Friday, May 26, 2006

"The Axis of Feeble"

Watching British prime minister Tony Blair on TV last night, as he shared a White House podium with his longtime senior partner in war, I was struck by the fact that his famed silver tongue was no longer waxing eloquent about the mission in Iraq; that his once-boyish features now seemed as rumpled as an unmade bed; and that his once-buoyant grin had been replaced by the dour stoicism usually seen on a British bobby caught in a London downpour.

That's what happens when you hitch yourself to a falling star. All those years of being ridiculed as "Bush's poodle," coupled with reality-based evidence of mayhem in Iraq, have clearly taken their toll. You know that things must be going badly when a master practitioner of the English language decides to let the other guy do most of the talking. No wonder the respected Economist magazine now refers to Tony Blair and President Bush as "The Axis of Feeble."

It was clear that Blair was already hurtling toward lame-duck status a year ago, when I spent a week in Britain prior to the national elections. Voters in his own party, Labor, were furious with him for hanging tough with Bush on Iraq and refusing to admit error. I went door-knocking in southern Nottingham, a Labor stronghold, and quickly encountered a resident named Dave Smith, who set the tone for that evening:

"I've voted Labor all my life, but I won't do it again! Get rid of that Blair bloke! He's got that supercilious smirk, like he doesn't care how many people get killed! He lied to get into that war, just to be friendly to America! Stick him on an island, like what the French did to Napoleon!"

A week later, Blair's party was humbled at the polls, nearly losing all of its once-mighty Parliament majority, and it has been clear ever since that Blair's days are numbered. (In Britain, unlike in America, the political leader sometimes deems it wise to truncate his own tenure if it is is clear he has lost the confidence of the people.) Perhaps that explains why the PM showed little self-confidence last night, preferring at times to utter rare words of contrition.

Standing beside Bush, he admitted error on a key issue of postwar execution that has long been cited by his critics: The decision to quickly disband the Iraqi military, a move that allowed former Saddam Hussein loyalists to join (and fuel) the insurgency; a move that also sowed administrative chaos in what remained of the governmental infrastructure. Retaining his gift for British understatement, Blair said that this process could have been accomplished "in a more differentiated way." It was also noteworthy that Blair renounced the prewar talk of a cakewalk, saying instead that he should have better foreseen that "it was going to be a more difficult process" to build a "democratic Iraq."

As for Bush, he too ate a few slices of humble pie. That was in sharp contrast to his behavior on the night of April 13, 2004, during a press conference, when he resisted any suggestion that anything had gone wrong in Iraq. Asked to cite a mistake that he might have made, he shook his head twice and replied, "I'm sure something will pop into my head in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet." And it didn't. Instead, he added that "even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein."

Bush last night didn't renounce that statement, of course, but it was somewhat startling to hear him walk away from his 2003 Texas swagger - notably, his call to the insurgents to "bring it on." Two thousand American deaths later, that line apparently no longer seems politic.

So this time Bush said: "Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."

I had to replay that remark to ensure that I was really hearing it. Clearly, the president who always says he pays no attention to the polls, is paying attention to the polls. But I think there is something more: He is thinking about his legacy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Self-absorption as a point of principle

The Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who have rarely fought back against the Bush administration's ongoing efforts to diminish Congress' constitutional powers, are suddenly declaring that they are mad as hell and they're not gonna take it anymore.

Yes, they are outraged. They are inveighing against what they call an unconscionable executive branch violation of the separation of powers. They are drawing a line in the sand, and spoiling for a fight.

So what's the reason?

Is it because the Bush administration bypassed Congress, and 1978 statutory law, by setting up a warrantless surveillance program?

Is it because the White House stonewalled Congress' attempts to obtain the full documentary evidence of the administration's performance during Katrina?

Is it because President Bush has reportedly signed 750 bills into law, and then declared in "signing statements" that he would not enforce those laws as written, but rather as he chose to interpret them?

Is it because Bush's lawyers argued in legal briefs that Congress is powerless to interfere with any presidential decision to torture enemy prisoners?

Is it because they perhaps agree with the conclusions of the Cato Institute, the conservative think tank which contends in a new report that Bush has "repeatedly dishonored" his pledge to respect the separation of powers and that Bush "has weakened the constitutional order on which the American way of life depends"?
Again, no.

Here's the reason: An assertive act by an executive agency has personally ruffled the politicians' feathers.

Last Saturday night, some FBI agents armed with a search warrant raided the Capitol Hill office of a congressman who's under investigation for taking bribes. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is suddenly voicing outrage, invoking the seperation-of-powers doctrine, and declaring that "no person is above the law," even in the executive branch, because this time the prerogatives of lawmakers are directly involved. And the House Judiciary chairman, Republican James Sensenbrenner is suddenly gearing up for a hearing next week, entitled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?" (Hastert was joined in protest by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who must be enjoying this moment.)

In other words, the politicians have drawn a principled line in the their own office vestibules.

This isn't even a particularly good crusade, because, as legal scholars point out, the search by an executive agency of a congressional office, while unprecedented, is not a specific violation of any wording in the Constitution; as one scholar, Akhil Reed Amar, noted, "It's really a matter of etiquette. I don't see any constitutional principle here."

More importantly, however, is the unintended political message. Voters, who are already sour on the performance of Congress, might draw the conclusion that the leaders on Capitol Hill, far from appearing to be standing on principle, might be coming off as a tad self-absorbed, as more concerned about their own nests than the civil liberties of average folks.

One Republican senator, David Vitter of Louisiana, sensed this danger yesterday. He warned that the public "will come to one conclusion: that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations...For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people."

An honors graduate of the Last Throes School of Military Policy

See if you can guess who uttered these confident words last June:
"With the exception of periodic flare-ups in isolated corners, our struggle in Iraq as warfare is over."

Was it...
(a) President Bush, updating his 2003 declaration that major combat was over?
(b) Donald Rumsfeld, telling Pentagon reporters why the reality-based media had it all wrong?
(c) Dick Cheney, improvising on his earlier announcement that the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes?
(d) Claude Allen, White House domestic policy advisor, defending the war during his final days on the job -- before he was arrested for shoplifting?
or (e) none of the above?

The correct answer is (e). The man who last June declared the end of our warfare in Iraq is:
Karl Zinsmeister, a veteran of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, whose perception of a basically peaceful Iraq might be of interest to the families of the 710 American soldiers who have been killed since he wrote those words -- and to the 4,502 soliders who have been wounded since then.

Why am I spotlighting Zinsmeister?
Because he just got named by Bush to be the new White House domestic policy advisor, replacing the aforementioned alleged shoplifter.

There was a time, several months ago, when mainstream Washington Republicans such as David Gergen and Vin Weber were urging the Bush administration to shake up the staff and bring in a wider spectrum of opinion. Those Republicans may question whether the addition of Zinsmeister meets that standard.

On the other hand, Zinsmeister is being hired for domestic policy, so he probably won't be tapped to contribute to the administration's comunications effort on the war. That task still falls, primarily, to the President. The problem is that he is still making statements that do not square with the facts.

Late Tuesday afternoon, while speaking about Iraq, the Decider took on the Suicider:
"It is a difficult task to stop suicide bombers. That’s the — but that’s one of the main — that’s the main weapon of the enemy, the capacity to destroy innocent life with a suicider." However, "If one were to measure progress on the number of suiciders, if that's your definition of success, I think it obscures the steady, incremental march toward democracy we're seeing."

But Bush got it wrong. The Suicider is no longer "the main weapon of the enemy."
As documented in a chart here (see page five), 56 percent of U.S troop deaths during May have been caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), not suicide bombs. In fact, IEDs have caused the majority of U.S. deaths during seven of the past nine months. And during 2005, only 411 of 34,131 insurgent attacks featured suicide car bombs.

Yet the strife in Iraq today (or, as Zinsmeister might call it, "periodic flareups in isolated corners") goes far beyond the largely Sunni insurgency. Bush may still be focused on Suiciders, but the biggest threat to peace appears to be the roaming death squads that have infiltrated the Iraqi government, to the point where it's tough to tell the sectarian killers from the peace officers.

Naturally, as an attention-getter, this is not an issue that can begin to compete with American Idol, but it's clear that the "periodic flareups" caused by death squads and IEDs will nevertheless continue to bedevil this administration in the runup to the '06 elections.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A fresh start

I am traveling today, so any thoughts on politics won't be posted until late this evening. However, the historic sale yesterday of my longtime employer warrants a few words.

This may mean nothing to those readers of this blog who don't live in the Philadelphia region, but the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News were sold yesterday -- by the corporate chain that purchased the paper from another corporate chain -- to a local collection of investors, businessmen, and civic leaders all gathered under a new privately-owned entity called Philadelphia Media Holdings.

This is a big deal. It means that the two papers will be freed from the dictates of Wall Street, where, under the destructive credo of capitalism run amok, publicly-traded media companies for decades have been under constant pressure to milk their products dry, diminish quality, slash costs, and generally violate the public trust, all in the interests of squeezing extra dollars for the next quarterly report. I, along with many others, have witnessed this process in action at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Two personal examples: I used to be a foreign correspondent based in London; now there is nobody in London. I used to write regularly for the Sunday magazine; now there is no Sunday magazine.

It would be foolish to think that the new PMH, helmed by marketing/advertising executive Brian Tierney, will suddenly rain down money on the Inquirer newsroom, restore foreign bureaus, bring back the Sunday magazine, and hire scores of young and hungry reporters. That's not how the world works; I couldn't help but notice, in our coverage of the sale this morning, that Tierney declined to say what level of profits the Royal Bank of Scotland expects to see. The new owners may not have to march to the tune of quarterly earnings, or tremble whenever some Wall Street bean-counter forecasts the death of newspapers, but they still need to staunch the losses that have been exacerbated by burgeoning Internet competition, and they still need to develop long-term business plans to "grow revenue."

So nirvana will not dawn tomorrow; nor will we know, in the short term, whether the various special interests that comprise PMH will adhere to their signed pledge to keep their mitts off the newsroom. Nevertheless, there is a great sense of relief that we have avoided the worst of all outcomes -- being stripped, ravaged, and abandoned by some new absentees who know or care little about these papers and the community they serve. We had enough of that from the dying Knight Ridder, whose chairman, Tony Ridder, leaves the scene with his golden parachute. Tierney has the opportunity to play a key role at ground zero of a great national experiment, and those of us with a stake in that experiment wish him well. We would like nothing more than to see it succeed, and help make it happen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The pitfalls of selective outrage

There's not much political news this morning -- aside from a report that Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut wants to run for president, thus making him roughly the 500th senator to look in the mirror and glimpse glory -- so let's take a moment to dwell on the weekend kerfuffle at the New School university in Manhattan. It seems that conservative pundits are outraged by the rough treatment (in the form of booing and heckling) that graduating students meted out to commencement speaker John McCain.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is ground zero for conservative punditry, blamed the rudeness on "the peculiar rage" and "mere Manhattan derangement" of "the angry left." Catcalls aside, the Journal was particularly incensed that a graduating senior speaker tossed aside her prepared text and said this, in the presence of the hawkish senator who supported the decision to launch a war with Iraq: "Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction." (To the Journal editorial page, that kind of observation qualifies as "derangement.")
And Rich Lowry at the National Review weighs in today, calling the rude students "spoiled brats...flagrantly tatooed and pierced left-wingers."

On a point of principle, I have no problem with the conservatives' complaint, because, as a First Amendment absolutist, I tend to think that all speakers of all persuasions should be free to enter the marketplace of ideas without being censored or shouted down. As a college student way back in the last century I saw students on the radical left assail and obstruct speakers who sought to defend the war in Vietnam. That kind of behavior seems undemocratic, no matter who is perpetrating it.

But here's the problem: The conservatives apparently have a double standard. They are outraged about how McCain was treated, but seem to have overlooked a similar incident last week, at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, involving conservative students who heckled their commencement speaker -- an antiwar Democratic congressman.

A conservative website recounted the incident without apology: Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay spent a few minutes talking about failures in Iraq, whereupon, according to eyewitness accounts provided to the website, "people began to boo and yell...(H)e had to stop three times during his talk because the boos from the crowd had drowned him out!...Lacy Clay needed security to escort him friom the building..."

I don't see the Journal talking about "the angry right," or Lowry reducing these students to a stereotype and dismissing them as, say, "flagrantly cornfed and applecheeked right-wingers." And the website that applauded the heckling of Clay has also been untroubled by similar treatment meted out to Democratic congressman and war critic John Murtha. Their basic defense of that kind of heckling is that the students were justifably provoked.

First Amendment lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald frames the double standard this way: "So, to re-cap the rules: (1) When a pro-war politician gives a pro-war speech as part of a graduation ceremony, and students in the audience heckle and boo him, that shows how Deranged the Angry Left is -- because they heckled a pro-war speech. (2) When an anti-war politician gives an anti-war speech as part of a graduation ceremony, and students in the audience heckle, walk out and even riot, that also shows how Angry the Left is -- because they 'provoked a near riot' by pro-war students."

There is an imperfect solution to these commencement contretempts: Maybe colleges should just stop inviting politicians -- of either party -- since they generally tend to use the occasion to stump for themselves anyway (as evidenced by the fact that their transcripted remarks all wind up as emails to people like me). It's not as if they don't have plenty of other outlets in the marketplace of ideas.

But since that isn't likely to happen, and since students in this politically polarized era won't sit silent, it might be best for the ideologues -- on either side -- to avoid the intellectually dishonest practice of selective outrage.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The camera doesn't lie

Baghdad ER debuted last night on HBO not with a bang, but with a whimper. And that tells us a lot about the national mood.

If this documentary - a grim and gritty depiction of life and death on the gurneys inside the Green Zone - had been aired during the first year of the Iraq war, the backlash from President Bush's defenders would have been intense. They would have charged that the visual depictions of severed body parts, writhing National Guardsmen, and blood-spattered floors were calculated attempts by the "liberal media" to undermine the war effort at home. They would have contended that the documentary was designed to make squeamish Americans question whether the (literal) spilling of blood was worth the mission, as outlined by the president. They would have lumped HBO with the Dixie Chicks and called for a boycott.

Yet the reaction among the war's supporters has been noticeably muted. Naturally, there have been some complaints; as one conservative newspaper said, "There is no overt anti-war message, but the medical people are frequently heard muttering standard war-is-hell phrases like 'sheer madness,' 'stupid war,' and 'a lot of young kids getting hurt.' And the cumulative effect of the powerfully negative....Baghdad ER is neither for weak stomachs nor supporters of the war." But, on the backlash meter, these grievances barely register at Def Con One.

In fact, even the Weekly Standard magazine -- ground zero for the neoconservative case for war -- dismissed the idea that the graphic visuals in the HBO documentary would send the wrong, i.e. antiwar, message. Such a fear, said the magazine, "would be mistaken...It takes a hard look at the human cost of war. But the film is also a testament to the sacrifice and perseverance of our soliders in the face of terror. Their story needs to be told."

True enough. The documentary is such a testament. And that theme can arguably resonate across the political spectrum, because in this war everybody supports the troops; on the left, where anti-Iraq war sentiment is strongest, there is none of the hostility toward the troops that was common during the Vietnam era. But if this kind of film had been aired a few years ago -- when support for the Iraq war was greater, and when Bush's defenders were far more numerous and assertive -- HBO's testament-to-the-troops theme would have been dismissed as a fig leaf for an antiwar "agenda."

The visuals of severed bowels in a plastic tray, the severed limbs being placed in red plastic bags, the close-ups of emergency eye surgery, the tag being affixed to the toe of a dead soldier (whose skin had turned the color of pale ivory)...these images would have been assailed as items on the agenda. Much the way that Ted Koppel was assailed two years ago when he decided to read the names of dead soldiers on Nightline.

The difference today, as evidenced in every poll, is that most Americans have already turned against the war. They either reject its underlying premise, or reject the way that the administrating has handled it. It would be futile for the president's dwindling core of defenders to attack Baghdad ER for undermining domestic morale -- because it has already been sapped, both by the facts on the ground, and by the accumulation of evidence that has undercut the president's prewar rationale. (This morning on CBS, for example, John Murtha, the hawkish Democratic congressman and ex-Marine who has broken with the administration over the war, said: "There’s not only no progress, it’s worse than it was prewar. This thing has been mishandled so badly. The American people needed to hear. We’re spending $450 billion on this war by the end of the year, $9 billion a month, and so we need to change course. ")

There is a moment, during the HBO documentary, when an ER chaplain pauses in front of the body of a dead soldier. He says, "Lord, we pray that his life - and even his death - might be used to hasten peace and end this terrible war." A few years ago, that scene would have been widely denounced as evidence of an antiwar agenda. But today, it plays more as a consensus plea for deliverance.


Speaking of the war, Bush talked about it in Chicago today.Here's the headline I saw: "Bush Urges Patience on Iraq." Stop the presses. He does have a new word, however: incremental. He used it a lot, to explain why we still face "days of challenge and loss." That's certainly not a phrase that would play well on a GOP bumper sticker in election '06.


Still speaking of the war, it continues to roil the Democratic ranks. Following up on my recent column about pro-war Joe Lieberman's travails with the antiwar left, I duly note today that the Connecticut senator will be officially challenged in an Aug. 8 Democratic primary by antiwar hero Ned Lamont.

Lamont, a cable TV entrepeneur with minimal political experience, won the right to challenge Lieberman last Friday night, when, at a state party convention, he won 33 percent of the Democratic delegates. (In Connecticut, the minimal share required for an aspiring primary challenger is 15 percent.) In other words, it was an embarrasing night for the incumbent senator, because his aides got hurt by their own spin. In advance of the convention, they spread word that Lamont would get around 33 percent, in an attempt to raise expectations; then, assuming Lamont would get a lower share, they could paint the challenger's tally as disappointing. But they wound up nailing it perfectly. Rest assured that wasn't part of the Lieberman game plan.

Anyway, here's what it means: At the exact time that Democrats everywhere want to be focused on keeping Bush and the GOP on the defensive, they now have to pause in their labors and conduct what will be, in essence, a national referendum on their own internal divisions about the Iraq war. In the dead of summer, no less, when there is typically not much competing political news. Maybe it's "healthy" for Democrats that this will occur; antiwar Democrats have long sought such a confrontation with Lieberman. But rest assured that this primary is not part of the national party's ideal game plan.


Meanwhile, regarding my posting here Friday about the blogosphere's faux scoop on Karl Rove's purported indictment, we're still waiting. The offending website,, has now decided to eat crow: "The time has now issue a partial apology to our readership for this story. While we paid very careful attention to the sourcing on this story, we erred in getting too far out in front of the news-cycle. In moving as quickly as we did, we caused more confusion than clarity. And that was a disservice to our readership and we regret it."

"Too far out in front of the news cycle?" What's that supposed to mean? Whatever. Howie Kurtz has more on the topic, here.


I wrote a newspaper column this morning on the religious right's expectations for a federal amendment banning gay marriage (a Senate vote is slated several weeks from now), and its desire to hold Republicans accountable if they don't push the issue. I mentioned that John McCain might be on the spot; he's wooing the religious right, but in an earlier Senate vote two years ago, he came out against the anti-gay amendment. Well, he may get in trouble with his new best friends, because apparently he plans to vote against it again. Every respositioning politician apparently has his limits.


Here's yet another blow to the Democratic '06 message that the GOP has fostered a "culture of corruption." Now it turns out that ethically-challenged Lousiana congressman William Jefferson was videotaped taking 100 grand in bribes from a guy wearing a wire for the feds. Memo to the Democrats: When one of your own people is captured on video acting corrupt, then it's time to dump the party message. Because the camera doesn't lie.