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  • Politics March 7, 2002

    Phonics Rises From the Ashes

    Phonics Rises From the Ashes

    Morris, Minn.

    Thanks to Stephen Metcalf for his informed article "Reading Between the Lines" [Jan. 28]. There is another winner from Bush's education act: Ignite! Learning, which promotes an "innovative approach to standards-based middle school subject matter." In other words, Ignite!'s multimedia, online, interactive program is designed just for those students most affected by the new bill and its emphasis on standardized testing. The chairman and CEO of Ignite! Learning? Neil Bush, the pResident's brother.


    Cape Coral, Fla.

    Kudos on your article about the Bush family's love affair with standardized testing. Here in Florida, where I teach, Governor Jeb Bush has pushed a test called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Based on their scores, schools receive a grade that can affect their funding, so ignoring the test is not an option. Good teachers are forced into teaching to a test that does not necessarily represent what a child knows. At the same time, Governor Bush has encouraged the state legislature to cut school funding, so teachers are in a no-win situation--they must get the students ready for a standardized test without the resources to prepare the kids. Thanks for reporting that the real concern is not for children but for the profits to be made by testing companies.


    Ooltewah, Tenn.

    George Bush made a great show of voluntarily taking a drug test. Let's see him volunteer to take the mandatory eighth grade test and promise to reveal his score.


    Champaign, Ill.

    Although Stephen Metcalf correctly alerts us to the way large textbook and testing companies influence education policy, his simplistic view of reading instruction insults many progressive educators who applaud the instructional strategies advocated by the National Reading Panel (NRP). In a simple-minded dichotomy, Metcalf places educators politically into two camps based on their views on phonics. One camp aims to cultivate critical and reflective citizens. The other, which supports systematic phonics, aims to produce minimally competent and uncritical workers for big business.

    But understanding that comprehending texts requires critical thinking and reflection has little connection with one's politics or position on phonics. The NRP report and its most recent summary, Put Reading First (, devote more pages to vocabulary, comprehension and fluency instruction than to phonics.

    Agreement with NRP about systematic phonics is no clue to one's politics. In fact, many progressives hope that approach will close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, at least in the early grades. Most children of well-educated, affluent parents enter school with thousands of hours of literacy preparation, and for them a more casual approach to phonics suffices. Systematic instruction, however, insures that children lacking such backgrounds are introduced to every sound and letter element--the basic tools for true reading comprehension, which goes far beyond simple phonics.

    Calling supporters of systematic phonics reactionary lackeys is a harmful simplification that insults many socially committed educators seeking effective ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

    Principal Education Consultant
    Illinois Board of Education

    Note: Ms. Goldsmith-Conley's views are her own, not those of the Illinois Board of Education.

    Cambridge, Mass.

    Just when we might have hoped for an end to the politicization of the debate over reading instruction, along comes Stephen Metcalf to keep the battle going. The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many. Although whole language should have been a nonstarter, it had a significant impact because of its political marketing. Whole language wrapped itself in liberation rhetoric, promising such things as "the empowerment of learners and teachers." The right wing was jubilant. Here was a left-wing conspiracy that could imperil children's literacy! A flurry of newsletters and websites appeared attacking the left-wing menace of whole language and vigorously promoting phonics. In the end, as Metcalf makes clear, the phonics counterrevolution found a home in the Bush White House.

    Metcalf suggests that we look to the Bush family's links to McGraw-Hill for an explanation of the current situation. I disagree. Metcalf's anecdotes of corruption on the reading front, if true, are a sideshow--a symptom, not a cause. If effective phonics instruction is now inextricably linked to educational trends promoted by "conservatives and business leaders," as Metcalf claims, the progressive community has no one but itself to blame. The war against phonics was a Lysenkoist aberration. It is time to put it to rest. There is no connection between politics and how we should teach children to read, and there never was.


    New York City

    I would like to clarify several of the misconceptions in Stephen Metcalf's "Reading Between the Lines." McGraw-Hill Education is proud of the role we play in improving student achievement. We have products that meet the standards and pedagogical approaches our customers require. And our materials have demonstrated positive results, especially in the critically important arena of reading.

    Results matter. Accountability must be part of the educational system. However, education leaders in all fifty states will determine the appropriate pedagogical approach for their constituents. McGraw-Hill must be prepared to address the needs state and local governments identify. The phonics-based reading programs Metcalf references are but two of a range of programs published by McGraw-Hill. Collectively, these instructional programs represent an approach to reading instruction that is as diverse as the broad-based support this year's education bill received in Congress. Regrettably, Metcalf's one-sided view only examined one successful approach to reading instruction.

    We are proud of the collaborative relationships we have with our customers. The products and programs we produce are not created in a vacuum. They are produced using the best research available to us, the input of our customers and our decades of experience.

    Metcalf's article also attempted to diminish the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, which in its fourteen-year history has become one of the most prestigious awards in education. Honorees are selected by a highly respected panel of judges, and winners have come from all parts of the academic, pedagogical and political spectrum.

    As the nation's largest K-12 textbook publisher, we are committed to improving teaching and learning and will continue to work with our customers and public officials across the nation in pursuit of this goal.

    President, McGraw-Hill Education


    New York City

    I urge readers to please go back and read my article. I nowhere placed educators into camps, accused phonics of being a waste of time or advertised whole language as a cure for illiteracy, and certainly never reached for so silly a phrase as "reactionary lackeys." Furthermore, I imagine that Elizabeth Goldsmith-Conley and I agree that gifted teachers should use any means necessary to teach children the ABCs, politics be damned. But it is simply a fact: A vocal subset of the phonics constituency is politically motivated. Even a glance at the public record reveals that the "reading wars" is a red-meat issue for social conservatives, many of whom demonize whole language by way of camouflaging the root causes of illiteracy--poverty and the chronic underfunding of schools.

    I did argue that the standardized testing industry, controlled by three major publishing companies, now has exactly the education policy it wants--centered on radically expanding standardized testing. It has done this by lobbying heavily and by having a friend in the White House; and an assist should be credited to the enormous prestige business leaders and social conservatives wield in educational circles, at the local, state and now federal level. Educators of any political stripe must be happy with increased attention and funding, but phonics and testing are often promoted by conservatives as virtually cost-free solutions to a broken system. I know no serious educator, progressive or otherwise, who can swallow this without gagging.

    The reading wars, sadly, do continue--not because a handful of flat-earthers refuse to acknowledge good science but because the supposedly ironclad scientific neutrality (not to mention validity) of the NRP's work has come under serious fire. Even a cursory examination of the NRP report--as opposed to its widely circulated summary--reveals that science has not determined a straightforward, uniform prescription for reading failure; that the panel's findings were often quite narrow and based on dubious interpretations of the research; and that the summary overstated (to put it mildly) the panel's conclusions. Nonetheless, the report was presented to policy-makers, educators and the public as the end of the reading wars by a publicist whose prominent clients include McGraw-Hill, which in turn stands to profit mightily from a Bush reading plan based in its specifics on--guess what?--the NRP report. I leave it to readers--Lysenkoist, Taoist, Maoist and otherwise--to conclude whether they prefer their educational policies to travel this route into public consciousness and federal legislation.

    It's hard to imagine a better example of the new market paradigm for public education than Robert Evanson's letter, where we hear (three times) about "customers," as well as politicians and their "constituents," but nothing about teachers or students. As to his suggestion that my article was "one-sided," I never felt any burden to address McGraw-Hill's entire product line when pointing out the controversy over two of its programs--and still don't. I did not diminish the McGraw Prize, though a glance at the roster of past winners reveals a curious number of superintendents--Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Los Angeles super Roy Romer and recent winners Nancy Grasmick and Carl Cohn--who have adopted or promoted Open Court, one of McGraw-Hill's primary phonics programs. Maybe we should retain a qualified researcher to tell us if this is statistically random.


    Our Readers

  • Politics February 28, 2002

    ‘New Mideast Approach': Flawed?

    'New Mideast Approach': Flawed?

    Elkhorn, Neb.

    There are many grave problems with Jerome M. Segal's "A New Middle East Approach" [Jan. 28]. I will discuss two. The first is Segal's repeated insistence that the United Nations and any government of a state of Palestine recognize Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state." Has the UN, out respect for everyone's civil "rights," not tended to call upon states to respect the various religious preferences of all their citizens, to avoid setting themselves up as theocracies, whether they be "Jewish states" or "Islamic republics"?

    Segal's desire represents an unspoken effort by Jewish Israelis to avoid responding constructively to demands that they address the misery of the vast numbers of Arab refugees who were driven from the area that is now Israel, refugees who have languished for more than a half-century in wretched encampments in Lebanon and Jordan. This avoidance may be understandable, but it is a deal-breaker. Peace cannot come to Palestine until Israeli Jews transform their nation into a secular state and make amends to those who lost their homes.

    A second problem is Segal's absurd and demeaning insistence that a state of Palestine not be allowed to import weapons. Palestinians must be permitted to ward off Israel's relentless attacks on them. The expressions of outrage by Israel and the United States at the discovery of an arms shipment bound for Palestine were deliriously hypocritical. Until the Palestinians cease to be victimized by overwhelming (mostly US-supplied) Israeli firepower, there will be no peace in the area.

    Now, I suppose that the Palestinians would agree to forgo importation of weapons if the Israelis would do likewise, but I suspect that even the "dovish" Segal would not agree to that. These two points alone undercut Segal's apparent desire for peace. Taken together, all his proposals constitute nothing more than the latest effort by Jewish immigrants to Palestine and their descendants to maintain their position of extreme privilege. Their privilege has played the largest part in sustaining the hostilities that have scarred Palestine for fifty-four years. Until Israeli Jews agree to live equally and respectfully with their Arab neighbors, they will not experience peace.


    Crofton, Md.

    Jerome Segal's approach is inherently flawed. The major flaw lies in his suggestion that Israel withdraw from only 95 percent of the occupied West Bank (percentage according to what? the 1967 Green Line? including East Jerusalem?). First, Israel controls the entire water and electrical supplies for the occupied West Bank from Israel proper. The remaining 5 percent of the West Bank that Israel wants to retain is made up of its settlement blocks, strategically positioned over underground aquifers along the 1967 Green Line. If a land swap were to occur for this remaining 5 percent, it would (1) legitimate the Israeli colonization/settlement effort in the West Bank, already deemed illegal by UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention, and (2) maintain Israeli control over the West Bank's underground water supply, thereby insuring a Palestinian state dependent on Israel.

    Second, there is an issue of the quality of the land swapped. One proposed land swap would have resulted in Israel obtaining land that can support agriculture and, more important, that is above underground water aquifers. In exchange, the Palestinians would have received a sliver of land located next to the Gaza Strip that has no resources and cannot support agriculture. The only solution must be grounded in a 100 percent withdrawal to the 1967 Green Line and include evacuation of all settlements.


    Haifa, Israel

    For Jerome Segal, Israel's and Israelis' security prevails over everything and anything, including the Palestinians (who have nothing of Israel's might, ordinarily directed at Palestinian civilians--their roads, their trees, their homes, their liberty and their lives), but is immune from the charge of terror. Segal is able to notice none of the Palestinians' suffering, nor their recognized rights under international law.

    Segal is advocating a supposedly popular Israeli trend called "separation" from the Palestinians. The term reveals a burden that Israel and Israelis are so keen to dispose of, namely the Palestinians, and thus pursue living in a pure Jewish state. One may ask, therefore, what about the 1 million Palestinians living inside Israel, who have official citizenship but actual third-class status? How exactly are Israel and Israelis going to separate from them? The answer is easy: by continuing to negate the binational reality of the country, together with its history and memory.



    A problem with Jerome Segal's Middle East approach is that most Israelis do not trust the UN Security Council to implement (not impose--relatively easy--but follow through on) an equitable peace settlement. Will the Council be as diligent in intercepting illegal arms shipments to the Palestinian state as the IDF? Can it prevent a Palestinian state from meddling in Jordanian politics or from, say, concluding a defensive alliance with Iraq against Jordan, with its obvious strategic implications for Israel's security? There is much talk these days about building trust. It seems to me that the Security Council, working from a deficit, has some preliminary work to do here (if it hasn't already squandered its opportunity).



    College Park, Md.

    I will respond to the issues raised by the letter writers in turn:

    (1) The plan asks the PLO to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but is such a state morally legitimate?

    Obviously a big question, one under considerable debate in Israel. A good part of the issue depends on what one means by a Jewish state. There are all sorts of possible meanings under which such a state would not be legitimate. The issue is whether there are any in which it would be. Contrary to the suggestion in the first letter, the idea of a Jewish state does not necessarily imply a theocracy, that is rule by religious authorities or by religious law. Neither of these characterizes Israel. Nor does it necessarily imply discrimination among its citizens. I favor a rather minimal definition of a Jewish state, aside from one that might proclaim itself as such; this implies one that structures its immigration policy specifically with the goal of maintaining a Jewish majority. This does not require that no Palestinians will be able to return, but it does involve limitations. Given both a belief in the right of a people to self-determination, as well as the history of the conflict, I believe this can be justified. It is worth remembering that in response to the continued struggle over who would dominate in historic Palestine, in 1947 the UN Partition Resolution provided for two states, one Arab and one Jewish. This resolution, and this specific phrase, was for the first time endorsed by the Palestinians, in their Declaration of Independence adopted in 1988.

    (2) How can one justify limiting the state of Palestine's ability to arm itself?

    The harsh reality is that the asymmetry of military strength is part of what makes it possible to resolve the conflict. Given that Palestinians believe that the creation of Israel was a vast injustice, if they were equal to Israel militarily, the prospect of a land-for-peace deal would evaporate. This is true on the Israeli side as well. It is their military superiority that serves as a basis for a willingness to give up land and run the risk of a new, possibly hostile state next to them without any natural boundaries. The Palestinians, at Taba, have already agreed that theirs would be a nonmilitarized state.

    (3) Would allowing Israel to retain even 5 percent of the West Bank prevent Palestinian development and legitimize the settlements?

    At Taba, the Palestinians offered an Israeli retention of about 3 percent plus a 1-for-1 territorial swap. My proposal sets 5 percent as a maximum and also requires a 1-for-1 swap, which is not vastly different. The Security Council would serve as arbitrator. It need not accept the Israeli proposal. It will review it, hold hearings and possibly amend it.

    (4) What happens to the 1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel?

    My proposal raises no new problems with respect to the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel not raised by any other way of getting to the two-state solution. The greatest danger faced by the Palestinian minority in Israel is the continuation of the conflict and its possible escalation. If things escalate into genuine war, they will be in peril. With a stable peace, something Israel has never had, there will be increased likelihood of moving toward fuller equality.

    (5) How can Israel trust the UN Security Council?

    To be sure, many Israelis will be quite wary about having the Security Council serve as arbitrator. Unlike in the General Assembly, however, the United States exercises a veto in the Council, and Israel retains plenty of influence over American policy. Vis-à-vis the Council, Israel is certainly more fully protected than the Palestinians. But there are risks for both sides. Every other proposal has risks as well. As to the interception of arms shipments, the provision for international monitoring does not imply that Israel would abandon its own monitoring efforts, merely that insofar as these were done on Palestinian territory it would be through Israeli participation in an international force.

    In the end, it must be realized that if we are truly seeking policies that can end the conflict and provide some measure of justice, then the issue is not whether a specific proposal is free from legitimate concerns. Even the best policy may be less than perfect. The real question is whether there are better approaches. I see very few alternatives that are worth considering. If there is a better idea, what is it?


    Our Readers

  • Politics February 21, 2002




    Katha Pollitt ["$hotgun Weddings," Feb. 4] makes many very excellent points about the horrors of "bridefare," but she does not address a major tragedy of the benefits-for-wedlock policies--i.e., the oppressively heterosexist and homophobic assumptions and ideology that undergird such programs.

    Though one might never know it from pop-culture representations of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, a recent report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, analyzing the impact of welfare reform on GLBT people, estimates that there are 900,000 to 2.5 million low-income GLBT people in the United States, many of whom have children to support. This excellent report (see details many other ways current and proposed welfare policies and practices are detrimental to GLBT people and their children. For example, in addition to the potential for discrimination and mistreatment associated with coming out to their caseworkers, current policies that privilege marriage often serve to coerce lesbian and bisexual women who apply for public assistance to establish the paternity of potentially violent former male partners. These policies can also force GLBT minors to return to homophobic parents--the same parents who may have kicked them out of the house for being queer--in order to receive benefits.

    Not surprisingly, many of the same right-wing ideologues who promote bridefare are also pushing, among other things, a constitutional amendment (nicknamed "super-DOMA") that would bar same-sex unions, as well as legal bans on adoptions by GLBT people. Those on the right are not interested in aiding this type of "family formation"--they would much rather punish GLBT people in need of public assistance and use antipoverty policy as another way to further their campaigns of stigma and hate.



    New York City

    Jack Newfield felt called upon to denigrate several other athletes--all of them black--while exalting Muhammad Ali ["The Meaning of Muhammad," Feb. 4] as America's "Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony." Jackie Robinson was criticized for becoming a Republican and Michael Jordan was faulted for being unwilling to do anything controversial.

    In his race-conscious comparisons, Newfield was grossly unfair to two black former heavyweight fighters. Jack Johnson, the first black champion, low-rated by Newfield as an "apolitical hedonist," was in fact a proud man whose defiance of the lynch-law standards of his time aroused a frenzied national search for a "White Hope" to dethrone him.

    Joe Louis, whom Newfield scorns for being "modest" and a "patriot," was assertive enough in the ring to be "the greatest" with his fists (if not in self-praise) during the twelve years of his championship. If Louis is charged with being a "patriot" because of his readiness to serve in World War II, it may be noted that there were 11 million of us, black and white, who shared his view that the war against Hitler was a just war.

    Appearing with Paul Robeson at a tribute to black war veterans, Joe Louis expressed warm support for that redbaited artist and activist. The champion hailed Robeson as "my friend and a great fighter for the Negro people," and said, "There are some people who don't like the way Paul Robeson fights for my people. Well, I say that Paul is fighting for what all of us want, and that's freedom to be a man."




    Thank you so much for your coverage of the campus unrest of our times ["War on Campus," Dec. 3]. Professor Berthold is not the only one under attack at the University of New Mexico. Students, faculty and those from the campus community who question, demonstrate or educate about "the war on terrorism" are scorned by a local politician and the shrill campus Republicans. My English 102 students struggled hard to understand the events of September 11 and beyond, and they deserve the respect of those who claim to stand for our foundational freedoms. One freedom that is often overlooked is the right of intellectually curious students to have access to information so as to formulate their own educated opinions. Letters to the campus newspaper demonstrate a variety of positions on our current war. They also show Professor Berthold to be a very popular teacher, even when students disagree with the positions he takes.


    Los Angeles

    Neither I nor have ever called for the firing of anyone from any university for expressing views that are leftist, idiotic, traitorous or otherwise, as David Glenn implies in his article. One of my employees--a young graduate of UNC--did make an emotional statement to this effect, which Glenn quoted, which is fine. But since I myself disagree with the statement, which did not appear in my magazine, I should not be accused of hypocrisy on free speech issues by Glenn or anyone else. My issue with so-called teach-ins was their totalitarian exclusion of opposing views. It ill behooves leftists who have not uttered a word of protest or concern while the conservative viewpoint has been purged from the faculties of virtually every major university in the country--including those that provide subsidies to Nation editors--to pose as defenders of academic freedom.


    Oakland, Calif.

    David Glenn exposes the inevitable result of the "hostile environment" cabal, which is one sad inevitable result of identity politics. When the focus is exclusively on race or sex, what do you expect? That pro-Israeli shills wouldn't see criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism? Such could only happen here in California, where Cal students bum-rushed the Daily Californian for running David Horowitz's stupid anti-reparations ad instead of directing readers to consider the source and let Horowitz hang himself. The left has suffered because of people who have to begin every political statement with the words "as a...(fill in the blank)." Only when it returns to emphasizing how we've all been injured will it help address the real gaps in our lives.


    New York City

    David Glenn refers to the editors of the pernicious New York Pest saying they were "rethinking their support" for increased CUNY funding because faculty have dared to criticize US policy in Afghanistan. What a joke! Both the malignant New York trash papers, the Pest and the Daily Ooze, have been enemies of City University for years. They have never let mere truth interfere with their endless drumfire of defamation of the university, its faculty and its students. The trustees (busily trying to suppress student and faculty dissent) and the chancellor have never seen fit to respond to these dishonest tabloid attacks. Shamefully, instead of doing their job, which is to defend the university as a free space for the debate of any and all public issues without censorship or interference, they prefer to attack unpopular views on campus and meddle irresponsibly in curricular matters beyond their competence. That is a greater menace to the fundamental moral and intellectual health of our society than crazed terrorists or anthrax-laden mail.



    Chico, Calif.

    David Horowitz says that he and FrontPage shouldn't be stigmatized for comments made on NPR by one of his junior editors. Fair enough. Let's see what FrontPage itself had to say ( FrontPage describes the September 17 teach-in on terrorism, sponsored by UNC's Progressive Faculty Network, as a "nauseating" "shameful" exercise in "spewing hatred for America." Fine, fine, fine. Far be it from The Nation to discourage vigorous polemic. But then there's an editorial box below the article: "Tell the good folks at UNC-Chapel Hill what you think of their decision to allow anti-American rallies on their state-supported campus. Chancellor James Moeser can be reached at...," followed by phone number and e-mail address. This call was not simply tucked into a corner of the website. According to the Daily Tar Heel, Horowitz's staff aggressively faxed the article to right-wing radio hosts and other media outlets.

    Note that the editorial box did not say, "Here are the e-mail addresses of the professors who spoke at the teach-in. Write to them and point out where their logic has gone astray." (Had this been the request, I might have been tempted to join in myself. Personally, I lean toward Christopher Hitchens's view of the war.)

    Nor did it say, as Horowitz's letter implies: "Write to Chancellor Moeser and complain about UNC's double standards--the university gives a platform to leftists but suppresses conservative voices." For there is no evidence that UNC has done any such thing. In early October, the College Republicans sponsored a "patriotic rally" with no interference from the university. Moeser, whose office was besieged by angry phone calls instigated by FrontPage, was no more and no less responsible for the Progressive Faculty Network's teach-in than for the College Republicans' rally.

    Beneath the coy phrasing, there is really only one meaning to FrontPage's "Tell the good folks...". It's impossible to parse that sentence as anything other than a call for censorship. In his NPR appearance, Horowitz protégé Scott Rubush at least had the courage to make the call in plain language.



    Brooklyn, N.Y.

    E.J. Graff's fantastic article on the gender movement makes one important error ["The M/F Boxes," Dec. 17]. Graff says that "all the major lesbian and gay organizations...have added transgendered folks to their mission statements." As a legal assistant at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation's largest lesbian and gay legal group, I and others lobbied for such inclusion, only to be rebuffed by its overly cautious leadership. I'm pleased to report, however, that Lambda's board voted in January to include bisexual and transgendered people in their mission statement, falling in step with national groups like the ACLU.


    Our Readers

  • Politics February 14, 2002




    I must say that Katha Pollitt's exquisite and moving memorial to Pierre Bourdieu ["Subject to Debate," Feb. 18] brought a little warmth to this soul, calloused and made cynical by the current state of things in the world. As a sociologist/social activist whose venue for change has been healthcare and medical education, I have seen Bourdieu as one of my guiding lights, both intellectually and morally. In keeping with Bourdieu's central thesis, contemporary American medicine clearly qualifies as a "stratified social system of hierarchy and domination that persists and reproduces intergenerationally without powerful resistance and without the conscious recognition of [its] members."

    His moral stance, regardless of his own stature in the academy, served as a source of reaffirmation for me in my relationship with my students, whose personal and professional development was nurtured through providing care to the disadvantaged in the inner city of Chicago or making themselves vulnerable to the needs of the disfranchised in Africa, southeastern Europe or Central America.

    Regarding Richard Posner, that silly ass, besides his megalomania (a contagious virus that seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the law school and economics department at the University of Chicago), he is the prime example of the philosophical conservative who is willing to pay the price of other people's suffering for his own principles.



    San Francisco

    I'm still scratching my head after reading Alexander Cockburn's attack on my support for Enron's merger with the Portland General Electric Company (PGE) almost five years ago ["Beat the Devil," Jan. 7/14]. His baffling conclusion that "the role of that green seal of approval [in Enron's collapse] should not be forgotten" is a non sequitur of the highest order.

    Natural Resources Defense Council was part of a coalition of environmental and consumer groups that negotiated an agreement with the merging companies on future investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, watershed restoration and low-income energy services. Cockburn is indignant that I said I trusted Enron to execute the agreement. But Cockburn, who never called me before publishing his diatribe, evidently didn't check to find out what actually happened. Enron and PGE did indeed meet their merger obligations, and environmental and consumer interests were among the winners. Enron left in place a hometown management group with a commitment to improved performance on both environmental and equity issues. Its subsequent decision to leave the utility business, long before its collapse, had no adverse environmental consequences at PGE or elsewhere.

    There is no connection between Enron's current calamity and the merger that NRDC and many others supported conditionally nearly five years ago. Only Cockburn's overactive imagination could suggest otherwise.

    Natural Resources Defense Council

    Portland, Ore.

    Lest your readers believe that all Oregon environmental groups were bought off by Enron, none of my clients agreed to the contract ("memorandum") with Enron. In fact, the Utility Reform Project, Lloyd Marbet and Larry Tuttle appealed the Oregon Public Utility Commission's 1997 merger approval to the courts, where we eventually lost in December 2000.

    As of October 1, 2001, Enron was granted a $400 million (41 percent) annual rate increase by the Oregon commission. Enron also squirmed out of its merger commitment to pay its Oregon ratepayers $105 million for the use of assets paid for by those ratepayers, after having paid only $32 million.

    Former PGE executives Ken Harrison and Joseph Hirko cashed in more than $110 million in Enron stock options before the collapse, while hundreds of PGE employees lost their life savings while locked into a 401(k) plan that consisted of 58 percent Enron stock, now essentially worthless. The Enron bankruptcy now threatens to dismember PGE (with transmission and hydro assets sold out from under state regulation), which would cause massive additional rate hikes.


    Washington, D.C.

    Thank you, Alexander Cockburn, for beginning an important dialogue about the harm done when environmental groups run interference for corporations. The Enron debacle in Portland, Oregon, is just one piece of the story about how certain organizations and their funders promoted utility deregulation in the name of protecting the environment. Some even lent their names to defeat a grassroots initiative movement in California to stop the nuclear bailout associated with the deregulation legislation in the state.

    Early in the debate over deregulation, a small group of us working on energy issues argued with the funders and environmental proponents of deregulation. We pleaded with them to put their resources and leadership behind a grassroots movement against electricity deregulation, consolidation in the electricity industry and a bailout for the nuclear utilities. Our arguments fell on deaf ears. The dissenting organizations formed a coalition against deregulation called the Ratepayers for Green Electricity. Over the next several years we fought deregulation, but always on a shoestring because the prevailing wisdom was to "cooperate and deregulate."

    Since then, with the blessing and help of some public-interest advocates, deregulation bills have passed in more than twenty states. The crumbs the environmental supporters of deregulation got in exchange for their support are not lasting or significant enough to protect consumers or the environment. We predict more trouble ahead as these deregulation bills are phased in. Fortunately, so far no federal legislation has been enacted, although the proponents of deregulation are still pushing for it.

    Furthermore, as we predicted, deregulation has been a disaster for consumers and the environment. Prices are higher, and the promised increase in competition has not come to pass. Rather than creating a green market for renewable energy, deregulation has resulted in thousands of megawatts of new, nonrenewable electricity plants being built or planned. Energy-efficiency programs have lost ground, and the entire thrust is to use more electricity, since under deregulation there is no incentive to save it.

    But what is more important than the hollow victory of saying we told you so or naming names is understanding the lessons of the deregulation battle. Deregulation and privatization of public services is about making a profit (just watch the coming industry efforts to privatize water), not about helping consumers or protecting the environment. When environmental groups sign off on these deals in hopes of good will from profit-hungry corporations, they are deluding themselves and betraying the public. Environmental organizations and the foundations that support them should take a hard look at the "market-based" strategy and start putting their resources into creating a broad-based grassroots movement to protect people and the environment.

    Energy & Environment Program
    Public Citizen


    Petrolia, Calif.

    Just to inject one tiny sliver of reality into Ralph Cavanagh's bland tissue of self-exculpation, which will be read with hilarity in Oregon. Portland General Electric sought and received $340 million in rate hikes on PGE customers for federal income taxes over the past three years. It shipped the money to Enron HQ in Houston. Over that period, Enron paid only $17 million in taxes in 1998, nothing in 1999 or in 2000. In fact, the company got a big tax rebate.




    In "And Darkness Covered the Land" [Dec. 24] Robert I. Friedman has given voice to what very few other US journalists have the guts to say--that people don't blow themselves up in crowded restaurants because their Coke doesn't have enough ice. It takes desperation to commit suicide for one's cause. America's role in the Palestinian apartheid is appalling and intensely hypocritical. Thank you to Friedman for having the cojones to point it out. If only our government would listen before our military support of Israel leads to more blood spilt on our or any other country's soil.



    Yet another nauseatingly inaccurate and biased dispatch from Israel. Just to correct the (intentional?) inaccuracies would take almost as many pages as this article runs. Just one example: No one disputes that Arabs feel perfectly safe in Jewish towns in Israel. However, no Jew would venture into an Arab village, as brutal death awaits those who do, like the two Jewish kids lost on a hike who were stoned to death. By the time Truth has put on her shoes, Lie has run twice around the globe. It is tragic that The Nation supports Lie before an international audience.


    Bennington, Vt.

    Robert Friedman's article makes clear the real tragedy for both the Israeli and Palestinian people. All Americans should read it. Our leaders should read it at least twice.

    What can we do to get a movement going in this country to demand that the United States and/or the United Nations impose and enforce a peace settlement? Sharon, as Friedman points out, has no desire for a peace that would give a viable country to the Palestinians. Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza can only breed more hatred and consequently more suicide bombers. An imposed peace settlement, which could be altered as cooler heads emerge on both sides, would save face for Israel and Palestine.

    Why, if the world can impose peace and peacekeepers between the Greeks and the Turks in Cyprus; between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo; between Albanians and Slavs in Macedonia; and among the Croats, Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, why not between Israelis and Palestinians? I am old enough to remember when Gdansk was Danzig, and now the Germans and Poles manage to live in peace. I would rather have my tax money supporting peacekeepers than supplying military equipment to Israel. And certainly a more even-handed US relationship with Israel and Palestine would have immense ramifications for a real peace between the West and the Muslim world.



    In last week's issue, we inadvertently lopped off the head of artist Jonathan Twingley's name, rendering him Jonathan Wingley. (His illustrations appear on pages 11, 16 and 18.) Our apologies.

    Our Readers

  • Politics February 8, 2002

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  • Politics January 24, 2002



    New York City

    There is too much absurdity in the article you published about me in your Big Media issue to respond to all of it, but I'd like to set the record straight on some of the more egregious misquotes and inaccuracies [Mark Dowie, "A Teflon Correspondent," Jan. 7/14].

    § Steve Wilson did not make an "alarmed" call to my colleague Arnold Diaz, and Diaz did not say what you quote him--secondhand--as having said to Wilson.

    § Lowell Bergman was not my first producer, and had he been, he could not have kept me out of an editing room.

    § My lecture fees rarely go to the Palmer R. Chitester Fund; most go to Central Park Conservancy.

    § I earn no income from sales of my videotapes; that goes to ABC.

    § I have never said "regulation of business makes no sense whatsoever"--in fact, I praise basic environmental regulation.

    § Above all, I do not report on the benefits of free markets because I like "making real money," as Dowie simplistically speculates; I report on them because freedom has lifted more people out of poverty than government dictates ever will.

    Maybe it's my fault Dowie got so much wrong, because I wouldn't cooperate with him; after reading his hatchet job on Gina Kolata, I feared he wouldn't be fair to me. He wasn't.

    I won't say "cancel my subscription," because I treasure what The Nation publishes on corporate welfare and "nation building." I just hope, for the sake of your readers, that those articles are more accurate than what you published about me.

    ABC News

    New York City?

    I was more than a little disturbed to see myself quoted as criticizing my longtime friend and colleague John Stossel in Mark Dowie's article. To begin with, no one from your publication ever called me to verify the quote, which Dowie got secondhand from Steve Wilson. Second, I cannot recall ever saying those things to Wilson. Third, I do not believe them to be true.

    John Stossel and I have been best friends for more than twenty-five years. I respect and admire his work. Even when I disagree with him journalistically, I find him well informed and able to defend his point of view. He is an intelligent reporter who refuses to fall into predictable patterns of thinking and responding. His is a much-needed contribution to the news product.

    Your depiction of him as a man motivated by money could not be more off the mark. He is, first and foremost, a person of principle. If his work has attracted enough of a following to justify a larger than average salary, more power to him.

    ABC News 20/20

    Churchville, Va.

    Mark Dowie's story about John Stossel's organic food critique ["Food Fight," Jan. 7/14] contained two serious factual errors and one misleading statement. First, at no time in the 20/20 segment did I make statements regarding the presence of pesticide residues on any foodstuffs tested by ABC News. Considering that this statement was the main point of contention and the subject of Stossel's subsequent correction, attributing such statements to me seriously and erroneously impugns my reputation.

    Second, Dowie wrongly attributes to me statements that organic food is no more nutritious than conventional food and calls it "an unproven claim." Again, I made no such statements. It is ironic that significant errors such as these were committed in an article focused on journalistic accuracy. It was actually the spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association who twice told Stossel that organic food was only "as nutritious as any other product on the market." British authorities recently ordered the organic industry to stop claiming nutritional superiority because they have not documented it.

    Tufts University nutritionist Dr. William Lockeretz, co-founder of the pro-organic American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, told an international organic conference in 1997, "I wish I could tell you that there is a clear, consistent nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. Even better, I wish I could tell you that the difference is in favor of organic. Unfortunately, though, from my reading of the scientific literature, I do not believe such a claim can be responsibly made."

    Finally, Dowie points out that the Hudson Institute gets donations from agribusiness corporations, which is true. He might also have pointed out another fact he was made aware of: For ten of the twelve years I have been a Hudson scholar, I have taken no salary from Hudson, including the period when I did the Stossel interview. (I have a full federal retirement.)

    DENNIS T. AVERY, director
    Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute


    Point Reyes Station, Calif.

    John Stossel says it himself. Had he cooperated I would have known and reported that he had switched laundromats from Chitester to Central Park Conservancy and that Lowell Bergman was not his first producer (as if that matters). I had only Bergman to rely on for that item. And had ABC's imperious media flack, Jeffrey Schneider, permitted Arnold Diaz to take an interview, I would have learned, as Diaz told me after publication of my article, that he is "a very close friend of John's and admires his work." And if he had read the article carefully, Stossel would know I never said or implied that he made a cent on Stossel in the Classroom videotapes.

    As for the "real money" question, those are not my words. Curious about why my subject mutated rather rapidly from a dedicated consumer reporter to a procorporate spaniel, adding at least one digit to his income in the process, I could only rely on the firsthand account of his former colleague, Steve Wilson, who recalls Stossel telling him: "I got a little older, liked the idea of making real money, so started looking at things a little differently." Neither Stossel nor Wilson contests the accuracy of that quote.

    To Arnold Diaz, my apologies for the unprofessional secondhand quote. I assumed you would be called for verification or that Jeff Schneider would relent and allow me to speak with you.

    By claiming that his reputation was "impugned" by the fact that he didn't say on camera that pesticide residues had not been found on food, is Dennis Avery announcing a change of heart on the subject? This will be welcome news to the Organic Trade Association.

    And I didn't say that Avery drew a salary from the Hudson Institute. I said that the Center for Global Food Issues, for which he speaks, is a project of the institute, which it is.



    Columbus, Ohio

    Oh, how I love a Gore Vidal sarcasm attack! Where was it that a frothing William Buckley offered to hit Gore? Nobody does it better than Vidal ["Times Cries Eke! Buries Al Gore," Dec 17, 2001].


    Cambridge, Mass.

    Eke! Why did Gore Vidal leave out the juiciest passage of all in his biting commentary on the New York Times's inept reporting of the Florida recount? Just a bit further on (after they've lost all but the most indefatigable readers), Fessenden and Broder finally admit, "If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won, by a very narrow margin.... Using the most restrictive standard--the fully punched ballot card--5,252 new votes would have been added to the Florida total, producing a net gain of 652 votes for Mr. Gore, and a 115-vote victory margin. All the other combinations likewise produced additional votes for Mr. Gore, giving him a slight margin over Mr. Bush, when at least two of the three coders agreed." Technospeak for "Gore won." Period.



    Gore Vidal mentions his dismay that the hijacked election and the first appointment of a President by the Supreme Court hasn't generated the furious reaction it deserves. Well, I'm furious but don't have a clue about how to make it known. Letters to the editor of my local newspaper (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) are heavily censored in favor of the war. My legislators in Georgia who are not Republican seem curiously muted--or are they censored also? The national media are so biased in favor of Republicans and the monster businesses that own them that I've given up watching the evening news and pick up the BBC and the London and Canadian newspapers on the Internet. How would Vidal suggest we make our displeasure known? We may be on our way to losing our democracy, as Germany did in the 1930s, and as our founding fathers continuously warned us was possible.


    Port Townsend, Wash.

    There are active lay shadow media that have been following the Florida and NORC cases intently since the moment Bush's first cousin called the election for him on Fox TV. One hotbed of this activity is in the Florida-related threads of the "White House" TableTalk forum on, much of which has been archived for permanent reference. Another more recent hotbed is the "White House" forum on There was a great deal of on-the-ground reporting from TableTalk residents in Florida that never made it anywhere near the major media outlets, as well as continual detailed analysis from Paul Lukasiak and others. The consensus of evidence and speculation from these sources is that widespread grievous Republican vote fraud took place in Florida, accounting for a net surplus of many tens of thousands of unaccountable and uncounted actual "overvotes" for Gore and another candidate. If Vidal ever decides to write a book named 2000 as a companion volume to 1876, the record of this shadow media might prove a motherlode of source material.


    Our Readers

  • Politics January 17, 2002



    New York City

    A Trial by Jury, both the book and Carl T. Bogus's review ["A Verdict on the System," Dec. 10, 2001], were interesting and insightful, but I offer the following: Bogus says, "If convicted, Milcray [the defendant] could go to prison for life. They [the jurors] were not supposed to know this because under New York law the jury's only job is to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the charged offenses; it is the judge who decides the sentence" [my emphasis].

    Actually, it is not the judge who decides the sentence. The legislature sets the framework, e.g., the options are at least fifteen years to life or at worst twenty-five years to life for a murder conviction, as in this case. The judge cannot deviate from that formula. However, it is the parole board that decides when, if ever, to release the prisoner. (I believe The Nation pointed this out last summer in an article about Kathy Boudin, in whose case the judge imposed a sentence of twenty years to life with a recommendation that she be released after twenty years; however, the parole board disagreed and she remains incarcerated until the parole board--not a judge--decides to release her.)

    It is in drug cases that the sentencing has especially frustrated and rendered judges powerless, since only the prosecutor may permit deviation (usually minor) from the mandatory minimums, and almost always in exchange for a guilty plea. The last person to decide the sentence is the judge, regardless of what she finds the equities to be, or the individual and the facts to deserve.

    Justice, New York State Supreme Court

    Hatboro, Pa.

    Carl Bogus wrote, "No one can say whether the jury made the correct decision in this case." The jury did indeed reach the "correct" verdict: Because the prosecution did not prove its case (or disprove self-defense) beyond a reasonable doubt, the proper verdict under the law, as the jury determined, was "not guilty." If Bogus meant that the "correct decision" should reflect what "truly" happened that night, the legally relevant "truth" was that the state did not meet its burden of proof.

    What impressed me was that the jurors applied the law properly and managed to set aside their conjectures, hunches and suspicions. When faced with the massive power of the state, a defendant is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and when the state does not meet its heavy burden of overcoming that presumption beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant should, as a matter of law, continue to enjoy that presumption. Sometimes we don't know the "truth" about what happened, but the rule of law requires recognizing the truth that no one should be punished as a criminal when the state doesn't prove its charges.

    Defender Association of Philadelphia


    New York City

    I thoroughly enjoyed Russell Neufeld's December 10, 2001, book review, "The Rope and the Law." As I see it, the heart of the matter concerning the correctness of Justice Potter Stewart's rationale for execution in Gregg v. Georgia (the 1976 decision that restored the death penalty) is the proper role of our due process clause. We, in the due process tradition, condemn mob-dominated trials like that of Leo Frank, where the cries for the defendant's blood by the throngs outside the courthouse were heard and felt by the jurors. If Justice Stewart was correct that to avoid vigilantism the law must do in the courtroom what the larger society outside insists on and would do for itself if the law failed to do it on it's behalf, then have we not succumbed to vigilantism right inside the courtroom? Public justice is not private justice. Is it not intolerable for the ministers of the law to ask the larger society concerning the accused, "Do you want a piece of him"? Would the judicial robe or all the pomp, dignity and wood paneling in the world mask the essence of that courtroom transaction from it's bottom-line meaning, "We have ordered that the condemned be put to death, for if we don't, the mob outside will"?

    Acting Justice, New York State Supreme Court


    Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Memo to: Foreign Policy Therapist
    From: Your Supervisor
    Re: Advice to Patient, The United States of America (December 3, 2001)

    Any time you offer therapeutic advice in a public forum, you run the risk of simplifying the therapeutic process and offering a one-dimensional analysis. In this case your patient has suffered a horrible tragedy, is feeling traumatized, anxious and insecure and is struggling to find a way to heal. Yet you provide no empathy nor suggest immediate, realistic things the patient can do to feel better. Instead you tell the patient his/her problem is "denial." This only furthers resistance and does not help the patient collect ego strengths to work toward positive change. Worse, instead of acknowledging that a real problem of loss and death has occurred, you say that the patient's "real problem is simply the way millions and millions of people around the world feel about you." This generality is not helpful, nor is it an accurate way to portray the problem, or any problem for that matter. Your vision of the world as operating as a "unified mechanism" is itself mechanistic and does not allow for the free play of choice.

    Yes, it's important that the patient examine the part he/she plays in a hurtful relationship, but your advice sounds like blaming the victim. You refer to some vague way for the patient to change but stop short of saying what kind of change. It is as if you are skeptical that the patient even can change, which smacks of countertransference issues. This is therapy?



    New York City

    The patient is armed and dangerous and is killing people between sessions. Compassion must be offered, and helpful suggestions for possible approaches to undeniably reasonable anxieties could be beneficial also, but in this case I felt that a sharply administered declaration of bitter truths was the best way to deal with a very volatile situation.



    Pomona, Calif.

    Thank you for revisiting the issue of Bush v. Gore with Vincent Bugliosi ["Still Time to Impeach the Supreme Court Five," Dec. 3, 2001]. I, for one, have not forgotten that Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas conspired to commit one of the most egregious crimes in the history of our democracy. They turned their back on the Constitution, on the will of the people, on the federal laws granting Congress the power to resolve disputed electoral slates and on 200 years of legal precedent to appoint George W. Bush as President. They deserve no less than impeachment.



    New York City

    In his critique of the Washington Post's hawkish Op-Ed pages ("Word Warriors," Nov. 26), Michael Massing focuses on what he dubs the "Stentorian Seven" (Will, Novak, Krauthammer, Hoagland, Kristol, Kagan and Kelly). He points out that the Post "does feature some alternative voices, like David Broder, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Michael Kinsley, but they tend to focus on domestic affairs." That Broder is considered an "alternative" says more about the bias of the Post Op-Ed pages than the blather coming from the Stentorian Seven. Broder sure wasn't offering much of an alternative on September 13 when he called for a "new realism--and steel--in America's national security policy.... For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business...we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all."

    Massing writes that the Post offers "much less diversity of opinion than, say, the New York Times Op-Ed page." That's not quite what FAIR found when we surveyed the Times and Post Op-Ed pages in the three weeks following September 11. The Times ran not a single column dissenting from a military response, while the Post ran two. Not much of a choice. See FAIR's survey, "Op-Ed Echo Chamber," at

    Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)


    New York City

    Steve Rendall seems to equate diversity with "dissenting from a military response." Surely there are other measures, and while I have not sat down to count columns, I do think the Times is far less clogged with national security-type voices demanding that the United States invade Iraq.



    New York City

    I was shocked to read "A Royal Scandal" by Aram Roston [Dec. 3, 2001], who received his information from Mohammed Al-Khilewi and Saad al-Fagih, both discredited persons and unreliable sources. Roston defames Saudi Arabia, an important friend, ally and economic partner of the United States. During the past thirty years, Saudi Arabia has developed into a major modern state. There is no country in Europe or the Americas that has accomplished as much progress so rapidly during this period.

    Saudi Arabia bought the most sophisticated US weapons, and its armed forces and national guard have attained the highest professional standard in the entire region. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and Prince Abdullah, the crown prince, built up the armed forces and national guard and made Saudi Arabia a very strong state that can defend itself against any enemy. Its armed forces played a very important role against Saddam Hussein in 1990.

    Prince Sultan also formed the Prince Sultan Charitable Foundation, which built hospitals and other charitable projects all over the country. He was a great friend and associate of King Faisal, and they both were against any kind of corruption. Prince Sultan is loved and respected by all Saudi citizens and by many foreign states, including the United States.


    Michael Massing, Wallace Shawn and Our Readers

  • Politics January 3, 2002

    Killing Sanctions in Iraq

    Killing Sanctions in Iraq Killing Sanctions in Iraq

    New Haven, Conn.

    David Cortright's "A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions" [Dec. 3] was a slick attempt to defend a ten-year war against innocent civilians. Cortright charges that the number of dead is commonly overestimated by critics of sanctions, usually alleged to be a million. He claims the most reliable studies estimate that the number of Iraqi children under 5 who died is actually 350,000. Curiously, he makes no attempt to estimate the number of children over 5 who perished, or the elderly who died of malnutrition or the sick adults finished off by lack of medicine. If Cortright is correct and critics (who base their figures on UN and NGO studies) are wrong, that's wonderful news indeed. Hundreds of thousands presumed dead are still alive. But why is he doing The James Rubin, figuring out every which way to blame the Iraqis for what is being done to them?

    He says the sanctions would have ended if Iraq had been more accommodating to the arms inspectors. Rubbish. Presidents Bush and Clinton both swore the sanctions would not end until Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Cortright also faults Iraq for not agreeing to "oil for food" sooner. I'm no defender of the tyrant and war criminal Saddam, but it was a hard call. Any Iraqi leader would try to protect oil, the country's only natural resource. Has Iraq been treated fairly in the five years since "oil for food"? $44 billion in oil has been sold, but only $13.3 billion worth of goods has been delivered to the Iraqi government.

    Quoting a figure of $10 billion in oil revenue for the last half of 2000, Cortright claims that "Baghdad has more than sufficient money to address continuing humanitarian needs." That's a downright falsehood. Iraq doesn't get a dime. All the money for the oil sales goes into a UN-controlled account in New York. Iraq arranges contracts for goods, but it gets only the goods that the United States allows to be imported. The $13.3 billion is for five years, less than $3 billion a year. Compare that to 1989, before sanctions, when Iraq's imports were $11 billion for that year alone.

    The lowering of the death rate in the Kurdish areas is Cortright's final charge. He admits that northern Iraq is favored in aid and resources, but omits the fact that oil and other goods are smuggled back and forth to Turkey with a knowing wink by the sanctions authorities. He also fails to mention that the damage to infrastructure by UN bombing in 1991 was far less in the Kurdish north. In 1999 when Unicef did the study that showed differing mortality rates north and south, it explicitly refused to blame Iraqi officials for those differences.

    Cortright charges mismanagement by Iraq while he is silent about US policy that uses the very importing of goods to Iraq to further torture the people. Jesuit priest G. Simon Harak, a frequent visitor to Iraq, described how insulin would be allowed in, but syringes would be banned. Iraq would have to use precious resources to refrigerate the medicine in hopes it could someday be used. This mismatching has gone on for years. It's deliberate.

    Cortright praises the "smart sanctions" approach that would allow everything into Iraq except "dual-use items"--anything that could remotely be of military value. The "dual-use excuse" has been used all along to deprive Iraq of a range of items: ambulances, chemicals to purify water, even nitroglycerine tablets.

    In December 2001, when at least 350,000 innocent lives have been snuffed out, when thousands more will be the "collateral damage" of the coming "war of liberation," the last thing we need in The Nation is a thinly disguised defense of US Iraq policy.

    Middle East Crisis Committee

    Cambridge, Mass.

    David Cortright is certainly right to argue that "changing American policy in Iraq is an urgent priority." Whether the actual number of Iraqi children under 5 who have died is now 350,000 or 500,000, the numbers are horrifying.

    But Cortright's prescription, to improve the so-called smart sanctions, is misguided. Smart sanctions are about the United States, Britain and the United Nations shifting blame, not about ending the effects of the embargo for ordinary Iraqis. After ten years of hearing from Clinton and Blair & Co. that they "have no quarrel with the Iraqi people" and that the sanctions are designed to target the regime, not civilians, we are supposed to believe that the sanctions will now (does this sound familiar?) target the regime and not the people. But under the proposed smart sanctions, the United States will be able to use its power in the UN to block essential goods by citing "dual use" concerns. And the economy will continue to suffer. Tinkering with sanctions isn't the solution. Ending them is.

    As for disarming Iraq, that can be achieved only in the context of regional disarmament and US disarmament. It's a bit hard to explain why Iraq must open its doors to weapons inspectors when the Bush Administration just told the world that US chemical and biological weapons facilities can't be inspected by international monitors because it might compromise "industrial secrets."

    Editor, Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War

    Northampton, Mass.; Amherst, Mass.

    Exactly what is David Cortright trying to tell us--and why must The Nation contribute to the horrifying debate about accurate numbers of civilian deaths? By focusing narrowly on the number of deaths, Cortright ignores the overall health and nutritional status of children and ordinary citizens in Iraq. All surveys since the beginning of the embargo have essentially told the same story: severe malnutrition in hospitals, malnourished children and undernourished adults in the towns, ever-changing food prices, increased mortality and a general breakdown in the whole fabric of society.

    Economic sanctions are designed to produce deprivation and poverty. Poverty is the key cause of malnutrition on a global basis; poverty induced by sanctions will function no differently. The world community, represented by the United Nations, has known about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq since the early 1990s. Yet the UN has, under US and British pressure, enforced this sanctions policy despite overwhelming evidence that it is responsible for the increased level of human suffering in that country. Speculation that Saddam Hussein could end this crisis does not excuse the UN, the United States or Britain from their international responsibilities for upholding human rights. Sanctions are purported to be a humane alternative to war. As they function in Iraq, they are not humane. They are lethal and they target the already poor and vulnerable.

    Northampton Committee to Lift the Sanctions and Stop the Bombing in Iraq
    Team leader for four UN Food and Nutrition Missions in Iraq


    David Cortright questions the normally accepted numbers of deaths attributed to the sanctions, specifically those derived from the 1995 study by the Food and Agricultural Organization, which asserted that sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 567,000 Iraqi children. He then cites the "two most reliable scientific studies on sanctions in Iraq" to challenge the FAO study: one by Richard Garfield, and another by Mohamed Ali and Iqbal Shah in The Lancet. Unfortunately for Cortright, these two studies contradict each other. The Garfield study asserts that from 1990 to March 1998, there were 228,000 excess deaths of children under 5, as opposed to the FAO claim of 567,000. The "Ali and Shah study," as Cortright titled it--used as evidence of Iraqi mismanagement--is actually a published account of Unicef's mortality data, which is the basis for the calculated half-million death toll. (Ali headed a Unicef team of consultants in Iraq, Shah reviewed the survey report, and both wrote the Lancet article.) This Unicef report is entirely independent of the 1995 FAO report.

    Cortright is correct in stating that "as we work to change US policy and relieve the pain of the Iraqi people, it is important that we use accurate figures.... The more credible we are, the more effective we will be." Perhaps Cortright should take his own advice.

    Author of several articles on the Iraqi sanctions, most recently in the November Z magazine

    Washington, D.C.; New York City

    Despite the lack of any serious evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration is continuing to escalate threats of expanding the "war against terrorism" to Iraq. So David Cortright's choice of moment to urge the Administration to impose "smart sanctions" on Iraq has serious consequences. By opening with references to statements about the deadly impact of the Iraq sanctions made by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Cortright adroitly delegitimizes all other critics of US Iraq policy by linking them to the two most demonized leaders in the world. Cortright is right that many in Washington have made their careers arguing that anti-sanctions campaigners have exaggerated the numbers of deaths; he is wrong in claiming that this argument is anything more than a pretext for maintaining a failed and deadly sanctions policy.

    The debate over numbers of civilian Iraqis killed by sanctions is a red herring. If the goal was to discredit the debate over numbers as horrifyingly irrelevant, Cortright's response should be simple: "We don't know for sure how many hundreds of thousands of children have been killed; we do know that even 1,000 is too many. And we know that the debate is a spurious effort at denial and deflection." But instead, Cortright contests the most often cited UN numbers in great detail, attempting to replace them with lower figures asserted in some other studies. However careful his language, what implication can be drawn other than the notion that economic sanctions are somehow more acceptable if "only" 250,000 children, rather than the half-million whose deaths Madeleine Albright memorably found "worth it," have been killed?

    The other significant fallacy is Cortright's claim that a few incremental amendments to the existing sanctions regime would solve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In fact, the billions of dollars required to even begin rehabilitating Iraq's shattered infrastructure will be available only through massive investment in the oil sector. That means lifting, not just tinkering with, economic sanctions. Because even if the prohibition on private-sector oil investment was lifted, no oil company would risk massive outlays knowing that Washington and the Security Council might change their minds and prevent the repatriation of profits. The kind of multibillion-dollar outlays needed to rebuild Iraq's water, electrical, telecommunications, health and other bombed-out infrastructure will be available only when sanctions are lifted.

    The only smart thing to do with economic sanctions now is to end them--not to further discredit those who have been fighting to do just that (see Bennis and Halliday's full rebuttal at

    Institute for Policy Studies

    Former UN assistant secretary-general and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq

    Bennis and Halliday have requested space on our site for the publication of a longer letter regarding David Cortright's Dec. 3 article. This follows Cortright's reply, below.


    Goshen, Ind.

    I'm glad my article has stirred debate about sanctions in Iraq. Such a debate is especially critical now, as Phyllis Bennis and Denis Halliday note, because of the increasing danger of a new US war against Iraq.

    With my critics, I have long opposed US military attacks and have urged the lifting of sanctions on civilians. As I said in the article and have written elsewhere, the United States is primarily responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq because of its policies of military aggression and unrelenting sanctions. I have demonstrated and lobbied to change these policies, and I am actively working now to prevent a new war.

    But I also support nuclear disarmament and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. I oppose such weapons for the US or any other government--including Iraq, which used chemical weapons in the 1980s and was and may still be actively developing nuclear weapons. The UN disarmament mandate, accepted by Iraq in 1991, is a legitimate and important step toward strengthening international norms against the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. It has reinforced the trend toward more intrusive on-site inspections, which are necessary to guarantee disarmament. To abandon this mandate, especially after so much progress toward Iraqi disarmament was achieved during the 1990s, would be a setback to global nonproliferation efforts.

    Acknowledging Iraq's obligation to disarm is also important because the rationale for US military action, if it comes, is likely to be the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That threat is unknown right now, because of the end of UN inspections three years ago, and no doubt has been greatly exaggerated by the war lobby to stir up fear. But we cannot ignore the possibility of that threat, or the tremendous hold it has on public opinion. We need to espouse an alternative policy that contains Iraq's military ambitions but avoids harm to innocent civilians.

    Smart sanctions point in that direction. They would lift all restrictions on civilian imports. The review of dual-use items (which the United States has indeed abused) would be limited to a specific Goods Review List, which the Security Council is now considering. The only sanctions remaining would be the embargo on military imports. The continuing arms embargo should then be broadened, as Anthony Arnove rightly argues, into a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, as specified in paragraph 14 of the original Gulf War cease-fire resolution. The fact that disarmament ultimately must be global is not a reason for discounting progress in particular countries or regions.

    Paragraph 22 of the cease-fire resolution also requires the Security Council to lift sanctions once Iraq complies with the UN disarmament mandate. If Iraq permits UN inspectors to complete their work, all sanctions must be lifted. Reiterating this obligation is necessary to provide an inducement for Iraqi cooperation. Without such assurance, Iraq faces the prospect of unending sanctions and is left with no recourse but to resist.

    In this regard Stanley Heller is right to criticize my overstatement that sanctions could have been lifted long ago if Iraq had accepted UN demands. As George Lopez and I noted in The Sanctions Decade, Iraq has complied with many of the UN's requirements. Instead of responding to these partial concessions with an easing of pressure, however, the United States has hijacked UN policy and asserted that sanctions will remain until Saddam Hussein goes. This regime-change policy is the single biggest obstacle to the lifting of sanctions. On the other hand, if the government of Iraq had cooperated with rather than obstructed UN weapons inspectors, it would have been more difficult for the United States to justify its policy.

    Heller says it is a falsehood that Iraq has the means to meet its humanitarian needs, but he ignores the quote from Kofi Annan that Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health conditions of the Iraqi people. More than 70 percent of Iraq's considerable oil income can be used for the purchase of humanitarian goods. Total oil revenues in 2000 were approximately $18 billion, of which more than $13 billion was available for civilian imports. This compares favorably with the $11 billion in total imports in 1989.

    Claudia Lefko and Peter Pellet correctly note that the world community knew early in the 1990s of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. This is precisely why the Security Council proposed the oil-for-food program in 1991. If Iraq had accepted the plan then rather than five years later, much suffering could have been avoided.

    The Garfield and Ali/Shah studies are complementary, not contradictory as Jeff Lindemyer asserts. Garfield's recent estimate of 350,000 deaths is based directly on the Ali/Shah study. The latter was indeed commissioned by Unicef, but the authors did not publish an estimate of 500,000 deaths.

    Bennis and Halliday make the most important point: that whatever the numbers, they are far too high. No level of preventable death among children is acceptable. My critics and I differ over the best way to end this humanitarian nightmare, but we share a common commitment to easing civilian suffering and preventing a war that would compound and intensify Iraq's misery. Let us work together toward these urgent priorities.


    Washington, D.C.; New York City

    The Bush Administration's rapidly escalating threats of expanding the "war against terrorism" to Iraq are pushing the eleven-year-long US-Iraq sanctions and bombing-based conflict to newly dangerous levels. Despite the lack of any serious evidence of Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the exploitation of already wide-spread government and media-created anti-Iraq sentiment among the American public makes the possibility of a new US assault a serious danger.

    The US war against Iraq, still characterized by crippling economic sanctions imposed in the name of the United Nations and continual low-level military strikes, has emerged as the linchpin of the Administration's debate over the future of foreign policy. That debate pits the ideologues grouped around Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, against the Secretary of State Colin Powell-led pragmatists. And while Washington policy-makers and pundits ruminate, the UN Security Council's December 27 compromise on extending the "Oil for Food" program in Iraq prolongs the still-simmering debate over so-called "smart sanctions" to replace the current "dumb" sanctions regime in place since 1990.

    It is in this highly volatile and dangerous context that David Cortright took to the pages of The Nation to argue for a new "smart sanctions" regime. He predicates his analysis on the hardly novel idea that peace and religious groups opposed to sanctions must recognize that "the more credible we are, the more effective we will be." The problem is, Cortright's misleading and sometimes disingenuous argument ends up agreeing with Administration or other critics that the anti-sanctions case is not credible, and accepting the legitimacy of continuing the US effort to strangle the Iraqi people, albeit by slightly amended methods.

    By opening with Osama bin Laden's statements about the deadly impact of the Iraq sanctions, and data on loss of life indicated by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (and endorsed by the UN and others), Cortright adroitly delegitimizes all other critics of US Iraq policy by linking them to the two most US/UK demonized leaders in the world. He is right in stating that many in Washington have made their careers arguing that anti-sanctions campaigners have exaggerated the numbers; but he is wrong in claiming that this argument is anything more than a pretext for maintaining a failed sanctions policy. If Cortright's goal was to appropriately discredit the debate over numbers--is it really 567,000 total children or 227,000 children under five killed by sanctions?--as horrifyingly irrelevant, his statement should have been simple. "We don't know precisely how many hundreds of thousands of children have been killed; we do know that even one thousand, let alone a hundred thousand, and certainly let alone several hundreds of thousands, are way too many. And the debate is a spurious effort at denial and deflection." Instead, Cortright contests the often-cited UN numbers in misleading detail, seeking to legitimize instead lower figures calculated by private sources. However careful his language, what implication can be drawn other than that economic sanctions are somehow acceptable if "only" 250,000 children, rather than the half a million whose deaths Madeleine Albright memorably deemed "worth it," have been killed?

    He then goes on to claim that "sanctions could have been suspended years ago if Baghdad had been more cooperative with UN weapons inspectors." Such a claim negates the success of UNSCOM's early years, regardless of whether Iraqi compliance was eager or reluctant, when hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions, and all manufacturing and production capacity in Iraq (for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons) were destroyed. And, even more relevant, has Cortright forgotten the myriad of US commitments to keep sanctions in place regardless of such Iraqi cooperation and compliance? James Baker said in 1991 "we are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power." In spring 1997 Madeleine Albright announced "we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted." And President Bill Clinton, later that same year, said that "the sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] lasts."

    In discussing the impact of economic sanctions on the Iraqi infrastructure, Cortright admits that most of the civilian deaths are in fact linked to sanctions, recognizing that "comprehensive trade sanctions compounded the effects of the war, making it difficult to rebuild and adding new horrors of hunger and malnutrition." In doing so he seems tacitly to acknowledge the linkage between the damage done by US bombing of Iraq's civilian infrastructure in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions, the child death rates (as reported by UNICEF) from water-borne diseases, and the way that sanctions prevent the repair and reconstruction of that infrastructure.

    But he undermines that recognition by claiming that the UN Oil for Food program now includes "broader economic assistance and the rebuilding of infrastructure," as if the program was an international aid program. In fact, he even criticizes Iraq for continuing "to obstruct and undermine" what Cortright calls "the aid program." Iraqis know--though many Americans may not--that the oil for food program is not an aid program at all, but simply a mechanism for insuring UN control of Iraq's own oil revenues. The program allows the UN to control the spending of Iraqi oil revenue, first taking off the top some 30--35 percent for overhead and compensation payments, now mainly to the Kuwaiti royal family, Israel, and US oil companies. There is virtually NO international aid going into Iraq, with the exception of a few small and under-funded NGO projects. Calling Oil for Food an "aid" program doesn't make it so.

    Cortright is right in recognizing that under the program, "oil exports are regulated, not prohibited." But large-scale investment in the oil sector, the kind of investment required to pay for the serious rebuilding of the water, electrical, telecommunications and other bombed-out infrastructures, IS prohibited. And even if the current prohibition on international private investment in Iraqi oil was lifted, no oil company worth its stockholders would risk multi-billion investment in an Iraqi economy subject to the whims of Security Council [read: US and UK] shut-down.

    Cortright claims the Oil for Food program "was a bona fide effort by the Security Council to relieve humanitarian suffering. If the government of Iraq had accepted the program when it was first proposed, much of the suffering that occurred in the intervening years could have been avoided." While some Council members from Europe and the global South may indeed have been concerned about the crisis facing Iraqi civilians, the overriding concern, particularly of the Council's most powerful members, was one of bad propaganda. Oil for Food was a sophisticated effort at spin control. And from its origins, it was understood and explicitly stated that it was never designed to repair Iraq's shredded economic and social fabric, but simply to prevent even further deterioration and loss of human life. As for Iraq's initial rejection of the program, the early version offered would have provided less than $2 billion per year, of which 30 percent would be diverted to the UN Compensation Committee and another 5 percent designated for UN overhead costs. Considerations of sovereignty aside, that would not provide enough to even keep a population of 22 million people alive, let alone healthy, and it certainly would have denied any possibility of rehabilitating even part of the civilian infrastructure. Iraq would have remained forbidden to rebuild its infrastructure or its economy.

    Cortright blithely claims that "oil revenues during the last six months of 2000 reached nearly $10 billion. This is hardly what one would call an oil embargo." No one ever said it was an oil embargo. It isn't. It's a trade, investment, intellectual, educational, scientific, social, cultural and communications embargo. Ten billion dollars in oil revenue translates into significantly less than half of that in goods and services actually reaching Iraq. Cortright ignores that much of the total revenues even within the limits of the oil for food program are unavailable largely to Iraq because of U.S and UK holds on contracts needing approval by the UN Contracts (661) Committee in which Washington holds a veto. In the entire six years of the Oil for Food program, over $44 billion worth of Iraqi oil has been sold. But of that huge-sounding amount, only about $16 billion has reached the 22 million Iraqis.

    Why? Cortright himself acknowledges that "funds are still controlled through the UN escrow account, with a nearly 30 percent deduction for war reparations and UN costs." The official compensation fund deduction has recently been reduced from 30 to 25 percent, but there is also 5 percent in overhead costs paid to the UN (including the costs of the new still undeployed arms inspection agency UNMOVIC approved in December 1999). And as of November 2001, according to the Secretary-General's report, there are currently $4.2 billion in contracts for various civilian goods held up by US (occasionally UK) veto, and $3.5 billion sitting in the UN escrow account in Paris waiting to be disbursed.

    But despite that clearly desperate scenario, Cortright still claims that "Baghdad has more than sufficient money to address continuing humanitarian needs." His source for this assertion is UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's statement that "the Government of Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health concerns of the Iraqi people." The Secretary-General's unwillingness to directly contradict Washington may well have led him to speak of "addressing" such problems rather than actually "solving" them. But significantly more important is the unassailable fact that nutrition and health are not the only humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. Such a claim would ignore that the basic requirements of education, employment, housing, repair of the social fabric, rebuilding of electrical generating capacity, water and sanitation infrastructure, freeing up the economy, reestablishing normal international commercial and communications links, etc., are also essential for the recovery and well-being of the people of Iraq.

    In a similar vein, Cortright examines the on-going disparity between conditions in the Kurdish North where the Oil for Food distribution is UN-administered, and the government-controlled Center-South of Iraq. He does go further than most US officials are willing to go in acknowledging the real reasons for the comparatively better living conditions in the North. Northern Iraqis get 22 percent higher per capita income from the Oil for Food funds, the North has most of Iraq's rain-based agriculture, there is significant cross-border trading with Turkey in the North, there are numerous private European relief agencies. Those factors have led to a modest difference between North and Center-South. Infant/child mortality is only some 5 percent less than in the Center-South, for example. But then, inexplicably and without any citation or source, Cortright goes on to claim that "these differences alone do not explain the stark contrast in the mortality rates. The tens of thousands of excess deaths in the south-center, compared to the similarly sanctioned [sic] but UN-administered north, are also the result of Baghdad's failure to accept and properly manage the UN humanitarian relief effort." Given his recognition of the specific differences facing Iraqis living in the two zones (above), Cortright should realize that Iraqi Kurds are not, in fact, "similarly sanctioned"--although like everyone in Iraq they do suffer greatly.

    Even more significantly, he provides no facts to back the claim of "Baghdad's failure to properly manage the program," a claim that flies in the face of reports of the Secretary-General plus consistent evidence provided from all former and current directors of the Oil For Food program. From Denis Halliday (one of the authors of this article) and his successor, Hans von Sponeck, both of whom resigned their posts in protest of the continuing impact of sanctions despite the Oil for Food program, to the current director Tun Miyat, every director has recognized that Iraq's management of the program was perfectly proper. The problems in the program stem not from Iraq mismanagement, but from its UN-imposed constraints that prevent restoration of a working economy

    Cortright proposes a number of improvements to the "smart sanctions" proposal brought to the UN by Washington and London earlier this year. Some of his ideas appear superficially useful, such as allowing foreign investment, eliminating restrictions on non-oil exports, or allowing a cash component in center-south, but in reality not so. The bottom line remains that until Iraq regains control of its oil reserves and revenues so that it can negotiate large-scale investment with whatever oil companies it chooses, the rebuilding of the once-modern economy and country and its once-cosmopolitan, once-educated and once-healthy urban population, remains out of reach. As long as the US-orchestrated escrow account, combined with UN politics and bureaucracy, controls Iraq's economy, the smartest sanctions remain way too dumb, missing their alleged targets like American "smart" bombs.

    Cortright concludes that "Despite the evidence of Baghdad's shared responsibility for the ongoing crisis, sanctions opponents have continued to direct their ire exclusively at the United States and Britain." This demonization of those who oppose sanctions-driven genocide is simply not accurate; there is plenty of blame to go around, and most anti-sanctions campaigners have no hesitation to say so, including both of the assistant secretaries-general who resigned and both authors of this article. Baghdad is responsible for plenty of problems; it is a regime as repressive now as it was throughout the 1980s when it was backed financially, politically and militarily by Washington. But the Iraqi regime is not responsible for the deaths from hunger and disease of hundreds of thousands of its citizens--that responsibility lies with the US-dominated UN Security Council.

    And sadly, that responsibility lies overwhelmingly with our government, and the anti-sanctions movement is right in keeping our focus there. Cortright himself, despite his apparent belief that no one in Washington pays attention to the anti-sanctions movement, admits that the United States and the United Kingdom developed their smart sanctions plan specifically "to parry this criticism." For those who see Baghdad's responsibility for the overall crisis as more central, what possible justification can there be for Washington to further punish the beleaguered people of Iraq whom it professes to care about, those who are forced to live under that regime? One would expect such justifications to arise from ignorance or malice--from the White House, the Pentagon or State Department apologists. One would have hoped that long-time peace activists such as David Cortright would know better.

    Some version of smart sanctions may have been appropriate for the UN back in 1990; after more than a decade of devastatingly dumb sanctions, it's simply too little and too late, and Iraq is too badly devastated, for such proposals. Military sanctions as defined in paragraph 14 of Resolution 687, aiming at creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East (including but not limited to Iraq), should continue. But the only smart thing to do with economic sanctions now is to end them--not attempt to discredit those who have been fighting to do just that.


    Back to Cortright's reply

    David Cortright and Our Readers

  • Politics December 20, 2001

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