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Medals and Ribbons Everywhere and Not a Victory in Sight

When, in mid-September, General David Petraeus testified before Congress on "progress" in Iraq, he appeared in full dress uniform with quite a stunning chestful of medals. The general is undoubtedly a tough bird. He was shot in the chest during a training-exercise accident and later broke his pelvis in a civilian skydiving landing, but until he went to Iraq in 2003, he had not been to war. In the wake of his testimony, the New York Times tried to offer an explanation for the provenance of at least some of those intimidating medals and ribbons -- including the United Nations Medal (for participants in joint UN operations), the National Defense Service Medal (for those serving during a declared national emergency, including 9/11) and the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (for… well, you know…). Petraeus is not alone. Here, for instance, is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace, a combat Marine in Vietnam, with one dazzling chestful of medals and another of ribbons.

Medal and ribbon escalation has been long on the rise in the US military. Here, for instance, was General William Westmoreland, who commanded US forces in Vietnam, sporting his chestful back in that distant era. But the strange thing is: As you continue heading back in time, as, in fact, U.S. generals become more successful, those ribbons and medals shrink -- and not because the men weren't highly decorated either. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw World War II on the western front in Europe for the Allies seems, in his period of glory, to have chosen to wear between one and three rows. And General George C. Marshall, who oversaw all of World War II, after a distinguished career in the military, can be seen in photos wearing but three rows as well.

When it comes to ribbon display, in today's military the Marshall or Eisenhower equivalent would be Lynndie England, the infamous Abu Ghraib guard who was convicted by a military court in May 2005 for her abusive acts at that prison. By then, she had served four years in the Army Reserves and, as a photo just after her conviction indicates, she could already sport three rows of ribbons.

It's hard to believe that there isn't a correlation here--that, in fact, there isn't a comparison to be made. For all the world, when I saw Petraeus on display before Congress, I thought of the full-dress look of Soviet generals, not to say the Soviet Union's leader Leonid Brezhnev, back in the sclerotic 1980s when, ambushed in Afghanistan, they were on the way down. Like the USSR then, the US, only a few years back hailed as the planet's New Rome, has the look of a superpower in distress--and it's hard to believe that generals with such chests full of medals, whether in the former USSR or the present USA, have the kind of perspective that actually leads to winning wars -- or to assessing a losing war correctly.

Consider what a retired Air Force officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has to say on the subject: "Those medals and militaria that our commanders wear are a kind of evidence. Our military, they indicate, is so busy patting itself on the back that its medal-bestowing has come to resemble those Little League tournaments where every kid gets a trophy, win or lose. We're so busy celebrating how great we are that we're failing to face reality. Not all problems can be solved by applying more elbow grease and shouting ‘Hooah.'"

Not all problems can be solved… but in the meantime, it's sure a hell of a great look.

How Many Times Can a Country Lose its Innocence?

I've been thinking recently about the many ways in which we conceal from ourselves the truths we know we know. At the Shocked, Shocked conference at NYU on Saturday -- the subhead of which was the comical/exasperated "Just how many times can a country lose its innocence?" -- the Yale historian David Blight gave a riveting talk about how over the second half of the 19th century the Civil War became memorialized as a conflict between "two right sides " -- Union and Confederate-- and "reconciliation" came to mean focussing exclusively on the valor of the soldiers in both armies. Slavery? Black people? Neither fit the narrative of reuniting North and South. For that, the causes and purposes of the war had to be obscured, the past -- the real past -- forgotten. The slaveowner and the slave dropped out of the public story, the soldiers in blue and gray became the star players. In this way, the country could bind up its wounds and move on triumphantly without having to confront the reconstitution of white supremacy in the South, or Northern racism either. Napoleon quipped that the winners write history, but until the civil rights movement, the history of the Civil War was largely written by the South.

Blight gave an interesting example of how the wish for a heroic, positive history distorts "progressive"memory too. Ken Burns ended his PBS series on the Civil War with footage of the huge 1913 reunion at Gettysburg of veterans from both sides, closing on a conciliatory meeting between an old black union soldier and a white confederate one. According to Blight, this picture had to have come from a much later vets reunion. In 1913, all the vets were white. The only blacks permitted in the encampment were the ones who built and maintained the latrines, cooked and served food, and handed out blankets.

You can see the same process of historical mythmaking at work on the War in Vietnam. The war as well-intentioned tragedy (liberal version) versus the war as sabotaged glory, the stab in the back (conservative). The history of militant GI resistance, told in the powerful documentary "Sir! No Sir!", has dropped out of public memory, replaced by feckless "draft dodgers" and the myth of the returning soldier spat upon in the airport by a hippie girl with flowers in her hair.

How will the War in Iraq be woven into the ongoing narrative of American goodness and progress? We brought them democracy, but they couldn't handle freedom? We could have pacified the country with just a bit more time but the peaceniks stabbed us in the back, just like in Vietnam? Maybe both--in fact, both are in circulation already. You can be sure that, as with Vietnam, no matter how many Abu Ghraibs and Hadithas come to light, they will be blamed on bad-apple soldiers and the fog of war, not higher ups or official policy.

Imagine that in 30 years the Smithsonian tries to put on an exhibit exploring the the Iraq war: the cooked evidence of WMD, the "embedding" of the media, our bewildering and shifting alliances with assorted Iraqi would-be strongmen, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, the violence against civilians, the displacement of millions of Iraqis to Syria and Jordan, and so on. Today , these are all things we know well. But will we still know them in 30 years? If history is any guide, they'll have been replaced by a soothing and hopeful popular narrative of patriotism , military valor and well-meaning blunders. In the furor over the planned exhibit, many rightwing politicians will raise tons of cash, the curator will lose her job, and in the end the more disturbing, 'controversial" displays will be replaced with pictures of Osama bin Laden, 9/11, soldiers building schools and soulful-eyed Iraqi children being brought to America for medical treatment.

Blight closed with a wonderful remark from the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, the great civil-rights leader: "If you don't tell it like it really was, it can never be as it ought to be." That goes for all of us.

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Katha Pollitt's collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, is just out from Random House. These are not Nation columns; in fact, most are previously unpublished. "Watching Pollitt level her incisive wit at targets as disparate as Marxism and motherhood makes "Learning to Drive" a rewarding and entertaining read."--San Francisco Chronicle

For upcoming readings and appearances, click here.

Moscow Remembers Politkovskaya

Heidi Hoogerbeets, a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, traveled to Moscow last week to participate in memorial events for the courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Heidi's vivid dispatch from Moscow is a reminder that Politkovskaya's work and human rights advocacy remains alive in Russian journalistic and political life.


Anna Politkovskaya's Memory Cannot Be Extinguished
Heidi Hoogerbeets

MOSCOW, Russia, October 7, 2007 -- One year ago today, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in a contract-style killing near the elevator of her Moscow apartment. Today, Muscovites had the opportunity to pay homage to this dynamic Russian journalist, who felt a moral duty to illuminate the truth behind the Russian government's agenda in the Chechen war.

Though Politkovskaya's death had profound international resonance, there has been relatively little reaction inside Putin's Russia. Nonetheless, a handful of Russian citizens continue to campaign against impunity and to fight the crackdown on press freedom that has plagued Russia. Their determination echoed throughout the day's events commemorating the first anniversary of her death.

Approximately 2,000 people gathered under a gray sky at Pushkin Square for a dissident rally in Politkovskaya's honor. An excessive amount of Police lined the square. The rally was peaceful, and no problems were reported.

Apart from those who attended the rally, was a smaller crowd of Muscovites who preferred to separate Politkovskaya's death from Kremlin politics. Human rights activists and the journalist's family ardently expressed that speeches could present a platform to politicians who would exploit the opportunity to advance their own agendas.

Through the collective effort of local human rights activists and journalists, an outdoor photo exhibition in Politkovskaya's memory was held between 11am and 5pm on Bolotnaya Square. The exhibition featured works by outstanding photographers from England and Russia, who captured images of Beslan and Chechnya, places that were close to Politkovskaya's heart.

The personalities depicted in the exhibition are the heroic citizens of the North Caucasus who experienced the tragedy of war. The photographers captured children's faces revealing childhoods lost, their eyes showing a maturity beyond their years, and families devastated by war. Additionally, Novaya Gazeta and Amnesty International contributed pictures of Politkovskaya.

The organizing committee included representatives from the human rights center "Memorial," the "Civil Assistance Committee," "Glasnost Defense Foundation," "DEMOS" Center, "Coalition for Democratic Alternative Civil Service" (an anti-war organization), and Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya worked.

Permission for the outdoor exhibition had been obtained from city officials. The required process to organize and carry out the commemorative activities for Politkovskaya in Moscow was a process which epitomized the complex state of Putin's Russia today. The process included the heavy involvement of government authorities each step of the way, including obtaining and carrying out all details regarding the events.

Alek Mnatsakanyan, one of the committee organizers, was bewildered by a police officer's reaction to hold the exhibition on October 7, the day of Politkovskaya's death. "The officer asked why we chose this particular day to hold the exhibition. I told him the day wasn't our choice, but the choice of those who killed Anna Politkovsaya," he said. "After all, October 7 is Putin's birthday, and it is as though the officer was suggesting that such an event would spoil the day for the president."

In the early afternoon, family, friends, and colleagues visited Troyekurovskoe cemetery to pay their respects to Politkovskaya in a small graveside service. Her grave was covered in a blanket of vibrant flowers glistening under the rainy sky.

Several people huddled tightly together under umbrellas, while reporters hastily circled the grave, snapping multiple pictures.

Novaya Gazeta's book, "For What," was placed by her colleagues beside a framed picture of Politkovskaya at the grave site. The large book was released last summer, and features Politkovskaya's articles and a collection of memories from those who knew her well.

Russian tradition commonly calls for wait of a year before relatives erect a monument at the grave site. Ilya Politkovsky, the journalist's son, says that the family is planning to put up a monument after the end of winter. "At the moment, we have different ideas for the monument. One thing is for sure, though: The monument will not be dark. Many people in Russia like to have dark monuments, but my mother was a bright person, and she loved bright colors." he said.

A crowd gathered outside Politkovskaya's apartment on Lesnaya Street for a silent vigil at 4pm, the time of her murder. On behalf of Garry Kasparov's "Other Russia," a plaque was placed above the apartment building's mailbox, saying, "Anna Politkovskaya lived here and was maliciously killed on October 7, 2006."

In the evening, Politkovskaya's car was parked outside Novaya Gazeta for passers-by to observe. Red and white roses adorned the windows. Beside the car, was a life-size poster of her getting into the driver's seat with a charismatic smile on her face.

Today the halls of Novaya Gazeta are abuzz with talk of deadlines, as work in one of the few remaining independent papers in Russia continues. It is impossible to pass room 307, Politkovskaya's old office, without stopping by for a few moments of reflection.Though subtle changes were made in the office since October 2006, there are still plenty of visual reminders of Politkovskaya. Flowers and pictures of her sit on her old desk, and her books, awards, and greeting cards still line the window sill that divides her work space from the neighboring office. The office seems frozen in a time vacuum, free from the ever-present traces of cigarette smoke that characteristically permeate Russian work spaces.

Last Monday's issue of Novaya Gazeta featured Politkovskaya's old telephone number on the front page. A heartrending picture of her on the phone, her eyes energetic, lips showing a sincere smile, took up half the page. In anticipation of the October 7 anniversary, her old telephone number was reactivated for a week, so that people could voice their opinions about their lives, politics, and of course, about Politkovskaya.

Remembering Politkovskaya, Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's Editor-in Chief, said that she was no ordinary reporter who simply reported on Chechnya. After writing about the people she interviewed, she went back to help them any way she could.

"At Anya's request, people regularly brought books, clothing, pampers, and food products – right here, to Novaya Gazeta," Muratov said, tapping his desk for emphasis. "Then all these things were sent to people who lost their homes in Chechnya."

Aware of the danger awaiting Politkovskaya, Muratov constantly tried to convince her to write about other things. "I told her that there are other countries and other themes she can write about," he said. "But it was impossible to argue with her. And Anna did have a very strong point. People had nowhere else to go – Moscow wouldn't help them, and Kadirov wouldn't help them." Indeed, Politkovskaya never abandoned war victims who had no voice of their own, and nowhere else to turn.

"The last time Anya went to Chechnya, it was without my permission, when I was on vacation. I saved a text message she sent me," Muratov said, his eyes reflecting a blend of pride and sadness.

Muratov reached across his desk for his cell phone, and displayed her final rebellious message: "I am in Chechnya. Call if you need anything."

Politkovskaya is remembered not only as a courageous journalist and citizen who cared deeply about the fate of her country, but also as a devoted mother.

Ilya Politkovsaky said that on the anniversary of his mother's death, the family would visit his mother's grave early in the morning and then have their own quiet gathering.

"For me she is not a diplomat or war correspondent. She's just my mother," Politkovsky said. "My sister and I agreed with my mother's political position about the situation in Russia and in Chechnya, and we understood why she was going on with her work, but we couldn't accept it. We never wanted our mother to be the one writing about those things."

How would Ilya Politkovsky like his mother to be remembered? Politkovsky contemplatively sipped some tea before giving an answer. "I would like for my mother's articles to continue to be read and published, and for people to truly understand that she was an outstanding investigative journalist, not only for Chechnya, but for Russia. I want her to be a paragon in the world of investigative journalism," he finally said.

And she is.

She was virtually alone in the campaign to reveal the grotesque civilian casualties and the ruthless abuse of Russian soldiers by senior officers during the Chechen War.

Viacheslav Ismailov, Politkovskaya's close colleague at Novaya Gazeta, said she was a voice for those families who were abandoned by the justice system designed to protect them. "No journalist, either in Russia or abroad, dedicated so much time to recording specific cases of kidnappings, disappearances and torture. This set her apart from other journalists," Ismailov said. "Anna felt that no one understood her. And many people didn't – even her colleagues here at Novaya Gazeta."

The unpopular and controversial topic of Chechnya contributed to sense of isolation. Many Russians displayed indifference toward the Second Chechen war to which she devoted her pen. Nevertheless, Politkovskaya fought to enlighten a misinformed Russian audience, whose priority lay in securing newfound personal economic prosperity.

Perhaps it will take the life of Anna Politkovskaya to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin and the rest of the world that, in order for a great power to survive and prosper in the world, recognition and respect for human rights and freedoms are requirements for all democratic societies.

Politkovskaya's words continue to haunt the authorities she challenged. Her daring articles showcased the country's systematic disregard for human rights and the evaporation of the most basic tenets of modern democratic societies – freedom of speech and a sound, independent legal system. She unmasked the cruel reality of the Chechen wars, raising chilling questions that could no longer be ignored in Russia, or abroad.

And today was a peaceful reminder that even after her death, Anna Politkovskaya remains alive, transcending cultural boundaries throughout the world, serving as a symbol of the emergence of the truth embodied in journalism.

George McGovern Backs Clinton

The sense that New York Senator Hillary Clinton presidential campaign is going from strength to strength grew Sunday as a new Des Moines Register poll showed her moving into the lead in the first caucus state of Iowa. And Clinton's position there got a boost over the weekend as Iowa Democrats who still doubt her anti-war credentials were reassured by none other than 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War icon who has been a far more consistent foe of the Iraq War than Clinton, heartily endorsed the 2008 Democratic front runner on a day when the Register poll suggested that the New York senator might actually win the caucuses that are expected to define the course of the race for the Democratic nod.

McGovern does not cut Clinton a lot of slack for her 2002 vote to authorize Bush to attack Iraq. The former senator bluntly declares that it was "a mistake to support that war at any time."

But McGovern argues that there are few "mistake-free" candidates and says that Clintonhas moved toward what he sees as a "pretty good" position on the war. "She knows that's its gotta be ended," the former senator says. "She said if by any chance Bush were to continue the war that after 2008 she'd terminate it. That's about all you can expect."

This is a debatable point. But it is fair to say that the willingness of liberals such as McGovern to make their peace with Clinton is reflected in her improving position in Iowa and elsewhere.

According to the Register poll of Iowans who are likely to participate in the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Clinton is now at 29 percent. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who has made little secret of the fact that he must secure a first-place finish in Iowa to continue as a serious contender, was at 23 percent. Most of Clinton's gain in the survey appeared to be the expense of Edwards, who fell 6 points from his position in May poll for the Register.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who runs closest to Clinton in national polls, was at 22 percent in Iowa. Rounding out the field in the Hawkeye state were New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson at 8 percent and Delaware Senator Joe Biden at 5 percent, with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel all at 1 percent or less.

The Register poll has long been the most respected in Iowa. More consistently correct in its assessments than most, in large part because it is constructed to measure signals of strength in the complex caucus process, the survey offered Clinton a good measure of encouragement.

Clinton now leads by a comfortable margin among likely caucusgoers aged 55 and older, who historically have been the steadiest presence at the state's caucuses. She also leads among likely caucusgoers in union households, displacing Edwards as the favorite pick of labor-linked voters.

Clinton's strengthening position is Iowa may seem surprising on the surface, as the state's Democrats are traditionally seen as being more populist and more anti-war than the Democratic front runner. But Clinton has benefited from the fact that more progressive Democrats have begun vetting her candidacy.

Over the weekend, former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee and a man whose name is synonymous with liberal and anti-war politics, arrived in Iowa to give Clinton an enthusiastic endorsement. "She seems to have a greater feel for the problems of the country. She gets stronger all the time," McGovern told the crowd at an Iowa City Democratic event that drew a crowd estimated at 1,800 people. "I think that if we can elect her president, she'll be a greater president even than her brilliant husband."

McGovern, who had once seemed to be leaning toward Obama, praised the Illinois senator and spoke well of Edwards, but concluded, "We have an old rule of courtesy in the United States: Ladies first."

While Republican operatives still love to beat up on McGovern and "McGovernism" -- despite the fact that the frontrunner for the party's nomination, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, voted for McGovern in 1972 -- the reality is that such attacks have little or no meaning beyond the conservative base. McGovern, who has worked closely with 1996 Republican Presidential nominee Bob Dole on hunger issues in recent years, has at age 85 achieved a comfortable "elder statesman" status.

It was a measure of McGovern's status, and his value as an endorser, that Clinton went out of her way to appear with the former senator. She told the crowd in Iowa City that he would have a place in her administration, as McGovern did in the administrations of Bill Clinton and, briefly, George W. Bush. The South Dakotan

Among grassroots Democrats in Iowa who recall his past campaigns, however, his endorsement of Clinton has value. The former senator remains an exceptionally well-regarded figure among liberals in Iowa and other states of the upper Midwest. A strong showing in the 1972 Iowa caucuses gave the former senator an important boost in his race for the nomination that year. When McGovern made a long-shot bid for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, he shocked national pundits by securing a solid finish in the caucuses, ahead of Ohio Senator John Glenn and others who were considered more serious contenders.

At the Johnson County Democratic picnic where McGovern and Clinton appeared together, signs read "JoCo (Johnson County) Loves McGovern," and Clinton backers held "McGovern/Clinton" signs. When the former senator appeared at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, the crowd delivered what was easily the noisiest ovation of the day that featured remarks by Clinton, Edwards, Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson and actor Forest Whitaker, who spoke on behalf of Obama.

George McGovern's endorsement of Clinton in Iowa City on Sunday came as part of a weekend of campaigning he did across Iowa on the Democratic frontrunner's behalf. On several of the stops, he was accompanied by Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, who is no relation but who shares the former senator's strong anti-Iraq war views.

Hard-core foes of the war in Iraq will still have a hard time voting for Clinton in Iowa or elsewhere. While she is a strong critic of Bush's management of the war, she remains a weak proponent of strategies to bring U.S. troops home from the conflict. But among old-school Iowa Democrats, the McGovern seal of approval will help.

World War II Interrogators Denounce Administration

On Friday, President Bush lied to the American people, as he has many times before, telling us that "this government does not torture people." But the metastasizing record shows that Bush and a compliant Justice Department have repeatedly authorized harsh CIA interrogation techniques, such as head slapping, frigid temperatures and simulated drowning. Such techniques have been condemned by many decent and reasonable people in these last years. But the critics who gathered this past weekend to denounce these methods made for an unusual group. Meeting for the first time since the 1940s, World War II veterans who had been charged with top-secret interrogations of Nazi prisoners of war lamented "the chasm between the way they conducted interrogation during the war and the harsh measures used today in questioning terrorism suspects." [See the Washington Post's cover story, "Fort Hunt's Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII," by Petula Dvorak} John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a foreign service and ambassador to Denmark, told the Washington Post, " We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice." Another World War II veteran--one of the few who interrogated the early 4000 prisoners of war, most of them German scientists and submariners, who were brought in to Fort Hunt, Virginia for questioning for days and weeks--spoke of how "during the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone. We extracted information in a battle of the wits." He added that he was proud that he "never compromised my humanity." Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist, told the Post, " We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or ping pong than they do today, with their torture." Several of the veterans used the occasion, upon receiving honors from the Army's Freedom Team Salute, to state their oppositon to the war in Iraq and methods used at Guantanamo Bay. Peter Weiss, a longtime friend of The Nation, a fearless champion of nuclear sanity, international law and human rights, spoke movingly. " I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war." Another veteran, Arno Mayer, a professor emeritus of European history at Princeton University and a longtime contributor to the Nation, refused the award out of concern that he and the others were being used by the military today to justify their acts. "We did spooky stuff then, so it's okay to do it now." But what the Veterans' revealed so strikingly was the disgust these former interrogators-- in a war that posed a greater threat to America's survival than the so-called "war on terror"--have for the cruel, inhuman, degrading and illegal techniques called for --and condoned-- by the Bush Administration.

Bush v. Children

The State Children's Health Insurance Program was created by the federal government in 1997 to provide medical insurance coverage for children of families with annual incomes too large to qualify for Medicaid but too small to afford private insurance. The legislation currently insures more than six million children who would otherwise lack coverage. An individual is eligible until age 18 if his or her family income is above Medicaid thresholds but below a total income of $41,300 for a family of four.

The original legislation expired on September 30 and required reauthorization. The Senate and House quickly agreed on a compromise to continue SCHIP by large margins as well as to increase funding to enhance the efficacy of the program.

As promised, President Bush vetoed the bill Wednesday, calling the proposal fiscally irresponsible and an attempt to "federalize medicine." This from a president who has been one of the most profligate spenders in history. The fact is that this veto is yet another example of his administration's never-ending efforts to ignore the truth for the sake of promoting misguided ideological principles.

SCHIP has been successful. Enrollees in SCHIP have been demonstrated to have improved access to higher quality health care. But facts didn't matter enough to Bush as he killed a bipartisan bill. However facts should matter to members of Congress who have the power to override his veto, as a very good editorial in the October 6 Kansas City Star argued. The main point is that "the chronically underfunded 10-year-old SCHIP has made remarkable inroads. It has reduced by a third the uninsurance rate of low-income children whose families don't qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance." As the editorial concludes, "President Bush's veto should not stand. Lawmakers who voted 'no' should reconsider and help override it. If they use the facts as a guide, they will."

Bush is expecting House conservatives to sustain his veto. But significant political pressure--if not reason and morality--can undermine his hopes. Kids might have something to say about it too, as a new video produced by the Campaign for America's Future makes amusingly clear. Watch the video below and click here to learn the facts about SCHIP.

Then, go to CAF's action page and send a message to your Representative in the House imploring him/her to stand up for our kids, stand up to George Bush, and override the veto.

Prison Reformers Finally Set Free

Is the nearly 40-year-old, bipartisan "let's get tough on crime" mantra getting old-- even for politicians? On the campaign trail Barack Obama and John Edwards are now warning of the dire consequences stemming from the rise in the incarceration rates for African-American men and boys. This week the Supreme Court heard arguments against five-year mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine dealers.

And on Thursday, the Senate Joint Economic Committee held the first hearing that reform advocates and legislative staffers can remember on the social and economic harms that come from having the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. Both lawmakers and witnesses explicitly connected the explosion in the prison population to the so-called "War on Drugs." One damning statistic after another was given:

-The number of incarcerated citizens has gone from 250,000 at the dawn of the drug war to a current 2.3 million.

-Despite making up 13 percent of the overall population, half of all current prisoners are black.

-While blacks are not shown to use drugs more than whites, they are four times as likely to be arrested for possession or dealing.

These facts are nothing new. What is new is that the sociologists and prison reformers were reciting these stats not at university lecture halls but to Senators who write criminal law. And Kansas Republican and long-shot presidential candidate Sam Brownback was pushing his Recidivism Reduction and Second Chance Act of 2007.

Brownback and several Republican and Democratic co-sponsors want to provide federal grants for job training, substance abuse treatment and other social re-entry programs to some of the more than 650,000 inmates who leave prison each year. As the prominent Christian conservative pointed out, two-thirds of all inmates currently return to prison in three years.

While Brownback's bill seems the kind of "compassionate conservative" policy President Bush once promised, a fiscal conservative argument for prison reform has also emerged. Building and operating prison is the only part of state budgets beside Medicaid to have grown in the past 20 years. States spent $9 billion on prisons in 1984-- and spent $41 billion in 2004.

At the hearing, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia endorsed Brownback's legislation and spoke broadly on the issue, saying, "The American public needs to understand the cultural divisions of the problem." He noted that the U.S. has more than ten times the percentage of its citizens incarcerated then other developed countries.

Witness Pat Nolan, Vice-president of the advocacy group Prison Fellowship, testified that imprisonment has strayed much too far from the intention of public safety. "Prisons are supposed to be for people we're afraid of," he argued, "But instead they're for people we're mad at."

Not every legislator will immediately sign-up for the Prison Fellowship mailing list, but all-in-all it was an auspicious week for beginning to shed light on the broken criminal justice system.

Who Wants to Bomb Iran? Dems, not the GOP, says Seymour Hersh

When George Bush and Dick Cheney talk about their plans to bomb Iran, they are told "You can't do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated"--that's what a Republican former intelligence official told legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. "But," the former official went on, "Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President."

I recently spoke with Hersh, whose new piece, "Target Iran," is featured in The New Yorker this week.

When I asked Hersh who wants to bomb Iran, he said "Ironically there is a lot of pressure coming from Democrats. Hillary Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have all said we cannot have a nuclear-armed Iran. Clearly the pressure from Democrats is a reflection of – we might as well say it – Israeli and Jewish input." He added the obvious: "a lot of money comes to the Democratic campaigns" from Jewish contributors.

But while Democrats argue that we must "do something" about an Iranian nuclear threat, Hersh says the White House has concluded their own effort to convince Americans that Iran poses an imminent threat has "failed." Apparently the public that bought the story of WMD in Iraq is now singing the classic Who song, "Won't be Fooled Again."

Moreover, Hersh reports, "the general consensus of the American intelligence community is that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb" – so the public is right to be skeptical.

As a result, according to Hersh, the focus of the plans to bomb Iran has shifted from an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities to an emphasis on the famed "surgical strikes" on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere. The White House hopes it can win public support for this kind of campaign by arguing that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq.

Why don't Bush and Cheney "give a rat's ass" about getting Republicans reelected to the Senate and the House in 2008? "Of course that was hyperbole to make a point," Hersh said. "When it comes to choice between bombing Iran and taking some political heat, the president will do what he wants. Look, no decision has been made, no order has been given, I've never said it's going to happen. But I had breakfast this morning in Washington with somebody who's close to a lot of military people, and there's a sense among them that the president is essentially messianic about this. He sees this as his mission. It could be because God is telling him to do it. It could be because his daddy didn't do it. It could be because it's step 13 in a 12-step program he was in. I just don't know."

The biggest problem in US relations with Iran, Hersh said, is that Bush refuses to "talk to people he doesn't like. . . . We dealt with China, we dealt with the Soviet Union in those bad days of Stalin and Mao. But there is no pressure whatsoever" coming from the leading Democratic presidential candidates demanding that Bush negotiate with the Iranians rather than bombing them.

What Democracy Looks Like in Costa Rica

Americans may have forgotten what democracy looks like.

Our current president was chosen in 2000 not by the voters -- Al Gore won the popular vote by a comfortable margin of more than 500,000 ballots -- but by a Supreme-Court dictated Electoral College vote. Another Electoral College "win" came in 2004, when George Bush secured a second term on the "strength" of Ohio results that, while more favorable to the Republicans than the 2000 numbers from the battleground state of Florida, were so dubious in their generation and so uncertain in their accuracy that the congressional certification was challenged by Ohio representatives and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. Our Congress, which was elected in 2006 to end the war in Iraq, has rejected the will of the people and handed the Bush-Cheney administration more money than it requested to maintain the occupation of a sovereign land where the people would prefer to guide their own affairs. And even as the vast majority of Americans -- including six in ten Republicans -- oppose trade policies that offshore jobs, devastate communities in the U.S. and abroad and batter the environment, an unconscionable president and an unresponsive Congress pursue new agreements designed to empower corporations rather than citizens.

If Americans want to find evidence of democracy, they might look south to the Latin American republic of Costa Rica -- where voters will decide Sunday on whether they want their country to sign onto the Central American Free Trade Agreement that is currently being promoted by the White House, The Wall Street Journal and the multinational corporations that are the generous the patrons of both those institutions.

Imagine that: In Costa Rica, the people are being invited to participate in the debate over their economic future.

It is a concept so foreign to the United States as to be almost unimaginable. Yet, once upon a time, there was a lively debate in the U.S. Congress and this country's media about measures such as the Ludlow and Bricker amendments to the U.S. Constitution, proposals designed to give American citizens a real voice in decisions about whether to go to war and how and when the country will enter into multilateral treaty agreements.

Today, the members of Congress who are cheering on the democratic process in Costa Rica, such as Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, are ridiculed by the Wall Street Journal as opposing open markets and U.S. interests. Sanders is savaged for traveling to Costa Rica to reassure citizens there that voting against CAFTA will not mark their country as a pariah in the eyes of responsible U.S. officials. The senator's defense of democracy and citizen engagement is dismissed by the Journal as "as pure a distillation of the case for protectionism as you'll find outside the pages of Nation magazine..." Of course, The Nation has a long history of embracing enlightened internationalism, as does Sanders, but free-trade fundamentalists do not have much taste for the facts -- or for the will of the people.

So be it.

Democracy has never had many friends among the elites. But Sanders is right to celebrate the fact that, as he notes, "On Oct. 7, Costa Rica will become the first country where citizens have the opportunity to vote for or against a trade agreement. Despite being heavily outspent by the moneyed interests, despite opposition from the Costa Rican government and the U.S. ambassador, despite an extremely hostile media, the latest polls have the election as a toss-up. Incredibly, just the other day, in a nation of only four million people, well over 100,000 marched in opposition to the treaty -- a sign of the deep grassroots opposition there to CAFTA."

Sanders opposes CAFTA. But, on his trip to Costa Rica, he did not tell people there how to vote. "That's there business, not mine," he says. So why did he make the journey? "To help counter the lies being spread in Costa Rica that suggested that if the people there, exercising their democratic rights, voted 'no' on CAFTA, the U.S. government would punish them..."

Unlike his critics, Sanders is enthusiastic about democratizing the debate about trade policy. And he does not want Bush-Cheney administration appointees, The Wall Street Journal or multinational corporate interests to stifle the process. "When the people in a free, democratic and independent country like Costa Rica vote their conscience they should not be punished by the world's superpower," the senator says.

Make no mistake, Sanders is being attacked for expressing deeply-rooted American values. Instead of threatening Costa Rica, our leaders should renew those values by borrowing a page from our good neighbor to the south. If Costa Rica can democratize the trade debate, why not the U.S.?