Saturday, December 30, 2006

Final Balance

All in all, Saddam Hussein got a pretty good deal. A swift death. Never answered for most of his crimes after a life of luxury and absolute power. I'm sure he would have preferred to die in his own bed surrounded by loving family but he was enough of a realist and cynic to know that was unlikely, given the history of his country and the fate of his predecessors. His last act would certainly please his megalomania--front page news around the world, lengthy obituaries, a corpse that will requires special handling and remembered loyaly by the Sunni minority whom he favored so lavishly.

Someone mentioned on NPR this morning that many Shi'a and Kurds were not happy about Saddam's quick end and would have preferred something more along the lines of his own tortures. Perhaps many would have purchased new drills for the occasion. I read somewhere previously that volunteers for the gallows crew were plentiful and no doubt we'll hear some firsthand accounts of the proceedings.

Some unpleasantness along the way and exiting but, on balance, Saddam would be pleased. He did not rule as long as his model, Josef Stalin, but he was certainly noticed.

His death is the end of a chapter but after three years of occupation and war, Saddam Hussein is far less relevant to Iraq's futre. He will certainly remain an icon for his supporters but his death will have little effect on a country in civil war. Today's hanging is no more of a critical event than the day soldiers pulled him from his hiding hole.

Why He Left So Soon

The money quote on Saddam Hussein's final dance:
Hussein took with him to the grave a trove of secrets. The former Iraqi leader allegedly ordered assassinations abroad and used his country's vast oil wealth to curry favor with Middle Eastern governments while maintaining undercover dealings with intelligence services throughout the region and the West.

One famous photograph shows Hussein shaking hands with Donald H. Rumsfeld in 1983, who served as an informal envoy to Baghdad at a time when the United States was aiding Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran.

Friday, December 29, 2006

What Not to Do

Last week's shooting of an Afghanistan veteran by a sheriff's deputy in St Mary's County, Maryland looks now like a complete clusterfuck by the authorities. James Dean, who had previously displayed symptons of PTSD after completing his active duty, became despondent and suicidal upon receiving orders recalling him for deployment to Iraq. After Dean barricaded himself in a house and threatened suicide, the sheriff forced him out with tear gas and shot him when he emerged pointing his weapon at officers.

Now Dean's family is asking hard questions.
If the officers' priority was to get Dean out safely, the family wanted to know, why were the people he trusted not allowed to talk to him? Why was his cellphone service cut off when he was trying to call his grandmother's house? Why were they pushing him closer to the edge by pumping noxious gas into the house and breaking the windows?

"We told them, 'We're his family; we know how to calm him down,' " said Dean's grandmother, Mary, who for her safety was removed from her house adjacent to the one where her grandson held dozens of officers at bay. "I'm telling them if he just hears my voice he'll come down from it, and they're telling me to keep quiet or they'll lock me up for obstruction of justice."

Let's see. Suicidal, stressed combat veteran. Alone in a farm house with a rifle, threatening himself and deputies outfitted for battle. His distraught family asking to talk him down. Why not give them a chance?
...officers couldn't establish a line of communication long enough to consider having anybody talk to Dean, which is why they resorted to gas to get him to leave the house. When the young man opened the door with his gun raised, Cameron said, the trooper believed his colleague's life to be in imminent danger -- giving him the cue he needed to shoot to kill. (emphasis added)

Just doing the drill, ma'am. Just doing the drill. Sorry about your kid. He would have shot you, ma'am. We couldn't risk it. Yeah, right.

Tell you what, when I entrust others to use lethal force on behalf of public safety, I want them to be able to think as well. About the only justification the sheriff can offer is that what the officers did is standard procedure for many police organizations. That's frightning because it means there will be many more James Deans.

Get a clue, guys. Learn to think and act.

Accent Quiz

Check out your accent.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Interesting. My parents were from central and western Pennsylvania. I grew up in the Deep South part of Virginia. I left Virginia 25 years ago. Guess I didn't bring much of a southern accent, if I ever had one, with me.

(Hat Tip to J-Walk)

Holy Joe Speaks

Joe Lieberman is smooth. I read his latest statement on behalf of the "stay the course but escalate" policy in Iraq and it sounds so noble. How can I abandon tens of thousands of Iraqis seeking a democratic future? Can I disappoint that dedicated colonel and his men? Would I abandon Iraq to the terrorists and extremists supported by al-Qaeda and Iran? Only if I don't send more troops to Iraq. It all sounds so convincing and essential.

But then I think about how many times I've heard this before and how the situation simply gets worse, for Iraqis and Americans. Bob Johnson's DailyKos diary, "Pre-debunking the next Iraqi readiness lie", compares fact with reality over the past year to demonstrate that depending on Iraqi forces is an ever receeding goal. Lieberman's arguments and ideas are not at all new: Same Stuff, Different Day. Lieberman has always supported the war and this same basic policy, even as it consistently failed to live up to his promises.

Once again, I come to my perennial question about Lieberman, BushCheney, Richard Perle, the AEI and all the other architects of the Iraq war: WHY ON GOD'S GREEN EARTH DOES ANYONE LISTEN TO THESE GUYS?! They were right about one thing--the US military took Iraq pretty handily. But no one doubted that would happen. Since then, howver, this crew has been consistently, disastrously and catastrophically wrong. So what is it that gives the same old policy any credibility at all?

A lot of smooth words and noble phrases mixed with a few heartfelt images is about all the neo-conservative warriors have left. That and several tens of thousands more troops. Keeping on, pushing harder is one way to escape the reality of a failed policy that has caused death and destruction on a mass scale. Joe Lieberman delivers those smooth words and phrases so well. As always, BushCheney's loyal pitchman a model of neo-conservative bipartisanship. No wonder Republicans paid so much to keep his Senate seat for him.

Unfortunately for America and Iraq, BushCheney and his cabal still hold institutional power and aren't inclined to listen to anyone other than their own. Dick Cheney said as much after the election. If you have any doubt about it, please note that NONE of the new strategies for Iraq involve the one thing most Americans and Iraqis want most: US troops out of Iraq. Good old Joe is doing his part to make sure that does not happen any time soon.

BarbinMD takes Joe's statement apart piece by piece over at DailyKos

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Another History Lesson

Prominent among the stories about Gerald Ford's presidency is the End of the Vietnam War. Ford had the misfortune to sit in the Oval Office as Americans ignominiously departed Vietnam just ahead of North Vietnamese tanks. According to the Washington Post after Saigon fell in 1975 and the United States evacuated from Vietnam, Ford was often labeled the only American president to lose a war. The label always rankled. "Well," he said, "I was mad as hell, to be honest with you, but I never publicly admitted it."

I can see why Ford inherited the war from Richard Nixon and had been in office less than a year when Saigon fell. For that reason, I would certainly assign some of this dubious honor to his immediate predecessor and perhaps even to the one before. When I think of responsibility for Vietnam, Gerald Ford's name is well down the list behind Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.

Gerald Ford and others blamed the Democratic Congress for cutting off funds for Vietnam in January 1975. If only the US had stayed the course we would have prevailed, a mantra we hear often these days about Iraq. What I find amazing about this argument is that it fails to recognize what a hollow government we supported in South Vietnam. Think about it. After 20 years of military aid, combat troops and continued logistical support, the South Vietnamese Army simply collapsed in less than four months. The North Vietnamese offensive swept the entire south in a matter of weeks. Our plucky ally was little more than an illusion supported with American dollars.

Iraq has even less of a government and army than did South Vietnam after two decades of American investment. And there is no likelihood that Iraq will have a legitimate government as long as Americans remain as occupiers. That's why we need to get out now, as quickly as possible. The International Crisis Group has put forward a proposal that would move in that direction. BushCheney would be wise to use that blueprint for extricating America from the quagmire and civil war he has unleashed.

I would be very surprised if that happens. I fully expect more of the same from BushCheney. After all, he doesn't want to be known as a president who lost a war. He will leave that title to future presidents, just like Richard Nixon did.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Patriotism and Pride

In these post 9-11 times, I see many expressions of national pride, everything from bumper stickers, flags and patriotic songs. Skeptic that I am, I wonder exactly what all this pride is about. What did these proud Americans do that makes them so proud?

I am pretty much the same as my fellow Americans. We are all different as individuals but in the larger society little would change in our absence. I look at my life and see that I had little to do with America’s real achievements. I didn’t fight in the Revolution, write the Constitution, risk my life and fortune to assist the oppressed or contribute to the development of our democratic traditions. The war that I did fight was a waste. Other than being a (mostly) law-abiding citizen, an informed voter and (mostly) a person of good will toward others–like many other Americans–I can’t really say that America is anything that I can claim as an achievement of which to be proud.

I will say that I am proud of America. This nation has achieved much that is admirable. America was the first nation to institutionalize democratic government. Although that democracy was limited to a very few, our institutions and beliefs have expanded into a wider democracy. Americans fought against totalitarianism in World War II, contributed to rebuilding Europe under the Marshall Plan and offered refuge to dissidents and victims of persecution from around the world. I am proud to live in and be part of a nation with such ideals and history, even if they aren’t necessarily my doing.

But pride is dangerous. Western ethical and moral tradition regards pride as the most deadly sin, the source of all other sin. Humility is necessary antidote to pride. For me as an American, humility requires that I recognize other aspects of our national achievements about which no American should be proud. Our all-too-human institutions have led to serious shortcomings: our very undemocratic actions to support dictators (like our one-time good friends, Saddam Hussein or Augusto Pinochet), secret wars, death squads, colonialism, near genocide of Native Americans, racial discrimination and support of corporate predation beyond (or within, for that matter) our borders. My pride in my country is tempered by knowing my country’s full history.

So when I see a “Proud to Be an American” bumper sticker, I wonder if that individual has thought about what that means, about how he or she specifically contributed to the America of which their bumper is so proud. Or the totality of American history, which includes cynical self-interest, repression and violence along with the altruism we so readily celebrate.

Perhaps the better way to put it is that I consider myself lucky–very, very lucky–to have been born American, to live in the First World where life is far better than it is for the vast majority of the world’s population. I don’t worry about finding enough food for the day. Nor do I need to worry about being attacked just because I am different from someone else. I sleep in a comfortable bed each night. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity for education and access to literature and ideas that constantly expand my horizon. My work has been interesting and rewarding. Yeah, I consider myself damned lucky to be an American (even counting the my year in Vietnam now safely in the past).

Our great good fortune seems to have created a collective myopia about America. We revel in our national accomplishments as if they were our own personal achievements and dismiss our less admirable actions as aberrations resulting from individual (someone else’s) failures. I guess that’s just human nature–no one really wants to be associated with injustice or oppression–but America is many things, good and bad. It’s a complete package not something you can pick and choose.

Contemplating my country, I am fond of Carl Schurz’s famous quote: "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." Schurz is also the author of an essay on “True Americanism” which certainly speaks to the nation 150 years later.

What is the rule of honor to be observed by a power so strongly and so advantageously situated as this Republic is? Of course I do not expect it meekly to pocket real insults if they should be offered to it. But, surely, it should not, as our boyish jingoes wish it to do, swagger about among the nations of the world, with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody's face. Of course, it should not tamely submit to real encroachments upon its rights. But, surely, it should not, whenever its own notions of right or interest collide with the notions of others, fall into hysterics and act as if it really feared for its own security and its very independence.

As a true gentleman, conscious of his strength and his dignity, it should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with other nations it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great peace power of the world. It should never forget what a proud privilege and what an inestimable blessing it is not to need and not to have big armies or navies to support. It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented. It should be so invariably just and fair, so trustworthy, so good tempered, so conciliatory, that other nations would instinctively turn to it as their mutual friend and the natural adjuster of their differences, thus making it the greatest preserver of the world's peace.

This is not a mere idealistic fancy. It is the natural position of this great republic among the nations of the earth. It is its noblest vocation, and it will be a glorious day for the United States when the good sense and the self-respect of the American people see in this their "manifest destiny." It all rests upon peace. Is not this peace with honor? There has, of late, been much loose speech about "Americanism." Is not this good Americanism? It is surely today the Americanism of those who love their country most. And I fervently hope that it will be and ever remain the Americanism of our children and our children's children.

Maybe I think this way because I came of age in the 1960's and served in a pointless war but I cannot simply assert that I am proud to be an American and leave it at that. No, I need to qualify that pride with reality, recognizing the good and the bad inherent in our experiment in self government along with my great good fortune to live in a country where (so far and for the most part) I am able to live and act freely. Whatever its faults, America has given me much. In return I offer my allegiance and willingness to work toward the “more perfect union” that is our national goal. A more perfect union that is good for America and our world neighbors.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Mind of John McCain

The Washington Post runs a story today about the personal impact of John McCain's call for more troops in Iraq. On John McCain. His son recently graduated from Marine boot camp and will begin infantry training. The article suggests that the son will see duty in Iraq if more troops are sent. That is somewhat misleading. As a Marine infantryman, young McCain WILL see Iraq duty unless the US begins withdrawing forces. That's not likely to happen any time soon, despite the overwhelming desire of both the American and Iraq peoples. I don't know how the Marines work their rotation schedules, but even without a troop increase, McCain the younger will likely go to Iraq within six months or so.

John McCain is no chickenhawk. He served. His son and another son at the US Naval Academy now serve. I don't question McCain's willingness to serve but I do question his judgment when I see a quote like this,
McCain has been one of the few and among the most vocal politicians pressing for more troops in Iraq. "We left Vietnam, it was over, we just had to heal the wounds of war. We leave this place . . . and they'll follow us home," he said on a news show recently. "So there's a great deal more at stake.", John, they will not follow us home from Iraq. Most Iraqis just want us out. Islamic and other anti-American groups will seek to attack us wherever we present an attractive target, further military action and occupation in Iraq will do little to stop those terrorist attacks. In fact our actions may even create pretexts and grievances that extremists can use to attract and inspire recruits. And remember, folks, this is the exact same argument made against withdrawing from Vietnam.

On the same day I find the McCain quote, Juan Cole presents the Top 10 Myths About Iraq 2006. Number 9 speaks directly to McCain and the "there vs here" crowd:
"The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq." This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy. They are not going to start taking flight lessons and trying to get visas to the US. This argument about following us, if it were true, would have prevented us from ever withdrawing from anyplace once we entered a war there. We'd be forever stuck in the Philippines for fear that Filipino terrorists would follow us back home. Or Korea (we moved 15,000 US troops out of South Korea not so long ago. Was that unwise? Are the thereby liberated Koreans now gunning for us?) Or how about the Dominican Republic? Haiti? Grenada? France? The argument is a crock

Terrorists are a danger, John, but the US occupation of Iraq only increases the danger. Ending the occupation won't end all terrorism but it will stop a lot of killing and lance one of the festering grievances that leads to terrorist acts. I recommend the entire Juan Cole article. Professor Cole does a good job of stating reality.

Farther along in the Post article is a quote from McCain's family memoir, "Faith of "My Fathers":
"No one who goes to war believes once he is there that it is worth the terrible cost of war to fight it by half measures,... War is too horrible a thing to drag out unnecessarily. It was a shameful waste to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through awful afflictions and heartaches, for a cause that half the country didn't believe in and our leaders weren't committed to winning."

As one of many who went to war in Vietnam, I couldn't agree with John McCain more on this point. War is such a failure of the human spirit, the abandonment of any semblance of humanity, that it should never be undertaken except in the most extreme situations. Once started, the only real imperative to war is to survive (for the individual) and to end it (for the community at large). Unlike McCain, however, I don't accept that winning--as in subduing an enemy--is the only option, especially when the mission is based on distortions, deception and lies. Unlike McCain, I believe that the failure of the US occupation in Iraq is the result of incredibly unwise and ill-informed decision making at the highest levels of American government, even more so in Iraq than in Vietnam. THAT is what robs our military mission in Iraq of purpose and legitimacy.

John McCain seems to think we can "win" in Iraq. He's dead wrong (see Professor Cole's Myth Number 1). Most Americans no longer believe in the Iraq war (McCain's first requirement) and will not support the increased escalation (McCain's second requirement), with even more death and carnage, that would surpress resistance to American occupation to anything remotely suggesting "victory". America's prospsects in Iraq are severely limited and "winning" in terms of creating a stable, democratic ally is not among them. That goal is a political one that will not be facilitated by sending more US troops.

John McCain and I both served in Vietnam but we seem to have learned vastly differenct lessons.