Monday, March 31, 2008

Barack Obama, American fundamentalist

I think I've discovered something about Barack Obama and I'm ready to share this discovery with the rest of you. It's not a secret exactly. It's really obvious when you actually listen to the things he says. I know you're not supposed to do that without proper inoculation first, but I have and I've come away from the experience with this observation, an observation that I hereby share: Barack Obama is a fundamentalist, an American fundamentalist.

I'd had my suspicions along these lines for a while, now. That speech from 2004 Democratic Convention, that disturbing way he described being an American more vividly than he described being a Democrat, his books and his campaign and the speeches he has given along the way —they all have this habit of examining America, it's history and documented ideals, for enduring meaning.

Two recent examples: his speech on race and his speech on the economy.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The next casualty

It was Aeschylus who said it. "Truth is the first casualty in war."

America's War (Slate's Fred Kaplan refers to "them" as the "wars") in Iraq has borne out the observation with one after another vivid tragedy. The dead, the squandered wealth and degraded reputation, these were all begun, and have since ensued on the strength of fallacy. Figment weapons of mass destruction and concocted theories of conspiracy with al-Qaeda terrorists. The grim prospect of a mushroom cloud should we fail to act on an imminent threat. Those were the founding lies. We don't torture, this is about democracy, we're not building in a permanent presence, etc. The legacy continues.

And as the casualties mount in these wars, the next war comes out of the blur and into focus.

Vice president Dick Cheney's recent interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz already yielded up the quote, "So?" —which managed to elicit just enough indignation to further entrench both sides in our national debate on the war in Iraq. But under the dust thrown up over that arrogance is the chilling evidence of another. Speaking on the subject of Iran in the same interview, Cheney simply brushed aside the factual matter of the U.S.'s own recent National Intelligence Estimate.

“Obviously, they’re also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Only a game

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's proposal for casino gambling went down in flames, we all know. And for those who like to view politics as a "contact sport" the proposal has to be seen as going under the 'L' column. Come to think of it, I'm not sure anyone is looking at this as anything other than another contest that the Governor failed.

A game, you might say.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five years in Iraq: only to remain

“The president and I, and your fellow citizens, want nothing more than to have you and all of your comrades return home safely at the end of this tour of duty. We're going to do everything we can to make that happen.” That’s Vice President Cheney speaking to American troops in Iraq, just this week.

Vice President Cheney toured Baghdad to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion. In comments he made to the press, he called that invasion and the subsequent occupation, now entering its sixth year, “a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor." In those same comments he remarked upon the “phenomenal” improvements to security that had been achieved by the “troop surge” which is now more than a year old.


At about the same time the Vice President made that comment, in the holy city of Karbala, a suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded more than 60 more in a crowd gathered near a sacred Shiite shrine. At about the same time he said we shouldn’t be “so eager" to draw down troops in Iraq, two U.S. servicemen were killed by a roadside bomb as they travelled north of the capital city of Baghdad.

As of the anniversary date of the original U.S. invasion nearly 4,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq. More than 300 from other coalition force nations have died there as well. The most conservative estimates place the Iraqi death toll at over 90,000 with more than 90% of those being civilian deaths.Current estimates place the financial cost of the war to date at approximately one half trillion dollars. That’s $500,000,000,000.00...”Phenomenal.”

Some might recall that the original invasion of Iraq was premised on the immediate and pressing need to disarm Saddam Hussein, who was said to possess dangerous weapons of mass destruction and an inclination and capacity to use them. It’s nearly five years since we learned that no such weapons, no such capacity existed.

Others might remember that in the build up to the war we were told time and again of Hussein’s involvement with al-Qaeda and the September 11th terrorists. Perhaps, it is in deference to the anniversary of that particular illusion that the Pentagon announced, as Cheney toured Baghdad’s Green Zone, that it would not publicly distribute a report, the product of an exhaustive study, that has once again found no such connection between Hussein and al-Qaeda ever existed.

Still others might remember when the mission was first redefined, when we were told that our purpose in Iraq was to establish a free and democratic country for its citizens —that only pessimists and quibblers would complain about the white lie false premise for such a good war, one that removed a brutal tyrant and won freedom for an oppressed people. We had ushered in a “watershed moment in the story of freedom,” as President Bush described it—Iraqi elections, that's what this war was about. That was December 2005. Perhaps some still remember the purple fingertips.

That was more than two years ago. There was reason to believe our troops would come home back then. Americans wanted them home, polls at the time said so plainly. Iraqis wanted them to leave, polls said this plainly as well. If this war had indeed become something about democracy and freedom, it would surely have to be over soon.

But we all know that’s not how it played out in the ensuing year. As violence began to spiral and the sharp lines of sectarian rivalry only sharpened, our troops became more and more the beat cops on a street where nobody spoke their language. As we had armed and equipped Iraq’s army and police we began to hear reports of those same forces becoming party to the most atrocious aspects of the conflict. We started using words like civil war —and what was painfully unclear was what side of that war we were on. There were those in this country and in Iraq who argued that the American presence only served to galvanize radical and violent action, to provide a scapegoat for some, a target for others, and political cover for everyone involved.

It was seeing this that the American people began to react more forcefully and negatively towards the war. Perhaps, we had opted not to change horses midstream in 2004 —in 2006 we began to appreciate that the horse was drifting down river. Congress began to debate in earnest about ways to pursue an end to this war —even though our president still spoke glowingly of the achievements and shrugged over a few “challenges” —even though Vice President Cheney opined that, on the whole, what we had in Iraq was “a remarkable success.” Debate in the Congress began to address the notion of linking U.S. support for Iraq to progress on political conciliation. In November of that year Democrats took both houses of Congress on the stength of disaffection with the war. Later the Iraq Study Group released its bipartisan plan for a new approach featuring regional diplomacy and —yes— a steady and certain withdrawal of American forces. In Iraq’s own legislature there was call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

But in the world view of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney, you can’t go letting the public and their opinions interfere in a war for democracy and freedom. The administration took the Iraq Study Group Report and the apparent message of a newly elected Democratic Congressional majority and they thanked us all for our input ...and set about the exact opposite in terms of policy.

Of course, President Bush didn’t present it to us as such. The president introduced us to a new term, “the surge” —30,000 more American soldiers on Iraqi soil. The “surge” was offered in response to those other notions such as the ISG’s proposals. As a “surge” it was to be, by definition, a temporary thing, only so long as necessary to allow the Iraqi government and rival factions to achieve a sustainable peace and a reasonable civil order.

It was well over a year ago that the president outlined his plan, the method and the goals. We would “provide space” and Iraq would reform and reconcile —they would “progress” politically. He outlined eighteen separate benchmarks for this progress, ranging from constitutional and civil rights reform, to local elections and secularization of the country’s internal security.

“America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced." That’s what the President said, well over a year ago.

Early this year the Center for American Progress released a study of Iraq’s performance on these benchmarks. There was really no surprise in it. Just as General Patreus said last Summer as he testified before Congress —and just as the Government Accountability Office reported last Fall, the CAP report observed that while some of the military and security objectives have seen progress —statistical declines in violence for example, virtually none of the social and political objectives set out for Iraqi leadership have seen any progress at all. A draft of some legislation on oil revenue sharing has moved somewhat forward through their legislature.

So, here we are, about to embark on the sixth year of our “difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor," as Vice President Cheney describes it. Here we are trying to understand what that endeavor is exactly. We have been given a number of different working definitions these past five years: remove a threat, depose a dictator, safeguard a democracy, allow it space... then progress. As Vice President Cheney flies home, and our troops do not, and the previously stated benchmarks of progress seem all but forgotten, as another day’s statistically acceptable amount of blood is washed from the street, it seems the “surge” —first introduced as a means to an end—has become the end in itself. Our purpose in Iraq has become —only to remain.

One of the stops on Vice President Cheney’s anniversary tour of Baghdad was a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and U.S. General David Patreus. No doubt one of the things they discussed was progress on the negotiations for a “status of forces agreement” allowing for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq for years to come. Both sides have stated their ambition to conclude this agreement this Summer—it's important that they do, before elections in the Fall: October in Iraq, November here at home.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Laughter from the rose garden

Last November President Bush signed a "declaration of principles" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an agreement that established the framework for a future more defined and formal "bilateral relationship" for the U.S. and Iraq. He signed something 'very much like an agreement' to provide for a long term (or perhaps permanent) U.S. military presence in Iraq. The “U.S.-Iraq Declaration of Principles for Friendship and Cooperation” it was called.

What he signed was a treaty.

The president did not refer to this agreement as a treaty, however. By the terms of the U.S. Constitution, treaties require the approval of Congress.

The document our president signed essentially outlined the method by which a U.S. occupation force, the troops and equipment, the military bases, could all remain and be re-conceived of as aspects of "a normalized bilateral relationship" with Iraq. While the document left room for negotiation, it established certain central parameters. As the U.N. authorization for the "Coalition of The Willing" comes to a close late in 2008, U.S. troops will remain “to provide security assurances to the Iraqi Government.” They will remain to "deter any external aggression," Prime Minister al-Maliki explained in a statement at the time. They could be used to address any "internal" problems for a "democratic Iraq" as well, he said.

There was something in there about "preferential treatment" for future U.S. investment in the Iraqi economy. This might involve oil.

As he announced the signing, Prime Minister al-Maliki was careful not to refer to this "declaration of principles" as a treaty — just like President Bush. You see, the Iraqi Constitution requires that treaties and binding international agreements be ratified by a two thirds majority of their legislative council.

There was scant attention for this agreement—excuse me—I mean 'declaration'— as it was signed back in November. Perhaps a few more noticed when the President attached one of his famous signing statements to a defense appropriations bill earlier this year. The bill contained language barring the administration from using the funds to establish permanent bases in Iraq. Such language, Bush explained as he cashed the check and signed the bill, could not be construed as a limit on his presidential powers as commander-in-chief. Bush argued that his military powers were not limited to his own tactical and strategic control of the armed forces (at times at odds with the wishes of Congress and the American people), but that he could also commit that military to engagement beyond his own term of command.

Now, I know executing a "declaration of principles" that entails a long term, open ended (perhaps permamnent) commitment of troops in exchange for "preferential treatment" for investments sure sounds like a treaty—or at least like an agreement. But the American President and the Iraqi Prime Minister assure us this isn't so.

The Bush administration has apparently put some real "hard work" into the negotiations with the al-Maliki government since November. The Washington Post report of March 6th relates how "U.S. officials are traveling to Baghdad this week with drafts of two documents — a status-of-forces agreement and a separate “strategic framework” — that they expect to sign with the Iraqi government by the end of July."

Certain members of Congress have apparently questioned President Bush's assumption of unregulated power (positing that this might be their role in our government) and have asked to actually see these agreements. Some have gone so far as to opine that these agreements require their oversight and approval before they are signed. They argue that when something looks like a treaty and functions like a treaty ... it's a treaty. And there's this matter of the Constitution.

You'll never guess how the Bush League responded.

The Bush administration's Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey T. Bergner responded to Congressional demands that the administration submit the newest agreement documents (you know —treaties) for their approval, by saying that all the Congressional approval needed for these agreements was already in place —by virtue of the measures passed in the weeks following September 11th and the 2002 authorization for the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

That's right, folks. The same authorization that the administration used as its premise for dispensing with Habeus Corpus and The First Ammendment, that justified circumventing FISA and a host of other laws, now disposes of Congressional authority over international treaty.

In a letter to Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) —one of those meddlesome Congressmen— Assistant Secretary of State Bergner pointed to the language in the post 9/11 legislation granting the President powers “to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States" as all the granted authority necessary to draft and execute these agreements without further Congressional involvement. He added further that "Congress expressly authorized the use of force to ‘defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq’”in 2002.

Maybe just to rub it in, Bergner pointed out that “Congress has repeatedly provided funding for the Iraq war.”

And so, as the imbecile monarch in 'Amadeus' observed, "There it is!"

With a six year old resolution, passed to express our common resolve in the face of terrorism, and another from five years ago that was meant to empower action against an impending immediate threat from Iraq —with these the administration gleans an understanding of unfettered authority for itself and obsolescence for the Constitutional concept of Congressional oversight.

It doesn't matter that members of Congress, time and again, have pointed out that these resolutions were never intended to relinquish all Constitutional authority—no—responsibility for Congressional oversight of the President, his administration and their actions. No, it doesn't matter what Congress or the country intended with their actions. What matters, says George W. Bush, is what he can take them to mean.

Change of scene...

As the terse message arrives for those bothersome Congressional meddlers, the president meets in the White House Rose Garden with the man he feels "is a president" —a man "who will bring determination" to the course he has set out for this country in Iraq. John McCain has offered "fifty, a hundred, maybe a thousand years" of such determination. "He's a president," Mr. Bush observes.

And if the American people and Congress don't happen to agree when that quadrennial "accountability moment" we call an election comes along —what with the agreements George Bush has committed us to, the hole he's gone and dug and the bases he's gone and built —heck, it really doesn't matter.

I think I hear laughter.