Saturday, January 28, 2006

Final Words

The US Senate debate is debating the Samuel Alito nomination. Democratic senators have one last chance to demonstrate Alito’s unsuitability to serve on the US Supreme Court. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee did a poor job of making their case. According to MSM the Democrats didn’t land a punch and Alito skated by.

Not for want of trying, sort of. Committee Democrats asked many questions and pontificated a great deal but they did little to raise real concern in the nation about the danger of this nomination. Yeah, Alito is a nice person and has excellent qualifications. I hope that means he has sufficient respect for our Constitution that he will not trash it. But I am not sure of that. In an era where presidential authority is expanding by quantum leaps, I would like to have a Supreme Court that will ensure that the executive will always be subject to the rule of law. I

Alito’s views on executive authority are dangerously permissive toward the executive. If his record and history are any guide, he is likely to lock in the BushCheney presidency: secrecy, arrogance, disregard of law and precedent, all those niggling little trappings of democracy that so impede an absolute executive. All of BushCheney’s broad assertions of authority will have a good friend in the Court. Replacing Sandra Day O’Connor with Samuel Alito, trades “War is not a blank check” for “Where do I sign?”.

If George W. Bush had any kind of mandate, I would probably concede him a less radical choice. But he was barely, if at all, elected. He has no mandate to make such a radical change in American law. Nor did he consult with the Senate on the nomination, listening instead to Right Wing howls demanding their promised payback. I see every reason to devote as much time as necessary in Senate debate to questioning the propriety of this nomination. This is the Senate’s opportunity to advise on this critical nomination.

There’s a risk, though. Democrats need to make s strong, coherent case against Alito. They cannot simply restate the same old arguments. Democrats must clearly articulate the dangers to Constitutional government. In the process, perhaps they will impress on the soon-to-be Associate Justice Alito the dangerous consequences that his conservative activist views will have for the nation. Maybe they will have an impact.

About all we have left is hope and the courage to stand up for the real America. Godspeed Senator Kerry, Senator Kennedy and all who stand with you.

I sent a version of these thoughts in a fax to various persuadable senators through

Inconvenient Choice

Listening to and reading all the commentary about Hamas’ sweeping victory in the Palestine elections, I am struck by the fact that NO ONE saw this coming. Oh sure, the pundits predicted a good showing for Hamas, a warning shot (so to speak) to the Palestinian Authority to clean up its act. But the actual result was something well beyond everyone’s imagination. The pundits are now saying that even Hamas was not prepared for its big win but they were wrong on the election so I don’t give them much credibility on this election right now.

Which makes me realize that very often what we hear and read is based on at best a limited understanding of the situation. Or worse, news and opinion are based on wishful thinking or outright deceit. I don’t exempt myself from the wishful thinking part of this judgment. I don’t try to deceive. Other than what I read and hear, I have limited knowledge of what I write about. Rarely can I claim first hand experience. So it’s all, opinion, folks.

My reading of the Palestine election results is that the voters were pissed off. Big Time. That shouldn’t be news to anyone following events in Palestine. Looking at conditions in the Palestinian territories (again, second hand), I don’t see where the inhabitants have much cause for hope: a corrupt government that cannot protect its citizens against Israeli incursions, personal security threatened by armed thugs (Palestinian and Israeli) and an economy that provides no opportunity. Why would a rational Palestinian vote to continue that government in power?

Hamas did what every effective political party in history has done before. They organized and hustled. They made a difference in the lives of individuals who had no expectations of their government. It’s as classic as Tammany Hall and Chicago machine politics. You win by demonstrating your effectiveness and concern. And in a truncated state such as Palestine that is at the mercy of outside powers, Hamas was able to demonstrate its effectiveness by providing services to the people who were ignored by their government.

And, no doubt, Hamas’ militant stand against Israel had something to do with their victory. Although the party did not emphasize its pledge to destroy Israel, its militant stance can only have helped. After all, even Americans flock to BushCheney when claims that he is fighting to protect us. Palestinians seem to survey their condition, look at the corrupt, toothless government under Fatah and decide that Hamas would better serve them. Their choice seems pretty plausible to me.

What all this tells me is that, once again, outsiders still do not understand the middle east. What we think we understand is largely a matter of our own projection. We see what we want to see and it gets us into trouble every time. The middle east has often been described as a land of dreams. From Lawrence of Arabia to BushCheney, westerners have projected their own ideas on the land and its people, usually with not so good results.

I won’t offer any predictions. I have no crystal ball and I certainly recognize my limitations when it comes to understanding middle east. I do know that people have pretty simple wants. They just want personal security, to earn a living and support their families. Yeah, I know that a lot else gets into that equation (which is where we get suicide bombers) but I can never get beyond the basics when it comes to human motivation. If I am denied the basic opportunities for existence, then why should anyone be surprised if I act with hostility and anger toward that thwart my ambitions? In Palestine, voters expressed both anger and hope. It’s anybody’s guess which will ultimately prevail. If the past is any guide, it will be the former.

The election itself is an achievement. Reports are that it seemed fair and without incident. If not a first, it is certainly a milestone even if the results complicate an already difficult situation. Israel will no longer have a “partner for peace” in the Palestinian Authority. It’s hard to negotiate with someone who is sworn to your destruction. About the only point would be the manner of your demise. Hamas, for its part, must adjust to running a government, no easy task when the entire world unites against you. Hamas has had success serving its constituents through its own social services and schools. Leveraging that success into a government of an small, fragmented territory bereft of economic resources will be a much greater challenge.

As a rule, I prefer democratic elections to the alternative, even when I believe that the electorate may make decisions that I believe are not in their (or my) best interests. Call it naivete’. Call it faith. Call it what you will. In the end, society must deal with what people think and feel, with the prejudices and ideals that informs their thought and action. The Palestinian elections tell me in screaming headlines that the world does not fully understand what is happening in Palestine. It’s time to learn.


I previously wrote about Jews and Arabs sharing the same land. It’s a simplistic piece but it goes to the heart of a matter in which two peoples have a great deal in common. This is where I begin the learning process.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Democracy on the Brink

Anyone who thinks that BushCheney (or any president) should be able to take whatever action he (or perhaps someday, she) deems necessary should read Jacob Weisburg's article in Slate. Weisburg notes that BushCheney's assertion of authority is a fundamental change in American democracy.

"...Even if one assumes that every unknown instance of warrant-less spying by the NSA were justified on security grounds, the arguments issuing from the White House threaten the concept of checks and balances as it has been understood in America for the last 218 years. Simply put, Bush and his lawyers contend that the president's national security powers are unlimited. And since the war on terror is currently scheduled to run indefinitely, the executive supremacy they're asserting won't be a temporary condition...."[snip]

Reading the recent brief authored by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Weisburg finds a sweeping assertion of executive authority.

"...This somewhat daffy monarchical undertone accompanies legal reasoning that recalls Alice's conversation with the March Hare. 'AUMF' [authorization to use military force passed by Congress in 2001 after the 9-11 attacks]is understood by the Justice Department to expressly authorize warrant-less surveillance even though the resolution that Congress passed neither envisioned nor implied anything of the kind. The president's insistence that he alone can divine the hidden meaning of legislation is of a piece with his recently noticed practice of appending 'signing statements' to bills—as in, 'by signing this anti-torture bill into law, I pronounce it to signify that it has no power over me.' Similarly, in his white paper, Bush as much as declares: 'I determine what my words mean and I alone determine what yours mean, too'...."

Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that "war is not a blank check" for presidential authority. BushCheney has ignored that decision. Unless Samuel Alito acts very differently as a Supreme Court Justice than he has acted as conservative activist and federal judge, BushCheney will have plenty of blank checks.

American Democracy will pay the bill.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors?

The Berlin Wall was the physical manifestation of the ultimate evil from 1962 to 1989. Even before the East Germans built the wall, there was the figurative Iron Curtain behind which lurked a wicked, calculating totalitarian foe. But the Berlin Wall gave that terror a physical presence that demonstrated the failure of the society behind it. The wall and, elsewhere in eastern Europe, restrictions on personal travel showed those nations’ fear of the outside world, the ideas and dreams that lay beyond the artificial borders created by humans.

I recall the Berlin Wall, now receding into the history of past century, as I see new walls springing up on real and imagined national borders. The United States is erecting a steel wall along sections of its border with Mexico. Israel is creating a national border by building a reinforced security border with Palestinian areas. Both nations claim national security to justify their construction. But conceding that point only leads to the question of why national security is threatened.

The 20th Century wall builders made the same claim. Most Americans saw the Berlin Wall and, by extension, the sealed borders of eastern Europe, as blocking people from escaping dictatorship. That was a side benefit to the wall’s real purpose, which was to protect the regimes hiding behind those walls. This century’s wall builders are no different. They fear what is beyond that wall and seek protection from it. Mexican immigrants threaten Anglo culture even as they fuel the American economy in a wide variety of low wage, unpleasant and sometimes hazardous jobs.

The real threat from this immmigration lies in its cause. Many Mexicans cannot earn a decent living in their home country; too many people live in a nation plagued with graft, corruption and disadvantages in world trade. Mexico must export its surplus population into the rich economy of the north. That tide will continue until Mexicans believe that they can live in their home country. Like the Berlin Wall, the US border wall will only slow, not stop the tide.

Israel seeks to stop military incursions from Palestine and force a boundary settlement in its favor. Here too, the obvious national security threat–Palestinian suicide bombers–is only a symptom of the problem. Dispossessed Palestinians still have grievances remaining from Israel’s creation and until they are convinced that Israel and its supporters are willing to address these grievances fairly and equitably, they will continue to attack. Like the Berlin Wall before it and the US-Mexican wall, Israel’s barricade will at best deter, not stop, the attacks. But the wall does provide a visible symbol of protection for its builders who can point to the steel, concrete and razor wire as a “solution” to an intractable problem that they will not otherwise address.

The security provided by these walls is illusory. Illegal immigrants will continue to pour into the US as long as they do not see any economic future for themselves in their home country. Like water, they will flow around whatever barricades we place in their path because they have no other alternative. The same scenario will play out in Palestine where economic hopelessness breeds the desperation and hate that sends suicide bombers against Israeli soldiers and civilians. The only real security for either nation lies in addressing the underlying causes of that drive people to such desperate actions.

Modern wall building is nothing new. Walls have a long history in human affairs. The Romans built walls to protect their empire from tribes which they could not subdue. Chinese emperors constructed the Great Wall for the same reason. These walls did not provide the lasting security envisioned by their builders, although their ruins offer an interesting look at the past for today’s tourists.

In the final analysis, walls and barricades are temporary solutions. Real solutions that offer prospects of long term security come about only when regimes come out from behind their walls to deal honestly and openly with problems confronting their societies. It is a lesson that today’s wall builders will ignore at their own peril.

Top Ten Failures

Juan Cole has an interesting post today listing the top ten mistakes BushCheney has made in fighting al-Qaeda.

"...On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it? Was this the beginning of a new political force in the Middle East that could hope to roll in and take over, the way the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan in the 1990s? People asked such questions.

Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous. Muhammad al-Amir (a.k.a Atta) and Ziad Jarrah were highly competent scientists, who could figure the kinetic energy of a jet plane loaded with fuel. There don't seem to be significant numbers of such people in the organization. They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation...."

Read the entire post for the complete list.

Honor on the Cheap

All veterans are entitled to full military honors at their funerals but the nation which they served is not willing to pay to ensure that this promise is kept. Instead, it relies on volunteers from veterans organizations. Even that cannot keep up with the volume as approximately 1,800 veterans are buried each day. In the scheme of things, it’s not a big deal but it is a reminder that “Support Our Troops” has its limits, at least as far as the government that asked for their services is concerned.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

George W. Potemkin

Grigori Potemkin did not build the fake villages in Russia to fool his monarch but his name is forever associated with deception and sham accomplishments. His detractors created that myth so that “Potemkin Village” is now a term of obloquy. It naturally comes to my mind when I think about BushCheney and his dubious war on terror. Even more so when I hear Karl Rove talking about making security the central issue in the 2006 elections.

BushCheney and his apologists bleat incessantly about their success in keeping America safe from terrorist attacks but their words ring increasingly hollow. For all their bluster, little real success has been achieved; much of what this country has done in response to the terrorist threat is eyewash, designed to create the impression of action but without real success. Potemkin may not have built the villages so famously lilnked to his name but BushCheney has certainly done so.

For some perspective on our “success” against terrorism, check out georgia10's diary at Daily Kos. Four years and billions of dollars after 9-11, the number of attacks and deaths attributed to terrorists has increased. Some success. And just in case you want to believe that the increasing numbers are an artifact of a battle joined, I direct you to Christopher Pyle’s article in the New Prospect which demonstrates the irrelevance of much of our so-called counter-terrorism. World War II offers even more perspective: four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States and its allies (remember when we had real allies?) had defeated both Japan and Germany. Four years after 9-11 we are have yet to find a guy who hides in caves and issues scratchy audio tapes.

The cynic in me says that all this is part of carefully orchestrated plan: create the impression of action without eliminating the threat so that the Republicans can continue to flog this issue and remain in power forever. It’s worked well for two election cycles. Since it’s the only thing BushCheney has to offer an increasingly skeptical public, I am not surprised that Rove and his operatives are still waving the bloody shirt once again.

The real irony in all this is that history regards Grigori Potemkin as a man of some accomplishment. BushCheney only plays one on TV.