Saturday, January 24, 2004

'The American Taliban'

Bill Berkowitz at Alternet has a nice, in-depth interview with my friend and colleague Daniel Levitas. Much of the material will be familiar to regular readers of Orcinus -- especially the points regarding the Texas cyanide bomb case -- but Levitas provides a level of detail that I don't often reach.

Of particular note was this passage:
What was the reaction of these groups to 9/11?

A number of neo-Nazi groups were tremendously animated: They praised the terrorists of Al Qaeda, even though they denounced them in racist terms because they were Arabs. "We may not want them marrying our daughters. But anyone who is willing to fly a plane into a building to kill Jews is alright by me," said one of the leaders of the National Alliance. "My only concern is that we Aryans didn't do this and that the rag-heads are ahead of us on the Lone Wolf point scale," said another. These folks call themselves 'patriots' and defenders of the constitution, but some of them are just as theologically committed to murder as the most violent fanatics of radical Islam. Based on what we've seen post 9/11, we cannot afford to be concerned about terrorism as simply a "foreign" phenomenon. From the earliest days of the Ku Klux Klan, domestic hate groups have been all too eager to perpetrate terrorism against their fellow Americans.

Levitas also has an important note about the tide of racial and religious bigotry that is rising somewhat apart from the usual white-supremacist factions:
What concerns me most is the rising level of prejudice and bigotry in American society, and these attitudes have penetrated well beyond the confines of the far right. More specifically, we're experiencing rising anti-Semitism, skyrocketing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, heightened hostility toward foreigners and immigrants and persistently high levels of racism. In short, these trends don't bode well for the fabric of a democracy ostensibly devoted to protecting civil rights and liberties. Of course it is easy to point to the bombers and shooters of the radical right and identify them as the problem. And they certainly pose a threat and a challenge. In the end, however, their actions basically require a law enforcement response, and there is not a whole lot that everyday citizens can do to counteract the hard core criminality of domestic right-wing terrorists.

Danny's book, The Terrorist Next Door, is a terrific read. You can get it through his Web site or the usual sources.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Bush the 'Deserter'

George W. Bush's sketchy military record has finally surfaced as a campaign issue in 2004. It came out in last night's debate in New Hampshire, when Peter Jennings had the following exchange with Gen. Wesley Clark:
PJ: General Clark, a lot of people say they don't know you well, so this is really a simple question about knowing a man by his friends. The other day you had a rally here and one of the men who stood up to endorse you was the controversial filmmaker Michael Moore. You said you were delighted with him. At one point Mr. Moore, said in front of you that President Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you the General and President Bush who he called a deserter. Now that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts so I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him and whether or not you think it would have been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so.

WC: Well I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it. I've seen this charge bandied about a lot but to me it wasn't material, this election is going to be about the future, Peter, and what we have to do is pull this country together, and I'm delighted to have the support of a man like Michael Moore, of a great American leader like Senator George McGovern, and of people from Texas like Charlie Stenholm and Former Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton. We've got support from across the breadth of the Democratic Party, because I believe this party is united in wanting to change the leadership in Washington. We're going to run an election campaign that's about the future. We're going to hold the president accountable for what he did in office and failed to do, and we're going to compare who's got the best vision for America.

PJ: Let me ask you something you mentioned then because since this question and answer in which you and Mr. Moore was involved, you've had a chance to look at the facts. Do you still feel comfortable with the fact that someone should be standing up in your president, in your presence and calling the president of the United States a deserter?

WC: To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts Peter. That's Michael Moore's opinion; he's entitled to say that, I've seen, he's not the only person who's said that. I've not followed up on those facts, and frankly it's not relevant to me and why I'm in this campaign.

Clark handled this question smartly, claiming a lack of specific knowledge (I suspect he knows all the details of the matter, in fact), leaving it up to journalists to dig into the meat of the matter.

Contrary to Jennings' assertion, the charge is neither reckless nor unsupported by the facts. In fact, it has been fully substantiated.

I posted on this subject back when Bush performed his little flyboy stunt on the USS Lincoln. To recap:
[T]he reality is that what we know about his record now should be considered a scandal, and should have been since it was uncovered during the campaign.

Namely, there is this salient point:

Bush blew off his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard by failing to take a physical, and thereafter failing to report to his superior officers at his old unit for at least seven months. His flight status was revoked, and he never flew again -- at least, not until the Lincoln stunt.

These facts have never been disputed since they were uncovered, and in fact were acknowledged by Bush's spokespeople. Moreover, as Joe Conason has already noted, Bush actually falsified this aspect of his service in his ghost-written autobiography, A Charge to Keep, describing his pilot's training in some detail, then concluding: ''I continued flying with my unit for the next several years." In fact, Bush was suspended from flying 22 months after he completed his training -- a period that does not even generously fit Bush's description.

Several of Bush's former superiors in the TANG -- most of whom remain on friendly terms with the president -- have defended his service and suggested that there was nothing wrong with Bush's behavior in what for most other servicemen would be considered a fairly clear case of dereliction of duty.

Consider, for instance, the rationalization offered by Albert Lloyd Jr., a retired TANG colonel, in the Boston Globe story that in many respects was the most serious effort by anyone in the mainstream media to examine the issue:

But Lloyd said it is possible that since Bush had his sights set on discharge and the unit was beginning to replace the F-102s, Bush's superiors told him he was not ''in the flow chart. Maybe George Bush took that as a signal and said, 'Hell, I'm not going to bother going to drills.'

''Well, then it comes rating time, and someone says, 'Oh...he hasn't fulfilled his obligation.' I'll bet someone called him up and said, 'George, you're in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.' And he did,'' Lloyd said.

This rationalization, of course, begs the question: What if anyone else had pulled such a stunt?

The reality is servicemen do not ordinarily have the option of deciding whether or not to attend drills. They do not typically have the option of shortening their commitment to the task for which they have been trained based solely on their own assessments of where they fit into the scheme of things. Those decision are made by their superiors. Moreover, the military considers the training of its personnel to be a significant asset that it protects, particularly for high-skill positions like jet-fighter pilots. This training is expensive, and pilots' status -- particularly their availability for potential combat -- is a carefully monitored commodity.

... Just from what we know now, the question that needs answering is this: Why did Mr. Bush abandon his commitment to his country during wartime? Why did he blow off his valuable training and remove himself from flight status?

Of course, unsurprisingly, the pundits reviewing the debate ipso facto were outraged that Clark had failed to repudiate Moore. This was particularly the case at Fox News, where numerous "experts" proclaimed this the biggest outrage of the night. From the amount of energy they devoted to it, it was clear they thought this was Clark's "Yeeaaaarrrrgh!!" moment.

Funny thing about that: On Fox's Campaign 2004 page today, not a single mention of the exchange can be found. You have to wonder if they discovered that Clark wasn't so far off the beam after all.

For what it's worth, Michael Moore has an extended response up today, including a specific response to Jennings:
The question he posed to Clark was typical of a lazy media looking for a way to distract the viewers from the real issues: the war, the economy, and the failures of the Bush administration. But if they want to really get into the issue of Bush and his "service record," then I say, bring it on! The facts are all there, including the empty flyboy suit.

Moore also has a compendium of information on the issue.

Of course, I also strongly recommend anyone interested in the matter to review the hard information available at Martin Heldt's Web site, which includes the results of his numerous FOIA requests.

The real disgrace is not Gen. Clark's behavior, but the press'. All this should have been hashed out in 2000, when the press was too busy reading from its prepared script, pursuing Al Gore's supposed "lies" while declining to examine those uttered by Bush. Or does anyone remember how thoroughly Bill Clinton's draft record was examined in 1992?

Update: skippy the bush kangaroo catches Wolf Blitzer being a journalistic nitwit on this very subject.

A note: Bush's status technically was Absent Without Leave (AWOL), which is not precisely the same as desertion. Moore uses the term, as Bob Somerby notes, as a term of art, but it is not definitively correct.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Generating 9/11 conspiracy theories

While I'm on the subject of conspiracy theories, it's worth observing, once again, that one of the chief reasons they arise is the failure of government officials to be forthcoming about significant issues that affect the public. This is especially the case with the post-9/11 conspiracy theories I discussed yesterday.

And if anyone needs a clear example of why these theories are spreading, read Joe Conason's terrific column in today's New York Observer:
What's Bush Hiding From 9/11 Commission?

... The President is fortunate that until now, the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has received far less attention than controversies over the design for a World Trade Center memorial. At every step, from his opposition to its creation, to his abortive appointment of Henry Kissinger as its chair, to his refusal to provide it with adequate funding and cooperation, Mr. Bush has treated the commission and its essential work with contempt.

In the latest development, the President?s aides refused additional time for the 9/11 commission to complete its report. Although the original deadline in the enabling legislation is May 27, the commissioners recently asked for a few more months to ensure that their product will be "thorough and credible."

... Following the creation and staffing of the commission, many months passed before the administration agreed to let Mr. Kean look at any of those crucial documents. The commission still has hundreds of interviews to conduct, and millions of pages to examine, before its members begin to draft their conclusions.

But the President's political advisers, concerned about the political impact of the commission's report, are unsympathetic to its requests for additional time -- and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who would have to approve an extension, is perfectly obedient to his masters in the White House. According to Newsweek, the administration offered Mr. Kean a choice: Either keep to the May deadline, or postpone release of the report until December, when its findings cannot affect the election.

Mr. Bush doesn't want his re-election subject to any informed judgment about the disaster that reshaped the nation and his Presidency. But why should such crucial facts be withheld from the voters? What does the President fear?

Of course, this is not merely a lack of transparency -- it has the reek of a coverup, though a coverup of what is as yet anybody's guess. And a lot of people are guessing.

This, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, is precisely the problem that Howard Dean tried to bring up when he talked about the president's stonewalling:
DEAN: There is a report, which the president is suppressing evidence for, which is a thorough investigation of 9/11.

REHM: Why do you think he's suppressing that report?

DEAN: I don't know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can't -- think it can't be proved, is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now, who knows what the real situation is, but the trouble is by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and then eventually they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the clear -- the key information that needs to go to the Kean commission.

Of course, for saying this, Dean was accused of being a "conspiracy theorist."

For what it's worth, I for one believe that the aspect of the 9/11 attacks that is most in dire need of clearing up is the question of why the military was so slow in scrambling its interceptors, particularly in the case of the airliner that slammed into the Pentagon. That this occurred is not a disputed fact. And it has never been explained.

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories

It's probably not surprising that any journalist or writer dealing in conspiracies winds up being accused, eventually, of trading in conspiracy theories. It kind of comes with the territory, though it used to be that in the end the results were what mattered; if you had the facts on your side, it was no longer a mere theory, but a point of substance.

No longer. Now it has become an increasingly common way for defenders of the Bush administration to trash its critics -- call them "conspiracy theorists," and relieve yourself of the need to address the substance of their accusations, regardless of their merit or the evidence supporting them. Already, they're trotting it out as a way to airily dismiss Kevin Phillips' work in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush., particularly his handling of the October Surprise matter. That was, after all, how the scandal was whitewashed in the first place.

It's a kind of easy smear, one that reflects the right's current trend toward accusing liberals of the very behavior in which it egregiously indulged during the Clinton years (most notably the "Bush haters" meme).

But real conspiracies do exist, and have through most of civilized history. In recent years, one need only point to Watergate, or the COINTELPRO episode, or the Iran-Contra scandal to demonstrate that conspiracies continue to weave their way into the fabric of American history.

What has happened, however, is that as these abuses have occurred and the conspiracies unraveled and were exposed, critics of the government on both right and left have conflated the nuggets of fact involving these incidents into "proof" of much wider-ranging conspiracies -- stretching, eventually, into UFO and Protocols of the Seven Elders of Zion territory. These constitute what we commonly call conspiracy theories. The culture of paranoid conspiracism (see, e.g., The X-Files) has now become almost ingrained in popular culture, and it continues to contribute to irrationalism in the national discourse in a significant way.

Anyone who's read In God's Country is probably aware that I've dealt with conspiracy theories a great deal over the years. I'd estimate that I've examined, in the course of research, in excess of 200 different theories and urban legends. My method was consistent: examine the factual content and the analytical structure, assess the logic, and reach a balanced conclusion about its validity.

The bulk of the conspiracy theories I studied originated on the far right, though not always -- in addition to far-left theories such as those linking the CIA to every misery in the world, there were also the UFO, phony health care, "contrail," and various national-disaster theories, which were in most cases also adopted by conspiracy theorists on both right and left and woven into their respective universes. In many cases, there became a distinctive crossover between right- and left-wing extremists in this territory; the far-left conspiracists David Icke and Johnny Liberty (his real name is John Van Hove), for example, traffic in theories that clearly originate with the anti-Semitic far right.

In the process -- and with some guidance from others even more experienced in debunking such theories -- it became clear that conspiracy theories and genuine conspiracies had really distinctive qualities that made it fairly simple to distinguish between them in most cases.

Real conspiracies, by their very nature, have the following characteristics:
-- They are limited in scope, their purpose being usually to achieve only a singular, often narrow, purpose.

-- They are limited in duration in time.

-- They include only a limited number of participants.

-- As the boundaries of these limits increase, the likelihood of the conspiracy failing or being exposed rises exponentially.

Conspiracy theories, in direct contrast, almost universally feature the following qualities:
-- They are broad-ranging in nature, and usually boil down to a massive plot to enslave, murder or politically oppress all of mankind or at least large numbers of people.

-- They are believed to have existed for long periods of time, in some cases for hundreds of years.

-- They involve large numbers of people, notably significant numbers of participants in high positions in government or the bureaucracy.

-- The long-term success of these conspiracies is always credited to willing dupes in the media and elsewhere.

George Johnson, author of Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, argues that "conspiratorial fantasies are not simply an expression of inchoate fear. There is a shape, an architecture, to the paranoia." He offered with five rules common to conspiracism in America:
-- The conspirators are internationalist in their sympathies.

-- [N]othing is ever discarded. Right-wing mail order bookstores still sell the Protocols of the Elders of Zion ... [and] Proofs of a Conspiracy.

-- Seeming enemies are actually secret friends. Through the lens of the conspiracy theorists, capitalists and Communists work hand in hand.

-- The takeover by the international godless government will be ignited by the collapse of the economic system.

-- It's all spelled out in the Bible. For those with a fundamentalist bent, the New World Order or One World Government is none other than the international kingdom of the Antichrist, described in the Book of Revelation.

As Chip Berlet has observed, there are real dangers associated with conspiracism:
-- All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified with hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice.

-- People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world.

-- Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such are perilous to ignore.

-- Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following.

-- Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively less-threatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits.

-- Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.

Berlet also offers some valuable guidance on identifying the logical flaws inherent in conspiracy theories:
-- Raising the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional manipulation.

-- Sequence does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.

-- Congruence in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements. Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered chalk?

-- Association does not imply agreement, hence the phrase "guilt by association" has a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks, coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument. The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity unrelated to the one being probed.

-- Participation in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.

-- Similarity in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however, the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.

-- Anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing -- consider Ronald Reagan -- but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.

If you consider all these criteria, it becomes clear that events such as Iran-Contra or, in this case, October Surprise rather clearly fit into the category of being genuine conspiracies. The question then becomes a matter of their factual grounding. The former has been established beyond much reasonable doubt. The latter has not, but the evidence about it remains substantial, and the alleged debunkings of it (especially Stephen Emerson's work in The New Republic) have proven in fact badly flawed.

More recent examples include the many conspiracy theories that swirled around Bill Clinton and his presidency. The most notorious of these -- the "New World Order" theories arising out of the Waco and Ruby Ridge affairs -- quite clearly fell into the specious category, not merely because of their broad-ranging characteristics but because their facutal grounding was worse than flimsy. Others, including the "Vince Foster was murdered" theories promoted by Richard Mellon Scaife and the "Mena drug running" theories that formed the basis of the Falwell-backed screed The Clinton Chronicles were, at first glance, more in the middling ground, until one examined them more closely. Then it became clear that not only were they factually groundless but were ultimately grounded in the same kind of broad-reaching conspiracism of the NWO theories.

It is worth recalling, of course, that many of the Clinton conspiracy theories were in fact promoted by such mainstream conservative organs as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times and The American Spectator. They came to encompass nearly every smear that was directed at Clinton, including the phony Gennifer Flowers and "black love child" tales. Interestingly, many conservatives raised these smears in conjunction with Clinton's impeachment trial, which revolved not around any alleged conspiracy but his private sexual conduct.

Now, with George W. Bush -- whose father was almost certainly a participant in Iran-Contra and a likely participant in the October Surprise cases -- in the Oval Office, Republicans are eager to dismiss as mere conspiracism serious questions about the kind of crony capitalism and abuse of the national-security apparatus not only was rampant in the first Bush administration but is a self-evident hallmark of Bush II.

Make no mistake: There have in fact been a significant number of conspiracy theories swirling around Bush's presidency, particularly regarding the 9/11 attacks (see Berlet's excellent summary of these) as well as the war in Iraq (notably the contention that the invasion was primarily about obtaining control of the oil fields for Bush's industry buddies). Most of these originate on the far left, though they also have enjoyed a certain level of circulation on the far right as well.

However, mainstream liberals who have attacked, for instance, the involvement of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century in the invasion plans have likewise been dismissed, by such conservative luminaries as the New York Times' David Brooks, as not only conspiracy theorists but likely anti-Semites as well. This is, as I say, an easy smear.

The same tactic is being directed at Kevin Phillips, himself a former Republican and a widely esteemed truth-teller and political analyst. The accusation is being hurled not only because American Dynasty tackles such subjects as the October Surprise and the Bush family's Nazi dealings, but due to its larger themes of confronting the danger posed by the confluence of dynastic wealth, corporatism and political power.

Yet as Jonathan Yardley notes in his Washington Post review, Phillips in fact has taken great pains to avoid the pitfalls of conspiracism. In his introduction, he writes:
We must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into a latter-day conspiracy theory, a trransformation that epitomizes what historian Richard Hofstadter years ago called the "paranoid streak" in American politics. ... On the other hand, worries about conspiracy thinking should not inhibit inquiries in a way that blocks sober examination, which often more properly identifies some kind of elite behavior familiar to sociologists and political scientists alike.

Of course, what is really remarkable about this is the way the same people who accuse Phillips of conspiracism have themselves trafficked in outrageous conspiracy theories over the years, particularly those aimed at liberals and Bill Clinton in particular. But then, Hofstadter also rather keenly observed that projection is a common trait of the American right, along with its paranoia.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Maybe one of the tiles came loose

Er, did anyone notice that Bush neglected to mention his glorious plans for going to Mars -- unveiled to great hoopla all of six days ago -- in the State of the Union address?

You don't suppose it could have been the polls showing a 62 percent negative response to the plan, do ya?

Naaaah. This is the bold and fearless leader who pays the polls no mind, right?

Pickling the SOTU

By Nitra Pickler
Associated Press Hack

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Bush declared that "Each day, law enforcement personnel and intelligence officers are tracking terrorist threats; analysts are examining airline passenger lists; the men and women of our new Homeland Security Department are patrolling our coasts and borders. And their vigilance is protecting America," but neglected to mention that the FBI has failed to even communicate with its own agents about domestic terrorism threats.

He also told Congress that "the tax relief you passed is working," but neglected to mention that the nation has been losing jobs at the rate of 22,000 a month since the package passed.

Bush also declared that "We are seeking all the facts" about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, the primary justification for going to war, adding that "already the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations." But he neglected to mention that he just sent home his 400-person squad of searchers from Iraq, since so far more weapons of mass destruction have now been found in Texas than in Iraq.

Similarly, Bush claimed that "America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East," but he neglected to mention that his administration has resolutely refused to become involved in the Palestine-Israel conflict, which lies at the heart of the region's turmoil.

He called for Congress to "reform our immigration laws, so they reflect our values and benefit our economy," but neglected to mention that his immigration proposal actually would benefit only employers, while worsening conditions for workers across the nation.

Bush promoted a new nationwide drug-testing program in schools, saying that "tonight I propose an additional 23 million for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children's lives," but neglected to mention that he himself would likely have been kicked out of school under such a program.

He said that "the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America's children," but neglected to mention that his 2004 budget would underfund the legislation by $9 billion.

He declared that "our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," but neglected to explain how allowing gays to marry violated that sanctity. Bush went on to say, "The same moral tradition that defines marriage also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight," but neglected to point out that such a principle would in itself cede the right to marry to gays.

Bush concluded his speech by saying, "May God continue to bless America," but neglected to mention that the nation has been cursed by the ineptitude of his administration since the day it was forced upon us.


Note: The above is a parody. The real Nedra Pickler would have offered counterpoints to Bush's speech that had no bearing whatsoever on what he actually said. Likewise, the real Nedra Pickler's counters would have been more in the line of, "… but he neglected to mention that Democrats are liars and traitors in any event."

And of course, she would neglect to mention that Bush's previous State of the Union address itself contained an egregious falsehood.

The only option

I normally avoid doing the reciprocal-link thing, but I have to mention that Patrick Nielsen Hayden has been blogging much along the same lines lately regarding the absolute imperative that the Democratic Party faces this coming year in removing George W. Bush from office.

Patrick makes his core point in this post, commenting on the outcome in Iowa:
I just want a Democratic candidate who knows in his gut that the Bush Administration is a national crisis that has got to be stopped. If Kerry or Edwards turns out to be that guy, I?ll be happy to work for them. If Dean recovers from this, or if Clark manages to thread his way to the front of the pack, I?ll be on their side too.

He also cites Josh Marshall's reiteration of this point: "What people care about is who can beat Bush. Beat Bush, they reason, and everything else will fall into place. So who cares what your plan is."

In this post, Patrick points to the conclusion that every candidate for the presidency must reach: "A lot of people are passionately convinced of the need to defeat Bush, and are ready to join any plausible crusade to do so. But effective politics often entails more than simply crushing the opposition with the splendidness of your rectitude."

And he's also linked to Robert Kuttner's important piece on "America as a One Party State," which is indeed an essential read.

All in all, these are some of the reasons Patrick's blog is one I check daily.

While I'm on the subject of the way the Bush administration's policies directly impact our lives (and the crisis his regime represents), I should also point to Billmon's great post from earlier this month on deflation (which he also updated recently). The money grafs:
The $10 trillion question, though, hasn't changed: Will the existing slack in the economy -- in both employment and capacity -- be reeled in quickly enough to reverse the underlying trend of disinflation before it develops into outright price deflation?

If the answer is yes, then the Fed should be able to breath easier, the expansion should continue and broaden, the unemployment rate should gradually fall, and the Bush machine should be able to turn its attentions to planning whatever new atrocities it has in store for Shrub's second term. If the answer is no, however, the American economy is about to explore territory it hasn't visited in almost seven decades.

Deflation is such rarity -- at least in the modern era, and at least here in the United States -- that it has to be regarded as the ultimate economic wild card. It's possible to paint a picture in which falling prices are offset by strong productivity growth and the increased purchasing power of deflated dollars. This might allow the economy to continue to grow, despite falling prices. But it's also possible to imagine a scenario in which deflation wreaks havoc with corporate profits and knocks the props out from under overly leveraged American balance sheets, causing the expansion to self-destruct.

Go read the whole thing. Billmon is a terrific writer, of course, and worth checking daily too.

Finally, be sure to check out Fred Henning's excellent post along these lines over at American Street, too.

History that matters

Over at Atrios' comments, Mark D. Lew chimes in with an important perspective on the October Surprise matter:
The ... passage you quote illustrates what's wrong with reporting on Iran: Every story is so narrowly focused on the ramifications for partisan politics in the United States that it completely ignores what was going on in Iran.

You say, "Reagan campaign officials ... may have actually negotiated with Iran behind the scenes..." (my ellipses). The problem with this sentence is that it gives no hint of *whom* the Reagan officials negotiated with, saying only "Iran", as if all of Iran represented a single political entity with which one could negotiate.

Iran in 1980 -- it ought to go without saying, but apparently it does not -- was in a state of political flux which dwarfs the U.S. election campaign between Carter and Reagan. We like to talk about the "Reagan revolution", but even if it was a major turn in American politics (I'm not convinced it was even that) it was surely not a revolution in the same sense that Iran's was.

To recap: in February 1979, the Iranian people overturned (peacefully) the absolute monarch who had ruled for 30 years, creating a completely new government. In November 1979, the provisional government collapsed, precipitating a new power struggle (rougher, but still mostly peaceful). In the course of this struggle, a fringe group, calling itself "Students of the Imam's Line", took hostage a group of Americans.

As the constitution was only a few months old, no party was securely in power. Even Khomeini, the one man who was held in near universal respect, did not run the government. Rather, he attempted to referee between his competing disciples (much like Washington watching over while Hamilton, Jefferson, and the others fought it out).

In this context, the obvious question is *which* Iranians did the Reagan team approach. Carter was also negotiating with "Iran" at that time. Specifically, his team was in conversation with President Bani-Sadr, who, in spite of some irregularities of the January election, had significant popular support and was generally considered the legitimate government. But Bani-Sadr's government was precarious and -- like Carter's re-election -- depended on his skill in solving his country's crises.

The main opposition to the president was the Islamic Republican Party, and this is the group that Reagan's team approached to make an agreement of mutual support. Just as this deal may have secured Carter's failure to be re-elected, it may well have secured the downfall of Bani-Sadr's presidency. Neither Bani-Sadr nor the IRP supported the seizure of the hostages by the Students. It was a political embarrassment to Bani-Sadr, who was eager to secure their release, but short of sending in commandos of his own he could only do so by persuading the Students to cooperate -- either by coaxing or by threat, and he had to take care not to do it in a way that didn't get him into trouble politically. This is what he was trying to negotiate with the Carter team.

Whether Reagan's people sabotaged the hostage rescue attempt, I don't know, but they certainly sabotaged Carter's negotiations. The deal the IRP made with the U.S. Republicans gave them a boost of political power, inspiring many to see Bani-Sadr as a lame duck. As a result, the Students chose to negotiate with the IRP rather than the president, agreeing to Reagan's timetable for release and rebuffing Bani-Sadr. Eventually the IRP went on to depose Bani-Sadr and after yet another power struggle (this one definitely not so peaceful) went on to establish the government of religious authoritarians which has run Iran ever since.

All of this is completely lost in facile accusations of "Nyah nyah, your team was caught doing business with the bad guys." (Interestingly, parallel accusations were rampant in the Iranian press in the mid-1980s, with various IRP leaders being tarred for having cut a secret deal with the Americans. The accusations were given more credence there than here, perhaps because, even then, the Iranian press was more free than the U.S. press).

This is not just an exercise in interesting but irrelevant details of Iranian politics. The important lesson here is a demonstration of how U.S. foreign policy, in spite of professing support for democratic regimes, ends up promoting authoritarianism. Why? Because authoritarian regimes can get results. Bani-Sadr, in spite of some irregularities of the election, was essentially a democratically elected leader. He was a prickly, vain man, and an Iranian nationalist. Although he wasn't avowedly anti-American, he wasn't pro-American either, and given the anti-American political climate at the time (owing to our support of the hated shah) no leader who had to face the electorate could cooperate with America too much.

Thus, the elected president was difficult to negotiate with. Furthermore, he might not get re-elected next time, in which case we'd have to start over with someone else. How much easier it is to cut a deal with the IRP. They weren't pro-American either. Indeed, outwardly they were even more anti-American than the president, but it didn't matter, because they could deliver the goods. For all its talk, all the United States really wanted was to get the hostages out and to secure the steady flow of oil. The IRP could do that. What the IRP wanted was weapons, money, and enough political instability for them to take advantage and take over. Reagan could do that. With a democratic leader of Iran, either side of the deal would be harder to negotiate. That's why, even though America never really intended to promote authoritarianism over democracy, it did so as a side effect of political expediency. The real crime of Reagan's policy, then, is not that he secretly did business with "Iran", but rather that he contributed to the ascendancy of a particular regime in Iran, and that regime happened to be the one we like the least.

The lesson remains relevant to this day, in both Iran and Iraq. With regard to Iran, members of the U.S. government are frequently expressing their moral support for the democratic reform movement in Iran. At the same time, our actions are supporting the vali faqih. Why? Because he can deliver the goods. What we want most from Iran right now is for them to shut down their nuclear weapons program. The democratic movement is basically for a peaceful Iran, but all you've got to show for it is the rhetoric of a bunch of activists who argue with one another, and who knows who will actually be elected? With Ali Khamenei, he can say the word and the nuclear program shuts down right now. That's a man we can do business with, and so we do.

In Iraq, you have a situation not unlike Iran in 1981. What form of government will come into play remains to be seen. Will the United States support popular democracy or authoritarianism? The administration is split on this. The Bush team's decision to invade Iraq was the result of a coalition of individuals within the administration, and they all had different motives. (That, incidentally, is why it's so hard to pin down what the "real" reason for invading Iraq was.) Some genuinely believe the Wolfowitz line about creating democracies; these are the ones who are going to be more sympathetic to a genuinely popular but potentially frightening leader like Ali Sistami. Others will give lip service to "democracy" but really care about having an Iraq that we can do business with. These will inevitably, and perhaps unintentionally, drift toward supporting authoritarian rule.

Among [the] comments, someone asks, "So, why can't someone in the Iranian government confirm this? Bush has pretty much decimated any bridges left with that country, and I don't see any reason why the Iranian government would hold back damning evidence of the 'October Surprise' or even Iran-contra."

This makes sense only if you're viewing the whole affair from the narrow view of U.S. partisan politics. By that reasoning, "Iran" is a single entity which is motivated by how their news will effect President Bush and the Republican Party.

What Iranian politicians care about is their own political career. Who exactly do you propose is going to offer up evidence? Anyone who was involved is going to commit political suicide by discussing this. He is going to tell the Iranian public that he participated in a secret deal with the U.S. government in order to gain power and weapons? Why? To discredit Bush? That makes about as much sense as Elliott Abrams spilling the beans in order to discredit Rafsanjani.

As for the opposition party, sure, they've got plenty of motive to discuss it, and sometimes they do. The opposition has plenty of criticisms it can level at the government, and this is just one of many, and a stale one at that. Those who knew what was going on have already said their piece. After Gary Sick's book came out, Bani-Sadr granted a series of long interviews in which he corroborated the whole affair in detail. It's all in his book.

A couple of observations:

-- Obviously, Mark is right to chide me for lumping the various factions involved in the hostage drama under the aegis of Iran. Though I obviously referred to the then-Iranian government, he is quite correct that the covert Reagan team was not bargaining with government officials but the IRP.

-- However, the questions in this case go well beyond mere neener-neenering. If these accounts prove accurate, the Reagan team's behavior in this instance constituted treason, by any definition of the term. As Mark suggests, the Reagan folk directly undermined government negotiations to free the hostages. If George H.W. Bush was a direct participant in this, it casts an even darker shadow on not only his presidency but his subsequent actions regarding Iran-Contra and Iraq, actions for which we continue to confront the consequences.

The issue, really, is one of history -- and we're talking about the kind of history that directly informs our current situation. Although these events occurred 24 years ago, there's nothing particularly stale about this -- as Mark himself rather clearly points out. The principals may indeed have said their piece, but sadly, the public is spectacularly unaware of this. The point is to put our current events in a clear and factual context that erases the mythology favored by Republican propagandists, who would have us get all misty-eyed over the wonders of the Reagan administration's moral clarity and farsighted vision.

After all, we are currently in a political environment in America in which it is a commonplace to characterize liberals as traitors and to suggest that they have behaved treasonously in our response to "the war on terror." What the October Surprise scenario makes clear is that not only are the Republicans now running the government the principal traitors here, but their entire approach to dealing with terrorists is a poisonous cauldron of deceit, both at home and abroad. And, as Mark suggests, it reveals the real hollowness of the neoconservative rhetoric about promoting democracy, when what we actually have done is shore up authoritarianism at every turn.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Latin Americanization

When I was a young reporter, one of my first major interviews was with then-Sen. Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who gained a measure of fame (or infamy, at least in conservative circles) in the 1970s for ripping the lid off the Central Intelligence Agency.

Church not only was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he also headed the panel that investigated the CIA's many abuses abroad in the preceding years, particularly in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as against American citizens here in the USA. He was famous for (accurately) describing the agency as "a rogue elephant out of control" -- though of course, after Sept. 11, conservatives disinterred Church's corpse and thrashed it publicly for being somehow responsible for the decline of American intelligence. (Chris Mooney at American Prospect did a very nice takedown of this charge.)

I wound up interviewing Church several times, and much of what I learned from him has stuck with me over the years. It indeed seems to me relevant today. "Choose your enemies wisely," he counseled, "for you will become like them." He was describing the American government's propensity for imitating in substance and nature the behavior of Soviet communists -- but his warning could just as easily reflect the current "war on terrorism."

One comment in particular, however, stands out in my mind these days. We were talking about America's future, and where the conservative cadre that was then taking over the Republican Party intended to take us. His expression darkened, and it was clear that he had a good deal of foreboding in this regard. "What I fear most," he said, "is the Latin Americanization of America."

He wasn't concerned, of course, with the arrival of Latinos on American soil (or what Pat Buchanan calls "Meximerica") except insofar as that could be manipulated to achieve this end. What he feared was that corporatist conservatives, if given free rein, would turn our standard of living into what you find in Latin America. That working Americans would one day be reduced to the level of near-serfdom that is the common way of life for millions of Latinos.

During the Clinton years, of course, this fear looked farther and farther remote -- everyone's wages were rising, jobs were being created by the millions, and our standard of living was never healthier. I began to think that we had staved off Church's specter, perhaps forever.

But then, I never imagined the Bush years, either.

James Galbraith's recent piece in Salon was devastatingly accurate in describing our gradual descent into that hell (subscription only, but if you must, buy the day pass and read it). Galbraith, of course, details painfully just how many jobs we are losing, and what that means for working people. I was particularly struck by this passage, since it brought back Church's remark like a bell:
What does Bush want? He wants a growth rate high enough to get him through the election. That's obvious. After that, he doesn't care. His clientele -- the military contractors, oil companies, pharmaceutical firms and big media that control this government -- make their money on patents, contracts and the exercise of monopoly power. (Case in point: Bush is pressuring impoverished Central Americans, in trade negotiations, to add 10 years to the length of drug patents.) These people have no interest in full employment. They like unemployment, weak labor, low wages and a government that bullies on their behalf. And after the election, if Bush wins, that is what they will get for four more years.

And I was likewise struck by Galbraith's description of the outcome of Bush's proposed immigration reforms:
This program will permit any employer to admit any worker. From any country. At any time. The only requirement is that it be for a job Americans are not willing to take. But it is easy to create such jobs: Cut wages. Terminate the unions. Lengthen the hours. Speed up the lines. Chicken farmers have known this for years. Bush's plan is a blank check for every bad boss this country has.

... For millions of citizen workers, what would happen? The answer is clear: Bad bosses drive out the good. Good bosses will turn bad under pressure. The terms of our jobs would get worse and worse. Who would want a citizen worker? A bracero will be so much cheaper, more loyal, and under control. And who among us, in our right mind, would want to look for work? Unless, of course, we needed to eat. Or pay the mortgage. I am not exaggerating: This is a threat to us all.

I'm not sure how many people writing in the blogosphere -- or working in journalism, or especially among the pundit class -- have a clear sense of the reality of this existence -- what it is like to be trapped working for a Wal-Mart or a Con-Agra or any of the thousands of faceless bad bosses whose main purpose in life seems to be finding ways to worsen everyday life for their workers: refusing raises, shortening hours, slashing benefits, pitting employees against each other, allowing work conditions to steadily deteriorate. Eventually they may taste it, of course (anyone who works for a midsized or small-town chain newspaper already has), but for now it is mostly an abstraction, and thus not something as important as, say, John Kerry's haircut.

I have, however -- when I was younger, and before I graduated from college. It is nearly impossible to describe: the claustrophobia, the oppressiveness, the complete mindfuck that is life when one is caught up in this machinery. All I can say is that I worked desperately to escape it, and swore I would try never to forget the masses of people out there caught up in it.

I used to like to joke: "A recession is the Republican way of shortening the lift lines at the ski hill." But things are much more serious than that now. Much more.

If the current generation of Democrats does not recognize it, and fails to begin shouting it from the rooftops, then I genuinely fear that Frank Church's darkest premonitions will finally be realized. It simply boggles my mind that, over the past generation, progressives have allowed working-class people to increasingly identify with conservative Republicans. The GOP has mainly achieved this through a combination of demagoguery and jingoism, appealing to people's baser instincts, particularly the desperate selfishness that in fact is forcibly part of life in the sinking classes. In the process, they have convinced working people to slit their own throats -- and ultimately everyone else's too.

This is, I think, the significant part of what Howard Dean was talking about when he discussed gaining votes among "guys with Confederate flags on their pickups." If Democrats fail to make middle- and working-class citizens recognize that conservatism, as practiced by the Bush administration, is directly inimical to their own self-interest, then we are all in serious trouble -- for years to come.

The L. Jean Lewis factor

Needlenose has an interesting take on the recent news that Halliburton is being investigated by the Pentagon Inspector General's office.

As he suggests, this is an investigation that bears close watching. I wouldn't quite leap to the conclusion that the probe is already in the bag, but Needlenose's point -- that this is precisely the kind of thing that L. Jean Lewis, the IG's chief of staff, is likely to cover up. It's always best to wait and see what emerges, but the probability of a whitewash is always imminent when Lewis is involved.

For those needing a quick refresher, my previous posts on Lewis are here, here, here, here and here.

If nothing else, this case underscores my original point: Lewis' hiring has severely undermined any real reason to believe that any investigation of the Bush administration's cronies by the Pentagon will be either thorough or untainted.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Kevin Phillips and the October Surprise

I went down to Elliott Bay Books the other night to hear Kevin Phillips talk about his new book, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. It was a surprisingly large crowd packed into the store's little reading space -- at least a hundred, many of them standing. (I went attired in my nattiest headgear, of course.)

I've long been an admirer of Phillips' work on a purely analytic level, in no small part because the guy is right about 95 percent of the time. People probably don't remember that he predicted a Democratic victory in 1992 with The Politics of Rich and Poor., though he was of course already famous for predicting the Republican ascension back in 1969. Wealth and Democracy was an important book, but no one paid it any attention because it didn't fit in with everyone's obsession with the "war on terror." Nonetheless, his assertions that the nation's growing wealth gap would prove a significant political force is proving on the money, since this is precisely the factor which looms, more than any other issue, over next year's election. (Read James K. Galbraith's excellent piece in Salon for the latest on this point.)

People are paying more attention to American Dynasty partly because it fits in with the latest trove of anti-Bush books. (The crowd at Elliott Bay was decidedly partisan Democrats, which has never been his audience, at least not until now.) But Phillips' tome is heads and shoulders above everyone else's, and not just because, as with everything he writes, the information in it is precisely accurate and well balanced.

American Dynasty is one of the most important books produced since Bush's election, largely because it has delved into the forgotten history surrounding the Bush family -- history that not only should never have been buried, but is the key to understanding the mess we're in now.

There has already been some discussion about Phillips' treatment of the Bush family's business connections to the Nazis. While the re-emergence of this story may give the Ed Gillespies of the world an aneurism, Phillips' treatment is thorough, balanced and scrupulously factual. It is also damning. As he said Thursday night, "the connection is real."

Suffice to say that he reaches essentially the same conclusion that I did in "Bush, the Nazis and America" -- namely, that while there is no evidence of ideological or other affinities for Hitler and his fascist regime, there was a notable willingness to evade the moral ramifications of these dealings in the pursuit of business as usual. Phillips goes on to explore in detail the point I suggested, to wit, the consequences of this style of foreign-policy dealings in the form of the American national-security establishment that arose after the war.

This portion of the book is important, of course, because it represents a real revival of this episode of American history. As I have argued previously, the significance of this information extends well beyond the mere purview of historians; it is essential, in fact, to understanding how America came to be embroiled in its current foreign adventures and its "war on terror." Democrats and liberals should not shy away from discussing it, either, out of concern that doing so somehow constitutes a "smear" of the Bush family. As Phillips demonstrates on every page of this book, the reality of this episode is constituted largely of hard fact.

But this is not the only bit of buried history that Phillips successfully resurrects. Even more significant, perhaps, is his treatment of the "October Surprise" story.

Some of you may even recall the story. Its basic outline went like this: In the runup to the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, it became clear that the outcome largely hinged on the release of the 52 Americans who had been held hostage by Iran since November 1979. If Carter was able to obtain their freedom, he was likely to win re-election. If he failed, it was nearly certain Reagan would win. As you may recall, the latter was what happened. The hostages were freed on the day of Reagan's inauguration. Later it emerged that a cadre of Reagan campaign officials -- led by former CIA chief William Casey, who was the campaign manager -- may have actually negotiated with Iran behind the scenes to ensure precisely this outcome. There were even indications they may have been involved in sabotaging the attempted rescue of the hostages.

The story gained real traction in the early 1990s when a former Carter intelligence official named Gary Sick released a book detailing the plot. It was promptly pooh-poohed by articles in Newsweek and The New Republic, and a brief House investigation came up dry. Afterward, anyone who even suggested they thought the scenario had any credibility was dismissed as a loony conspiracy theorist. Even the respected AP reporter Robert Parry found himself a journalistic pariah for his dogged pursuit of the story; you can find the results of much of his work at his marvelous Web site Consortium News.

Phillips not only resurrects the story, he examines the evidence and finds that it is almost certainly substantial, despite the all-too-eager earlier dismissals of its substance. More to the point, he compiles a wealth of subsequent evidence, most of it having emerged since 1992, pointing to his conclusion that "Bill Casey -- a born schemer and true buccaneer -- and his associates probably were involved in machinations akin to those Sick alleged." This evidence includes intelligence material from the French, the Soviet Union, Israel and Iran, as well as material that has been ignored by the House investigators.

All of this ties in with Phillips' theses that the October Surprise was a precursor to Iran-Contra (in fact, he argues, the latter was actually a confirmation that the former had occurred) as well as Iraqgate -- the consequences of which, he ably demonstrates, have come home to roost in the current war in Iraq.

American Dynasty is a book of major significance -- and a riveting read as well. It provides the most comprehensive, and damning, analysis of why George W. Bush's presidency is an unmitigated disaster for American democracy. The question is: Will anyone in the media recognize it before the next election?

I'll be posting more on the October Surprise case over the next week or so. Stay tuned.