The Nation

SiCKO Premiere

Michael Moore's new health care documentary "SiCKO" premiered in Manhattan last night, with an unusual group of movie stars walking the red carpet at the famous Ziegfeld Theatre. The paparazzi were reduced to snapping pictures of non-celebrities, like rescue workers who were denied health care for ailments they contracted on September 11, and dozens of nurses decked out in maroon "SiCKO" scrubs. The nurses are part of a national alliance advocating health care reform, including several labor unions, doctors' organizations, consumer groups and MoveOn.org, which cosponsored the premiere with The New York Observer.

In his opening remarks, Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the company that produced "SiCKO," singled out MoveOn for helping promote and defend Moore's last documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11." (The group hosted house parties across the country and urged its members to make the film a "huge hit.") Then Weinstein blasted the timid entertainment industry and overbearing insurance companies that stifle hard-hitting documentaries, telling the audience how Moore persevered in this challenging environment because he is a "true American hero."

Moore told the crowd that production was delayed five months because it was hard to find an insurance company to back an expose of insurance companies. Smaller insurers were worried that suits could put them out of business, Moore explained, but his fact-checkers are so good he's never been successfully sued.

The audience enthusiastically cheered Moore, and interrupted the film several times with applause, although it doesn't actually offer many red meat moments. The tone is more "Roger and Me" than "Fahrenheit 9/11," pushing fundamental questions instead of political jeremiads. If we really value the heroes of 9/11, why are some suffering without health care for the injuries they sustained while protecting us? How can this nation celebrate the quarterly returns of HMOs that minimize human life to maximize profits? Why does our public discourse demonize the health care systems of our fellow industrialized democracies, which generally prioritize universal coverage? And in one stretch of aggressive agit-prop that even Karl Rove would admire, Moore asks why the detainees at Guantanamo get better health care than the heroes of 9/11, as he sits among those heroes in a boat along the Cuba-U.S. border.

Vito Valenti, a 9/11 rescue worker with pulmonary fibrosis who dragged his oxygen tank down the red carpet last night, said after the screening that it's obvious the U.S. needs "to reform health care and get everybody covered." Currently on disability, he volunteers to help 9/11 first responders with the nonprofit FealGood Foundation. Valenti is praying the public will see the film and take action. "It really opened my eyes and I hope to God it opens up America's eyes," he said. "If other countries can do it, why can't we?"

'A French Lesson for Republicans'

American right wingers, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, fell in love with France last month. They got excited because the voters of France turned to the right in May and elected Nicolas Sarkozy as their new president. Sarkozy, an urbane secularist who has appointed a leading socialist and one of the world's top human rights advocates to his Cabinet, is hardly an American-style yahoo conservative.

But Sarkozy has proposed serious assaults on France's social-welfare commitments, and that excited Gingrich and his circle – so much so that the potential Republican presidential contender has recently been writing columns with headlines like "A French Lesson for Republicans."

"I know this will seem strange to those of us who like to make jokes about the French, but the fact is that there is a great deal to be learned from the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy (a member of the ruling party) in last weekend's "change" election in France -- and Republicans had better learn it," Gingrich was busy telling his fellow partisans in May.

What Gingrich loved about Sarkozy's win was the fact that a conservative "reformer" replaced a status-quo conservative, former President Jacques Chirac. To his view, it held out the promise that an American conservative reformer who was willing to criticize George Bush – say, um, Newt Gingrich – might be able to hold the presidency in 2008.

Gingrich was especially enthusiastic about predictions that Sarkozy's "blue wave" was going to sweep over France in this month's parliamentary elections.

But as the French have gotten to know more about Sarkozy's plans for domestic reform, they have grown less excited about surfing that blue wave.

Going into Sunday's second round of elections for the French parliament, it was predicted that Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) would dramatically improve its position – giving the new president a blank check to battle with unions, university professors, elderly retirees and pregnant moms to cut their benefits. It made political sense, Sarkozy was getting a friendly response from the French media and the opposition Socialist Party was in disarray – with its defeated presidential candidate Segolene Royal sniping publicly at its chairman, Francois Hollande, her longtime but apparently now former romantic partner.

Instead, the UMP lost 45 seats, while the Socialists gained 36 seats and the Communist Party, which had been predicted to collapse, held onto at least 15 seats.

One of Sarkozy's top Cabinet picks, former prime minister Alain Juppe, was defeated by a Socialist and had to resign his position, while a number of the president's allies and aides lost.

"The Right Wing Takes a Left Hook," declared the left-leaning Paris daily newspaper Liberation on Monday, which reported that, "Voters refused to give the party of Nicolas Sarkozy the blank check it demanded."

Though his position is weaker than that of his conservative predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy will still have a parliamentary majority. He promises to go forward with his conservative reforms, and he'll undoubtedly succeed on some fronts.

But Sarkozy's demand for a broad mandate has been met with what the conservative business daily newspaper Tribune was met with a "first warning to the president."

Will Newt Gingrich get the warning? Unlikely. American conservatives are desperately seeking heroes these days. So desperately that they are looking in increasingly unlikely places – on the set of the television show "Law and Order," in France, even in the reject bin to which Gingrich was consigned. Gingrich and others will keep pointing to Sarkozy as an example of what they hope for: the prospect that that the failed Bush presidency can be replaced by another conservative presidency.

The facts from France suggest that circumstances are more nuaced. Sarkozy, both by his own savvy choices and by the choices of the French people, will not play the role Gingrich and other American right wingers would like him to fill. And those American conservatives who have aided and abetted George Bush's presidency will have a much harder time refashioning themselves than their French counterparts.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Failing With Fatah

Since last November, the United States government has been prepping fighters from Fatah, the security arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to do battle with Hamas. "The plan, which [Condoleezza Rice] developed after speaking to President Bush, was to put pressure on the Hamas government by providing the Palestinian security forces loyal to [Mahmoud] Abbas with training, intelligence, and large shipments of supplies and new weapons, paid for by the United States and by Saudi Arabia," the Atlantic Monthly reported recently.

The $86 million plan, masterminded by Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, didn't work out as planned. Hamas easily routed Fatah in Gaza last week. It was both a diplomatic and military failure for the United States.

The US operation received surprisingly little scrutiny in this country. Few pundits noted the irony of the Bush Administration attempting to undermine the democratically-elected (though hardly moderate) Hamas government while preaching the virtues of democracy in Iraq.

In the wake of Hamas's latest victory, the Administration is once again trying to prop up Fatah with a "West Bank First" strategy. They better hope that this plan works better than the last one.

Blackstone Greed

Thank you, Blackstone, for being so greedy.

Your decision to go public in an IPO has, at long last, led to much-needed scrutiny and legislation that may upend the rules of the game in which secretive private equity partnerships have exploited what is legal but should be illegal: a 20-year-old tax provision that allows partnerships like Blackstone to pay a 15 percent tax rate on capital gains as a limited partnership-- rather than the 35 percent corporate rate.

This is morally and economically criminal--especially at a time when the corporate tax base has already been severely eroded due to offshoring, tax havens and other quasi-legal tax plans devised by these masters of the universe and their accomplices in high-end legal and accounting firms.

After Blackstone disclosed the value of its public offering--putting co-founder Stephen Schwarzman's stake at about $7 billion--the AFL- CIO urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to require Blackstone to register as an investment company. As the Wall Street Journal reported, that would require more disclosure, including of investment strategy. The SEC has not yet ruled on the matter.

Meanwhile Blackstone's public buyout--and its attempt to avoid taxation at the same rates paid by corporations--is so brazen that it has pushed leaders of the tax-writing committees and other legislators to consider proposals to end this little-known tax break.

Senator Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) and Finance Committee Chair Senator Max Baucus, (D, Montana)--not known for being a fierce populist---are now openly acknowledging that private equity firms' attempt to exploit this loophole has gone too far. Last week, they introduced the Baucus-Grassley bill--with the intent of stopping Blackstone and other private equity firms (and hedge funds and venture capital firms) which may go public from exploiting this tax advantage. This is good news--especially at a time when this country needs new revenues for a serious public investment agenda. The New York Times has calculated that the legislation could more than double the revenue for the peoples' coffers by increasing the tax burden on private equity firms from $2.3 billion to $5.2 billion. And the figure might be much higher when assets in previous investments are included.

But the fact that the bill needs fine-tuning is now moving some legislators to consider broader steps--for example, ending the favorable tax provision for all private equity and hedge funds --not just those going public-- raising taxes on "carried Interest" (hefty performance fees) and increasing tax revenue from capping offshore tax deferrals.

Even some on the Finance Committee admit the Chair's proposed legislation is only a first step. For one, it is too narrowly gauged. It goes after only publicly traded firms--and almost all private equity and hedge fund firms are private. It also elides another outrageous tax break that has greatly enriched the alternative investment industry. That is, how to tax "carried interest." Think that's arcane? As the New York Times recently pointed out, it's simply a "euphemism for the hefty performance fees that fund managers haul in." At the moment, those hefty fees are taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent instead of ordinary income tax rates of up to 35 percent, which every other corporate executive pays. (And they should all be paying more.) And it's a break that many experts think has even bigger implications than how the partnership is taxed.

And here's another loophole to be outraged about: Since Blackstone has already filed to go public, the bill would give it a five-year grace period at the lower tax rate. Why? Does Blackstone's Chief Executive Stephen Schwarzman really need the money? Consider that both Blackstone and Fortress Investment Group, which went public earlier this year, have until 2012 to pay the increased tax rate. Can't you see a handful of Senators making a move--between now and then--to repeal the legislation? The good news: yesterday Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced a bill that would eliminate that grace period. (Anyone who cares about taking on corporate greed, and restoring sanity, fairness and decency to our economy at a time when workers' wages are stagnant and benefits like health care and pensions are being shredded should express their outrage to Baucus, Grassley and finance committee members over this unnecessary grace period.)

Now, here's a sweet irony and reason as to why justice may be served-- that is, why the American people may not be shafted at the expense of Wall Street's Masters of the Universe. It seems that Blackstone (and the private equity crowd, more generally) hasn't been in the pay-to-play game long enough to have spread around the campaign dollars needed to ensure that the bill is derailed. Moreover, they're also weak on the lobbying front. According to the Wall Street Journal's detailed weekend reporting piece, "Unlike industries like telecom that have huge lobbying shops, the private-equity industry formed its advocacy group only a few months ago."

Yet here's the disgrace: the WSJ reports that private-equity supporters "profess confidence" they can defeat the measure. And Saturday's New York Times quotes one Senate aide, "this is a fundamental misstep in moving legislation in a closely divided Senate. It is unclear what kind of support , if any, the bill will garner." Okay, Republicans still have real strength in a closely divided Senate. That's a given--after all, it's a party that has consistently sold out the people to the highest bidders.

But what about the Democrats in the Senate? I know where the new populist-progressive Senators--Bernie Sanders, Jon Tester, Sherrod Brown, Jim Webb and Amy Klobuchar--will stand. But what about Hillary Clinton-- with her many ties to Wall Street and the financial industry? What about Chris Dodd or Joe Biden, both from states with powerful finance lobbies? (Yesterday, in a sign that he's wobbly Dodd--Chair of the Senate Banking Committee--asked the Chair of the SEC and the Treasury Secretary to examine impact the Baucus-Grassley legislation on publicly traded partnerships could have on the markets.) And what about Barack Obama--who hasn't voted a populist streak in his time in the Senate? And what about former Senator John Edwards--a man running a good populist campaign who worked for Fortress, that private equity firm which launched a public offering earlier this year replete with big payouts? Which side are they on?

Remember that sharp and smart lesson in populist economics delivered by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia in his response to Bush's State of the Union address? The freshman Senator from Virginia talked bluntly and forcefully of an America "drifting apart along class lines"; he pointed out that "it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day." It was a message that resonated in last November's elections--witness Webb's upset victory--and the victories of Ohio's Brown, Vermont's Sanders, Minnesota's Klobuchar and Montana's Tester--all candidates willing to speak about economic issues vital to ordinary people.

In a forceful challenge to the destructive inequalities embedded in our supposedly healthy economy, Webb said these times remind him of the age of robber barons a century ago, when a Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, challenged corporate influence and irresponsible wealth. It's high time to challenge the rapacious robber barons of our time. The first step is to close these loopholes, end any grace periods and get to work on finding resources--through fair taxes on the rich, and on corporations stuffed with profits--to rebuild our country's economic foundations and civic promise.

Dangerous Dance with Iran

Just when you think the roiling relations between the US and Iran might be quieting down--they heat up again. In the last week, while two US aircraft-carrier strike forces continued to patrol the Persian Gulf (after "exercises" that took the carriers directly through the Straits of Hormuz and off Iran's coast), American accusations against the Iranians have only escalated. Just as, last month, American officials continued to insist that the Iranians were supplying sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents (who are the enemies of their Shiite allies), so, this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates "tied Iran's government to large shipments of weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and said Wednesday such quantities were unlikely without Tehran's knowledge."

Similarly, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN: "[T]here's irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this." (Forget the fact that the Iranians have long been fierce enemies of the Taliban and that the Afghan Defense Minister dismissed such claims out of hand.) In Baghdad, General David Petraeus, head of President Bush's surge operation, also lashed out at the Iranians. ("The Iranian influence has been very, very harmful to Iraq. There is absolutely no question that Iranians are funding, arming, training, and even in some cases, directing the activities of extremists and militia elements.") And three Iranian diplomats were briefly detained and questioned by the U.S. military.

For the Bush administration, it seems, Iran has become the explanation for everything that has gone wrong (even, last week, in the Gaza Strip), the equivalent of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire reduced to a regional scale. According to Brian Ross of ABC News, the CIA has already helped launch secret terror operations inside Iran and President Bush has signed a "non-lethal presidential finding" to "mount a covert ‘black' operation to destabilize the Iranian government." In addition, the administration has been waging a complex, partly covert, "financial war" against Iran. ("The aim is to squeeze the Iranian economy so that the nation's leaders will decide the price of developing nuclear weapons is just too high."); and it also has a $75 million fund at its command to "promote democracy" or a "velvet revolution" in that country.

In the meantime, Helene Cooper and David Sanger of the New York Times report that a struggle continues within the administration about whether or not to launch an air attack against Iranian nuclear facilities before President Bush leaves office. Vice President Cheney and his supporters, as well as beleaguered neocons now increasingly outside the government, continue to push for this, organizing conferences around the world -- as reporter Jim Lobe wrote recently at his Lobelog blog--to brand Iran "Public Enemy Number One" and call for the Bush administration to strike now. ("Mr. President, the truth is that one of the most evil regimes in the world as we know it is on the verge of acquiring the most powerful weapon in the world as we know it.")

In the meantime, the Iranians, who previously captured (and then, with much fanfare, released) a boatload of British sailors, now seem to be rounding up and imprisoning any American citizen--in this case, four Iranian-American scholars and activists with dual nationality--who can be found in Iran and, in the last week, angrily linked their fate to that of five Iranian consular officials taken by American soldiers in a raid in Iraqi Kurdistan this January and held uncharged and largely incommunicado ever since. ("‘We will make the U.S. regret its repulsive illegal action against Iran's consulate and its officials,' state-run Mehr News quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as saying.") All this is happening in the context of a massive crackdown on intellectuals, activists, union leaders, and academics, a grim, fundamentalist "cultural revolution"--aimed in part at the Bush administration's planning for that "Velvet revolution." According to the Washington Post's Robin Wright, the result has been:


"arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official.... The move has quashed or forced underground many independent civil society groups, silenced protests over issues including women's rights and pay rates, quelled academic debate, and sparked society-wide fear about several aspects of daily life."


In addition, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a key military advisor to Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that, within an hour of an American attack on the country's nuclear facilities, the Iranians would be lobbing "dozens, maybe hundreds" of missiles into the Gulf states that host U.S. bases (and enormous oil reserves). "The U.S.," he said ominously, "will be as surprised with Iranian military capabilities as the Israelis were with Hezbollah in last summer's war in Lebanon."

And this list only scratches the surface of the ever-widening set of disputes and face-offs between the two ill-matched powers. This dangerous dance of fundamentalist regimes remains one of the more potentially explosive situations on the planet, whether either side actually plans to attack the other or not. It involves heavily armed forces in at least three countries (and at sea), endless possible flashpoints, and riven administrations, shakily governing two hostile lands involved in ongoing conflicts in two other lands, Afghanistan and Iraq, themselves in bloody chaos. If that isn't a formula for disaster, what is?

In the midst of this, at the moment, are those four American citizens, under arrest in Iran, labeled "detainees," and, tragically, pawns in a far larger struggle. In "Blowback, Detainee-style," Karen J. Greenberg, co-editor of The Torture Papers and executive director of the Center on Law and Security at NYU, points out that "detainee" is "the word the Bush administration coined to deal with suspected terrorist captives who, they argued, should be subjected to extra-legal treatment as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Now, that terminology is, as critics long predicted might happen, being turned against American citizens."

In demanding the release of the Americans, the Bush administration finds itself in a situation that gives the old phrase, "hoist by one's own petard," new meaning. As Greenberg concludes: "Try as they might, Bush administration officials can only cry foul by calling attention to their own systematic violations of justice and the law. In their mouths, the appeal to fundamental rights rings hollow indeed, depriving Americans of the protections afforded by once-accepted standards of decency and justice."

Dysfunctional Debate, Dysfunctional Policies

The tragedy of Washington's narrow to the point of dysfunctional "debate" about the Middle East is that few American political players are willing to comment in a serious manner about the fact that George Bush's mishandling of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has done more than money or guns could have to advance the cause of the Islamic fundamentalists who now control of the Gaza Strip.

Disengaged when engagement was called for, meddling when a hands-off approach would have been wiser, and always staggeringly ignorant -- remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's shock when Hamas won the Palestinian elections early in 2006 -- the Bush administration's approach has been so disastrous that the International Crisis Group's Robert Malley is actually being generous when he says: "Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged."

"Almost"? Let's be realistic here. Bush and Rice responded to the electoral victory of Hamas -- as a political party that had expanded far beyond its fundamentalist base to draw significant support from Palestinians who simply wanted an end to the corruption of the rival and more secular Fatah group's administration -- by throwing U.S. support fully behind Fatah.

The point of the U.S. maneuvering was to isolate and destroy Hamas. According to a recent report in London's Guardian newspaper, the United Nations Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto confirmed that the US pressured Mahmoud Abbas to refuse Hamas' initial invitation to form a "national unity government."

The strategy was a miserable failure. The Bush administration only strengthened the hand of militant factions within Hamas, which had argued that it would be necessary to flex military rather than electoral muscles.

This should not surprise anyone. In February, 2006, former President Jimmy Carter, who expertise with regard to the Middle East is respected almost everywhere but the United States, warned that, "My concern is that in order to try, on behalf of the United States and Israel, to punish Hamas, we'll actually going to be punishing the Palestinian people who are already living in deprivation. And it's going to turn the Palestinian people even more against the West and against Israel, against us and make Hamas seem to be, you know, their only friend. So this will strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian people. I think it's a counterproductive ploy to try to punish Hamas."

Carter's taken brutal hits for being right. A friend of Israel who -- like prominent Israelis such as veteran Knesset member Haim Oron and -- found himself disagreeing with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, the former president was accused of anti-Semitism and charged with failing to understand the intricacies of a region with which he has remained deeply connected for more than three decades.

The fact that his warnings hproved to be prescient will not earn Carter any forgiveness from his critics. Even the urgency of the moment is unlikely to bring much improvement in the quality of the debate within the U.S. about the Bush administration's failed Middle East policies. Carter tried, and he was ridiculed, smeared and dismissed for doing so -- not merely by sincere if misguided supporters of the Israeli right but by a media that polices rather than encourages meaningful dialogue regarding complex foreign-policy issues.

It is this reality that has led most prominent political players in the U.S. -- especially those who are seeking the presidency -- to avoid saying much of consequence about the monumental blunders of the Bush administration in a region where Washington's mistakes invariably invite blowback.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. One presidential candidate, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is wading into the thick of the debate. "The chaos and factional violence in Gaza that ultimately led to the Hamas military takeover of the Presidential Compound and the National Security Guard building demonstrates a failure of President Bush's strategy in matters relating to Hamas," says Kucinich

Picking up on Carter's assessment, the congressman adds, "The humanitarian, economic and political boycott imposed on the elected Hamas government were meant to force Hamas to accept U.S. and Israeli conditions or alternatively to force it out of power. The boycott has accomplished neither goal and instead has created a severe humanitarian crisis that is now marred by political factionalism, violence, and unrest.

Give Kucinich credit for recognizing the crisis on the ground. As the congressman notes, since the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority began in April 2006, the number of Palestinians living in abject poverty has risen to more than a million. And a Palestinian Authority budget that was once $1.5 billion annually has shrunk to $500 million, making it impossible to maintain basic services.

Those circumstances made Gaza what Jan Egeland, the special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General, described months ago as "a ticking time bomb." Now the bomb has gone off and Egeland says, This is the product of failed Palestinian policies, failed Israeli policies, failed international policy."

Kucinich argues that the U.S. should now play a role in shifting the failed international policy to which Egeland refers.

The Ohioan is calling on Congress to pressure the Bush administration to:

1. Announce that the U.S. will immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the former national unity government coalition of Hamas and Fatah;

2. Ask for the reconstitution of the coalition government;

3. Initiate high level diplomatic talks in the region, including representatives chosen by the coalition government;

4. Send emergency food and medical aid to Gaza, under auspices of UN and NGOs.

Those are rational proposals -- admittedly optimistic, but not irrationally so.

Unfortunately, Kucinich's voice is a lonely one -- not just in the presidential race but in the broader politics of the Washington.

Congress is not likely to even begin to exert the sort of pressure Kucinich proposes. In the absence of meaningful debate and serious challenges to their approach, Bush and Rice will continue to get it wrong. In so doing, they will make life worse for Palestinians, and for Israelis. The will place the propsect of stability further out of reach in the entire region. And, despite all their pronouncements to the contrary, they will make the world a dramatically more dangerous place.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Middle East as the Pentagon's Gas Station

In a recent piece, "The Pentagon v. Peak Oil," Michael Klare, expert on war and energy, gives us an unprecedented sense of what it means when the Pentagon hits the gas pump to fill its own tank (as well as its tanks). It is, after all, the Hummer of Defense Departments, the planet's gas-guzzler par excellence. He writes that the estimated annual oil expenditure for U.S. combat operations in Southwest Asia is 1.3 billion gallons a day – and that that's probably a gross underestimate.

On the other hand, in the occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration turns out to be unable to find a local gas station still in operation. As you all undoubtedly remember, before its invasion in March 2003, the administration was quite convinced that Iraqi oil would quickly pay for any future occupation, reconstruction, and -- though this was never said -- permanent American presence. Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz classically pointed out back in 2003 that Iraq "floats on a sea of oil" and told a Congressional panel, "The oil revenue of [Iraq] could bring between 50 and 100 billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years. We're dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."

Over four years later, however, Iraq, under threat of an oil workers' strike, seems to be pumping only 1.6 million barrels of oil a day -- almost a million barrels below the worst days of the sanctions-strapped regime of Saddam Hussein. In addition, an oil law, essentially prepared in Washington and aimed at opening Iraqi oil to multinational (read: American) oil companies, that has been declared by Washington's Democrats and Republicans as the crucial "benchmark" of Iraqi progress, seems dead in the water -- or is it a pool of oil?

Given the Pentagon's "daily petroleum tab" in the Middle Eastern war zone cited by Klare, you could, in a sense, say that the Bush administration is "running on empty" and that the coming of "peak oil" (a future crunch in supplies), the Bush Doctrine of "force transformation" (meaning the creation of an even more gas-guzzling, high-tech military) and "preventive war" will actually give the term "oil wars" new meaning. We may, someday, be fighting our "oil wars" just to preserve that very American right -- to run our war machines on petroleum products.

Faithful Lose Faith in Their President

Could it possibly get any worse for George Bush?

Could he possibly be any less popular?

Yes, if diehard Republicans start to abandon him.

And that, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, is what is now happening.

Bush's approval rating fell to the lowest level ever in the poll -- just 29 percent.

That's a drop of six points since April, the last time when the NBC/Journal pollsters were in the field.

Polls by various media groups have for weeks been showing a decline in approval ratings for the president. But the acceleration in that decline in recent surveys has pushed the president into what even Republican analysts suggest is dangerous turf: the territory where it becomes hard for him to get a serious hearing even from formerly friendly members of Congress, and where a risky act like pardoning Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I "Scooter" Libby, could embolden Congressional Democrats to mount serious inquiries and challenges to the president's authority.

Where's the trouble?

With Republicans.

According to NBC's analysis, "Back in April, 75 percent of Republicans approved of Bush's job performance, compared with 21 percent who disapproved. Now, only 62 percent of Republican approve, versus 32 percent who disapprove."

A lot of the problem is with the immigration issue, according to poll analyst Jay Campbell. The Republican right has worked hard to stir anti-immigrant sentiment at the party's base. Now that Bush is working with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy ☼ to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, the most avid Grand Old Partiers are none to happy with their president.

But immigration is just one piece of a broader puzzle. If Bush had not already raised serious doubts with his handling of the war in Iraq, his budget-busting approach to spending and his antipathy toward basic freedoms that conservatives hold as dear as liberals, he would probably have been better positioned to maintain the faith of the party faithful.

That faith is slipping fast, however. And the latest polls numbers may not be the last stop on Bush's downhill ride.

Indeed, if numbers pointing to a growing sense of malaise are right, Republicans may be coming to the conclusion that the president they defended against all comers for six years just can't handle the job.

In that sense, they are like most Americans.

Should Democrats celebrate? Perhaps, but not too much. While the Congress, which is now under Democratic leadership, is almost as unpopular as the Republican-led Congress it replaced in January, the divisions within the Republican camp are likely to lead to more infighting -- not to mention panic -- within an increasingly uncertain Grand Old Party. That will probably help the relatively united Democrats survive their own slipping approval ratings.

Of course, Democrats would be doing much better if they noted the distaste that American's are expressing for the current direction of the country. A mere 19 percent believe George Bush's United States is headed in the right direction.

This is the first time in 15 years that the "right direction" number has fallen below 20 percent.

At a point when what NBC refers to as a "whopping" 68 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, Democrats might want entertain the notion that it is time to break with Bush on the war in Iraq, trade policy, tax policy and just about everything else.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Libby Is Closer to Jail; Now Comes Neocon Pardon-mania

Now it gets serious.

On Thursday afternoon, federal district court Judge Reggie Walton ruled that he will not put off sending Scooter Libby to jail. Last week, the judge sentenced Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff to 30 months and a $250,000 fine for obstructing justice during the CIA leak investigation. Libby's lawyers asked for Libby to remain free on bail while they appeal the conviction. Walton said he would entertain the request, though he indicated he was not at all sympathetic to their legal arguments. He did not change his mind.

His ruling was a routine legal decision. Walton usually sends criminals convicted in his court (who are not flight risks) to prison once the Bureau of Prison notifies him it has selected a prison for the convict. That process tends to take 45 to 60 days. So unless Libby's layers can persuade an appeals court to overturn Walton's decision, Libby will soon be reporting to a federal penitentiary.

Which means neocon pardon-mania is about to hit.

The Libby Lobby has long called for George W. Bush to pardon Libby--even before his trial and conviction. And the neocons and conservatives have amped up their demand for a pardon in the days since Libby was sentenced.

On June 5, The National Review reiterated its call for a pardon:

[Libby] is a dedicated public servant caught in a crazy political fight that should have never happened, convicted of lying about a crime that the prosecutor can't even prove was committed. President Bush has the power to end this ridiculous saga right now. He should do so.

Days later, William F. Buckley suggested this was an issue involving Bush's manhood:

Mr. Bush will have to exhibit the courage for which he is loved and hated, by doing the right thing, and letting Mr. Libby get on with life.

Today, P.S. Ruckman, writing for The National Review, proposed that Bush issue a "respite" that would delay Libby's jail term while Libby's appeal continues.

The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, too, has been in the forefront of the free Scooter movement. Three days ago, it opined:

With Mr. Libby, what is Mr. Bush afraid of--jeopardizing his 33% approval rating? A pardon would be a two-day story. His opponents can't hate Mr. Bush more than they already do, and his supporters would cheer to see the President standing by the man who stood by him when others in his Administration cut and ran.

Days earlier, The WSJers proclaimed:

Mr. President, this buck stops with you.

Among the rush-to-war crowd, there is outrage that Bush has not waved his magic wand for Libby. These conservatives believe that that Libby (and they) have been betrayed by the president. Rightwing columnist Bob Novak (who started the leak scandal when he outed covert CIA officer Valerie Plame in his column) recently channeled this rage in a column:

The treatment of Lewis Libby, once Vice President Cheney's influential chief of staff, enrages Republicans far more than their public utterances suggest. The president's studied distance from the CIA leak case led to the appointment of a special prosecutor by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey at a time when Comey already knew the leaker's identity. That distance has continued with Bush's response from Europe to Libby's conviction; it was filtered through a deputy press secretary, emphasizing that he had no intention of issuing a pardon.

One Republican who did not watch her words last week was Washington lawyer Victoria Toensing: "If the president can pardon 12 million illegal immigrants, he can pardon Scooter Libby." Toensing is joining the procession supporting the still-unannounced run for president by Fred Thompson, who is unequivocal in his outrage over Libby's fate and asserts that he would pardon him.

You can feel the rage. And the neocons know how to gin up campaigns. They will do whatever it takes to pressure Bush. Expect them to go--to use a technical term--bananas. Especially since the White House still is indicating Bush is not eager to untie Libby from the train tracks. After Walton turned down Libby's request to remain free, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, "Scooter Libby still has the right to appeal, and therefore the president will continue not to intervene in the judicial process. The president feels terribly for Scooter, his wife, and their young children, and all that they're going through."

There was wiggle room in the statement. Perhaps if Libby exhausts his appeals on the issue of staying out of prison while he appeals the conviction, Bush might then consider a pardon. But this was not the message the Libby Lobby wanted to hear.

These days Bush has lost the general public due to the Iraq war, He is in trouble with party's base because of the immigration bill he's been pushing. Now the elite guard of the GOP is in an uproar over his failure (so far) to pardon Libby. These guys and gals are going to endeavor to make this decision a painful one for Bush. They know how to play (read: manipulate) the media. And they have a mole in the White House: Dick Cheney. With Americans and Iraqi civilians being killed in Iraq every day, they will pour all their passion into the Save Scooter fight. After all, he is one of them. And though most neocons who misguided the United States into the failed war in Iraq have never served in the military, they do share a credo with one of the military services: leave no man behind. Scooter is their holy cause. The crusade has just begun.


JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.