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.?
On Thursday, former Judge Radhi al-Radhi, Iraq's top anticorruption official until he was recently forced out by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appeared before the House government oversight committee and described what had become of people who had worked for him at the Commission on Public Integrity as they investigated crime and fraud within the Iraqi government:
Thirty-one employees have been killed as well as at least twelve family members. In a number of cases, my staff and their relatives have been kidnapped or detained and tortured prior to being killed. Many of these people were gunned down at close range. This includes my staff member Mohammed Abd Salif, who was gunned down with his seven-month pregnant wife. In one case of targeted death and torture, the security chief on my staff was threatened with death many times. His father was recently kidnapped and killed because of his son's work at CPI. His body hung on a meat hook. One of my staff members who performed clerical duties was protected by my security staff, but his 80-year-old father was kidnapped because his son worked at CPI. When his dead body was found, a power drill had been used to drill his body with holes. Waleed Kashmoula was the head of CPI's Mosul branch. In March 2005, a suicide bomber met with Waleed in his office...and then set off his vest [bomb], killing Waleed....My family's home has been attacked by rockets. I have had a sniper bullet striking near me as I was outside my office. We have learned the hard way that the corrupt will stop at nothing.
Minutes later, Republicans members of the committee were suggesting there was nothing unusual or shocking about corruption in Iraq. "Corruption is not a new phenomenon," remarked Representative Tom Davis, the senior GOPer on the panel. Another committee Republican, Representative Darrell Issa, huffed, "We're not surprised a country that was run by a corrupt dictator...would have a pattern of corruption." And Republican Representative John Mica noted that corruption plagues many democratic countries, including the United States. Mica cited Watergate and the prosecution of Reagan administration officials, and he claimed that the Clinton administration had "the most number of witnesses to die suddenly."
Their spin: corruption in Iraq is no big deal.
But Radhi in his testimony reiterated what he said in an interview with me several weeks ago: corruption is "rampant" within Iraq (perverting virtually every ministry and costing tens of billions of dollars); it's undermining the entire government and has "stopped the process of reconstruction"; Maliki has consistently blocked corruption investigations (especially probes involving his associates and family); in some instances corruption is "financing terrorism" by funding sectarian militias; and the situation is getting worse. Radhi noted that of the 3000 corruption cases his commission investigated and forwarded to Iraqi courts for prosecution, only 241 have been adjudicated. Also appearing as a witness at the hearing, Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, echoed Radhi, testifying that corruption within the Iraqi government is the "second insurgency." Bowen reported that corruption is on the rise in Iraq--partly due to Maliki's protection of crooked officials. He quoted one Iraqi official who said that "corruption is threatening the state."
That is, this is worse than Watergate. (And back then, no one investigating Richard Nixon's dirty tricks ended up dead and suspended on a meat hook.)
Radhi agreed with the Republicans that corruption was present during the days of Saddam Hussein, but he pointed out that the current corruption "is undermining my country." And he was not fazed when the GOPers tried to discredit his testimony. Republican Representative Dan Burton excitedly pointed out that Radhi had once served as a prosecutor during the Saddam years. (Burton did not mention that Radhi was twice imprisoned and tortured during the Saddam years and still bears the scars.) And Issa suggested that Radhi was appearing at the hearing (and offering testimony inconvenient for the Bush administration) in return for receiving backing from congressional Democrats for an asylum request Radhi recently submitted to the U.S. government for himself and family members.
Radhi came to the United States in August with ten of his CPI investigators for training sessions set up by the Justice Department. While he was in the Washington area, the Maliki government forcibly removed him from his post, accusing him of corruption and essentially stranding him with almost no source of funds. As one of his associates said at the hearing, "If Maliki is right and Judge Radhi stole millions of dollars, why did he have to check out of his hotel here when he couldn't pay the bill?" Christopher Griffith, a State Department official who worked with Radhi, in a pre-hearing interview with the House committee called Radhi "the most honest government of Iraq official that I have met in my 21 months in the country." Arthur Brennan, a former State Department official (and a past New Hampshire state judge) who worked with Radhi in Iraq, has called him "courageous, honest, and effective." Bowen dubbed him, "My most reliable partner....in Iraq."
The Republican attempt to taint Radhi was predictable. Radhi, who has praised the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said he has no political agenda. But his testimony raised a troubling question for the Bush administration: should the United States expend American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to create "breathing space" for a government that may be too corrupt to achieve political reconciliation or provide essential services to its citizens? As Representative Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the committee, put it, "We need to ask, Is the Maliki government too corrupt to succeed? And if the Maliki government is corrupt, we need to ask whether we can in good conscience continue to sacrifice our blood and tax dollars to prop up his regime."
In response to the Republicans' corruption-is-everywhere defense, Radhi maintained that the "issue is different in Iraq....The infrastructure in Iraq is almost equal to zero. Services in the country is almost equal to zero." He noted that Iraq is a wealthy nation and that its government recently had a budget of $71 billion. Yet, he added, this money has not been used to rebuild and revive the country. David Walker, the comptroller general and another witness at the hearing, tried to spell out why corruption is a significant matter: "When the United States has 160,000 troops on the ground and billions of dollars invested...we ought to be concerned [with corruption] because it can have a direct impact on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve the 18 benchmarks [established by Congress]."
The 62-year-old Radhi left the hearing room quickly after testifying, taking no questions from reporters. Gerry Sikorski, one of his attorneys and a former House member, said, "He took a very risky step coming here"--implying that Radhi or his relatives might face reprisals for his testimony. In a written statement handed out by Sikorski, Radhi said that "real corruption...is destroying my country. It is impossible to have both democracy and corruption at the same time."
At the hearing, Waxman released a committee memorandum indicating that the Bush administration has mounted no serious effort regarding corruption within the Maliki government. After conducting interviews with several State Department officials responsible for anticorruption activity in Iraq, Waxman's committee concluded that "dysfunction and disarray...appear to be frustrating U.S. anticorruption efforts." Former Judge Brennan, who briefly headed State Department's Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT), told committee investigators there was no coordinated U.S. strategy for combating corruption in Iraq. Michael Richards, the executive secretary of the Anticorruption Working Group, an interagency task force, said that his outfit did not have a coordinator for half a year and that few officials bothered to attend its meetings. And according to the committee memorandum, for a while this summer the State Department's OAT was run by a paralegal who previously had mainly performed administrative tasks within the department. In his prepared testimony, Inspector General Bowen reported that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been lackadaisical in its anticorruption efforts.
Yet after Radhi, Bowen and Walker were finished at the witness table, Ambassador Larry Butler, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified that the "Department of State has devoted considerable effort and resources to helping courageous Iraqi establish mechanisms and procedures to investigate and prosecute corruption." Butler did not have an easy task. But he stuck to his talking points, and--tougher still--he defended his department's refusal to cooperate fully with Waxman's committee.
Prior to the hearing, Waxman asked the State Department to provide witnesses and documents to his investigators. The department responded by claiming that previously unclassified documents about Iraqi government corruption were now classified (including the U.S. embassy draft report detailing extensive corruption within the Maliki government that I first disclosed in this column) and that any information provided by a State Department officials about corruption in Iraq would have to be classified (meaning it could not be discussed at a public hearing).
Writing to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Waxman contended that this was absurd and outrageous. He argued it was ridiculous for the State Department to claim it could not answer even general questions about Iraqi corruption within a public setting. At the hearing, Waxman hurled a series of queries at Butler. What effect does corruption have on the Iraqi government's ability to achieve political reconciliation? Has Maliki obstructed any corruption investigations? Does the Maliki government have the political will and capability to root out corruption? Is corruption funding the insurgency? Again and again, Butler replied that he would be delighted to answer these questions in the proper setting: a classified hearing behind closed doors. This information, he explained, was secret because its disclosure would "endanger" U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Noting that Rice had previously praised Iraqi anticorruption efforts in public, an upset Waxman declared, "If you say something negative about the Maliki government, it's classified, but if it's positive, then it's not." Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat on the committee, angrily remarked, "Do you see the irony here? You've established [for Iraq] a committee on accountability and transparency. But here...you're claiming there is a level of confidentiality...and we cannot tell the American people what we're doing with their money." Butler would not be moved. He kept declining to say anything about corruption in Iraq and its impact on the U.S. efforts there. "Secretary Rice," Waxman warned, "is going to have a confrontation with this committee....The executive branch must answer the questions of the legislative branch."
Well, maybe. In the meantime, it's unclear what will become of Radhi. He has several lawyers working pro bono on his immigration status (and that of his family members). And with the Iraqi government refusing to pay him the retirement benefits usually awarded former government officials of his rank, he will have to find a way to support himself in the United States (assuming he stays here). Moreover, it's not certain what impact, if any, his testimony will have on the ongoing debate in Congress concerning George W. Bush's Iraq policy and the administration's latest funding requests for the war. There were several reporters--but not many--at the hearing.
During his testimony, Radhi said he does not favor a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But he did say that the Iraqi government can only function effectively if "professional technocrats...qualified to perform vital government services" are placed in charge. And by his own account, that is not happening. He estimates the Iraqi government is meeting 2 to 5 percent of its obligations--with the rest of its activity committed to waste and fraud.
So Radhi is, as Waxman noted, a man "without a country," and he's also a man caught between his desire (a clean and functioning Iraqi government backed by the United States) and his view of reality (a corrupt Iraqi government that's a threat to him and his family and that does not deserve the support of the United States). By design or not, his testimony does undercut the Bush administration's rationale for the so-called "surge--as would any public examination of corruption within the Iraqi government. Which is why the State Department is in fierce battle with Waxman and why this matter will not end with Radhi's testimony.
According to a Radhi associate, Radhi left the committee room believing he had done the right thing. Even as he was depending on the U.S. government to process his asylum request, he had delivered Congress a straight message that happened to be rather inconvenient for the Bush administration. Then hours later, he received disturbing news: his son, who had been trying to obtain political asylum in England, was ordered by the British government to return to Baghdad. That's where people connected to Radhi have been kidnapped, tortured and killed. "For Judge Radhi," the Radhi associate said, "this put his day on Capitol Hill in a very different light."
UPDATE. From my www.davidcorn.com blog: Two days after former Iraqi Judge Radhi al-Radhi testified in Congress about the rampant corruption within the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struck back. On Saturday, Maliki, who weeks ago forced out Radhi as Iraq's anticorruption chief, announced his government will prosecute Radhi for smuggling documents, for libeling Maliki, and for engaging in corruption himself.
This is not a new strategy for Maliki. A year ago, the Iraq government accused Radhi and the Commission on Public Integrity that he ran of corruption, but the charges went nowhere. (According to a now-confidential U.S. embassy draft report, Radhi's CPI passed an audit with flying colors.) And Radhi's work and integrity has been endorsed by a number of U.S. officials who worked with him, including Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. By the way, there is documentary evidence showing that Maliki's office has blocked dozens of Radhi's prosecution cases. (Apparently, Maliki is upset that Radhi has copies of these documents and shared them with U.S. congressional investigators.) As for the charge of personal corruption, Radhi shows no signs of having run off with any money. After being stranded in the United States by the Maliki government--which removed him from his post while he was in Washington at the invitation of the Justice Department for a training session--Radhi had to leave his hotel because he could not afford the bill. Friends of his in the United States are now trying to figure out how to raise money for him.
The question is, why is Maliki pursuing Radhi with such vengeance? Yes, Radhi has declared that Maliki's government is so corrupt it ought to be abolished and has accused Maliki of personally stopping corruption investigations targeting his associates and family. And Radhi's appearance on Capitol Hill last week did generate several news stories inconvenient for the Maliki government. But Radhi and his comments have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. From a political perspective, it might have been better for Maliki to ignore Radhi and hope the former judge (who was twice tortured during the days of Saddam Hussein) would slip off into obscurity. Instead, Maliki is pursuing Radhi, and this pursuit will raise Radhi's profile. (I see a 60 Minutes segment in all this.)
Radhi appears to have really gotten to Maliki. More important, Radhi's claims and evidence warrant more notice. As a Washington Post front-page story shows, Iraq's government is unable--and seemingly unwilling--to achieve political reconciliation. If it is also as corrupt and dysfunctional as Radhi says--and the available evidence supports him--then there is no reason for the Bush administration to be supporting the Maliki government and asking American soldiers to die for it. With his anti-Radih crusade, Maliki is digging a deeper hole.
Two days of Congressional hearings on Utah's recent mining tragedy made clear that when it comes to government competency, the Mining Health and Safety Administration is neck-in-neck with FEMA under Mike Brown. Whether the Department of Labor agency proves as hard to clean up is the less certain issue that Congress-and mineworkers- face.
The two hearings, which were held seperately by the House and Senate Education and Labor Committees, turned into a civics lesson on "When Government Doesn't Work." MSHA's failure to communicate with families after the explosion of Crandall Canyon's mine roof has been pretty well documented. But the hearings additionally indicated that the agency lacked an effective inspection system, had no way to get needed information from other federal agencies, and still lacks a good-faith effort to evaluate its shortcomings.
As New Jersey Democratic Representative Robert Andrews noted to relatives of the six miners and three rescue workers killed, "We are sorry that government has let you down in so many ways."
The hearing's most startling moment occurred on the Senate side Tuesday when Kevin Stricklin, the MSHA public health and safety administrator, told the committee that a graduate student inspected the safety of Crandall Canyon. The grad student worked for Agapito Associates, a company that mine operators Murray Energy Corporation hired to inspect Crandall Canyon.
Stricklin testified that the written report from Agapito was submitted directly to MSHA. He did not know whether MSHA checked the graduate student's work. Stricklin additionally told committee chair Ted Kennedy that the Bureau of Land Management had discovered before the mine caved-in that Crandall Canyon was unsafe. But MSHA had no contact with the bureau until after the fact.
"This is like the CIA not talking to the FBI while we're getting attacked by terrorists," Kennedy said to Stricklin, ruefully adding that, "maybe the graduate student knew" about the Land Management's report.
Almost every witness testified that Crandall Canyon miner's lacked a voice, as there were neither represented by the United Mine Workers of America nor, apparently, provided a safety net by MSHA. Despite protests from the agency, The UMWA is now representing the families of victims and flew them in Wednesday to testify.
Along with relating their personal grief, the relatives also explicitly pointed out systemic failures before and after the tragedy."There are not enough safety inspectors and safety committees in non-union mines," said Steve Allred, brother of trapped miner Kerry Allred. Allred compared miners relying on MSHA safety inspectors to playing Russian roulette.
Utah's Republican Governor Jim Hunstman focused on the emergency response failure of MSHA. "There was a lack of defined authority and coordination." Huntsman said. "The [MSHA] experts clearly had not operated in deep mines before."
Other witnesses characterized MSHA employees as glorified yes-men to Murray CEO Jim Murray. "We thought MSHA was going to be in charge but every time we went down there [to the mine] it was Mr. Murray," said Mike Marasco, the son-in-law of miner Allred. Relatives and union representatives said Murray and MSHA have continually lied and withheld information.
Such damning accusations ultimately beg the question of what Congress can and should do. Right now, lawmakers still don't fully know what happened. Department of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao did not appoint a graduate student to head the official government investigation, but she did name two retired MSHA inspectors. And Chao has hampered a more independent investigation by not turning over subpoenaed documents to Congress and the state of Utah.
Congress also doesn't know how to address the broader issue of mine safety. After the Sago mine tragedy in West Virginia last year, Democratic legislators successfully made into law the MINER Act, which was supposed to address the very issues now being debated. Except for members of Congress from Utah, most Republicans didn't show up for either hearing, and those who did argued that more laws are unnecessary. "We're in the business of making good, enforceable policy," explained Jon Kline of Minnesota. "Sometimes in our frustration we just pass a law and say things are okay."
It will be a while until MSHA is judged "okay."
One year ago, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. The fearless, crusading journalist for Russia's leading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, was just 48 years old when she was found in her Moscow apartment building, shot in the head.
Her unflinching investigative reporting on the brutality and corruption of the Chechen war, as well as other abuses of official power, had made her the target of numerous death threats. On one of her many reporting trips to Chechnya, she was detained and beaten by Russian troops who threw her into a pit, threatened to rape her and performed a mock execution. But, as one of her colleagues wrote soon after her murder, "Anna believed that fate had given her a mission: to tell people the truth about what was actually going on in Chechnya." When she was killed, Politkovskaya was working on an article claiming Chechen civilians were being tortured by security forces loyal to the region's pro-Moscow Consul and now President Ramzan Kadyrov.
In an editorial published immediately after Politkovskaya's assassination, the paper's staff pledged, "While there is a Novaya Gazeta, her killers won't sleep soundly." Four days after her death, the newspaper published her unfinished article, along with photos of the torture victims.
This September, Russia's Prosecutor General announced that ten people had been arrested in Politkovskaya's killing, including a police major, three former police officers and lieutenant colonel in the FSB, the former KGB Yet, for all practical purposes, one year later, her brazen murder remains unsolved. Despite what Russian officials have claimed as breakthroughs, Roman Shleinov, an investigative editor at Novaya Gazeta, says the truth is still buried. The paper's courageous editor-in-chief, Dmitrii Muratov, who was initially satisfied with the progress of the official investigation--even cooperating with it-- now believes that media leaks, the demotion of the lead investigator, the release of a key suspect, and claims of gaping holes in the evidence have undermined hopes of justice being served. And the paper's editors dispute the official version of foreign involvement in Politkovskaya's murder --that it was done in order to discredit the Kremlin and destabilize the Russian state. Novaya Gazeta continues to conduct an independent investigation of its martyred reporter's murder.
However murky the official Russian investigation, what remains clear is that Anna Politkovskaya endures as an example of the importance of truth and courage in journalism. It is that importance --and her fearless pursuit of justice for the powerless and vulnerable --which will be remembered in memorials,from Moscow to London and New York, this weekend.
In London, on the evening of October 5th, a new international human rights group supporting women human rights defenders and women and girl victims of war and conflict -- RAW in WAR (Reach all Women in WAR)--will mark its founding by honoring Anna. Mariana Katzarova, a journalist, human rights advocate and RAW's founder, told me that Anna was very supportive of RAW's work and had just agreed to join the group's advisory board a few days before she was killed. To honor her, and other women human rights defenders, Mariana says, RAW decided to establish a RAW in WAR annual award in the name of Anna Politkovskaya. This year the award will go to Natalya Estemirova, a woman activist from Anna's war--the war in Chechnya. Natalya continues to work for the human rights group Memorial in the Chechen capital of Grozny. (We are publishing her disturbing article about how she and Anna fought to bring a torturer to justice.)
Since 1992, 47 Russian journalists have been murdered, 33 during Boris Yeltsin's presidency, and the vast majority of cases remain unsolved. Some of the most fearless--and vulnerable--of these reporters were women, like Yulia Yudina, chief editor of a provincial paper far from Moscow, who was investigating local corruption. Today, many of those speaking up for media freedom and independence are women, often in the provinces of Russia. Indeed in these bleak times for independent media in Russia, And while a great many mainstream Moscow journalists are compliant, there are hopeful signs of solidarity among the country's journalists. Last May, for example, TV2, located in the Siberian city of Tomsk, posted an open letter to President Putin in defense of media freedom. Within a few days, more than 2000 journalists from almost all Russian regions had signed the petition.
While Anna Politkovskaya's paper, Novaya Gazeta, remains the most critical oppositionist newspaper with national influence in Putin's Russia, it has paid a heavy price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations and abuses of power. Three of its reporters--Igor Domnikov and Yuri Shchekochikhin-- have been killed-- Ana being the most recent victim. Yet, the paper's tenacious editor, Dmitrii Muratov continues to fight for press freedom --and for justice on behalf of his slain colleagues. This November, he will receive the Committee to Protect Journalist's 2007 International Press Freedom Award at a ceremony in New York city.
Lost amid so much of the remembrance of Anna's killing, one year later, is a sad irony: She was assassinated on the 20th anniversary of the unfolding of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy, in 1986, which led to an increasingly free press. Today, the former Soviet President--who has long been a financial supporter of Novaya Gazeta (he donated part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Award to pay for start-up computers and salaries), is a part owner of the newspaper. It was his words, upon learning of Politkovskaya's murder, that stay with me on this anniversary: " Her murder was a savage crime against the country, against all of us...a blow to the entire democratic, independent press." Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society work to ensure that Anna Politkovskaya's newspaper thrive as an oppositionist, independent force-- and that her killers be brought to justice.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, will never be accused of being an anti-war firebrand when it comes to Iran. Her September 26 vote for a non-binding Senate amendment urging the Bush administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist entity only heightened concern about her hawkish views.
But, amid mounting concern that the 76-22 Senate vote in favor of the resolution would be read by the Bush administration as an authorization to ramp up preparations for an attack on Iran, Clinton is pulling back from the brink -- and trying to get the rest of the Senate to do the same.
The senator has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation requiring formal congressional approval for any attack on Iran.
The legislation, written by hawkish Virginia Senator Jim Webb, would bar the use of appropriated funds for war against Iran without authorization by the House and Senate.
"Any military action against Iran will have an immediate impact on our troops serving in Iraq, our allies in the region as well as long-term U.S. strategic interests," says Clinton. "Senator Webb's legislation insures that Congress will play its constitutional role of providing proper oversight over the administration's policy toward Iran. Congressional oversight and debate can help avoid the mistakes and blunders that have afflicted U.S. policy in Iraq. We cannot allow recent history to repeat itself."
Clinton's stances on issues of war and peace are rarely reassuring. But in demanding that Congress play its proper role -- something she failed to do prior to the attack on Iraq -- the senator has come down on the right side of an essential question.
The best read this morning is this amazing piece by Rolf Potts titled "Death of an Adventure Traveler" (via Arts and Letters Daily). The narrative traces his decision as a writer for what he describes as "a Major American Adventure Travel Magazine" to abandon his trade. The immediate reason: the disappearance, and perhaps death of a beloved Burmese friend.
The article delineates the stark and shameful contrast between the faux adrenalin-raising thrills sought by adventure tourists and the very real dangers faced by the people who call these "exotic" destinations home.
Here are some excerpts to encourage you to click through and read the article:
"Readers of Major American Adventure-Travel Magazines, [my editor] told me, didn't want to read about journeys that were obscure or complicated; they wanted exotic challenges wherein they might test -- or, at least, imagine themselves testing -- the extremes of human experience. ... The Major American Adventure-Travel Magazine, it seemed, wanted me to create a tantalizing recipe for the exotic and the unexpected, but only the kind of 'unexpected' that could be planned in advance and completed in less than three weeks. ...
Every time I researched some upscale mountain trek in the Nepal Himalayas or two-week scuba diving excursion off the coast of Papua New Guinea, I couldn't help but ponder how pointless it all was. I began to e-mail my editor pointed questions about how one should define the 'extremes of human experience.' How was kayaking a remote Chinese river, I asked, more notable than surviving on its shores for a lifetime? How did risking frostbite on a helicopter-supported journey to arctic Siberia constitute more of an 'adventure' than risking frostbite on a winter road-crew in Upper Peninsula Michigan?"
All good questions we should ask ourselves when we make our holiday plans.
Idaho Senate Larry Craig is fast becoming the inconvenient truth of Capitol Hill. The senator who first said he would resign after pleading guilty to charges related to an alleged bathroom-sex solicitation and then said he was going to try and beat the rap and stay now seems to be intent upon remaining in the Senate indefinitely.
This creates a big political problem for Senate Republican leaders. Already facing the prospect of losing as many as a half dozen seats -- in Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Virginia, Colorado and Alaska -- in a 2008 election cycle that is shaping up as their nightmare scenario, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his compatriots are terrified that Craig will extend his stay for months.
Craig's refusal to relinquish his grip on the Idaho seat creates trouble in that state, as it prevents Republican Governor Butch Otter from filling the vacancy with a Republican who would be set up to claim the seat in 2008. The longer the delay, the harder it is for Idaho Republicans -- a notoriously contentious lot -- to get their affairs in order and secure a seat that ought not be vulnerable.
But Idaho is not McConnell's biggest concern. He and his aides are more worried that the sordid stories associated with Craig, as well as his continued presence in the GOP caucus, will further erode enthusiasm among evangelical Christians and social conservatives for the party's candidates. The fear a scenario similar to the one that played out when Florida Congressman Mark Foley's page-boy scandal highlighted hypocrisy in the GOP ranks shortly before the 2006 election.
The threat faced by McConnell -- himself up for reelection in 2008 -- is real. And so to is the threat they are now preparing to direct at Craig. According to the Washington Post, McConnell is "threatening to notch up the public humiliation" in order to force the Idaho senator to quickly quit. What does that mean? Republican strategists quietly acknowledge that McConnell is talking about ginning up an open-to-the-media ethics committee inquiry with full public hearings designed to examine the many allegations regarding Craig's sexuality and sex life.
It's a sleazy scenario, especially in a Senate that has traditionally kept such matters cloaked. But if it is openness that McConnell wants, perhaps the Senate Democratic majority should give it to him. The Craig inquiry could come right after the public hearings regarding the sexuality and sex life of Senator David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican and McConnell confidante whose penchant for patronizing prostitutes -- an illegal act that some Republican stalwarts might even consider immoral -- has been much in the news of late.
If Larry Craig's bawdiness in bathrooms is worthy of an ethics investigation then, surely, an turn-the-TV-cameras-on inquiry regarding David Vitter's frequenting of a house in New Orleans will help to usher in Mitch McConnell's new era of openness.
The ongoing fallout over Bill O'Reilly's recent racial comments is stoking tensions between Fox News and NPR. Both channels employ Juan Williams, who got O'Reilly talking about race during their now-infamous radio interview, and Mara Liasson, who regularly appears on Fox to debate Republicans. Media Matters blogger Eric Boehlert argues that by aggressively defending O'Reilly, Williams is compromising NPR and his own journalistic integrity:
Williams, a prominent African-American journalist, strenuously defended O'Reilly on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and accused his critics of launching a smear campaign. Then later in the week, Williams made news when he complained that NPR had turned down the White House's offer to have him interview President Bush and discuss race relations. Officials at NPR were uncomfortable having the White House handpick the interviewer, so they passed. Fox News though, quickly accepted the invitation, complete with restrictions, and Williams conducted the interview for the all-news cable channel.
With his often over-excited and misleading defense of O'Reilly, as well as his need to publicly side with Fox News and badmouth NPR's decision regarding the Bush interview, it seems Williams no longer straddles [his] peculiar media divide. Instead, he's deliberately marched over into the Fox News camp and in the process has stripped away some layers of his journalistic integrity. Worse, real damage is being done to NPR by having its name, via Williams, associated with Fox News' most opinionated talker. In fact, Williams' recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor almost certainly violated NPR's employee standards, which prohibit staffers from appearing on programs that "encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis" and are "harmful to the reputation of NPR."
Boehlert offers a detailed critique of Williams' recent campaign to defend O'Reilly -- which included a Time magazine essay, a spirited radio segment with Fox's John Gibson and the follow-up appearance on The Factor -- and emphasizes that Fox has not even aired the parts of the pilfered Bush interview addressing race. So Williams is getting played by Fox, in Boehlert's narrative, and now NPR should force the commentator to "choose between the two media outlets."
Boehlert's critique is solid, but not his solution. The usual problem with Fox's NPR contributors is that they are too restrained. It would be absurd to fire them for a rare outburst of opinion. Williams can leverage his reputation to defend a coworker if he chooses; he would probably act similarly if an NPR colleague was worried about getting Imused.
Yet Boehlert is right about how this episode reveals a more fundamental problem with the Fox-NPR tension. Every week, Williams and Liasson appear opposite Republicans to present a "liberal" counterpoint on Fox News. Yet as employees of the strictly nonpartisan, government-funded NPR, they cannot endorse positions or take sides. When appearing on other channels, in fact, NPR guidelines limit employees from expressing views which "they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist." So while a Republican operative like Bill Kristol offers partisan screeds, Williams and Liasson are contractually bound to present nonpartisan analysis with their NPR hats on. Yet in a sad stroke of irony, their weekly presence debating Republicans affirms the conservative attack that NPR has a liberal bias.
To steal a line from an Indiana blogger, with James Brown dead, John Mellencamp may now be the hardest working man in show business. The early fall saw him headlining Farm Aid, opening the NFL season, playing small benefits, rehearsing for a major tour opening on October 26 and recording a new album with T Bone Burnett.
Featured on the still un-titled new album is a powerful song called "Jena." Mellencamp, always one to keep up on the news, wrote the tune in August after he heard about the travesty of justice involving six African-American teenagers in a small Louisiana town. Thanks to Howie Klein of the DownWithTyranny blog for transcribing the lyrics below.
An all white jury hides the executioner's face
Is this how we are, me and you?
Everyone needs to know their place
And here we thought this blackbird was hidden in the flue
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
So what becomes of boys that cannot think straight
Particularly those with paper bag skin
Yes sir no sir wipe that smile off your face
We've got our rules here and you've got to fit in
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
Hey some way sanity will prevail
But no one knows when that day will come
A shot in the dark, well it might find its way
To the hearts of those who hold the keys to kingdom come
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Oh oh oh Jena
Take your nooses down
The populist singer wants to get the song out to the public before the album's release so he created an evocative accompanying video and is just starting to release it over the internet. It's not even yet on YouTube but you can click below to become one of the very first people anywhere to watch it. (The video takes a few seconds to load so be patient.)
After you watch it, click here to see how you can help the Jena Six.
And, as a bonus, here's a classic Mellencamp video always worth watching!
As I listened to Magic, the new (and maybe last?) album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I thought of a buddy and a movie.
A few days ago, a pal of mine, who had spent about a year in Iraq in a nonmilitary but intense position, told me about a recent episode. He had gone to a bar on a weekend night and had fallen into a dispute with a bouncer--a big bouncer. My friend, who's not that young and not that fit, surprised himself by becoming highly aggressive with the bouncer. He was ready for a fight--eager for it--knowing damn well that if one came his way, he would end up on the downside of the deal. Fortunate for him, the moment was defused, and he moved on intact. "That's not me," he told me. "That's Iraq. After being there, you feel you don't have to put up with anything here and what happens here is nothing compared to what happens there."
In Paul Haggis's new film, In the Valley of Elah, GIs come back from Iraq with a different attitude toward violence and death. The war has changed them--not by robbing them of limbs, but by stealing them of innocence (yes, a cliche) and, more important, by undermining their sense of decency. To say too much would be to give away the mystery in the movie. But Haggis's point is that besides the obvious impact of the war--the death count, the physical wounds, the mental injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), there are other costs--subtle but deep--to turning young men and women into killers forced to make choices no one ought to have to face.
As Haggis's film and my friend's experience illustrate, there is a consequence of war that does not fit into the box scores of lives lost, troops hospitalized, and money spent. It's what warring turns us into. And that seems to have been on Springsteen's mind when he penned the foundational songs of Magic.
Much of the album is imbued with a melancholy and a sense of loss, even when Springsteen deploys the power chords, searing guitars, and cascading piano that once (oh so long ago) underscored themes of youthful exuberance, rebellion and escape. This loaded-with-hooks album has its obvious moments. On "Last To Die," Springsteen sings, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" It's John Kerry's once-famous line rock-and-rollified. (In the last election, Springsteen campaigned with Kerry.) "The wise men were all fools," Springsteen wails, as drums pound. Neocons, take note.
But on other tracks, Springsteen eschews the big picture for the nitty-gritty, chronicling broken souls and detailing lovers lost in grief, all apparent victims of a faraway war. On the elegiac "Devil's Arcade," a gravely wounded soldier lies in bed at home and feels "the glorious kingdom of the sun" on his face, as the song's narrator--probably his wife--asks him to "just whisper the word 'tomorrow' in my ear." In the pop-infused (maybe too infused) "Livin' in the Future," a fellow who's received a letter saying "somethin' 'bout me and you never seein' one another again" feels untethered from the present moment. "My faith's been torn asunder," he says, "tell me is that rollin' thunder/Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?"
Well, the answer is clear. The ship's gone down, and folks are left to deal with the wreckage on their own. And the grand sum of all these individual tragedies marks a societal demise. On the title track--a somber, violin-draped number--Springsteen sings of a magician who moves from making a coin disappear to sawing a volunteer into two. "I'll cut you in half," the sly trickster says, "while you're smiling ear to ear. And the freedom that you sought's driftin' like a ghost among the trees." As Springsteen has acknowledged, this song is about the Bush administration, and the Bush-Cheney magic act ends apocalyptically:
Now there's a fire down below
But it's comin' up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin' low
There's bodies hangin' in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.
There's a lot more than darkness on the edge of town. There's ruin. Yet overall the album's music does not match it's downhearted view. Springsteen creeps along a tight rope, balancing his musical brightness with his belief the nation has lost its soul at the hands of deceivers.
He ties it all together, though, in "Long Walk Home." Against Springsteen's long-perfected anthemic bar-band sound, he sings of returning--that is, trying to return--to his home town. But things ain't the same. The place is full of strangers. The veterans hall is closed: "The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said 'gone.'" He recalls his father once telling him,
Son, we're luck in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
it just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That you know flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.
It's no secret; he's talking not about a fine ol' town but about the romanticized American ideal. Whether it ever truly existed on the ground can be debated. (Remember "Born in the U.S.A"?) But what's for sure is that it's promise has been trampled by the current gang. And the war's one helluva tipping point. In this song, Springsteen's narrator sings, "Hey pretty Darling, don't wait up for me/Gonna be a long walk home."
Springsteen, whose last album was a romping collection of pumped-up versions of songs associated with Pete Seeger, is not wallowing in nostalgia. (Bodies hanging in the trees? We're way past nostalgia, he seems to be saying.) He's expressing a desire. Rock and roll has always been about yearning. In earlier days, it was about longing for sex, love, a fast car, flight. You know, "it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap," and so on. But as he surveys the horizon and sees a nation in trouble, that small town Springsteen wanted to flee as a young man doesn't look so bad now--that is, as a symbol of America's best values: community, compassion, the rule of law. So he's brought the band together and called upon the rock idiom he knows so well to share his present-day yearnings. At the age of 58, Springsteen knows that it's not about running away, it's about walking back. And though the music soars, his message is mired in realism: this walk is not going to be easy.