Rhetoric only goes so far in trumping reality--especially when it comes to a messy war. George W. Bush has been on a roll the past two weeks, delivering one speech after another on Iraq, repeating incessantly he has a "plan" for "victory" and quasi-acknowledging that progress in Iraq (until now) has been a tad bit on the slow side. His poll numbers have improved slightly in this time period, causing some pundits to suggest that Bush's sales pitch has been working--even though the fall of gas prices might be more the cause for the slight reverse in Bush's freefall. Still, when you're in a groove, why not try to keep it going? So on Sunday night, Bush took the best lines of his recent speeches and put them into a brief primetime presidential address carried by all the networks. Which meant that once again Bush--despite the fact he was trying to put a new perspective on the war and his management of it--resorted to the old spin.
There's no need to obsess over every statement. Bush's PR--even if it's improved--is not going to have any impact on what happens in Iraq. His words cannot determine whether or not the new government there is run by theocratic, pro-Iranian Shiites looking to develop a Shiite super-state in the south. They cannot stop the rising sectarian violence under way in Iraq. Marginally better speeches might win Bush points at home. They will not matter in Iraq. Still, let's look at some of the notable comments in this address.
* "This election will not mean the end of violence. But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote --6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world--means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror." It might mean that. The election might also lead to a breakdown in Shiite-Sunni relations that ignites a civil war (or, as some would argue, fuels an already existing civil war). Hope, as I've previously written is no substitute for analysis.
* The war "has caused sorrow for our whole Nation--and it has led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving. That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terror. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone." C'mon, who believes that al Qaeda would become peaceful if the United States did nothing? This is an utterly false argument. The issue is whether the war in Iraq (a) was a diversion from the fight against al Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists and (b) produced conditions favorable for the jihadists--such as recruiting and training opportunities and a decline in America's standing abroad. No sentient person has ever said if you leave the "terrorists" alone they will leave us alone. This is brazenly disingenuous spin.
* "If we were not fighting them in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia, and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens--they would be on the offense, and headed our way." Tell that to the dead of London and Madrid. Bush infantilizes his critics by stating that they believe al Qaeda would be peaceful were it not for the invasion of Iraq. And it's rather doubtful that because Zarqawi has managed to attract several hundred jihadists to Iraq that the terrorist threat to mainland USA has diminished. Most of the folks doing the fighting in Iraq are indigenous.
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* "My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them. And we will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad, removing their safe havens, and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share." Safe haven? There is no evidence that Iraq was a safe haven for al Qaeda before the war. That's been established by the 9/11 commission. And--once more--no one claims that ignoring the terrorists will lead to less terrorism. But the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting the terrorists who struck the United States.
* "America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal--a democratic Iraq that can defend itself--that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists--and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East." Again with the safe haven? Is this new way Bush is trying to link--perhaps more subtly--Iraq to the 9/11 attack? Saddam Hussein did support anti-Israeli terrorists (as have other Arab states). He did not--according to the available evidence--provide a base to al Qaeda.
* "At this time last year, there were only a handful of Iraqi army and police battalions ready for combat. Now, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy--more than 50 are taking the lead--and we have transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control." At this time last year, the Pentagon and the administration was claiming that much progress had been made in the training area and that tens of thousands of Iraqis were ready for action. That was not true. Any reason to believe the current numbers? How about an independent assessment from a commission or bipartisan congressional panel?
* "We are helping the Iraqi government establish the institutions of a unified and lasting democracy, in which all of Iraq's peoples are included and represented." Any comment on the rise in sectarian violence--particularly that conducted by militias associated with the major political figures?
* "We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission. Yet there is a difference between honest critics who recognize what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right. Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts." Continue to listen to honest criticism? Here Bush is saying, let's have a vigorous debate, but I reserve the right to label all you critics "defeatists."
* "It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done....We would hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us....To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor--and I will not allow it." If the United States pulled out everything tomorrow, that would not "hand Iraq over" to al Qaeda and other jihadists (who may number only 1000 or so). The Iranian-backed Shiites (and their militias) would hardly roll over. And whatever accommodation reached between the Sunni insurgents and the foreign fighters would probably go poof. Whether withdrawal is the right policy or not, it is a scare tactic to depict disengagement as leading inexorably to an Iraq run by al Qaeda.
* "In the months ahead, all Americans will have a part in the success of this war. " But not taxpayers. Bush will submit a $100 billion bill to Congress soon, and he will not ask wealthy Americans to help pick up this tab. Instead, he will just use the national credit card and leave it to future administrations to cover the extra debt generated by this war.
* "I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country--victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance." Is he saying that anyone who disagrees with his policy now is in favor of defeat and imperiling our nation's security? Yes.
* "We remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War: 'God is not dead, nor (does) He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men.'" Justifiably or not, many folks around the world see the war in Iraq as a war on Islam. Given this sad reality, is it wise to be quoting a Christmas carol to defend and promote the war? Who says Bush has come out of the bubble?
"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."
Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005
As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."
A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly gave the NSA permission for these taps--more than three dozen times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the Attorney General--whose job it is to guard and defend our civil liberties and freedoms--certified the lawfulness of the program. (It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.")
Illegally spying on Americans is chilling--even for this Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected President."
It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect American citizens."
Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."
Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had apparently pushed for earlier publication. In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus pointed out in a letter to editor "rejected similar arguments when it courageously pub;ished the Pentagon Papers over the government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its often meaningless and vague assertions."
Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times capitulated to the White House's request? It is true that Friday's revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the Times had published its story before the election? And what other stories have been held up due to Adminsitration cajoling, pressure, threats and intimidation?
The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.
Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which the black site prisons exist.
How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?
Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."
Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."
"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists. This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and media organizations must find a way to restore their role as effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.
Four years ago, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold distinguished himself as the Senate's premier defender of the Constitution, when he cast the chamber's sole vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. As a time when every other senator – even liberal Democrats with long records of championing the Bill of Rights -- joined the post-September 11 rush to curtail basic liberties, Feingold stood alone in defense of the principle that it was possible to combat terrorism and protect the rights of Americans.
But Feingold no longer stands alone. On Friday, he led a bipartisan group of senators that successfully blocked the administration's concerted effort to renew the Patriot Act in a form that maintains its most abusive components. A move by Republican leaders of the Senate to prevent Feingold from mounting a filibuster fell seven votes short of the number needed.A remarkable 47 senators – including Democrats and Republicans – backed the Wisconsin Democrat's stance. That's far more than the 40 needed to prevent a filibuster, and it means that Feingold now heads a coalition that should be able to force significant changes in the Patriot Act before the December 31 deadline for its renewal.
The Senate coalition that the maverick senator has assembled is made up of members from across the political spectrum – from Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, the dean of Senate liberals, to Idaho Republican Larry Craig, one of the chamber's most right-wing members – who have joined Feingold in calling for reform of the Patriot Act.
This coalition did not just form overnight.
It is the result of four years of hard work by Feingold and others who recognized that the fight to fix the Patriot Act would have to be a long-term struggle.
Some members of Congress were swayed by Feingold's constant pressure on Patriot Act issues, and by the fact that the senator was easily reelected in 2004 after a campaign in which he highlighted his opposition to the measure and his concern for the Constitution.
Others were influenced by the diligent efforts of U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and his allies in organizations of librarians and independent booksellers, who campaigned for three years to alert Americans to the fact that the Patriot Act allowed federal agents to collect information on the reading habits of law-abiding citizens.
Others, still, were convinced by the success that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee had in getting seven states and close to 400 communities across the country to go on record expressing concern about the damage done by the Patriot Act to Constitutional protections against illegal searches and other abuses.
"It's an example of public pressure reaching through to their elected representatives," Feingold said of the grassroots campaign to reform the Patriot Act. "It's a unique chapter in the history of civil liberties in this country."
So popular did the movement become that this week, with the December 31 deadline for reauthorizing the Patriot Act looming, the Bush administration and its Congressional allies were forced to use a backdoor maneuver to thwart reforms that had been unanimously agreed to by the Senate. A conference committee report that was supposed to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization measure instead was turned into a vehicle to maintain the most controversial and unpopular components of the Act.
The White House and its Congressional allies thought they could secure reauthorization of the act in a form that allowed the Justice Department and other federal agencies to continue running roughshod over the Bill of Rights by bringing the measure up on the eve of the Holiday recess and then spinning up the usual hyperventilated talk about how it is necessary to crush the Constitution in order to keep the American people safe.
The maneuver worked in the House, where the report was approved Wednesday by a 251-174 vote. (The administration won that vote only because 44 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel and Ben Cardin, a candidate for Maryland's open Senate seat in 2006 – voted with the vast majority of House Republicans for a measure that the American Civil Liberties Union condemned as lacking "needed safeguards to protect the privacy and constitutional freedoms of innocent Americans.")
But, even as the House fell in line with the administration's scheme, Feingold refused to back down. He met the White House onslaught with a promise to do everything in his power to block reauthorization of the act in a form that does not sufficiently address concerns about federal agencies entering the homes of citizens of innocent Americans, reviewing library and medical records as part of "fishing expeditions" and secretly subpoenaing information without following standard legal procedures.
Going into Friday's fight in the Senate, Feingold assembled an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans to press his case against reauthorization in the manner demanded by the administration. The coalition came together around the premise that freedom need not be sacrificed in order to maintain security.
While he had allies this time, it was still Feingold who took the lead – and who took the heat.
When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lobbied the Senate on behalf of the conference report, claiming that the version under consideration was respectful of civil liberties and pleading with senators to "trust" the administration to do the right thing, Feingold took to the floor of the Senate with a blistering response.
"Trust of government cannot be demanded, or asserted, or assumed, it must be earned," the senator said. "And this government has not earned our trust. It has fought reasonable safeguards for constitutional freedoms every step of the way. It has resisted congressional oversight and often misled the public about its use of the Patriot Act. And now the Attorney General is arguing that the conference report is adequate ‘protection for civil liberties for all Americans.' It isn't."
In the end, every Democratic senator except South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson (who voted with the Republicans), and Connecticut's Chris Dodd (who did not vote) sided with Feingold. So, too, did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords and four conservative Republicans: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Idaho's Craig, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and New Hampshire's John Sununu. (Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, an ally of the administration, also voted against cloture in order to maintain his ability to reopen the issue.)
The failure of the Senate to block Feingold's filibuster threat does not doom the Patriot Act. The likelihood is that it will be renewed in some form. But the version that is eventually approved should be significantly more respectful of the Bill of Rights than the version the administration wanted.
That's all that Russ Feingold has been asking for since he began his lonely challenge to the Patriot Act back in 2001. The only difference is that, now, Feingold's voice is part of a bipartisan chorus that is demanding that Constitutional rights be defended by the members of Congress who have sworn to uphold that document.
As Feingold said Friday, "Today's vote proves that this is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue and a constitutional issue. Now is the time to come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens."
George W. Bush has a new favorite senator: Joe Lieberman.
As part of his "I've-Got-a-Secret-Plan-That's-Just-As-Good-As-Nixon's" stump tour to shore up sagging support for his war in Iraq, the president has been talking up the Connecticut Democrat as just about the only official outside the administration who "gets it."
In his December 7 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bush was quoting Lieberman -- a Vietnam war foe who eluded military service every bit as efficiently as did Vice President Dick Cheney -- as if the senator was a modern-day Carl von Clausewitz. Recalling Lieberman's most recent pro-war outburst -- "What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will, and, in a famous phrase, 'to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory'" -- the president declared: "Senator Lieberman is right."
Lieberman's over-the-top cheerleading for a war gone wrong has been just about the only good news that Bush has gotten on the domestic political front in recent weeks, and the president and his supporters are playing the senator's support for everything that it is worth. There is even speculation that Bush might pluck Lieberman from the Senate and award him a Cabinet post -- perhaps as Donald Rumsfeld's replacement at the Department of Defense.
Whatever Lieberman's poliutical trajectory may be, there is no question that it is being the cheered from the right.
Rare is the afternoon when Rush Limbaugh does not mention Lieberman's "courageous" support for the war on his radio show. Rarer still is the evening when the Democratic senator is not giggling along with Sean Hannity as Fox's propagandist-in-chief derides war critics as dupes, cowards and traitors. Hannity has gone so far as to announce that he will support Lieberman for reelection. And it is a reasonably safe bet that Lieberman will not face a serious challenge from the Republican right when he seeks reelection in 2006.
After all, this Democratic senator has a long track record of delivering for the conservative movement. Elected to the Senate in 1988 with the support of William F. Buckley and Buckley's National Review magazine, Lieberman has regularly sided with the Republican establishment on everything from trade policy to military misadventures. He has, as well, been Joey-on-the-spot when George W. Bush has needed an election ally.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Lieberman, who was then the party's vice presidential nominee, parted company with his running mate, Al Gore, to tell the Wall Street Journal that Gore's populist rhetoric wasn't serious. Don't take Gore seriously, Lieberman promised, Democrats could be counted on to deliver for corporate America.
During the Florida recount fight of that year, Lieberman told Democrats to back off their challenges to Republican efforts to count votes that were cast late or illegally.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, after Democrats had overwhelmingly rejected Lieberman's candidacy for their party's nomination, the senator traveled to the battleground state of Florida three weeks before the election and told a predominantly Jewish crowd in Delray Beach that criticism of Bush's Middle East policies were "unjustified." "We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel," Lieberman argued. "You can't say otherwise."
It's a safe bet that Bush will return the favor next year, making friendly statements about Lieberman at appropriate moments during the senator's reelection race.
Presumably, in a state that voted 54-44 for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and where the president's approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 32 percent in recent polling, Bush's enthusiasm for Lieberman is something less than a plus for the Democrat.
But for Lieberman to be beat, he will have to have an opponent.
Despite a good deal of grumbling from Connecticut Democrats, as well as some national prodding from MoveOn,org, Democracy for America and other groups that want the Democrats to offer a choice rather than an echo, Lieberman does not face a serious Democratic primary challenge going into the 2006 election season. And, since Connecticut is not a state with a strong tradition of intraparty fights, Lieberman could well dodge the primary defeat he so richly deserves.
But that does not mean that the president's favorite senator will go without a serious anti-war challenge.
Former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, the Republican incumbent Lieberman narrowly beat in 1988, is talking seriously about taking the senator on next year. And Weicker would run as an anti-war candidate.
"I disagree 100 percent with the position (Lieberman''s) taken on this war. It mirrors that of the president, and obviously I disagree with the president," says Weicker, who adds, "I am interested in the war. I am interested in putting heat on people that continue to put us in the position that we're in in Iraq."
To be clear, Weicker, who is 74 and serves as president of the Trust for America's Health, would prefer to see someone else take on Lieberman. But, he says, he'll run if no one else does because he thinks it is so essential to challenge the senator's support of the war.
It would be wrong to see a Weicker campaign as a protest vehicle, however. Weicker remains a respected and potentially viable political player in Connecticut -- and nationally. After he was defeated in 1988, he turned around and won the governorship as the candidate of his independent "A Connecticut Party" in 1990. And, as recently as 2000, he was encouraged to run for the presidency on the Reform Party line.
What makes Weicker so appealing is that he is genuine maverick. As a Republican senator, he was a leading critic of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He supported civil rights and civil liberties, stood up for abortion rights and gay rights, backed campaign finance and ethics reforms, voted against right-wing judicial picks, condemned Nixon as the Watergate scandals were revealed and aggressively attacked Reagan and his aides for their Iran-Contra crimes.
When Weicker served in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a good many moderate Republicans, and even some liberal members of the Grand Old Party. It is a measure of how far American politics has moved to the right that, without changing his politics at all, Weicker felt most comfortable in 2004 backing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
But Weicker is no Democrat. Indeed, as Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe explains, "I think it's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which, psychologically, Weicker has identified himself as a third party, independent guy. When you get him talking about that stuff, you realize it's really at the heart of how he sees himself these days."Weicker's independence -- and the fact that he has already won a statewide election without the benefit of major-party backing -- makes him all the more attractive as a challenger to Lieberman.
Make no mistake, it would still be an uphill challenge.
Lieberman retains an appeal to at least some Democrats -- he's got a strong record on the environment and a pretty good one on domestic labor issues -- and, of course, to Republicans who appreciate what he's done for Bush. But a genuine independent who challenges the incumbent on the most fundamental questions of war and peace will have appeal across the political spectrum.
Done right, a Weicker campaign could telescope the debate about Iraq and expose Lieberman for what his is: a politician whose moralizing has always been a mask for his overaching ambition.
A Lieberman-Weicker race could well give Connecticut the most interesting, issue-based Senate race in the country.
And it might just give George Bush the jolt he needs. After all, losing a favorite senator would be a blow to any president -- even a president as disengaged as this one.
So Weicker should run. Indeed, he must run.
Run, Lowell, run!
Should Stephen Spielberg be preparing himself for crucifixion? Last night I attended a screening of his new film, Munich, which is soon to open. It's a taut and engaging psychological thriller. Psychological in the sense that it examines the mental and moral tribulations of a covert Israeli assassin. It also explores the psychology of revenge, retribution and survival in the post-9/11 age of terrorism. And because Spielberg not only second-guesses the Mossad and glancingly gives Palestinians a say in the film but also dares to question the effectiveness of an eye-for-an-eye response in the struggle against terrorists, conservatives will pounce on him. (Question: who will be the first ideological critic to tie Munich--which is "inspired," not "based on" real events--to Munich, as in Neville Chamberlain?)
Here's the plot: Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, takes Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. There had been acts of terrorism before but this foul deed was the first episode, as I recall it, that gathered attention throughout the world, as people gazed at television sets or huddled around radios to see what would be the outcome. (I remember sobbing on my parent's bed when the news came.) The outcome was tragic. All the Israelis ended up dead, after a rescue operation at the airport went awry. Most of the Palestinian terrorists--or was it all of them?--were killed as well. This all happens in the first minutes of the film.
Spielberg is less intent on recreating that nightmare--though he does show scenes from it throughout the film--as is he is on reviewing what came next. An Israeli security agent is tasked to find 11 Palestinians who his superiors say were the intellectual authors of this attack and others. The agent, played soulfully by Eric Bana, and his team scour Europe looking for their targets and then eliminating them with bombs and bullets. Along the way, they debate and discuss the morality of their exercise--but not in any heavy-handed or didactic fashion. While the moral justification for their actions is a topic for their (and the viewer's) consideration, the more pointed conversation between them (and between Spielberg and the audience) regards a less lofty subject: is this working?
As the agent and his team--the muscle guy, the bombmaker, the forger, the cleanup man--pick off the Palestinian leaders, they see that these officials are replaced by others who advocate even more violent attacks on Israel and Jews and that Black September is stepping up its terror campaign. Are their assassinations prompting this awful response that is leading to the death of hundreds elsewhere? As one character notes, it is expensive to kill Palestinians--and not just because the team has to spend millions of dollars to locate and then kill their prey.
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By the end, the Israeli agent assassinates a majority of the Palestinians on the list--as well as one of the targets' replacement and a beautiful Dutch female assassin. (Hey, this is a Hollywood movie). But he also loses members of his team. And he is tormented throughout. Back home, he is regarded as a hero. But he wants none of that. In fact, he rejects Israel and moves to Brooklyn--a damn serious step in a film in which the motivation driving all (the Israelis and the Palestinians) is the desire for a homeland. There the agent even comes to believe--with cause or not--that Mossad might be pondering his untimely death. And when his case officer--played by Geoffrey Rush--comes calling, the agent demands to see actual evidence that his victims were involved in killing Israelis. He wants to know--to believe--that he is not a murderer. The case officer can only provide that's-what-the-intelligence-says assurances. The agent is not assured. Still, he asks the case officer to come to his new home for dinner, clumsily citing a Jewish tradition of offering food to travelers. The case officer turns him down and departs. The agent--who killed to protect his homeland--has abandoned that home and has been rejected by its representative.
This film is not only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the screenplay, written by Tony Kushner (who penned Angels in America) and Eric Roth, deftly handles. The Palestinian thugs at Munich are never humanized, nor are their murderous actions and motivations explained. But later in the film another Palestinian speaks for the cause of a Palestinian homeland. Conservative pro-Israel hawks will be peeved by this. But what prowar hawks might find more offensive is the ambiguity that Spielberg assigns to the results of the Israelis' just-kill-them approach. The costs--including the alienation and disenchantment of the agent--are high, and it's clear that these actions, while perhaps morally justified, are not going to do anything to address the longterm and deeper challenges. Spielberg offers not much of an alternative. But at the minimum, he suggests this sort of work, even if necessary, is dirty and troubling business that cannot go unquestioned in both moral and pragmatic terms. It might even be too difficult for good people--or people who aspire to be good.
Such gray could well upset those who depict the war on terror in white-hats/black hats style. Spielberg's insistence on facing the difficult and hard-to-resolve ambiguities in the struggle against violent extremists will be read by some as a sign of weakness--or worse. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser writes:
Spielberg proves two things in his film, due in theaters just in time for Hanukkah:
1. Steven Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival.
2. Spielberg is a decent enough filmmaker to persuade some people that Israel has outlived its usefulness and should--as enemies in Iran maintain--be wiped off the face of the earth.
The backlash has begun. The Jewish Action Alliance has already called for a boycott of "Munich."
Oh, it's going to be a pain to be Stephen Spielberg, in a way, for a little while. He's going to be accused of being a self-hating Jew and Israel-basher. The less hateful of his critics will see this movie and ask of the agent (and Spielberg), why all the handwringing? Why all the worry? It's us-versus-them. In a fight for survival, you do what you have to do. You kill them. You do what it takes. But Munich notes, it's just not that simple.
Not since Iraqi WMD has there been a bogus news story more loved by the conservative media than the quote-unquote "War against Christmas." So complete is their martyrdom-like passion for this myth that you'd think we lived in a time when Christians were regularly being fed to Coliseum lions. Therefore, while I rather like the holiday myself, as editor of The Nation I feel duty bound to provide their empty, bloviated rhetoric with some ammo. Here are my three battles against Xmas.
1) Family-photo Christmas cards that married people send to their single, childless friends. Would you send a Thanksgiving card to starving people? A Fourth of July card to the Queen? These are not gifts; they are taunts. And they should be banned.
2) Corporate America's year-end decisions to reduce health and pension benefits to boost their annual earnings statements. Would Santa threaten to open a factory in Shanghai to bring the elf union to the negotiating table? What could be more bah-humbug than the news that daddy can never afford to retire? This Scrooge-like practice should be banned.
3) Christmas office parties. Sure, they seem fun, but nothing spells sexual harassment lawsuit like an open bar, mistletoe, and the prospect of spending the holidays alone or with an angry spouse. I think this is one area where Bill O'Reilly and I can agree: Christmas office parties should be banned.
What's really going on? The guys over at Fox, like O'Reilly and John Gibson (author of the new book, The War On Christmas) are using this battle because they'd like to see America trend theocratic. But despite the hours of attention the rightwing media have devoted to this manufactured crisis, they're unlikely to win. And it's not because they're up against a liberal plot. Gimme a break. It's because they're on the side of intolerance.
In the latest of his speeches on the Iraq imbroglio, President Bush did something that is highly unusual for him.
He acknowledged personal responsibility for actions taken by his administration.
No, the president's carefully worded speech did not feature an admission that he and his aides deliberately inflated the supposed "threat" posed by Iraq in order to convince the Congress to authorize the invasion and occupation of that country. But Bush did, on Wednesday, finally state the obvious when he said: "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,"
What was far more remarkable was the next line in the speech, the one where he said: "As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq."
While the president's aides and allies in Congress, along with a sycophantic Washington press corps now claim that there was a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of the war, the fact is that a majority of Democrats in Congress -- amd a handful of brave Republicans -- voted against authorizing the invasion and the American people poured into the streets of communities across the country to oppose Bush's rush to war.
When the president now says that he is "responsible" for the war, he is, of course, trying to appear strong and decisive – in order to claim credit for whatever small "victories" his public relations machine will try to spin out of the Iraqi parliamentary elections and other developments of the moment.
But if Bush really wants to take responsibility for this war, then he must accept it in its totality.
And that totality is an ugly one, indeed.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has been far more consistently right about this war than anyone in the administration, is correct when he says that there is more misery than glory in this military misadventure.
"The President now says he is responsible for the war in Iraq," Kucinich said, after listening to Bush's speech. "I agree with the President. He is responsible. He is responsible for attacking a nation that did not attack us. He is responsible for the 2,151 American troops killed in Iraq. He is responsible for the 15,881 US troops injured in the war. He is responsible for at least 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the start of the war. He is responsible for draining $250 billion from US taxpayers to pay for the war. And he is responsible for the failed reconstruction and for the continued occupation."
Sometime in the mid-1990s, after it had become quite clear that Bill Clinton's presidency would deliver rather less than had been hoped, and when it was becoming clear that Newt Gingrich's control of the House would deliver rather more than had been feared, I penned a review of a then-recently published collection of former Sen, Eugene McCarthy's poems. In it, I lamented the lack of poetry in the politics of the moment and suggested that America would be far better served by politicians with a literary bent than by the dim-witted technocrats and self-absorbed plotters to whom power had fallen.
A few weeks later, a modest package with a Virginia postmark arrived at my office. In it was a lovely note from McCarthy, along with a thin volume of his poetry, Other Things and the Aardvark, which had been published in a limited edition of 250 almost three decades earlier. The senator had given copies of the book to friends and supporters of his anti-war campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. In the book's preface, McCrathy noted that "ancient mapmakers used the term 'terra terribilia' to identify what was beyond their knowledge of the earth" and he then paid tribute "to poets who have gone beyond the 'known' and the 'certain' into the 'terra terribilia' in the search for truth."
What did not need to be noted, of course, was that McCarthy had journeyed, in 1968 and over the decades that followed, across the terra terribilia of American politics, earning the enmity even of his onetime supporters and the affection of some who had once dismissed him as a dangerous radical. As I would learn over the years of our acquaintance that began with the arrival of that package, McCarthy was in most senses a very conservative man. He studied religion and the classics, he saw the value of tradition, he embraced standards of duty and responsibility that are so rarely followed today that they do indeed seem radical.
But, at the most fundamental level, all that Eugene McCarthy tried to do during his political lifetime -- with an unfortunate lack of success -- was drag America back to the best of its values.
We spoke about that struggle when I was preparing my book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire, before its publication this year. The premise of the book was that those founders who wanted America to lead by example rather than force -- as "a city upon a hill," to quote John Winthrop -- had imparted a wisdom worthy of recollection in these times. This appealed to McCarthy. Indeed, we found a quotation from a 1967 essay of his that updated the principle rather nicely: "A nation has prestige according to its merits. America's contribution to world civilization must be more than a continous performance demonstration that we can police the planet."
In that essay, which appeared only a few months before he launched his primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson, with the argument that the United States should cease its policing of souytheast Asia and other far destinations, McCarthy wrote, "Many of our problems today are the result of our unwillingness or inability in the past to anticipate what may be the shape of the world 20 years in the future.... There is never a totally painless way to pull back from either unwise, ill-advised, or outdated ideas or commitments. But throughout history, mighty nations have learned the limit of power. There are lessons to be learned from Athens, from Rome, from 16th-Century Spain."
McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign is often remembered as a simplistic initiative, an attempt to turn the anti-draft and anti-war enthusiasms of protesting students into a political force. In fact, it was something far deeper, and far more significant.
In that 1968 run, and to an even greater extent in his 1976 independent campaign for the presidency, McCarthy argued for an American role in the world that owed much more to George Washington, James Madison and John Quincy Adams than it did to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or more recent presidents.
Living in the Virginia countryside, not far from the homes of the founders he favored, McCarthy remained steady across the years in his embrace of a Madisonian vision. He raged as only an American prophet could, about how George Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative allies had, with their advocacy for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, "introduced new concepts about preventing war that are wholly unacceptable in our tradition."
"There are things you do in a war which are preventive, but to just announce it as a general proposition that you're justified in starting a whole war is another question," McCarthy explained in a 2003 interview. "I don't think Bush understands what he's doing."
Weeks after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, McCarthy dismissed the endeavor as "a faith-based war" but he warned that its consequences would be agonizingly real for America. Indeed, he suggested, they was already evidence of those consequences to be found in a loss of liberty about which observers of the American experiment had long warned.
Referring to the Patriot Act and related assaults on domestic liberties, the former senator explained that, "de Tocqueville said you'll find you'll lose the freedoms you're supposed to be defending by setting up your defenses against losing them, and that's what's involved in the stuff that Bush is doing. We haven't lost any of our liberties to the Iraqis yet, but we've had our own liberties curtailed."
It remains true that America has suffered from a lack of poetry in our politics, but it is surely also true that we have suffered from a slow disconnection with the best of our values and traditions. With McCarthy's death, that disconnect grows a little more severe, and America's circumstance a tad more perilous.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."
"We call our stuff information and the enemy's propaganda," says Col. Jack N. Summe, former commander of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group, in Jeff Gerth's masterful, must-read investigation into how the US military is waging a quasi-secret information war in Iraq and the Middle East. Even in the Pentagon, Summe admits to Gerth, "some public affairs professionals see us unfavorably," and inaccurately, he says, as "lying, dirty tricksters."
It turns out that the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based subcontractor hired by the Pentagon to plant stories in Iraq's media was no rogue operation. Instead, as Gerth documents, it was just one of many elements in the Bush Administration's vast, extensive and costly propaganda apparatus.
Recent news stories have documented how the Lincoln group received tens of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts to plant paid, boosterish articles in the Iraqi and Arab media. Now we learn that while US troops had defective bulletproof vests, US taxpayer money was being used to help Lincoln pitch pop culture ideas as a way to win hearts and minds in the Middle East.
Did you know that Lincoln proposed that the US government fund a version of the satirical paper "The Onion," and an underground paper to be called "The Voice"? It even had the brilliant plan, according to Gerth's article, of trying "comedies modeled after Cheers and the Three Stooges, with the trio as bumbling wannabe terrorists."
I used to think that if Terry Southern (who brought us Dr. Strangelove) were still alive, he'd have a hard time finding material. Reality is now so radically outrageous. An anti-terrorist comedy based on The Three Stooges?
Rush Does Afghanistan
Another nugget from Gerth's article: Courtesy of our very own US AID, Afghan journalism students were treated to a lecture on journalism by a man who has done about as much as any media personality to distort, divide and debase our media landscape.
In February, according to Gerth, Limbaugh was a guest of AID. When asked by an Afghan journalism student about how he balances justice and truth and objectivity, Limbaugh allegedly replied that the answer was to "report the truth." This from Rush Limbaugh! Need I say more?
If you're really organized you've already completed your holiday shopping for the year. If so, you can take a break from this column. But if you're like me and still looking for holiday presents with a progressive slant, keep reading for ideas, many of them courtesy of my crack intern researcher Mike Fox (who also plays a mean fiddle and whose band's CD makes a nice holiday gift too).
First, check out Katha Pollitt's latest Nation column, which upholds her recent tradition of offering annual suggestions for giving to groups and organizations doing unbelievable work with shockingly little money. The efficiency of some of these places would awe a McKinsey consultant, so look them over before you make your final round of charitable contributions this year.
Heifer International also makes it easy to help assist needy families far from home. The Heifer gift catalog allows you to purchase an animal that can be a life-line for families in the developing world. A pig can be bought for $120 (or chip in $10 to help share the cost of one), three rabbits are a bargain at $60 total, a flock of chicks costs only $20, and if you're feeling really generous, a $1,500 donation provides two sheep, four goats, a heifer and two llamas.
It's true that donating to Heifer is wholly apolitical and does nothing to shake the fundamental global divide between rich and poor, which creates so much unnecessary misery around the world. But people need to eat while change is being made and I like to think of outfits like Heifer as offering the opportunity for the world's well-off to voluntarily redistribute a bit of their incomes to those that need the money much more than we do.
On to gifts for friends and family: For a range of socially responsible ideas, see the Center for a New American Dream's Conscious Consumer Marketplace. Things like gift baskets with fair trade coffee and organic chocolate, hand lotion and organic cotton clothing are easy to find, as are big-ticket items like wood furniture, energy-efficient kitchen appliances and gift certificates that can be used on a range of green travel packages. There's even a section of presents for college students looking to "green their dorm room."
Over at the GreenGuide, Karen Mockler offers a good case for why parents with young kids should be wary of anything but strictly non-toxic toys this holiday season and tells us where to go and what to get. (NorthStar Toys, featuring a five-piece wooden train set, was my favorite of the companies she recommends.) And--especially if you have a newborn--check out EcoBaby for organic and safe clothes, toys, bedding, bath products, diapers and much more. They're offering free shipping until December 25.
Another good place to shop online is from an innovative collective in India which started in 1986 with only three women, and now employs 480 artisans in 14 artisan-owned cooperatives in and around Mumbai, India. MarketPlace: Handwork of India is a nonprofit, fair trade organization whose intricate handmade clothing and decorative items provide an alternative to the inequities of conventional trade between developed and developing countries.
The idea is to provide access to global markets for low-income Indian women by using design to bridge the gap between skills and markets. And their clothes are nice! Not everything is for everybody, but there's an impressive range of apparel at reasonable prices. And anything can be returned easily with no charge.
The Co-Op America holiday catalogue offers scores of links to small companies and collectives all offering short-term discounts through Co-Op America's site. You can find everything from calendars and cards to food and wine to amber jewelry and Ms. Magazine. Through the Global Exchange holiday site you can buy cosmetic cases created by the Lisu Tribe of Northern China and Burma, hand-stitched quilts from India, teddy bears from Sri Lanka, rugs from the Philippines and Bush playing cards made in the U.S. of A.
In Grist, the internet's premiere environmental magazine, Sarah van Schagen and Sarah Kraybill break down your gift listees into useful demographics before offering gift ideas. There are eco-jeans for the "Trendy Clotheshorse"; natural pet cleaning supplies for the "Pet Obsessed"; a solar phone charger for your "Hipster" friends; Eco-friendly hair color, eye makeup, and lipstick--all in black, of course--for those "Angsty Teens" on your list; bottles of organic beer and bamboo baseball bats for the "Sports Fanatics"; and for those "Anti-Enviros" you must shop for: biodegradable golf balls and tees. They'll never know the difference.
Finally, my boss will not be pleased if I neglect to plug The Nation's revamped Online Shop. Given the rush on our antiwar buttons and anti-Bush apparel this past year, we've developed a full catalogue of new Nation merchandise. All clothing is union-made, ideal for gifts, and can be purchased online in just a few minutes.
Discounted Books by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Victor Navasky, Molly Ivins and many others.