88 percent believe that the Iraq war has “stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin.”

But as violence flares up again in Iraq and the American economy skids, the issues consuming the Democrats are Mr. Wright and Geraldine Ferraro, race and gender, unsanctioned primaries and unaccountable superdelegates. Unless Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton find a way to come together for the good of their country as well as their party, no speech by either of them may prevent Mr. McCain from making his second unlikely resurrection in a single political year.

New Atheists

Interesting excerpt of Chris Hedges' book "Why I Don't Believe in Atheists" from Free Press ( The author of "American Fascists" about the Christian right, Hedges discussing the problems with the "new atheists" such as Christopher Hitchens. I've read some of Hitchens, and heard him speak, and found him to be a tiresome and ill-informed loudmouth who gets attention and TV face-time by publishing books called "God Is Not Great" and saying inflammatory things at high volume. But, much like Hedges, I hadn't taken him too seriously. As Hedges points out, perhaps that's in error and it's time to start shining the light on this particular vein of poor thinking.

Also, for the record, I don't agree with Hedges' position about the call for moral advancement being "magical thinking." I agree with what I think is his underlying point that progress is not linear, and that you have advances and declines. But to fall back to a position that being human inevitably means accepting barbarism and evil is, to me dangerous. I understand that Hedges ultimately discusses the need to fight this evil, and I certainly agree that the quest for Utopia can cause the blindness that leads crusaders astray. But I also am concerned that by portraying evil and barbarism as inevitable in some ways justifies and countenances it. That, I believe, is just as dangerous.


The following is adapted from the new book by Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists (Free Press, 2008).

I flew to Los Angeles in May of 2007 to debate Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, in UCLA's cavernous Royce Hall. I debated Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God is Not Great, two days later in San Francisco. I paid little attention, until these two public debates, to the positions of the new atheists, writers that also include Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet. Those are many people of great moral probity and courage who seek meaning outside of formal religious structures, who reject religious language and religious ritual and define themselves as atheists. There are also many religious figures that in the name of one god or another sanctify intolerance, repression and violence. There is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever.

These New Atheists attack a form of religious belief many of us hate. I wrote a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I am no friend of Christian radicals. We dislike the same people. We do not dislike them for the same reason. This is not a small difference.

The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil, not for evil's sake but to make a better world.

I started Harris' book when it was published but soon put it aside. His facile attack on a form of religious belief I detest, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist. His assertion that the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, was caused by religion was ridiculous. I was in the former Yugoslavia, including in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo when it was under siege, as the Balkan bureau chief for the New York Times. While religious institutions and their leaders enthusiastically signed on for the slaughter directed by ethnic nationalist leaders in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, religion had nothing to do with the war.

The war had far more to do with the economic collapse of Yugoslavia than religion or ancient ethnic hatreds. His assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children who die as suicide bombers -- or that suicide bombers are the logical result of a belief in Islam -- could have been written only by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who has just lost their child. I did not take Harris seriously. This was a mistake.

I was raised in a church where my father, a Presbyterian minister, spent his career speaking out, often at some personal cost, in support of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam anti-war movement and the gay rights movement. The religious figures I knew, and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and Father Daniel Berrigan. It was possible to admire these men and women and what they stood for, and hold in little regard institutional religion. It was possible to find in the Christian faith meaning and purpose while acknowledging the flaws in the Christian system and rejecting the morally indefensible passages in the Bible.

The institutional church has often used its power and religious authority to sanctify cruelty and exclusion. The self-righteous smugness and suffocating piety of religious leaders, along with the habit of speaking on behalf of people they never meet, are characteristic of many liberal and conservative churches. The church often likes the poor but doesn't like the smell of the poor. I graduated from seminary and decided, largely because of my distaste for the hypocrisy of the church, not to get ordained. I left the United States to report on the conflicts in Central America. I rarely go to church now, and when I do, often roll my eyes at the inanity of the sermons and the self-righteousness of many of the congregants, who appear to believe they are "honorary" sinners.

The liberal church, attacked by the atheists as an ineffectual "moderate" religion and by the fundamentalists as a "nominal" form of Christianity, is, as their critics point out, a largely vapid and irrelevant force. It may not support the violent projects of apocalyptic killing championed by atheists such as Harris or Hitchens and these Christian radicals, but it also does not understand how the world works or the seduction of evil. The liberal church is a largely middle class, bourgeoisie phenomenon, filled with many people who have profited from industrialization, the American empire and global capitalism. They often seem to think that if we can be nice and inclusive everything will work out.

There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.

Religious institutions, however, should be separated from the religious values imparted to me by religious figures, including my father. Most of these men and women frequently ran afoul of their own religious authorities. Religion, real religion, was about fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy and defying the powerful. It was about caring for the other. Spirituality was not defined by "how it is with me," but the tougher spirituality of resistance, the spirituality born of struggle, of the fight with the world's evils. This spirituality, vastly different from the narcissism of modern spirituality movements, was eloquently articulated by Dr. King and the Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and put to death by the Nazis.

Many of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity in the battle against terrorism and irrational religion. They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible, by trying to argue that we can evolve morally -- something Darwin never asserted. They are as anti-intellectual as the Christian Right.

And while the atheists do not have much power and are not a threat to the democratic state, they engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism of the radical Christian Right. They sell this under secular banners, but this does not excuse it. They believe, like the Christian Right, that we are moving forward to a paradise, a state of human perfection made possible by science and reason. They argue, like these Christian radicals, that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world.

Harris, echoing the blood lust of Hitchens, calls, in his book The End of Faith, for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world. He defends torture as a logical form of interrogation. He, like all utopians, has reduced millions of human beings and cultures he knows nothing about to primitive impediments to his vision of a better world.

"What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?" Harris asks. "If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.

Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime -- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe." Harris reduces a fifth of the world's population to a vast, primitive enemy. He blithely accepts that we may have to murder "tens of millions of people in a single day." His bigotry, and the bigotry of all who dehumanize others, sets the stage for indiscriminate slaughter and atrocity. The people to be killed, we are told, are not really distinct individuals. They do not have hopes and aspirations. They only appear human. They must be destroyed because of what they represent, what lurks beneath the surface of their human form. This dehumanization, especially by those who live in a society with the technological capacity to carry out acts of massive industrial slaughter, is terrifying. The new atheists see only one truth -- their truth. Human beings must become like them, think like them and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed as inferior.

We live in an age of faith. We are assured we are advancing as a species towards a world that will be made perfect by reason, technology, science or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Evil can be eradicated. War has been declared on nebulous forces or cultures that stand as impediments to progress. Religion, if you are secular, is blamed for genocide, injustice, persecution, backwardness and intellectual and sexual repression. Secular humanism, if you are born again, is branded as a tool of Satan.

The folly of humankind, however, is pervasive. It infects all human endeavors. It has not exempted itself from institutional religion or the cult of science and reason. The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists. It comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species. Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is nothing in science or human history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses. Our personal and collective histories are not linear.

This belief in inevitable moral progress, whether it comes in secular or religious form, is magical thinking. The secular version of this myth peddles fables no less fantastic, and no less delusional, than those preached from church pulpits. The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science. It is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists. It is a battle between two groups intoxicated with the utopian and magical belief that humankind can protect itself and master its destiny.

These New Atheists, like all religious fundamentalists, fail to grasp the dark reality of human nature, our own capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit. There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.

The New Atheists misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology as egregiously as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Darwinism, which pays homage to the final and complete mastery of our animal natures, never posits that human beings can transcend their natures and create a human paradise. It argues the opposite. The illusion of human progress, in the name of evolutionary biology, is actually anti-Darwinian. And in this the New Atheists are neither honest about science or Darwin. Science is used by them to supplant religion to provide meaning and hope. It is used to assuage these innate religious yearnings. Since scientific knowledge is cumulative, albeit morally neutral, it gives the illusion that human history and human progress is also cumulative. And in many ways science has simply replaced the faith our pre-modern ancestors had in God.

But more ominously, the New Atheists ignore the wisdom of Original Sin, as well as studies in cognitive behavior, that illustrate that human nature is often irrational and flawed. We are all governed, even in our moments of greatest lucidity, by unconscious forces. This understanding, whether achieved through Augustine or Freud, has been our most potent check on schemes of human perfectibility and utopian visions. But the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientific legitimacy than alchemy.

These New Atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism are an unquestioned good. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

I Don't Believe in Atheists is a call to reject simplistic and utopian visions. It is a call to accept the severe limitations of being human. It is a call to face reality, a reality which in the coming decades is going to be bleak and difficult. Those who are blinded by utopian visions inevitably turn to force to make their impossible dreams and their noble ideals real. They believe the ends, no matter how barbaric, justify the means. Utopian ideologues, armed with the technology and mechanisms of industrial slaughter, have killed tens of millions of people over the last century. They ask us to inflict suffering and death in the name of virtue and truth. The New Atheists, in the end, offer us a new version of an old and dangerous faith. It is one we have seen before. It is one we must fight.

Friday, March 21, 2008

McCain and Cheney - Then vs. Now

It's been well-chronicled (Jon Stewart did a brilliant piece about it), but here's a nice reminder from Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report ( on how the Iraq positions of John McCain and Dick Cheney in the 1990's made so much sense, and how completely they've abandoned them.

I really hope someone in the Democratic camp is smart enough to get McCain in a debate and throw those quotes back at him. What's changed? 9/11? We just had a Pentagon report conclusively proving no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Some kind of mushy "post-9/11" Giuliani-style line? Didn't work so hot for Rudy. A crass sell-out to the Bush-programed right wing in an attempt to win the Republican nomination? Well ...

Right now, McCain has caught both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the polls. The war is down the list on important issues. But come general election time, and with the 4,000th American casualty milestone coming, I truly believe the war will become a bigger issue. And it's things like this that give the Democrats a real opportunity - if they're smart enough to take advantage of it.


It seems almost odd in retrospect, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, John McCain was not an enthusiastic supporter of a military confrontation. At the time, McCain said, “To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don’t think is a viable option.” As the first Bush administration began formulating plans to intervene, McCain wanted to limit the response to an air campaign.

The president chose a different direction, and McCain quickly fell in line. But the anecdote is a reminder that the McCain we see today, filled with neocon ideas and bellicose rhetoric, used to be far more cautious about putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.

The DNC’s research department highlighted an even more striking example, noting a 1991 interview between McCain and Larry King.

MCCAIN: …I’m not sure that if we did go in on the ground we could tell a Shiite from a Sunni, even from a Kurd. And who is it that we’d be fighting and battling against on the streets of Baghdad? And, if we got into Baghdad, we would lose all of our military supremacy and we would take casualties.
KING: If they’d welcome this-
Sen. McCAIN: One more point - real quick. I want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There’s a few other dictators I’d like to get rid of, too. And I hate to use the phrase “slippery slope,” but if we’ve got to get rid of this dictator, which ones do we take on next?
That John McCain sure used to be smart, didn’t he?

It reminds me of a speech Dick Cheney gave in 1991, in which he noted the intense sectarian rivalries that dominate Iraqi society and the likely inability to maintain stability in Baghdad. As for replacing Saddam with a democracy, Cheney asked his audience, “How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there?” He added:

“The notion that we ought to now go to Baghdad and somehow take control of the country strikes me as an extremely serious one in terms of what we’d have to do once we got there. You’d probably have to put some new government in place. It’s not clear what kind of government that would be, how long you’d have to stay. For the U.S. to get involved militarily in determining the outcome of the struggle over who’s going to govern in Iraq strikes me as a classic definition of a quagmire.”
Then, in 1994, Cheney reiterated his position.

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. How many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? And our judgment was — not very many and I think we got it right.”
Yep, Dick Cheney and John McCain both realized what they were getting into in Iraq, but rejected their own accurate thinking a decade later.

I suppose it’s inevitable that McCain and his campaign will respond to this the same way Cheney backers did — by arguing that “9/11 changed everything.” But don’t buy it. The old McCain asked all the right questions and made all right assumptions about sectarian divisions in Iraq, and the inherent challenges in even knowing who we’d be fighting.

The conditions in Iraq didn't change at all, only McCain’s willingness to abandon the judgment that was right a decade before it was wrong.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pastor Wars!

After the controversy about Barack Obama's pastor and his controversial comments, it is relevant to point out the nutcase religious folks that John McCain has embraced. This post by Blue Texan of Firedoglake ( does a nice job of summarizing the demons (pardon the pun) in McCain's camp.

Ultimately, I think Pastor-gate will die down and go away, just because of this. No one in McCain's camp is going to bring this out, knowing that McCain will get pummeled about the head and shoulders with John Hagee et al. But it is interesting how little attention these guys are getting - at least for now - in the press.


As the wingnut chorus predictably disses Obama's eloquent speech, it's important to remember how completely ridiculous and manufactured this whole Wright "controversy" is:

...the idea that America deserves terrorist attacks and other horrendous disasters has long been a frequently expressed view among the faction of white evangelical ministers to whom the Republican Party is most inextricably linked. Neither Jerry Falwell nor Pat Robertson ever retracted or denounced their view that America provoked the 9/11 attacks by doing things to anger God. John Hagee continues to believe that the City of New Orleans got what it deserved when Katrina drowned its residents and devastated the lives of thousands of Americans. And James Inhofe -- who happens to still be a Republican U.S. Senator -- blamed America for the 9/11 attacks by arguing in a 2002 Senate floor speech that "the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America" because we pressured Israel to give away parts of the West Bank. The phrases "anti-American" and "America-haters" are among the most barren and manipulative in our entire political lexicon, but whatever they happen to mean on any given day, they easily encompass people who believe that the U.S. deserved the 9/11 attacks, devastating hurricanes and the like. Yet when are people like Falwell, Robertson, Hagee, Inhofe and other white Christian radicals ever described as anti-American or America-hating extremists? Never -- because white Christian evangelicals who tie themselves to the political Right are intrinsically patriotic.

Well, yeah. Duh.

By all accounts, George Bush had private conversations with Pat Robertson about matters as weighty as whether to invade Iraq. Isn't that a big scandal -- that the President is consulting with an American-hating minister -- someone who believes God allowed the 9/11 attacks as punishment for our evil country -- about vital foreign policy decisions? No, it wasn't controversial at all.

John Hagee privately visits with the highest level Middle East officials in the White House and afterwards pronounces that they're in agreement. John McCain shares a stage with Hagee and lavishes him with praise, as Rudy Giuliani did with Pat Robertson. James Inhofe remains a member in good standing in the GOP Senate Caucus. The Republican Party has tied itself at the hip to a whole slew of "anti-American extremists" -- people who believe that the U.S. provoked the 9/11 attacks because God wants to punish us for the evil, wicked nation we've become -- and yet there is virtual silence about these associations.

Once again, it's important to keep making the point that when you've built an entire political movement on the backs of a crazy mob of Dixiecrat Savonarolas who make outrageous hateful comments pretty much every day, you've sort of opted-out of your ability to throw stones.

How bad was the Bear Sterns bailout?

A depressing article by Jon Markman of MSN Money (, detailing how the Fed's bailout of Bear Sterns really perpetuates bad decision making in the financial markets. Not to sound too populist, but it really is a situation where the rich and connected are protecting themselves at the expense of the littles.

It would have been interesting to see how populist candidates like John Edwards and Mike Huckabee would have handled this. I suspect we're not going to hear much about it from the current candidates, although it potentially could be a heavy hammer against John McCain.


Why the Fed's rate cuts won't help you
In its efforts to keep irresponsible bankers on Wall Street afloat, the Federal Reserve is spurring inflation, crippling the dollar and cutting into retirees' incomes. And mortgages and car loans won't get any cheaper.

But the Fed's effort will have little effect on the ability of the average American to get a cheap loan for a new home, car or college education even as it has a large effect on U.S. banks' ability to fix their balance sheets by racking up fat profits.

If that sounds unfair, welcome to the latest episode of a brutal new American business ethic, in which the government bails out bad bets by risk-taking banking executives in New York with money that it borrows from middle-class families and foreign investors. The effort is gilded with fancy financial language and cloaked in the guise of a rescue that helps all citizens, but the reality is that Washington is essentially robbing the poor to help the rich.

It seems odd, but these are extraordinary times. Normally, when the Federal Reserve cuts the rate at which it lends money to U.S. banks, those banks in turn cut the rates at which they lend money to citizens and companies for personal and commercial use. Simple enough. Yet in the past few months, banks have made three important changes in their usual practice:

They have not been passing all of their interest-rate savings to customers.

They have restricted lending only to most creditworthy, documented applicants.

They have cut the total amount they're willing to lend.

Good for banks, bad for you
Banks are taking these seemingly perverse steps in an effort to reverse the effects of the massive losses they have withstood for lending too broadly to consumers and companies with lousy credit over the past five years.

They're pulling a big 180, which is as confusing as it is disheartening. Rather than providing funds to prospective home buyers and business people with legitimate needs for moving into larger homes or expanding factory lines, records show the banks are hoarding the low-cost money they're borrowing from the Fed and investing it in Treasury bonds paying higher interest yields. They're then pocketing the windfall profits to repair their own ravaged balance sheets.

As if that's not bad enough, the Fed's swiftly conceived, unprecedented course of action harms the public in three other ways:

It boosts inflation by lifting the total number of dollars in circulation.

It undercuts the attractiveness of the U.S. dollar, which leads to higher food, energy and gold prices.

It cuts the yields of dividend-paying investments such as government bonds upon which retirees depend for steady income.

In other words, the Fed action helps imprudent bankers dig out of a hole by putting prudent citizens and foreigners in one. This gives big financial businesses a shot at staving off disaster at the risk of cutting the spending and earning power of everyone else.

Fed outwitted and outplayed
To be fair, the Federal Reserve never wanted to be in this position, and it told Congress as recently as a few months ago that the U.S. economy was in such great shape that it had no intention of lowering interest rates in a material way anytime soon. But the Fed's leaders, a dangerous mix of university professors and career bureaucrats, were drawn into a trap at amazing speed by dark forces in the global financing system that they now admit they scarcely understood.

How could this happen? Albert Wojnilower, who was chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston for a quarter of a century, observes that the history of finance is rife with examples of financiers who successfully outwit their referees -- the accountants, auditors, rating agencies, bank examiners and government agencies that are assigned to create and enforce rules.

Wojnilower, now an adviser to Craig Drill Capital in New York, points out that just as in sports, some of these officials may be corrupt, indifferent, incompetent, or even hostile to the rules themselves, but they always fall behind the financiers. He notes that as soon as lenders are freed of constraints -- as they were in this case by Bush administration officials eager to deregulate the industry -- they are spurred by huge short-term rewards "to compete addictively with one another in taking bigger and bigger risks.” Wojnilower says that eventually havoc breaks loose, forcing responsible government authorities to halt the chaos by providing bailouts to participants considered too big to fail.

It's a bit ironic, and not a little sad, that government has come to believe it has to fight fire with fire. The Fed, whose leaders are appointed by the president, is essentially trying to battle problems created in an era of overly cheap money and loose lending by making money even cheaper and lending even more aggressively.

In just the past few weeks, it has broken all of its own rules by providing hundreds of billions of taxpayer funds to brokerages at special auctions, opening a bigger "discount" window to permit a wider range of financial institutions to beg at the government till and accepting weaker-than-normal collateral such as iffy mortgage-backed securities. The Fed has put the government in the position of being the payday lender of last resort.

The Fed's hamster wheel
Just to top it all off, the Fed this week announced plans to allow the twin titans of government-supported mortgage finance, Fannie Mae (FNM, news, msgs) and Freddie Mac (FRE, news, msgs) -- which have proved themselves horrible at managing risk -- to make even bigger loans than they had previously. And it is telling banks to let individuals facing foreclosure to stretch out their payments a little longer.

It is all a bit crazy, which is why many veteran financial advisers recommend that investors remain skeptical of rallies.

The market rallied before today's Fed action, expecting a full percentage-point cut, and reacted well initially even to the less aggressive action. But what you want to watch is the reaction of debt markets, not the equity markets. Credit investors, who are the real masters of the global economic system, believe that the Fed is like a hamster in a cage that has to run faster just to stay in place as events spin faster and faster out of its control.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Socialism's bad, except when it's good

Interesting article by E.J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post (, decrying the hypocrisy of the free market conservatives in the face of the multi-billion-dollar bank bailout being discussed in Washington.

It's things like this that need to get brought up when conservatives begin worshipping at the altar of the free market. The problem is not that free markets are a good thing - all things being equal, they are. But in general, conservatives go to the free market card when they or their group has an advantage, and wants to keep it.

Can't wait to hear John "No Earmarks" McCain's position on this.


The Street on Welfare

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; Page A19

Never do I want to hear again from my conservative friends about how brilliant capitalists are, how much they deserve their seven-figure salaries and how government should keep its hands off the private economy.

The Wall Street titans have turned into a bunch of welfare clients. They are desperate to be bailed out by government from their own incompetence, and from the deregulatory regime for which they lobbied so hard. They have lost "confidence" in each other, you see, because none of these oh-so-wise captains of the universe have any idea what kinds of devalued securities sit in one another's portfolios.

So they have stopped investing. The biggest, most respected investment firms threaten to come crashing down. You can't have that. It's just fine to make it harder for the average Joe to file for bankruptcy, as did that wretched bankruptcy bill passed by Congress in 2005 at the request of the credit card industry. But the big guys are "too big to fail," because they could bring us all down with them.

Enter the federal government, the institution to which the wealthy are not supposed to pay capital gains or inheritance taxes. Good God, you don't expect these people to trade in their BMWs for Saturns, do you?

In a deal that the New York Times described as "shocking," J.P. Morgan Chase agreed over the weekend to pay $2 a share to buy all of Bear Stearns, one of the brand names of finance capitalism. The Federal Reserve approved a $30 billion -- that's with a "b" -- line of credit to make the deal work.

I don't fault Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, for being so interventionist in trying to save the economy. On the contrary, Bernanke deserves credit for ignoring all the extreme free-market bloviation. He doesn't want the economy to collapse on his watch, so he is willing to violate all the conservatives' shibboleths about the dangers of government intervention. As a voter once told the legendary political journalist Richard Rovere: "Sometimes you have to forget your principles to do what's right."

But if this near meltdown of capitalism doesn't encourage a lot of people to question the principles they have carried in their heads for the past three decades or so, nothing will.

We had already learned the hard way -- in the crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed -- that capitalism is quite capable of running off the rails. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was a response to the failure of the geniuses of finance (and their defenders in the economics profession) to realize what was happening or to fix it in time.

As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted of the era leading up to the Depression, "The threat to men of great dignity, privilege and pretense is not from the radicals they revile; it is from accepting their own myth. Exposure to reality remains the nemesis of the great -- a little understood thing."

But in the enthusiasm for deregulation that took root in the late 1970s, flowered in the Reagan era and reached its apogee in the second Bush years, we forgot the lesson that government needs to keep a careful watch on what capitalists do. Of course, some deregulation can be salutary, and the market system is, on balance, a wondrous instrument -- when it works. But the free market is just that: an instrument, not a principle.

In 1996, back when he was a Republican senator from Maine, William Cohen told me: "We have been saying for so long that government is the enemy. Government is the enemy until you need a friend."

So now the bailouts begin, and Wall Street usefully might feel a bit of gratitude, perhaps by being willing to have the wealthy foot some of the bill or to acknowledge that while its denizens were getting rich, a lot of Americans were losing jobs and health insurance. I'm waiting.