The Nation

Obama Steps Up... And Into the 2008 Race

With his decision to file the necessary paperwork to launch a presidential campaign exploratory committee, Barack Obama puts an end to speculation about whether he really is interested in being the Democratic nominee in 2008.

The exploratory committee is political performance art. Obama's not exploring anything. He's preparing a candidacy that, if all goes as planned, will be launched officially on February 10 in Chicago.

So Obama is running.

Now, the question is: How far will he get?

To a much greater extent than the other announced and prospective candidates for the party's nomination, that depends on the immediate response of grassroots Democrats to his prospective candidacy.

There is no question that Obama is a political superstar. That allows him to leap over many of the hurdles that are erected by the overseers of the American political process.

Obama does not need to build name recognition, in the sense that more senior figures such as Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack must. Even before he delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the Chicagoan was the most prominent state senator in the nation.

After Obama delivered that address to the approval of the delegates--and to generous reviews from most of the political and media class--he secured his US Senate seat and arrived in Washington accompanied by some of the highest expectation ever attached to a new member of Congress.

Predictably, Obama failed to meet those inflated expectations. His relative caution on the big-picture issues of Iraq and domestic civil liberties, combined with some disappointing votes on consumer and economic issues, disappointed many of the serious activists who had been most enthusiastic about his appearance on the national political scene.

As candidates began to position themselves for the 2008 presidential race, however, Obama began to look more and more attractive.

On the list of possible candidates, he was, with New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, one of three genuine first-tier figures--high-profile politicians with what a man who skipped the 2008 race, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, describes as the "star power" to draw media attention merely by opening their mouths, assemble a crowd anywhere in the country and, presumably, to rapidly raise the money needed to remain viable throughout the caucus and primary process that will identify the nominee.

As Obama made the rounds of state party conventions, fundraising events and rallies during the 2006 Congressional election season, grassroots Democrats remembered his inspired speaking in Boston, rather than his uninspired votes in Washington. And they gave him a welcome that most politicians can only dream of.

The message from the party base was clear: Clinton had not closed the deal. There was an opening for another first-tier contender in the Democratic race, and Obama could take it.

Instantaneously, Obama was a contender and thus began the process that culminated with Tuesday's announcement of the exploratory committee.

Did Obama hit the trail for Democratic Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in the fall of 2006 with a plan to propel himself into the 2008 competition? Perhaps. He is, by his own admission, ambitious. But most of the evidence suggests that he was taken aback by the intensity of the response he got.

Obama's stepped back to consider his options, and he was smart enough to recognize that the opportunity was real and that it might not come again.

So, now, he has stepped up, and in.

By establishing the exploratory committee, he will be able to raise money to hire staff and build a basic campaign infrastructure in advance of the expected formal announcement in February. He'll need it. Clinton and another contender, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, are far ahead of Obama when it comes to putting together the multistate campaign apparatus that is needed in a fast-paced presidential campaign.

Can Obama catch up? Yes, but only if the grassroots Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about the prospect of his candidacy now turn that enthusiasm into practical commitments in states such as Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held a year from this week, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That transition will have something to do with Obama's star power, of course, but it will have much more to do with how he defines himself.

Democrats like Barack Obama. But they don't necessarily know what it is about him that appeals to them.

Obama's challenge is to quickly provide grassroots Democrats with a rationale for his candidacy. There will be a lot of discussion about how he must compete with Clinton, but that's not the challenge. If she runs, Clinton will do so as what she is: a cautious centrist with lots of money and prominent support but with dubious grassroots appeal.

Obama's real challenge will be to make sure that he compares favorably with Edwards. The 2004 Democratic nominee for Vice President has done a reasonably good job of identifying himself as the Democrat who wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and address fundamental issues of economic and social injustice at home. And he has spent a lot of time talking about those issues with the party faithful in the states where Democratic activists and voters will make or break Democratic candidates. Already, Edwards is beginning to attract the endorsements--particularly from labor union leaders and members--and the volunteer base that he needs in states such as Iowa and Nevada. Obama will have to move quickly, and seriously, if he wants to block not just Clinton but Edwards. That is the only way for him to transform his star power into the practical support base for a winning candidacy.

The Cost of War in Treasure and Lives

As Democrats debate how best to oppose President Bush's escalation of a war that has already squandered $400 billion and too many American and Iraqi lives, one of the Senate's best leaders – Sen. Richard Durbin – gave a speech on the Senate floor about the need to move toward withdrawal. Durbin spoke powerfully about the deceptions, denials and delusions of this Administration as it has sold and fought the war – and, most powerfully, about the cost of the war in treasure and lives. It seems valuable, in a moment of peril, to post the speech in its entirety.

The Iraq Resolution on Military Force
Remarks Delivered on the Floor of the Senate, January 8, 2007

Mr. Durbin: Madam President, it was just a few years ago--some days seem much longer--that we considered a resolution in the Senate to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. We cast thousands of votes. Most members of Congress cannot recall too many of them specifically, unless reminded. But you never forget a vote on a war because you know that, at the end of the day, if you decide to go forward, people will die.

It is your fervent hope that it will be the enemy, of course, but you know, in honesty, that it will be American soldiers and innocent people as well. So a vote on a war is one that Members of Congress--most every one of them--take so seriously. It costs you sleep, as you think about the right thing to do.

I can recall when the vote was cast on this war in Iraq. I sat on the Intelligence Committee for months listening to the testimony and all the evidence that was brought before us, listening behind closed doors to this classified information about the situation in that country, and then emerging from that Intelligence Committee and reading newspapers and watching television, saying the American people are not being told the same thing outside that room that I am being told inside that room. There were serious differences of opinion in this administration about whether there were even weapons of mass destruction.

At one point, we challenged the administration and said: If there are weapons of mass destruction, for goodness' sake, turn over some locations to the international inspectors. Let them find them. Once they discover them, it will confirm our fear, and other countries will join us in this effort against Saddam Hussein. But, no, they wouldn't do it. Although they told us there were hundreds of possible locations, they wouldn't turn over any specific location possibility to the international inspectors.

It raised a question in my mind as to whether they were very certain of any locations. And, if you remember, weapons of mass destruction were the centerpiece of the argument for the invasion of Iraq.

On Christmas Day many years later after that decision was made on the floor of this Senate, we learned that more Americans have now died in Iraq than died on September 11. Less than a week after that disclosure, on New Year's Eve, we marked a mournful milestone in the war in Iraq: the death of the 3,000th U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq.

Today, as I stand before the Senate, the Department of Defense reports that we have lost 3,014 American soldiers in Iraq. The 3,000th death is as tragic as the 1st death, the 300th death, the 1,000th death, but the staggering scope of casualties, the enormous toll this war has taken, must not be allowed to pass unnoticed.

America's service men and women are the bravest and best in the world. I know I say that with some patriotic pride, having been there to sit and have breakfast and lunch with them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and their other assignments. I just can't say enough about their courage and sacrifice, just ordinary, young-looking men and women who do extraordinary things.

This last October, with Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, while sitting for breakfast with a group of about 12 soldiers from Illinois, I went around the table: Where are you from? Downstate. Oh, you are from the suburbs of Chicago. Or, you live in the city. We talked about everything under the Sun. We talked about the Chicago Bears, the Cubs, the White Sox, and how things were going back home.

I asked them how things were going. They said: We had to get up early. We had to form an honor guard at dawn because one of our soldiers was killed in the middle of the night by one of these homemade bombs that takes so many lives.

I asked: How often does that happen?

Well, pretty frequently.

We know it does because we read the press accounts. We think of these young men and women and the challenges they face every single day as they risk their lives for America. We think about the families back home deep in prayer that their soldier is going to return home safely.

We owe them so much. We owe them our prayers and thanks for sure. But those of us in elected office owe them more than that. Part of what we owe them is a plan to bring this war to a close, a plan to bring them home safely, a plan to congratulate them as they return home for what they have given to this country.

Last March, President Bush was asked whether there would come a day when there will be no U.S. forces in Iraq. His answer to that simple question spoke volumes. The President said: That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future Presidents and future Governments of Iraq.

Now we are told that in a few days the President will make a major policy announcement about this war. According to reports he is going to call for an increase, a major escalation of the U.S. troops committed in Iraq. The administration carefully has used the word ``surge'' to suggest this is somehow temporary, but we have to listen carefully when the President makes his announcement to see just how temporary it might be for the 10,000 or 20,000 or more American lives that will be at risk because of this decision.

Sending tens of thousands more troops to Iraq is not a change of course. It is not what our top military experts advise. In fact, they have said just the opposite. It is clearly not what the American people bargained for when they voted just a few months ago for a change in our direction in Iraq. It is literally and tragically more of the same. I think our troops deserve better.

President Bush has always said he will send more troops if the commanders in the field said they needed more. In December, General Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the Armed Services Committee. This is what the general said. The President told us he was listening to the generals:

Our troops' posture needs to stay where it is as we move to enhance the capabilities of the Iraq security forces and then we need to assess whether or not we can bring major combat units out of there. .....

General Abizaid went on to say:

The ability to sustain that commitment [of 20,000 additional troops] is simply not something we have right now.

That was a statement made by General Abizaid just a few weeks ago. He is now moving on. He is being replaced. This was the advice of the leader of the Army and the Central Command in the field of battle. General Abizaid continued:

I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey. We all talked together. And I said, ``In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?''

General Abizaid testified:

And they all said no. And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do the work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.

Last month, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the group that was headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, offered a series of recommendations that they say could allow U.S. forces to largely redeploy safely out of Iraq by April 1, 2008. The President has made it clear--although he thanked the commission--that he doesn't share their feelings. He also apparently does not share the views of the Commission that the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.

This war began with deception--a deception of the American people about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. It then moved into a phase of denial where we were told over and over: Oh, the Iraqi soldiers, the forces are just terrific; we are getting them ready to take our place there; we are going to stand down when they stand up. As violence ramped up dramatically, as more and more people died, including American soldiers, it went from deception to denial, and now we are in delusion, a delusion that somehow sending more American troops into the field of battle, putting them in the midst of a civil war that finds its roots in history 14 centuries old, that somehow placing our best and bravest soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors in this crossfire of sectarian violence, putting more of them there, as the President is likely to suggest, is going to bring this to an end sooner.

I think the President is wrong, I think the Iraq Study Group had it right, and I think sending those troops in, as General Abizaid said, gives a message to the Iraqis that is completely wrong.

Think about this for a minute. We sent the best military in the world. They deposed Saddam Hussein, took him out of power in a matter of weeks, dug him out of a hole in the ground, put him on trial which led to his execution. We then gave the Iraqis a chance to vote on their own constitution. We allowed them to form their own government. We have spent $400 billion. We have lost 3,014 lives as of this moment, and the number, sadly, continues to mount. Twenty-three thousand American soldiers have come home injured, 2,000 of them multiple amputees, soldiers who are blinded, soldiers whose lives may never be the same. We have done all this for this nation of Iraq, and now what we ask of them is simply this: Stand up and defend your own country. If you believe in your country and your future, be willing to stand and fight for it. Be willing to make the hard political decisions to bring peace and stability to your country.

That is the message we should be giving them, but instead, this administration's message is we will send in more American soldiers, maybe 10,000, 20,000, 30,000. We will escalate this conflict. We will escalate our commitment. We will build up these forces.

According to two members of the Iraq Study Group who were present when the group met with the President in November, President Bush said he continues to use the word ``victory'' to describe the vision in Iraq because ``it's a word the American people understand.'' The President said: If I start to change it, it will look like I am beginning to change my policy.

That is a staggering statement because, Mr. President, we do need a change of policy. We need to face the reality of what we are currently facing in Iraq.

There are other costs beyond what I have mentioned. There are costs that we feel at home. I voted against this Iraq war--23 of us did--but I voted for every single penny this President has asked for. My thinking on it is very basic and fundamental: If it were my son and daughter in uniform, I would want them to have everything they need--everything. I can quarrel with this President, debate him all day about the policy, but not at the expense of the safety of our troops.

The money we spent there--almost $2 billion a week, over $400 billion in total--is money that has been taken out of America, away from our needs at home, money that, sadly, has been piled up in debt as this administration refuses to even pay for the war they are waging.

We are currently spending about $8 billion a month on Iraq--$8 billion. We are going to be asked to come up with another $100 billion soon and, sadly, that money we spent so far doesn't even include the cost of reequipping our Armed Forces or caring for our veterans who have come home. That is a long-term cost of this war that we will pay for decades to come.

What could we have done in America with the $380 billion or $400 billion that we spent in Iraq? We could have paid for all of the following that I am about to list--all of the following: Health care coverage for all of the uninsured children in America for the entire duration of this war; 4-year scholarships to a public university for all of this year's graduating high school seniors in America; new affordable housing units for 500,000 needy families; all the needed port security requirements to keep our homeland safe; substantial new energy conservation programs. Or, we could have completely funded No Child Left Behind.

Remember that program where we tested our kids and found out they needed help and then the Federal Government didn't send the help? We could have done that.

Or, we could have provided savings accounts for low-income families preparing for retirement, or made a downpayment on reducing the alternative minimum tax.

From my State of Illinois, our share of the Iraq war comes to about $19 billion. With that $19 billion, we could have paid for 2.5 million Illinois children in Head Start, insured 11 million children for 1 year, paid the salaries of 330,000 teachers for a year, underwritten 170,000 new affordable housing units, and covered 900,000 4-year scholarships to public universities.

President Bush has the distinction not just for this policy in Iraq, but the fact that he is the first American President in our history who has cut taxes in the midst of a war. His tax cuts have benefited the wealthiest people in America and left the largest debt in the history of the United States, and every year we remain in Iraq we add $75 billion to $100 billion to that national debt.

Beyond the cost of human lives and dollars, there are strategic costs in this war. Our military is stretched dangerously thin. The National Guard units that have been activated have come home with less equipment. Today, in Illinois, we have about a third of the equipment we need to respond to another crisis either at home or overseas.

We also know that when it comes to combat readiness, there are no units prepared to go into war at this moment.

We have stretched our military so thin. The costs of reequipping these units and rebuilding these services are enormous and go way beyond what we have already spent in Iraq. Investing U.S. troop levels in Iraq will almost certainly prolong our involvement in that nation. It almost certainly will make President Bush's statement that it will be up to the successors to bring our forces home a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is not what the American people voted for in November. Sending these troops to Iraq will send the wrong message to Iraq. It will signal that Americans will continue to bear the burdens of this war.

This year, the British, who have been the most cooperative in helping us there, are slated to pull their troops out. At that point, it will be virtually an American struggle, with only a handful of countries remaining by our side.

General Casey, the commanding general in Baghdad, recently stated:

The longer we in the U.S. force continue to bear the main burden of Iraq's security, the longer it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to make the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias.

General Casey also said:

It has always been my view that a heavy and sustained American military presence was not going to solve the problems in Iraq over the long term.

These are the generals President Bush said he listens to, and these are the people who are in command of our forces. These are voices which clearly disagree with the escalation of this war in Iraq.

Last week, America bid farewell to a good and decent man named Gerald Ford. I was honored to be at his funeral service in Grand Rapids, MI. He was a man who served at one of the most tumultuous times in American history. He inherited a war he couldn't win. Years later, when asked about that Vietnam war, President Ford said:

My approach was we inherited the problem with the job. It is my obligation on behalf of the country to try and solve the damn thing.

A generation later, our Nation faces a similar moment. We need to work together. We need to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to find a plan worthy of the courage and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. It should begin now. It shouldn't be left to future Presidents.

If one reads the authorization for Iraq, one understands that the goals and missions of that statement for the use of force have changed dramatically. No weapons of mass destruction, no Saddam Hussein, no threat to America. It is time for us to announce that we achieved our goals in Iraq and now the American people need to hand this responsibility over to the people of that nation in Iraq.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

Bush's Crooked Ways

Does anyone in a Shakespeare play foretell President George W. Bush, who has not only committed more forces to his catastrophic war in Iraq, but now also threatens to attack Iran and Syria?

I put the question to Homer D. (Murph) Swander, a long-time friend and professor emeritus who taught Shakespeare at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Henry IV," Murph told me. "He squeaked into the kingship (in his own words) by 'bypaths and indirect crooked ways.' W. should be so honest.

"Henry, then being on his deathbed, advised his son to 'busy giddy minds / with foreign quarrels.' The father-son relationship is upside down, of course, but we can't have everything.

"At the last, the old boy prayed, 'How came I by the crown, O God forgive.' Is it possible to imagine W. ever being so honest?"

(All of this to be found in Henry IV, Part Two, 4.5.184-218.)

Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and the New Definition of "Honesty"

Dick Cheney worked in the White House of Richard Nixon, who had to resign as Congress began impeachment proceedings that grew out of his dishonest and disreputable stewardship of the presidency

Dick Cheney worked with the White House of Ronald Reagan, which was investigated by Congress and the courts for establishing – and then lying about -- a secret plan to violate the law by directing resources to its Iran-Contra co-conspirators in the Middle East and Latin America.

Dick Cheney worked in the White House of George Herbert Walker Bush, who pardoned former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Robert C. McFarlane, Elliott Abrams and others who had been indicted, and in some cases convicted, by Iran-Contra prosecutors.

Dick Cheney left the public sector to work in the corporate sector, where he established close alliances with the executives of Enron and hired the Arthur Andersen accounting firm to manage Halliburton's books.

Dick Cheney then stepped back into the public service as the prince regent to a boy president whose administration stands accused of "fixing" intelligence in order to convince Congress and the American people to support an unnecessary – and ultimately disastrous – invasion and occupation of Iraq. As part of that initiative Cheney has repeatedly been caught promoting inaccurate claims about the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and an illusory "connection" between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Now, as he prepares to testify in the trial that is set to begin Tuesday on the charges of obstruction of justice and perjury that have been brought against his disgraced former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney says of Libby: "I believe he's one of the more honest men I know."

Cheney has refused repeated requests by members of Congress who want him to testify regarding Libby's actions and the efforts of the vice president's office to discredit retired Ambassador Joe Wilson, the man who exposed one of the administration's most serious assaults on the truth – the pre-war claim that Iraq was taking steps to rapidly develop a nuclear arsenal. Yet, the vice president told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sunday that he plans to offer "my whole-hearted cooperation" to Libby's legal defense.

Wallace wanted to know whether the vice president was at all concerned by the many revelations regarding Libby's professional and personal problems. "But there's nothing that you have heard," the anchor asked, "nothing that you have read that shakes your confidence in Scooter Libby's integrity?

"That's correct," replied Cheney.

Libby, the vice president exclaimed, is ``one of the finest individuals I've ever known.''

There will be those who question whether the vice president can possibly be serious when he expresses confidence in what remains of Libby's integrity and describes his longtime aide as "one of the most honest men I know."

But let's put this in perspective. After almost four decades of working with the likes of Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra conspirators, Enron and its accountants, Cheney might actually be telling the truth here.

In the circles in which Cheney has traveled throughout his career, Libby might come off as a paragon of virtue and veracity. That ought not much trouble prosecutors, however. The vice president is his own man, and he plays by his own set of rules. Just as Cheney has never felt constrained by any Constitutional definition of duty to the republic, nor has he ever provided even the slightest indication that he is familiar with the textbook definition of "honesty" – let alone with the notion that an official ought to value that quality in those with whom he chooses to associate.

John Nichols's book, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

"24": Torture on TV

"24" is back on Fox TV. The hit show starring Kiefer Sutherland, which premiered Sunday night, once again features at least one big torture scene in every episode – the kind of torture the Bush White House says is necessary to protect us from you-know-who.

The show is much more successful than the White House at making the case for torture. Its ratings have gone steadily up over the last five years, while Bush's ratings have gone steadily down.

In "24," Sutherland plays special agent Jack Bauer, head of the Counter Terrorism Unit. He fights some of his biggest battles not with the dark-skinned enemies trying to nuke L.A., but rather with the light-skinned do-gooders who think the head of the Counter Terrorism Unit should follow the rules.

Back in season four, for example, the bumbling bureaucrats released a captured terrorist before he could be tortured, because a lawyer for "Amnesty Global" showed up whining about the Geneva Conventions. Jack had to quit the Counter Terrorist Unit and become a private citizen in order to break the suspect's fingers.

It's especially unfortunate to see Kiefer Sutherland play the world's most popular torturer, because his father, Donald Sutherland, has been a prominent antiwar activist since Vietnam days and starred in some great films critiquing fascist politics, including "MASH" and Bertolucci's "1900." It's unfortunate also because Kiefer's grandfather, Tommy Douglas, was Canada's first socialist premier, and was recently voted "the greatest Canadian of all time" -- because he introduced universal public health care to Canada.

The grandson meanwhile is being paid $10 million a season by Rupert Murdoch to shoot kneecaps, chop off hands, and bite his enemies to death (Sunday's special thrill).

The show's connection to the Bush White House and the conservative establishment became explicit last June, when Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff appeared alongside the show's producers and three cast members at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation to discuss "The public image of US terrorism policy." The discussion was moderated by Rush Limbaugh. The C-SPAN store sells a DVD of the event--price reduced from $60 to $29.95.

Sunday night's two-hour premiere again argued not just that torture is necessary but also that it works. And it's also really exciting to watch. The show as usual made the "ticking time bomb" case for torture: we need to torture a suspect, or else thousands, or millions, will die in the next hour.

It's the same case made by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who proposed that judges ought to issue torture warrants in the "rare 'ticking bomb' case," and by University of Chicago law professor and federal judge Richard Posner, who has written, "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used." He added that "no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility."

Thanks to "24," tens of millions of TV viewers know exactly what Dershowitz and Posner are talking about. As Richard Kim pointed out in The Nation in 2005, those are the cases where "the stakes are dire, the information perfect and the authorities omniscient." Of course that's a fantasy of total knowledge and power, and of course the US has never had a real "ticking time bomb" case--but Jack Bauer faces one every Sunday night on Fox.

Remembering Dr. King

Since 1865, when it was founded by abolitionists, The Nation has believed in the liberating power of truth, of conviction, of conscience, and of fighting for causes lost and found. And like our founders, The Nation has an abiding belief that there is no force so potent in politics as a moral issue.

One of the great moral figures of our country, Martin Luther King Jr. was a correspondent for The Nation in the 1960s filing annual dispatches for the magazine on the state of civil rights until his murder in 1968.

In 1967, Dr. King traveled to Los Angeles under the auspices of The Nation and The Nation Institute to give the speech that would align the armies of the Civil Rights Movement with the rapidly expanding national protest against the Vietnam War. It was at this event where Dr. King came out, courageously, eloquently and unequivocally, for the first time, against US military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Today we are once again mired in an intractable and monstrous war overseas. In his speech at The Nation event, several weeks before his famous Riverside Church address in April, 1967, ("Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence") Dr. King painted a picture of a society 40 years ago that looks remarkably, starkly like the one we live in today. It is a moment to remember Dr. King's words about the broader casualties of war--casualties that go beyond the carnage of battle to the devastating costs of war at home. Casualties that include damage to social justice and racial equality and impose unbearable cost to free speech and dissent.

Forty years later, we are once again, as Dr. King said, "in an unthinkable position morally and politically..." Who of sane mind can look out over the current landscape in America and breathe easily? A rogue President is intent on escalating a war in the face of opposition by the people, the Congress and even most of his military.

On this anniversary, Martin Luther King, Jr would recognize the failed policies, wanton destruction, false promises and downward spiraling of America's standing in the world. He would ask us to reflect on how, when it comes to the future of our democracy, we are in the fight of our lives. And he would call on us to rise to that challenge. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," King said at the Riverside Church in 1967. Confronted by another unjust and self-destructive conflict forty years later, it is time to use all the powers at our disposal to end it, while we work to build a better nation and world.

Smithfield Shames Dr. King

Workers at the world's largest pork plant say they will either skip work or walk out in protest on Monday at the company's denial of their request for a day off with pay on the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Smithfield Packing, based in Bladen County, North Carolina, is facing the possibility of its second worker walkout in two months on account of its refusal to honor what is even a North Carolina holiday at a plant with the largest concentration of African-American workers in the state.

Last Tuesday, a petition signed by thousands of workers was delivered to Smithfield Packing Vice President Larry Johnson Carolina, asking for the day off. A group of local ministers and civil rights leaders got the workers' backs in an open letter published January 10 in the Fayetteville Observer:

"Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere' is aptly applied to the situation at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant. We experience the abuses committed against Smithfield workers as if they are committed against us. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, we appeal to Smithfield to begin healing the wounds of over a decade of injustice towards workers and grant them a holiday to commemorate this noble leader and the cherished ideals for which he fought and died."

But Smithfield has not been moved.

It says that workers will be docked a day's pay and could be disciplined if they skip work on Monday. Given the company's history, its intransigence is not surprising. Last September, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, wrote in The Nation's first food issue about Smithfield's unsafe working conditions, its longstanding violations of a wide array of labor laws and its creation of "an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion" in order to prevent workers at the plant from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Sign the petition asking for recognition of the King holiday and click here to send a letter to Smithfield's CEO and Chairman asking the company to rethink unnecessarily fast line speeds, inadequate training, and dangerously thin safety precautions--and to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.. You can also call Smithfield's Tar Heel plant at 757-365-3000 or 888-366-6767.

Let Justice Roll Down

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. His 1965 contribution was particularly strong. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue. Dr. King's words, ominously ring as true today as the day they were written more than forty years ago.

"'Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,' said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down."

The President Alone in the Dark

On January 2, there was a strange piece of news buried in a back paragraph of a front-page New York Times story by the reportorial team of David E. Sanger, Michael R. Gordon, and John F. Burns. It had the wonderful headline, "Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06, Bush Team Says" (as if they were just standing around, when the tsunami of chaos happened to hit…) and here was the passage:

"By May 2006, uneasy officials at the State Department and the National Security Council argued for a review of Iraq strategy. A meeting was convened at Camp David to consider those approaches, according to participants in the session, but Mr. Bush left early for a secret visit to Baghdad, where he reviewed the war plans with General Casey and Mr. Maliki, and met with the American pilot whose plane's missiles killed Iraq's Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He returned to Washington in a buoyant mood."

The italics are mine. And yes, the week after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took an American missile in the teeth, the President made a visit to Baghdad, so quick and secret that even he hardly knew he was there. At the time, the American death toll had just hit 2,500. As a signal of trust, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was given a full five-minutes notice that he was about to have the President of the United States look him "in the eye."

All of this was covered in our news, including a presidential meeting with cheering American troops and Bush's comments on his return flight--that seem as up-to-date as last night's surge speech--"I assured [the Iraqis] that we'll keep our commitment. I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment and be successful, they themselves have to do some hard things. They themselves have to set an agenda. They themselves have to get some things accomplished." This is the sort of thing that, almost seven months later, gives you confidence that the "new way forward" is, in fact, the traditional way backward.

At a moment when the Iraqi situation was already visibly devolving into chaos, civil war, and catastrophe, that the President came home "buoyant" remains a striking detail, more so perhaps because of the fervor with which he described his own mood at the time. "I was," he claimed, "inspired."

But what was it that actually "inspired" him that week in June 2006? The death of Zarqawi certainly. The President, whose approach to his war is unnervingly personal, had built up Zarqawi's importance not just to the American public but evidently in his own mind until the man stood practically co-equal with the ever-missing Osama bin Laden. So, it may not be surprising that he would have wanted to meet the pilot whose plane's missiles killed Zarqawi--but it's still news, all these months later, and revealing news at that.

You can search the coverage of that June moment from MSNBC and the Washington Post to Fox News in vain for mention of it. All I found was this oblique reference in a presidential radio address: "…And I was honored to meet with some of our troops, including those responsible for bringing justice to the terrorist Zarqawi."

At the time, no one in the media seems to have picked up on the meeting with the pilot, although presidential doings of any sort are usually closely scrutinized. Even the White House, it appears, chose not to publicize it. So I think we have to assume that the meeting may actually have represented a private presidential desire (or, at least, the decision of someone who knew that this would give Bush special satisfaction). If so, it catches something of the character of the man who is now so ready to surge other people's sons and daughters onto the streets of Baghdad.

It's reasonable to assume that, in his heart of hearts, George Bush never really wanted to be President and, before the 9/11 attacks woke him up, many observers noted that he acted that way. On the eve of the 2001 attacks, even Republicans were griping that he wasn't into the nation's business, just the business of vacationing at the "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. One Republican congressman complained that "it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing' sign on it."

What 9/11 seems to have awoken in him was a desire not so much to be President as to be Commander-in-Chief (or maybe sheriff). It's an urge that anyone who grew up in the darkened movie theaters of the 1950s, watching American war films and Westerns, might understand. Sooner or later, most of us, of course, left behind those thrilling screen moments in which Americans gloriously advanced to victory and the good guys did what was necessary to put the bad guys down, but my own suspicion has long been that George W. Bush did not -- and that avoiding the conflicts of the Vietnam-era helped him remain a silver-screen warrior.

In launching his Global War on Terror and the "hunt" for Osama bin Laden, the President famously said, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West... I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'" That "old poster" was, of course, "recalled" from childhood cowboy movies, not from any West he ever experienced. Similarly, from his "Top Gun," Mission-Accomplished moment landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to the way he kept his own "personal scorecard of the war" (little bios with accompanying photos of leading al-Qaeda figures, which he crossed out as US forces took them down), from his visible pleasure in appearing before hoo-aahing American troops wearing G.I. Joe doll-style dress-up jackets (often with "commander-in-chief" stitched across his heart) to his petulant "bring ‘em on" comment of game-playing frustration when the Iraqi insurgency wouldn't go away, it's hard not to register his childish urge for role-playing.

Every signal we have indicates that he experienced himself as, and savored finding himself in, the specific role of Commander-in-Chief, and that he has been genuinely thrilled to do commander-in-chief-like things and act in commander-in-chief-like ways, at least as once pictured in the on-screen fantasy world of his youth. Being the man who met (and congratulated) the man who shot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi certainly qualifies, even if the antiseptic act of missiling a house from a jet isn't quite the equivalent of the showdown at the OK Corral, six-gun in hand. In other words, George Bush dreams of himself in High Noon, while, in reality, he's directing a horror movie or a snuff film.

This is all so woefully infantile for the leader of the globe's last superpower. Take his response to being presented with the pistol found near Saddam Hussein when he was finally captured in his "spiderhole" in 2004. According to Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper that same year:

"Sources say that the military had the pistol mounted after the soldiers seized it from Saddam and that it was then presented to the President privately by some of the troops who played a key role in ferreting out the old tyrant. Though it was widely reported at the time that the pistol was loaded when they grabbed Saddam, Bush has told visitors that the gun was empty--and that it is still empty and safe to touch. ‘He really liked showing it off,' says a recent visitor to the White House who has seen the gun. ‘He was really proud of it.' The pistol's new place of residence is in the small study next to the Oval Office where Bush takes select visitors…"

The military knew their man--or perhaps boy; someone deeply involved not in the actual bloody carnage of Iraq, but in a fantasy Iraq War of his own imagining, a man who could still tell us last night: "We can and we will prevail" and predict "victory." This is the man who is now going to launch an "aggressive effort" to sell Congress and the American people on further madness and bloody carnage in Iraq. And this is the plan after which, according to Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal, may come the already named "nightmare scenario"--civil and regional war across the Middle East--according to some worried American officials and Arab diplomats. This is the man who holds in his hands the lives of countless Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans about to be sent into Hell.

It's no news that George W. Bush has been living in a bubble world created by his handlers, but it's hard not to believe that his own personal "bubble" isn't far more longstanding than that. The problem, of course, is that only Mr. Bush and a few neocon stragglers are left inside the theater still showing his Iraq War movie. The Iraqis aren't there. The man who pushed the button to shoot that missile surely wasn't; nor were Zarqawi's Shiite victims; nor were the 120 or more Iraqis who died this Tuesday, including the 41 bodies found dumped throughout Baghdad and the five found scattered around Mosul; nor was Dustin Donica, the 3,000th American who died in the war; nor was Pfc. Alan R. Blohm from Kenai, Alaska. None of them could put up a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster, cross-out the faces of the bad guys, land gloriously on an aircraft carrier, or dress up for war -- and then go home "inspired." They had the misfortune to be in a horrific reality into which a President, thoroughly in the dark, had sent them stumbling.

Now, George W. Bush is about to send even more young (and some not so young) Americans from hamlets, small towns, distant suburbs, and modest-sized cities all over America on yet another "last chance" mission. Perhaps he's even still dreaming of that moment when, in those movies of old, the Marine Corps Hymn suddenly welled up and, against all odds, our troops started forward and the enemy began to fall. But before we're done, if there's a commander he might bring to mind, it's not likely to be George Patton, but George Armstrong Custer.

What if that last chance comes to look more like a last stand? The least the President could do for the rest of us is step out of the dark of his brain, where those old films still flicker, and look around. If only…

[Note: This is the 3 part of a three-part blog. Part 1 was "Body Count"; part 2 was "Word Count."]

Antiwar Tide Surging Nationwide

The bottom really does seem to be falling out of US public support forthe Bush War in Iraq. Today's papers, as expertly digested by DanFroomkin here , show the degree to which a deep and increasing popular anger with thewar has been welling up among the citizenry and that is now-- finally-- starting to drive events in Congress. Note, for example, this report in today's NYT about increasing antiwar sentiment in a conservative part of Pennsylvania... or this report about the tepid response the Prez himself got from soldiers in Fort Benning, Georgia... or this report about the disillusionment of US soldiers on the fonrt-line in Baghdad...

I travel a lot around the US and the world. But my home-town is Charlottesville, Virginia, a tiny speck of "blue" in what used to be a pretty red state until George Allen's macaca moment came along last summer. (We showedhim, eh!)

Every Thursday when I'm back home in C'ville I take part in our town's weekly antiwar vigil/demonstration . On some occasions over the past three years there have been just three or four of us gathered on the windy street corner outside the federal courthouse building, valiantly holding up our signs that urge the many passing motoriststo "Honk 4 Peace".

Throughout 2006, we saw a steady increase in the numbers of motorists responding.But still, for the most part, there were just between three and seven ofus standing there for that one hour per week. (On occcasion I have stoodalone, at least for a short time; and several times just two of us have beenstanding there for 15 minutes or so till someone else came to join us.)

On Thursday last week, there were about 15 people.

Then yesterday, as my doughty co-demonstrator Jane Foster, age 82, and I approached the corner at 4:30 p.m. with our bundle of signs, we were surprised to see people waiting around there for us to come. People whom, for the most part, we didn't know. "What the-- ?" I wondered as I rushed over to them with the signs. People grabbed them from the pile. Soon, we ran out of signs. People kept coming... Mothers with kids in strollers. Middle-aged couples coming in from out of town. A bunch of people from our Quaker meeting... My dear friend Catherine Peaslee, age 84. (She and Jane have both been stalwart demonstrators over the past year. What incredible role models!) I saw people there I hadn't seen at demonstrations since the big ones we held before the invasion of Iraq-- and, as I said, lots of folks I'd never seen before.

The "front" side of our demonstration stretched out, facing the traffic, along that one curb outside the courthouse and stretching a long way down the sidewalks both ways.

The honking was incredible. Definitely the most ever. We've been working hard to "train" the drivers on this for more than three years now. I was soproud of their response yesterday! Everyone who was anywhere near our busyintersection during that hour would have gotten a very strong antiwar message...and that includes the occupants of some 5,000 or 7,000 vehicles driving through. As usual, we got a particularly strong response from African-Americandrivers, and women. But all sorts of demographics were honking yesterday,including the (white, male) drivers of some enormous trucks, people in expensivecars, drivers of old jalopies crammed with a bunch of co-workers going homeafter a long shift, etc, etc.

Many people wanted to lean long and hard on their horns. Others did a defiantlittle thum-a-thum-thum. At times it built up into a broad, glorious concertof varied rhythms and tones.

I admit that the back side of our demonstration had a bit of a carnival atmosphere as old friends saw each other and went over to hug and say hi. We old-timers had been totally unprepared for this and asked each other in amazement: "What happened?" The general answer was twofold. Number one: the totally unconvincing nature of the Prez's speech the night before. Number two: one of our people, Chip Tucker, had listed our weekly demonstration onthe website of Moveon.org, and several of the new people had seen it there and come along.

In retrospect, I wish we had done more to follow up on and consolidate some of the new energy we saw there. (We should try to be a lot more intentional about this next week.)

But it really was an amazing experience... And taken with everything else that's been happening in the country in the past 10 weeks it helped convince me that Bush has now, fairly definitively, lost the battle for public support of his Iraq war.

(A longer version of this post, with more analysis, is cross posted at my main blog, Just World News.)