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June 02, 2007

A Face in the Crowd

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

                W. B Yeats, The Second Coming

With so much going on, you have to wonder why there's no real national discussion on the burning issues of how to get out of this War and, perhaps at the same time, how to deal with a failed presidency with some 600 days still to go. Yes, we've come a long way from the kind of silence that Cindy Sheehan pierced two summers ago. At that time the stranglehold on discourse was all but suffocating; only the public was ahead of the politicians and the press pack that follows them like a chorus line.

Today, the President rests at about 28% approval and most of us, (6 out of 10 according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll agree that we should never have got into the Iraq War), including much of the MSM,  have come to the conclusion that the War has been a disaster and that we need to find a way to get out of there; yet there is a near total dearth of fact-grounded serious discussion on the major TV stations or in the mainstream press as to how we might best get out.

There are, after all, several simple truths to the story that get chopped up in the sound bytes:  the Iraqi government we are "buying time for" tramps Shiite waters with US military issue water wings. The Iraqi streets from North to South are de facto controlled by the various militias with tribal and religious affiliations.  There is no other military force the Green-Zone-bound government can rely upon except the US Army.

That means that as good as Gen. Petraeus might be, he is, in any case, years late and many troops short by any real doctrine. All the opposing forces know this, including the government, itself. Thus, America bleeds real soldier blood (as much as the stream of body bags and wounded is still kept hidden) and the cost of war gets finessed by all who don't link it to a weaker dollar, higher oil prices, and an out of control future deficit when there is a real reckoning, one that --and you can bet your bottom dollar on this-- will be, indeed,  linked to the next pitch for sacrifices on the back of Medicare and Social Security. 

A Sea of Half Truths

 Is it our fate to see the discourse forever bogged down in a sea of half truths, slogans and talking points that serve only to oversimplify, even while it's been the fud of oversimplification and threats that's gotten us into this terrible national dilemma? Many people peripherally familiar with the country knew that Iraq's Shiite majority was being severely repressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni government and the Kurds in the North would want nothing but autonomy or better in a future country if given half a chance.  They also knew of the deep links between the Iranian government and the Shiite mullahs who served as the leaders of the Shiite population.  This was far from a secret when we stopped short of going into Baghdad the first time around.

For instance, it was also no secret that Saddam mercilessly slaughtered Shiites in the South as soon as we let him take back control of air space there. Anybody familiar with the region knew a lot about the failed history of military occupations of  Arab countries by non-Muslims, no secret since the Crusades! Many people in the military and intelligence communities also knew just how weakened Saddam was by the air blockade we'd carried out along with the Brits --which in retrospect looks pretty effective compared to what we've got now. They knew Saddam had not reconstituted his major arms programs and yet that information was buried by the hawks but put in plain site by Hans Blix's UN team.  And, yes, the informed intel community also knew that Saddam Hussein was no friend of bin Laden and clearly would have had nothing to do with 9/11.

All that's important because it illustrates just how insidious half truths become in a point-counterpoint, "balanced", media world. Yes, Saddam Hussein sent money to Palistinian suicide bombers' families.  That's ugly but it does not mean that he supported terror in the sense that Bush and Cheney are now talking about, post 9/11. It was also reported that Saddam had a training base for plane hijacking, which turned out, to be a counter-plane hijacking center.  There was also supposed to be an Al Qaeda camp in Iraq and that for anyone who has been following closely, turns out to have been in Kurdish territory --under our air protection-- near the Iranian border not under Saddams control and probably aimed at Iran. Half truths, are easy, if you have an office full of spinners at your beck and call.

The latest half truths hearken South Korea, Japan and Germany as examples of democratic nation building gone well as if there were any similarity to the situation in Iraq.

In the same insidious, spinful vein the President, even today, in his War-on-Terrorism mode, continues to characterize the War in Iraq as basically an American/ Al Qaeda struggle with the Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites as somehow little more than the window dressing. In reality, the foreigners in Iraq are most significant when viewed as symptomatic of the strategic failure.  They would not be given shelter and protection if they were anathema to the far from helpless, well-armed local Sunni populations they live among, many of whose chiefs are on the US payroll.

It's hard not to remember Bush himself, in his most Richard III moment, actually taunted the foreigners with his Bring'em On  piece of bravado. As a result, they are able, through targeted suicide bomber attacks,  to raise the stakes and they are now getting the kind of invaluable training that would give any American soldier who might have to fight them in some other hostile environment, the willies. Already we get reports of these same fighters stepping up activities in Tripoli, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco.

But as the President reels from one failed project to the next, the even more publicly taboo --outside the left blogosphere, that is-- question arises as to why we are not talking seriously about impeaching him or forcing him to step down. The common wisdom has it that no one wants to see the Congress and government getting tangled over that; not the public, "looking for solutions not rancor", nor the opposition politicians and strategists, "looking forward to the next election cycle". 

The problem with that wisdom left unquestioned is that the President still has more than a year and a half in office and things will not stand still to 2009. At some point, quite soon, we may be forced to ask ourselves whether this democracy, devoid of the parliamentary check of a vote of no confidence, can live in a dangerous fast moving world with a seriously wounded duck at the top.

A potential showdown with Iran is already beginning to percolate to the top of the news cycle. This week, the US announced that it had amassed a large carrier strike force in the Persian Gulf region. A UN Atomic Energy Agency (AEIA) Report has made it clear that Iran continues to move forward full speed with what is clearly its nuclear arms program; something that the US has stated is "unacceptable".

We need to be discussing now whether we can, and if so, how, live through a major crisis with a President whose popularity remains in the Richard Nixon low range and who has basically lost all credibility with Americans and the rest of a world whose cooperation we might need? 

 The Bush Charm

President Bush held one of his infrequent press conferences in the Rose Garden at the White House a week ago, Thursday.  What we get each time is a display of his extreme verbal and mental limitations and a picture of his innate stubbornness.  The President once again demonstrated what's he like when challenged --the Press, in case you haven't noticed, has now gotten up on its knees--  without having Tony Blair to speak for him. In one pathetic sequence where he managed to string a thought together in multiple sentences, he even remarked, unembarrassed, "wait a minute I'm on a roll."

On Iraq, he insisted on the critical importance of the combat there, "the great struggle of the 21st century," and chided his opponents to speak to what would be the dire consequences if the US fails to win there. Once again, he seemed to glide blithely over the central flaw in his argument; i.e; If his War is indeed, existential as he argues ("failure is not an option"....... "the enemy would follow us here") then why are we only adding 30,000 soldiers to our force there? Why isn't he on his bully pulpit urging we go all out, do everything in our power both here at home and in Iraq to achieve success in this battle that he declares will only spill over onto American soil if not stopped in Iraq?

In reality, even Bush knows that most people familiar with the ever more fractured situation in Iraq give the Surge as it's being carried out by General Petraeus today, little or no chance of any real success, given the increasing sophistication of the enemy, the political maelstrom in Baghdad and now Kirkuk, the state of the US Army after 4 years of attrition, and the lack of public support in Iraq and at home. In fact, the violence level continues to climb, more Americans (May has been the bloodiest months for American troops this year)  and Iraqis die day in and day out,  the attacks and tactics of the enemy continue to evolve, the classes who might have served as the core of a "stable, unified government that is an ally in the War on Terrorism" ( Bush's definition of victory in his Rose Garden press conference) continue to flee the country as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites further harden and the war spreads north to the oil fields of southern Kurdistan.

Here at home, even as Bush has managed to intimidate the Congressional Democrats into a funding bill that lacks hard dates, public support for the war continues to plummet.  Only 1 in 4 Americans  --the same New York Times/CBS poll mentioned above-- , thinks the War's not being lost. The political clock in Washington is linked directly to the coming '08 election in which the Republicans could be decimated if they insist on going forward in this mode.

Après Moi, Le Deluge

On one level it all looks cynical or plain wishful, take your choice. The military proponents of the Surge know, even as they up the human losses, they are laying the groundwork for a long campaign without either the facts on the ground or the forces to back them up even as the politicians in Washington know that time is fast running out. After all, today's Congressional $100 billion only covers costs until September.  By that time, a large number of formerly safe Republicans will be staring into the bright lights of a looming election season like deer in the road

But things are not happening in a void in a region where the Administration's blunders haven't been limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. Their naively-backed elections in the Palestine territories has laid the seeds of an ongoing civil war between Hamas and Fatah with the Israelis being drawn in.

The same holds true for Siniora in Lebanon where his government is tied down in a bloody siege in the north of the country.  In his capital, a tent city stands ready to be filled by tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters whenever the word is given. It's assumed that both Syria and Iran can pull those strings; Syria, because it wants to block the US backed Harrari murder tribunal from moving forward and Iran, the main winner along with Syria of the Iraq War, because it is holding an array of aces and trump cards as it pushes forward toward getting its nuclear weapons capability.

The Karzai government in Kabul seems ever less viable and in Pakistan, where Bin Laden seems to be safely tucked in, there's another balancing act where the outcome is far from certain.  And unlike Iran, Pakistan already has the bomb and delivery systems aimed at India and the Persian Gulf.

A Unitary Impeachment?

One looming problem is that Bush and his minions have pushed incessantly for what the scholars of the right call a "Unitary President".  It is by this theory that the President can claim by way of a singular interpretation of the Constitution broad powers with or without enabling legislation. Accordingly, Bush has added so-called signing statements to Bills he's signed negating carefully negotiated portions of the new law that he doesn't like.

A unitary president has great latitude in making decisions unhampered by the constraints of Congress, particularly in wartime.  Bush has already proclaimed that the vote that authorized Iraq further extends his intrinsic war-making powers.

The unitary president theory is also at the root of Bush's most pressing legal problem, his impeachment-level authorization of a domestic spying program that is too secret for the voters to know about. Thanks to some riveting testimony the other week by James Comey, we now do know is that such model civil libertarians as former AG, John Ashcroft, his Deputy, Comey, and the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller along with 30 others threatened resignation rather than agreeing to carry out the program.  That sounds like a smoking gun, should the occasion demand his removal (along with Cheney's, of course).

It's hard to imagine a line that even John Ashcroft wouldn't pass over but we heard last week that our present Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, was sent by Bush to Ashcroft's hospital room along with Andy Card, the President's chief-of-staff, to try to get the ailing and heavily sedated AG to sign off on the plan, even though they knew Ashcroft had already formally appointed Comey as acting AG before he entered the hospital.

18 Months is a Long, Long Time

Eighteen months is a very long time.  A lot can happen. Bush is mainly already a lame-duck with little leverage over his own party.  One test of just how low he's sunk in that regard will come with the Immigration Bill that's now being debated in Congress. In the Senate Bush will need all of the Democrats, including Lieberman and nine Republicans to get past a filibuster threat.  In the House, Nancy Pelosi has said that she will not pass any Bill without at least 70 Republicans sighing on. Any changes to this heavily compromised piece of legislation could see pro-immigrant Democrats peeling off as well as Republicans looking for cover. A Republican defeat of the bill would further solidify the Democratic Hispanic vote for a good long time.

Anti-Mexican immigration tends to be as hot an issue among a large portion of the Republican base as the abortion issue is to a big and somewhat overlapping swath. Bush is going to have to twist a lot of arms to get this Bill through.  It's hard to see where he gets the leverage.  If the Bill fails, it will be his failure and he will have further lost power, even within his own caucus.

The question arises, will it be the Republicans, probably including the President's father, who decide that not only is their party coming apart at the seams by the combined centrifugal forces of Iraq, abortion and immigration and that a President can't function in a crisis with an approval rating in the low 20's where Bush could be heading if something else goes wrong. 

Moments of crisis require leadership and that leadership relies on its ability to be trusted by key foreign and domestic stakeholders. Crisis leadership also depends on a certain level of articulateness.  Iran alone probably has the capability to apply serious pressures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and no doubt could seriously disrupt the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf, if it wanted to take on some self pain. But crises tend to come out of left field, as in 9/11 and Katrina, like say, a Musharif-assassination level event.

The Iraq fiasco has left the United States military, extremely vulnerable. Without Persian Gulf oil, world fuel costs would spiral to who knows what multiple of today's prices. Rationing would be required. Strategic reserves that might be tapped to soften the swing would be held back to support major military moves. The American President might have to initiate a draft, put controls on food and fuel prices, and build a coalition of significant allies.  Can anybody imagine Bush or Cheney pulling off any one of those feats?

We can imagine the President's father, along with James Baker, leading the take-down charge.  But would Bush II pay it heed especially if given the unitary president argument to rest his authority on? Would he and Cheney even obey an impeachment conviction if it came down to that?  In the Nixon case, we congratulated ourselves on the orderly transition. But at the time, the Russians hung back. This time around, outside events might not be so benign.

 TV President

We couldn't help remarking, a month or so ago, when President and First Lady Laura Bush's made a cameo on American Idol, how flat they came off.

The conventional wisdom, pre-Karl Rove, has been that TV presence trumps all else when it comes to retail politics. What Rove proved, is that given the right grouping of signals, even a very weak product can be packaged and put over the top. You need only remember the ultra smart, commander of the facts, Al Gore, huffing across the stage in frustration as his debating opponent, the Governor of Texas, successfully bumbled around the issues with meaningless slogans and a few hot buttons.

What is true is that the TV audience knows how to take its queues, Even at the dawn of TV politics, a couple of years before the Kennedy Nixon debate, the poltical  power of the media was felt.  It's more than understandable that both Bub Schulberg and Elia Kazan would have picked up on the power generated by TV's first long running reality shows, known as Kefauver, McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings, since they had both played, under Committee duress, roles in the blacklisting of some of their closest artistic collaborators. 

In 1957, on the heels of their On the Waterfront, the two teamed up for what stands out as the first major work to take a critical look at the powerful role TV would assume in pushing a merit less, prepackaged candidate onto our modern democracy. Unfortunately, the film, A Face in the Crowd, for a number of reasons, was a box-office failure that quickly relegated it to a bin in a studio warehouse. Needless to say, despite its scripting and casting flaws, the film is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

This Bush may last out his term.  The Democrats are not likely to play the impeachment card unless it is thrust upon them. The script at this time probably reads more like the scene in On the Waterfront: in Marlon Brando's character's lament, "I could have been a contender," referring to the dive he took for the mob. Would Bush and Cheney take that dive?

As we've pointed out, Bush would be a major liability should things go south, somewhere.  If he were to be truly boxed in by his own party and the military, who, after all, are being severely weakened once again by his fiasco, we might see something akin to a transfer of power within the  Republican Party.  This would mean a joint resignation on the part of Bush and Cheney and the elevation of a white night among the Republicans who would be a caretaker until the election.

This is a long shot, as we've said, but it is far from impossible. Someone has to extract us from Iraq and if Bush were to refuse, hanging on to the surge until January 2009, it's somewhat likely he would be forced out, à la his ex-mouthpiece, Blair was in Great Britain.

Posted by dymaxion at 03:36 PM

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