Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Bush Tries to Backtrack

Every once in a while a politician stumbles into telling the truth. Even George W. Bush. Unwittingly, of course.

At his Tuesday press conference, Bush dropped one of the biggest bombshells of his presidency: American troops would not leave Iraq on his watch. Not in 2006 or 2008. Let John McCain or Hillary Clinton make that call. Bush's plan for victory amounts to: someone else clean up my mess. If Bush were a five-year-old, he'd undoubtedly receive a spanking.

His "plan" is the inverse of Colin Powell's famous Pottery Barn rule. Bush broke Iraq, never acknowledged owning it and now refuses to fix it.

The White House quickly tried to spin their own spin. The President's counselor, Dan Bartlett, said Bush's comment had been "over-interpreted." White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush never said what he said. Troops will come home, McClellan insisted, just not all of them. And don't you dare ask when, pesky media. It's your fault we're talking about this in the first place.


I think some of the coverage also seemed to leave the impression with readers or viewers that the President was saying that there will be large or significant numbers of troops in Iraq after he leaves office, and that's not what the question was. The question was will there be zero -- when will there be zero or no American troops in Iraq. So he was referring to that specific question.


I'm sure that explanation will satisfy the 61 percent of Americans who disapprove of Bush's handling of the war. CNN's John Roberts rightly told Bartlett: "You've given Democrats a real opening here."

If only they would take it. Sure, Harry Reid called Bush "dangerously incompetent." And Ted Kennedy noted that "the patience of the American people is wearing thin." No surprise there. But most of the party's leaders, including virtually all of the prospective nominees for the '08 nomination, stuck to silence.

MSNBC right-winger Joe Scarborough, of all people, nicely summarized the current debate: "When it comes to getting out of Iraq, Republicans may be clueless, but Democrats are spineless."

Operation Overhyped

Last Thursday the Pentagon launched "Operation Swarmer"--described as the largest air assault in Iraq since March 2003. I was at a conference on Iraq at the Center for American Progress and saw the news flashing repeatedly on CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The timing, a few days before the war's 3rd anniversary and amidst a torrent of negative opinion polling for the Bush Administration--seemed highly suspicious.

Well, this Operation, like so much of what the Administration has told us about the war, turned out to be a lie. According to reporters on the ground from Time magazine:


There were no air strikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What's more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the US and Iraqi commanders.


Moreover, former AP correspondent Christopher Albritton writes that the targeted area north of Samarra has been "swept/contained/pacified/cleared five or six times since 2004." Operation Swarmer "was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army--although there was no enemy for them to fight." There were as many troops, fifteen hundred, as residents in the desolate area. No wonder Albritton termed the mission "Operation Overblown."

It's reassuring to know where our $300 billion are going. Aren't there enough threats in Iraq that we don't need to fight nonexistent ones?

Get Your War Out

On the day the Bush Administration renewed its commitment to preemptive war--and conveniently launched the largest air strikes in Iraq since March 2003--a conference of security experts assembled at the Center for America Progress to examine just how that preemptive test case is going.

The verdict?

Not so hot. And conditions on the ground threaten to move from bad to worse.

"Where are we?" asked Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter and the day's keynote speaker. "We are in a mess," he said, echoing comments he told me recently.

"American legitimacy has been undermined...American morality has been stained...American credibility has been shattered."

Where are we headed?

The US is caught in two wars in Iraq: insurgents against occupiers and Sunnis against Shiites.

"The US umbrella, designed to stifle them, but so porous it perpetuates them, keep these wars alive."

What should we do?

The Bush Administration "is not capable to make a cold judgement or look at alternatives because of their stake in past misjudgments: in some cases, lies, in some cases, crimes."

According to Brzezinski, the US should ask Iraqi leaders to ask us to leave. And we should set a date for our departure, roughly by the end of this year.

The Democrats, through their silence and evasiveness, have made themselves largely irrelevant from this debate. Even though dissatisfaction with the war is causing President Bush's approval ratings to plummet, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds. Even though "a congressional candidate favoring withdrawal of all US troops within a year would gain favor by 50%-35 percent, while one who advocates staying 'as long as necessary' would lose favor by 43%-39 percent," the WSJ writes.

How bad do the numbers have to get before the Democratic Party, as a whole, takes a clear stand on the war, or a prominent Republican utters Senator George Aiken's famous words: "The best policy is to declare victory and get out."

From NATO to Nation

One thing I've always found perplexing is Wesley Clark's continued high-standing amongst the progressive blogosphere. For months he's consistently either won or placed second in the Daily Kos and MyDD straw polls, for example. Yesterday our ace DC intern Cora Currier bumped into Clark in the Senate and much to her surprise, wooing Nation readers was on the General's mind. I'm posting her dispatch below:


I was in Senator Carl Levin's office yesterday talking to an aide when General Wesley Clark strode into the room. He was waiting for a meeting and sat down on the couch near us. Levin's aide asked where I worked and when I replied, "The Nation," Clark jumped into the conversation. Introducing himself, he said: "Now, how are we going to get Nation readers to vote for someone like me?" I didn't know what to say. "I'm a military man," he continued, "and the military scares liberals. They say, oh, no, he's bombed people. People forget that as commander of NATO I was in charge of school children, and communities." He left soon after but gave me his card. "Nation," he said again, pointing to himself.


Let's take our own highly unscientific straw poll. If Clark runs again, would you support him?

Is Gore Still Looking for Votes in Florida?

Al Gore returned to Florida this weekend. And you know what that means. (Insert joke about butterfly ballots, hanging chads, Katherine Harris and Jews for Buchanan.)

He still uses the line about being a "recovering politician." It still draws laughter. But those of us who've followed Gore know he's emerged from the political wilderness as one of the most eloquent critics of the Bush Administration, a favorite among the Democratic base and even a dark horse for the '08 nomination. By all accounts, his foray into Florida, campaigning for state candidates, only boosted his political fortunes. From the Orlando Sun-Sentinel:


"Welcome back, Mr. President!" someone yelled from the crowd as Gore took the stage.






"This was the scene of a crime," said West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, whose son, Marine Capt. Benjamin Lubin, has served in Afghanistan.






"We're very proud of him," Frankel said of her son. "But I can tell you, if Al Gore had been president, my son would not have been at war."






"I want to give you a couple of reasons to redouble your efforts," Gore said.



"Voter fraud!" an audience member quickly offered up, to the delight of the crowd.



Gore smiled.



"I'll let others talk about that, but I like some of what I heard out here," he said.


Call it the looser, freer, funnier Al. Gore 2.0. Maybe if he returned to politics Gore would instantly tighten up and start babbling about lockboxes. But--risking the scorn of many--I think he could pull a Nixon or Reagan and win back the presidency.

IF he's willing to take on his former boss's wife.

What Culture of Corruption?

Jack Abramoff is singing to Vanity Fair and planning to "name names" when his trial begins in Florida later this month. Duke Cunningham will soon serve eight years in the slammer, the longest sentence ever given to a congressman for crimes in office. Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Conrad Burns and others may share a similar fate.

But things are eerily business as usual on Capitol Hill, as the Senate takes up lobbying reform this week and the House plans a vote before Easter. Already the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week voted against one of the few good proposals--introduced by Senator Barack Obama--to create an independent ethics enforcement agency that would compliment and bolster the pathetically inactive ethics committee. The proposal went down 11-5, a telling precursor of things to come. Wrote Public Citizen's Craig Holman:


The committee hearing was extremely disheartening. Most members argued there simply is no Congressional ethics problem; that the public's perception of corruption on Capitol Hill is a myth. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had to the gall to mock the public's concerns by offering several ridiculous amendments, including one that would prohibit government buildings from being named after living senators. Coburn said he was planning to introduce the amendments in "jest," as a way of snickering at our calls for reform.


Ha, ha, Coburn's quite the comedian. But he's not laughing alone. When the Senate Democrats offered their surprisingly strong "Honest Leadership Act" on the floor this week it too saw defeat, on a 55-44 party line vote. Instead the Senate unanimously passed a law forbidding lobbyists from buying lawmakers meals and drinks. The poor impoverished Senators, as Trent Lott sulked, will be forced to eat with their wives.

Other coming amendments, CQ reported, "are likely to be accepted without a roll call vote, thus avoiding a potentially harmful public record of positions taken on 'good government' legislation."

Silly me. I could've sworn I heard Senators boasting weeks ago that sunlight was supposed to be the best disinfectant.

Pork & Molasses

"If we say we need it, the American people can afford it," a high-ranking Pentagon official once told Vice Admiral John Shanahan years ago.

By "it" he meant weapon system after weapon system. Today America can't afford it. But still the Pentagon wants it all and what Shanahan terms the "Military-Industrial Congressional Complex" happily says yes, under the guise of appearing "strong on defense."

Congress is close to passing another $50 billion for the war in Iraq, on top of the $251 billion previously allocated. This funding isn't even part of the Pentagon's $439.3 budget for next year, the highest level since World War II.

Fifteen percent of that budget will go toward obsolete, ineffective or unusable Cold War-era weapons that costs Americans billions of dollars and provides no security in return. Today former Reagan Administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, in conjunction with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, unveiled a blueprint to curb this madness.

The "Common Sense Budget Act" would eliminate $60 billion in waste and fraud from the Pentagon's budget and redirect the money toward homeland security, deficit reduction, energy independence, children's health, school modernization, job training, medical research and humanitarian assistance. Polls show that two-thirds of the public want these changes to occur.

The Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey with fifteen cosponsors, has virtually no chance of passing this Congress. But hopefully it'll be the beginning of a badly-needed debate. Business leaders plan to kickstart the discussion by running ads in two disproportionally important states: Iowa and New Hampshire.

"America Could Lose Its Army in Iraq"

Imagine this scenario, as described last week in Washington by defense expert and former Senator Gary Hart.

Overnight, Iraq has descended into a full-scale civil war. Shiites and Sunnis are viciously killing each other. Vying for supremacy, both groups come after American troops--who are unable to take sides or quell the violence. Stuck in urban centers, US soldiers are unable to safely flee in time. A bloodbath ensues.

"America could lose its Army in Iraq," Hart told a crowd of journalists and foreign policy junkies at the New America Foundation last Thursday, repeating the warning twice. "See Black Hawk Down and multiply it to the tenth power. Read the history of 1812. Think of the image of US soldiers on helicopters [exiting] Saigon and multiply it to the tenth power."

Remember, Hart's January 2001 report with former Senator Warren Rudman famously predicted a 9/11-style attack on US soil. Where is the Pentagon's contingency plan for such a nightmare Iraq scenario, Hart wonders? Does it even have one?

"I know that sounds apocalyptic, but it's not out of the question," Hart remarked at another event in DC that day. "We need an exit strategy. We have no choice."

"Stare" at that Decisis

Walking up to my office on Capitol Hill today, I noticed an usually large amount of people milling around. Big crowds were standing outside the Senate buildings on a chilly February day. Cabs kept dropping visitors off. You could barely stand on the crowded sidewalks. Sure, Congress was back in session after yet another week-long recess (do these guys ever work?), but surely that wasn't the reason why.

Then I noticed camera crews lingering outside the Supreme Court steps, along with a mass of spectators. A particularly important case to be heard, I surmised. I went into the office and asked my two colleagues, "what's the hell is going on outside?"

They responded with three words, "Anna Nicole Smith."

The West Leans Left

Is a red state Governor who wears cowboy hats, embroidered denim jackets and bolo ties, drives a Volkswagen Jetta powered by biodiesel, ran with a Republican Lt. Gov on his ticket, loves hunting, strives for energy independence and refuses to accept special interest money or hold closed-door meetings the new face progressives should be talking about?

If his name's Brian Schweitzer, many already are. In the last four presidential elections Democrats took 41, 38, 33 and 38 percent of the vote in Montana. By comparison, Schweitzer engineered a four point win in 2004. Since then he's become one of the most popular Governors in the country.

This week Schweitzer took his show on the road, attending a meeting of Governors in Washington, appearing on 60 Minutes (be sure to check out his reference to "sheiks and dictators and rats and crooks") and speaking before the Center for American Progress--an event I attended yesterday.

Schweitzer called his recent session with the Montana state legislature "the most progressive in the country." The Missoulian offers a recap:

His initiatives include the largest two-year increase in state funding for schools since 1991, a new college scholarship program for Montana students, a good raise in pay for state employees, eliminating the business equipment tax for 13,000 small businesses, requiring more wind power and other alternative energy development, beefing up health care and other programs for the needy and improving relationships with Montana's Indian tribes and nations.

Schweitzer's made energy independence the centerpiece of his governing agenda, advocating wind, ethanol, biodiesel and new coal-to-fuel technologies. He even carried little vials of various farm oils and a rock of coal to the CAP event. "The next generation will not be sent to a foreign land to protect an oil field," he says.

Schweitzer for President websites are already launching. The current hype may prove to be just that--hype. But Republicans are beginning to watch closely. At a White House dinner on Sunday, Schweitzer's wife, Nancy, sat between "the straight shooter himself," Dick Cheney, and "the Architect," Karl Rove.

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