Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Can't wait to see the bumper stickers

Political Wire says that former Virginia governor Mark Warner (D) is being courted to run against incumbent John Warner (R-VA), and is seriously considering it.

Actually the two ran against each other in 1996. But Mark Warner was much less well-known then. He left office in 2005 with sky-high popularity ratings. Meanwhile, John Warner's growing independence on defense and national-security may have weakened his hold on some conservatives, and he just turned 80.

Cheney and the Taliban

Does it make any sense for the Taliban to claim that they were trying to get Dick Cheney in that suicide bombing at the gates of Bagram airbase? (Deadeye Dick was apparently a mile away at the time.) I mean, why would they want to eliminate their greatest asset?

Monday, February 26, 2007

A question

As Frank Rich argues, the real enemy remains al Qaeda. And, as the NYT reported last week, al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, an essentially ungoverned area that borders Afghanistan. They have even reestablished camps of the sort that trained the 9/11 hijackers.

Assume with me, if you will, that the Pakistani government lacks the will or the ability to root out al Qaeda and its homegrown terrorists. (Dick Cheney is apparently lecturing the Pakistanis that they have to do that or those fearsome Democrats in Congress will cut aid to the country, but the history of the past few years gives little basis for confidence that the Musharraf government can or will move effectively.)

OK, here's the question: If you were President, would you order American special forces into Waziristan (that's where the terrorist training camps apparently are) and have them fight a clandestine campaign to destroy al Qaeda?

Your answers to this question will be welcomed.

(By the way, Waziristan is where Kipling set the story of The Man Who Would Be King.)

The Iraqi Hamilton

The early days of the United States were amazing in many ways, none more so than the line up of personalities that came to the fore just when the new nation needed them. Think of it: a nation of about 3 million people produced Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, John and Martha Adams, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton and dozens (perhaps hundreds) of lesser but still notable personalities.

Now look at Iraq, with eight times the population of the early United States. Do you see a Washington or Jefferson? Or even a Hamilton?

Where does the difference lie? Part of it is a matter of luck--something that the early American republic had but that Iraq seems to lack.

Much of the distinction lies in history: Americans of the Eighteenth Century grew up in a society where a man could rise from poverty to substance through his wits and a system that rewarded enterprise and intelligence. Today's Iraqis have grown up in a society characterized by violence, tribal structures and ethnic identities, where tribal and familial relationships are vital and the most important characteristic for success has been brutality.

Can Iraq move toward democracy? I'd like to think that it can. But that road will be long, hard, dangerous and likely to fail. The best model for the development of at least a proto-democracy in Iraq is likely to be Turkey, not the United States. Turkey, y0u may recall, developed the beginnings of a democratic system because of a brilliant autocrat, Kemal Ataturk, who decreed that a multi-party parliamentary system would succeed his rule. I am not an expert on Turkish history, but I understand that Ataturk went so far as to say to one politician, "you will be in this political party," and to the next, "you will be in that party," and so on. Not surprisingly, the system he created took a long time to develop into anything approaching what we would call a democracy. There has been military rule, and the armed forces still play a much larger role than is healthy for civil society. The nation is riven by disputes over how to deal with the Armenian genocide and the restive Kurds in its southeastern quarter. (The greatest danger to Iraqi Kurdistan lies not in al Qaeda, but in Turkish secularists.)
And yet, Turkey is the most successful of the traditional Middle Eastern states in moving toward representative government.

Now, how is it that we expect to stay in Iraq long enough for something similar to happen in that country?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The question

The question that should be asked of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and all other candidates who have repented of their votes on the Iraq War resolution--or who supported the war at its outset--is this: Do you now believe that the war was wrong from the outset, or is it the way that the war has been fought that leads you to oppose it now?

On an immediate practical level, I admit that one reason for opposing the war now is pretty much as good as another, but a candid answer to this question would give a valuable clue to the foreign policy that a candidate would likely follow should she or he be elected President.

The madness from the inside

We sit in comfortable surroundings and gauge the war in Iraq. Bur we have no comprehension of life in that country. Here's a tiny snippet of the madness that is Iraq in the fourth year of the American misadventure.
If' you've wondered why there have been no recent posts, the main reason is the incompetence of a certain telecommunications company. I won't name it, but it is a close rhyme with horizon.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

And it was so obvious!

The redoubtable folks at have come up with the key to giving those people at Guantanamo their rightful day in court. Why didn't we think of this sooner?

Why don't they print the good news?

The answer to that common plaint is that good news is routine--it's the bad stuff that IS news, and that's a good thing. Look at it this way: In Baghdad, a day without a car bomb is news.

That being said, sometimes good things do make the news, like this story about a woman celebrating her 60th birthday in an iron lung. (Yes it is a good-news story.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Update on Gitmo decision

For a good, relatively brief, discussion of the legal elements of the DC Circuit's Gitmo decision today, go here.

(The discussion will be well within the reach of the informed layperson.)

A blow to liberty, and law

The federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has upheld the part of the Military Commissions Act that denies courts the right to hear cases arising out of the detentions at Guantanamo Bay (and any secret prisons that the US may be running here and there around the world).

The Constitution is pretty clear about habeas corpus: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

You might think that it doesn't take a lawyer to figure out that Congress and the President can't get around this provision by saying that courts may not hear a case in which a writ of habeas corpus is sought. I mean, if the right to the writ cannot be repealed unless we're invaded or there's an armed rebellion (and it's pretty clear that even then the repeal is only in areas actually affected by the revolt), how can the same result be achieved by keeping the case out of court?

Only through the subtlety of "legal reasoning."

I won't go into the argle-bargle that two judges used to get around the clear language of the Constitution. Instead, I'll quote from the dissent by Judge Judith W. Rogers:

"When a court has no jurisdiction, it is powerless to act. But a statute enacted by Congress purporting to deprive a court of jurisdiction binds that court only when Congress acts pursuant to powers it has derived from the Constitution."

Game, set, match.

At the turn of the last century, Finley Peter Dunne had his Mister Dooley observe that "whither th' Constitution follows the flag or not, th' Supreme Court follows the illiction returns." The Supreme Court will have the last word on this case. Will the court listen to the people's voice last November? If not, we shall all take another long step on the road to lawlessness.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What a difference 230 years makes

This week, George W. Bush issued an executive order formalizing the procedures for military commissions that are supposed to try suspected terrorists. The commissions will be empowered to convict defendants, and even impose the death penalty, based on hearsay or coerced testimony.

And we call ourselves the land of the free.

Think about it: the commissions will be composed of American officers. The defendants will be selected from those who have been held at Guantanamo Bay--where a special courthouse is under construction--and have been declared to be deadly enemies of the nation that those officers are sworn to defend. How can we expect the defendants to get a fair trial? Or is that the point?

NPRs Robert Krulwich and Prof. David Hackett Fischer discussed a very different way of fighting enemies: How, in the winter of 1777, George Washington refused to react to the British killing of captured Americans by behaving in like manner. Instead, Washington ordered that captured British and Hessian soldiers be treated with honor and dignity. He met brutality with humanity. And guess what happened?

To begin with, British and Hessian captives were astounded by the decency they experienced. And they reacted in kind. At the end of the war, a full quarter of the Hessians who had come to America to suppress the rebellion stayed in the newly independent nation.

In modern terms, we might say that Washington's enlightened policy helped to win hearts and minds--not only among enemy soldiers, but among civilians of all nations who heard of it.

Almost exactly 70 years after Washington's order, Gen. Winfield Scott, who had occupied Mexico City during the Mexican War, issued an order establishing the first military commissions. Unlike Mr. Bush's order, Scott's was widely regarded as a signal advance, imposing legal standards on an occupying army for the first time.

Writing about Scott's order in The New York Times, Stephen Budiansky observes:

"It is a measure of how far we have come as a nation--and in values at one time widely held--that military commissions, once seen as a great step forward for American principles of justice and the rule of law, will now for ever be associated with the abridgement of rights."

Of all the offenses committed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their minions, the greatest may be the way that they have betrayed the values on which our nation was founded and built.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tricky Dick, redux?

Starting today, the Mint is offering presidential dollars--dollar coins with images of the presidents. The first shows a rather unflattering image of Washington; new coins will be issued every three months.

I can hardly wait to hold the Franklin Pierce dollar! And what about Millard Fillmore? Sure to be popular. And then there's Benjamin Harrison, not to mention Warren G. Harding, fondly remembered for his most famous phrase: "We drew to a pair of deuces and filled," words that well-defined his all-too-short presidency.

The Mint has announced that the coins will go up to Gerry Ford. Hmmm. That means that in 2016, someone will hand me a Richard Nixon dollar. That's right--an actual Tricky Dick dollar. It'll probably slip right through your fingers. It is likely to be the first coin issued by the Mint that's fake money. It will not be a disk, it will be crooked. I could go on and on, but out of respect for you, dear Reader, I'll desist.

Hint to the Mint: Stop with Ike.


State Farm, the largest home insurer in Mississippi, has announced that it will not write new policies in that state. The company, which recently got hit with a $1 million punitive-damage verdict (reduced by a judge from the jury's $2.5 million), calls the legal situation in Mississippi, "untenable," which is insurance-ese for begin limited in the ability to bilk policy holders.

For some years I have championed what I call--for lack of a better name--the Full Line Insurance Act. Such a law would require that insurers offer their entire range of insurance if they want to do business in a particular state. State Farm, for instance, would have stop offering automobile insurance in Mississippi if it chooses to stop writing policies on homes. A company would not have to offer all kinds of insurance--it would not have to write policies for jewelers, for instance--but if it should have to offer in all states the lines that it sells in some. No selling of home-owners' insurance in one state and auto insurance--but not home owners'--in another. Such provisions would reduce the opportunity for insurers to cherry-pick, offering insurance on which they expect relatively few claims, while refusing to protect people who really need it. They would also work to increase competition in the insurance market.

Insurance companies routinely establish subsidiaries and sister companies to offer specialized lines, but the Securities and Exchange Commission long ago solved the problem of deciding what the real reach of a corporation is when it devised the concept of "affiliates," now well rooted in the law. The same idea would be applied to insurers to keep them from avoiding the intent of the full-line law.

If a few large states like New York and California adopted full-line laws, it would force insurers into a new way of doing business, one that considers the needs of policy holders as much as the desires of stockholders.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The cost of war

Sergeant Ty Ziegel and his bride Renee Kline had planned to marry when he returned from Iraq.

For more photos of their wedding, go here. Go on, look. It is painful, but also shows a real victory for the human spirit.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Preventing war with Iran

Democrats in Congress should pre-empt any attempt to start a war with Iran by passing a resolution--a binding one--declaring that the President has no authority to engage in hostilities with Iran. To get around Republic objections that this would tie Bush's hands (not a bad idea, actually), the resolution should provide that no combat operations could be launched against Iranian territory or against Iranian aircraft or vessels except against weapons or vehicles actively engaged in firing on American vessels, troops or territory--in other words, no hot pursuit. If the Iranians do attack, but are driven off so that they are not presenting an immediate threat to American lives, let the President come back to Congress and ask it to reverse its stance.

If the people will lead...

...the leaders will follow.

63% of Americans want to cap the number of troops in Iraq and bring them home by the end of 2008.

And Congress is debating--or, in the case of the Senate--not debating, non-binding resolutions.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Obama and the black vote

Much has been made of polls showing that many more black voters support Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. Leaving aside how early in the campaign it is--and how meaningless early polls are--couldn't that actually work in Obama's favor? Mightn't it make white voters less hesitant to vote for him?

Just musing.

Question for Hillary

Hillary Clinton has been careful to avoid admitting that she made a mistake when she voted to authorize the Iraq war, instead saying that if she'd known then what she knows now, she would have voted differently. (If she'd known then what she knows now, would she have married Bill? Ah, but that's a question for another day.) And Ms. Clinton then goes on to attack the Bush administration for its manifest incompetence.

The question that should be asked of the Senator is this: "If the administration had carried out its policy in Iraq competently, would you still be supporting the war?"

The case against Iran

You may have noticed that TONE has not joined in with those who have been expressing fear that the administration wants to start a war with Iran. I've done that for several reasons. For one thing, it's hard to believe that even Bush, Cheney & Co., could be that dumb. (Of course, that could have been said about so many things that this administration has done.)

And I'm still not convinced that Bush and his cronies are looking for another war to fight. However, if you look at the case against Iran, particularly the latest alleged revelations from military officials in Baghdad concerning alleged Iranian supplies to Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the case seems woefully weak. You can find the Power Point presentation that was given in Baghdad here.

One thing I noticed was that the 81mm mortar shells which are given prominent display in several of the Power Point slides have labels in western script, not Farsi or Arabic. Indeed, they appear to be written in British English--one photo shows a blow up of the label on a shipping container: 81mm/H.E. [high explosive] Mortar/ Fuze (British spelling of fuse): AZ111-A2." The caption on the photo says that the legend "AZ111-A2" is "assessed" to be Iranian, but the slide provides no proof of this. (For reasons that escape me, 81mm is a common calibre for mortar rounds--even American mortars have been made in that size. So the fact that the shells shown are of that calibre is meaningless as far as identifying where they came from.)

Perhaps the briefers gave more proof of Iranian involvement, but the slides themselves are weaker than weak.

And note, please, that your editor does think that the US government is probably right on this point: that the Iranians are arming some Shi'ite forces in Iraq. But the administration certainly has not proved it, much less made the case for a war.

And Juan Cole, an "informed observer," makes a strong argument that the Iranian threat has been totally overblown by the ideologues in the Bush administration.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Must read

There is a tremendously important article by William Odom in today's Washington Post. Odom was head of army intelligence and director of the National Security Agency under Reagan, so he has ample credentials to discuss the war in Iraq. You should read the entire piece, which is entitled "Victory Is Not An Option," but here are some excerpts:

"The public awakened to the reality of failure in Iraq last year and turned the Republicans out of control of Congress to wake it up. But a majority of its members are still asleep, or only half-awake to their new writ to end the war soon."

"A Congress, or a president, prepared to quit the game of "who gets the blame" could begin to alter American strategy in ways that will vastly improve the prospects of a more stable Middle East.

"No task is more important to the well-being of the United States. We face great peril in that troubled region, and improving our prospects will be difficult."

"[T]he assumption that the United States could create a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq defies just about everything known by professional students of the topic."

"[T]o expect any Iraqi leader who can hold his country together to be pro-American, or to share American goals, is to abandon common sense. It took the United States more than a century to get over its hostility toward British occupation. (In 1914, a majority of the public favored supporting Germany against Britain.)"

"Too many lawmakers have fallen for the myths that are invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Let us consider the most pernicious of them.

"1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon.
Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable!"

"2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran's influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president's initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region."

"3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it was the U.S. invasion that opened Iraq's doors to al-Qaeda. The longer U.S. forces have remained there, the stronger al-Qaeda has become."

"4) We must continue to fight in order to 'support the troops'....Has anybody asked the troops?"

"But the strangest aspect of this rationale for continuing the war is the implication that the troops are somehow responsible for deciding to continue the president's course. That political and moral responsibility belongs to the president, not the troops."

"The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy."

"Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East."

"Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region."

"Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq."

"It is already too late to wait for some presidential candidate for 2008 to retrieve the situation. If Congress cannot act, it, too, will live in infamy."

These extracts only give the flavor of the article; read the whole thing.

With Odom's credentials, he provides those who know that the war is both wrong and badly fought with the intellectual weight and military credibility to take up the task that all too few are willing to engage in even now: ending the American military involvement in Iraq.

Serious candidates

I watched Barack Obama's interview on Sixty Minute tonight. He continues to surprise me as a man with hardly any of the politicians' pretense or evasion. He needs to flesh out his policies, and from what I can see he needs to much work on his organization (although getting 16-17,000 people out to see his announcement in freezing weather yesterday seems to bespeak an efficient cadre, at least in his home state), but if he is right about the American people hungering for new leadership as they were in 1960, he's going to be even harder to stop in 2008 than JFK was then.

I also caught Chris Dodd on Face the Nation this morning. (Poor Dodd: after more than 3 decades in Congress, he gets 10 minutes on Sunday morning, while Obama gets twice that on the highest-rated magazine show on television.) Dodd (D-CT) was sensible, clear and well-reasoned. Another serious candidate who deserves a full hearing.

I also saw a newspaper interview with Joe Biden (D-DE) this week. (Sorry, I don't have a link.) He was self-effacing on his gaffe about Obama, but also came across as a man with real ideas on where the nation should go.

All of the Democrats deserve to be listened to. Which is more than I can say about that other party.

Friday, February 09, 2007


Mars candy has been running an ad for a new variety of M&Ms with the tag, "Dark Chocolate Just Got Fun."

Where have they been?

Low Standards

A report by the Pentagon's inspector general admits that the Defense Department cooked the books in selling the American people on the idea of going to war in Iraq.

The report states that the actions of the Penatagon's policy office, then under neocon Douglas Feith, were "inappropriate," but not illegal or unauthorized. (Not that anyone with a whit of sense thinks they were unauthorized; indeed, they were at the heart of the administration's misinformation campaign.)

Feith says he's happy to hear that he report cleared his office of illegality.

Would someone tell these guys that avoiding indictment is not the standard we are looking for in high government officials?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Of the people?

My inamorata and I have become fans of Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti novels. Brunetti is a commissario in the Venetian police. Married to a professor of English, with two children who grow up in the course of the books, he is quiet, sensitive and smart. He's often funny, too.

In one of the novels, Uniform Justice, Brunetti muses about the nature of Italy and other nations:

"He had read enough to know that there were countries whose citizens did not perceive their government as an inimical force, where they believed, instead, that the government existed to serve their needs and respond to their wishes. How would he react if someone he knew were to maintain that to be true here in this city, in this country? Religious mania would be less convincing proof of mental imbalance."

How long before Americans feel that way about our country? People under 35, that is most of those alive in the United States today, can hardly remember when government was not under attack, when the institutions that carried out the New Deal, won the Second World War and contained Communism when it really was a menace were not reviled and identified as the enemy of all right-thinking citizens.

What has this led to? There is the massive incompetence of the Bush administration, extending from Washington to New Orleans to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even more disturbing, however, is the hollowing-out of government. Where once we had a proud civil service that did, indeed, serve the American people, now we have agencies that are captive to the industries they are supposed to regulate (a trend that started before the Republican assault, but has been steadily accelerating) and bureaucracies that are--apart from the military and the security apparat--understaffed, starved of resources and low in morale (hardly surprising, given the poor repute in which the nation's leaders hold professional government workers). At the same time, a rampant, irrational and corrosive drive to privatize government functions has erected ever-higher barriers between public projects and the public.

It will take more than the election of a Democratic President to stop this. That president will have to make the reconstruction of competent, responsive government a central part of his or her program. Making government work may not sound exciting, but it will be necessary if we are to rebuild the government that was our pride when the nation was at its greatest.

Case Closed

Is there anyone out there who thinks that maybe, just maybe the law passed last year that purports to remove the right of habeus corpus--indeed, all normal legal rights--from prisoners at Guantanamo could be reasonable? If so, here's a complete answer:

"An Army officer who investigated possible abuse at Guantanamo Bay after some guards purportedly bragged about beating detainees found no evidence they mistreated the prisoners — although he did not interview any of the alleged victims, the U.S. military said Wednesday."

Case closed.

(If you're wondering where the reported bragging came from, it was a Marine sergeant who heard the the guards in a bar on the Guantanamo base. A civilian also reported a similar conversation between a female guard and a male guard. So what happened? The woman guard was spoken to about her "fictitious" account. And never did they bother to speak to any of the men who were, or at least would have been victims.)

Humor in a Dark Time

A friend sent on some Bush bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans. Some of the ones I hadn't seen:

--If you voted for Bush, a yellow ribbon won't make up for it.
--Hey, Bush Supporters: Embarrassed Yet?
--George Bush: Creating the Terrorists Our Kids Will Have to Fight
--Which God Do You Kill For?
--Who Would Jesus Torture?
--Bush: God's Way of Proving Intelligent Design is Full Of Crap
--Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Blood
--Where Are We Going? And Why Are We In This Handbasket?

And my favorite:

--Impeach Cheney first

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

All of the People, All of the Time

So the senators of the Party of Lincoln held together (except for a couple who are really scared about their chances in 2008) to block debate on a non-binding resolution opposing the Bush administration's "surge" in Iraq authored by one of the leaders of their own party, John Warner. Warner himself voted to obstruct debate on his own measure.

The Republics claim that the Senate should also debate a non-binding measure that would pledge not to cut off funds for the troops. Not surprisingly--especially given that Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a man who, to borrow S.J. Perelman's phrase, looks freshly dipped in Crisco, is their leader--the Republics ignored the fact that senators would have been offered an alternative to Warner's resolution: John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and some others have sponsored a resolution supporting Bush's so-called strategy. (Not to mention that senators will go on record when they vote on budget measures to authorize funds for the war.)

Do the Republics really think that the American people don't see what's going on for what it is: a desperate attempt to salvage some shred of credibility for Bush's discredited policy? One might think that they have forgotten the lesson of their greatest leader: "you can't fool all of the people all of the time." I think, however, that this is simply another example of the unarticulated major premise of the Republic Party: that the American people are stupid.


I've been trying to come up with the shortest redundant phrase in the English language. So far, I have it down to eight letters. Can anyone come up with a shorter one?

The eight-letter phrase is "Bush lies."


The Bush budget for fiscal 2008: Debt on arrival.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why US?

So why are Americans supposed to care more about Iraq than the Iraqis do?

That is the essential problem with those who favor the "surge," or even maintaining American military involvement for longer than it would take for us to make an orderly withdrawal that would not sow intolerable confusion among those who proclaim themselves our allies.

In an earlier post, I suggested that the problem with Iraq was not too few Americans but too few Iraqis, I noted in passing that the slow progress of the Iraqi security forces can be compared to the development of the US Army during the Civil War. As we send thousands of additional Americans into harm's way (and it will not be the 20,000 or so that the media talks of, but about 35,000 to 45,000, because the figure bruited about only covers combat troops, and leaves out the supporting forces they need), let's take a look at that instance in our history.

Unlike Iraq, the United States was not conquered by a foreign power, and our army was not disbanded. On the other hand, not only did a large part of the nation pull away and declare independence (a proportion larger than the Sunni or Kurdish parts of Iraq), but an even higher fraction of the nation's military leadership went with the rebels.

Not that the US Army--or Navy for that matter--were that much to boast about before the war. It has been said that the army of 1861 was stocked with officers who knew about leading a troop of cavalry against Indians, but not about leading regiments, much less divisions and corps.

Yet within two years the United States Army had become a fully professional fighting force able to field large armies across distances unknown to the militaries of Europe, at least outside of Russia. By 1864, the army had become one of the great military aggregations in history. The exploits of the US Army in the Civil War are mind-boggling even today: Balked six times before Vicksburg, Mississippi, Grant took 40,000 men down the river--running past the batteries mounted on the cliffs above in unarmored steamers--and made his way behind Confederate lines to come up behind the city and invest it. The next year, Sherman conducted a campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta that is still studied in staff colleges around the world. In the course of Sherman's advance, his troops re-built the railroad to Atlanta faster than the Confederates could tear it up.

The army did not exist in a vacuum, of course. Lincoln is generally credited with being the greatest President in American history, and he assembled a corps of leaders who mobilized the nation--the North, anyway, in the first of the wars between societies that we have come to know. Factories turned to war production. Young men, old men, even women substituted for those who had gone off to fight.

All of this was not orderly, of course, or free of incompetence or corruption. Look at the list of commanders that Lincoln appointed and then removed before he found men who could win the war--the amazing part is that he kept on and that he had enough political support to keep up the search until the found those he needed.

Do you see anything like this in Iraq? If something analogous is happening, we aren't hearing about it, even from the administration and its apologists.

I'm not suggesting that Iraq needs to produce a Lincoln, but it has not even produced a Jefferson Davis: the South's war effort would have been notable had it not been up against a North led by Lincoln, Grant and Sherman.

In our Civil War, Americans answered the call to the colors. In Iraq's civil war...Americans are again the ones who are answering the call. Oh, yes, several hundred thousand Iraqis have signed up for the army and the police, and many have been killed by car bombs as they lined up at recruiting stations. But why have they not learned to fight--at least to fight as disciplined units?

Is the problem a lack of leadership? Or is it a lack of will? Or the absence of a sense of national identity? Perhaps it is all three. But whatever the cause, by now it is clear that there are not enough Iraqis who identify with the nation, and are willing to put themselves on the line for it, to damp down sectarianism sufficiently for the country can emerge as a functioning state that provides at least rough equality to all religious and ethnic groups.

Before we went into Iraq, I posited that the absence of an effective opposition to Saddam Hussein should tell us to steer clear of grandiose adventures designed to bring on a new kind of nation in the Middle East. Unfortunately, I was right. It is now clear that, whether we go or stay, Iraq will either split apart along ethnic and religious lines or will emerge united under the dominance of the winner, or winners, of its own civil war.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Straight talk or curevball?

Remember John McCain's reputation for straight talk? Where'd that guy go? Here.

Muzzling the regulators

You've probably heard that the White House intends to put a political appointee in every federal department--apart, presumably, from independent regulatory bodies such as the FCC--to ensure that all regulations meet standards set by the President. This has brought howls of outrage from liberals who are sure--and surely correct--that this is another attempt by W and his cronies to centralize and expand the power of the presidency, no matter what the voters may have said in November. We may confidently expect that these watchdogs will also protect the President's big-business supporters: no regulation harmful to Halliburton will be permitted in the waning days of the Bush administration.

One part of me says that this is a matter of the gored ox. If (when) a Democrat takes over the Oval Office in 2009, won't we like having a watchdog to see that holdovers from the Bush years don't continue to coddle business at the expense of the environment, worker safety, etc.?

But it strikes me that in many cases, White House interference in the regulatory process is probably illegal, at least if carried out as it has been announced. Many statutes give authority to particular department heads to promulgate regulations: "the secretary may issue regulations..." is a common phrase in the US Code. In such instances, making the Secretary of Health and Human Services, say, run things by a White House guardian would contravene the law. Given that the secretaries are themselves political appointees, this may seem to be a matter of legal arcana, but as a practical matter cabinet officers have a good deal of independence and, given the limited time available to them, they are not likely to ask the White House to vet every proposed regulation.

A real-world example of this kind of thing occurred in the late 1930's. After the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, NJ, the Germans asked to buy helium from the US for their remaining dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin. FDR and the State Department, wanting to get some leverage with the Nazi regime, were for the idea. But the law said that sales of helium (which is only found on Earth in Texas) to foreign buyers had to be approved by the Secretary of Commerce, at the time Harold Ickes. Ickes was a fervent anti-Nazi, and refused to OK the deal. In essence, he gave Roosevelt the option of going along with his decision or firing him. FDR kept Ickes and let the prospective sale go into the wastebasket.