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Brothers in Arms

There's been much chatter about President Bush's earthy open-mic discussion of the Middle East crises with Tony Blair. But it was the joint news conference at the G8 summit between Bush and Putin that caught my attention. I'm still trying to fathom what led Bush to describe his private conversations with Russian President Putin this way: "I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same."

Putin's rejoinder, which garnered disbelieving guffaws from the press gaggle, was: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq, quite honestly." Then there's the fact that despite the worsening relationship between the US and Russia, Bush still claims he and Putin are friends. Perhaps this is because of the parallels in their leadership styles.

Putin has used the disastrous war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks on the homeland as the pretext for rolling back Russian civil liberties and democratic institutions. Similarly Bush has used the war in Iraq and 9/11 as ever ready excuses for his imperial presidency.

The Bush administration has spied on our library records, phone conversations, and bank records and then castigated the free press for freely reporting on it. We've just learned that he personally stopped a Justice Department inquiry into the domestic surveillance program. And of course there are the presidential signing statements, which even some conservatives consider to be unconstitutional.

Maybe what Bush saw when he looked into Putin's authoritarian soul was a reflection of himself.

Republicans Reject Ralph Reed's Hypocrisy

For those who still claim that the Jack Abramoff scandal will not "play" politically, the Republican voters of Georgia beg to differ.

Christian right leader Ralph Reed's plan to begin his climb of the American political ladder as lieutenant governor of Georgia was thwarted in Tuesday's Republican primary.

Links to convicted influence-peddler Abramoff did Reed in.

Horrified by the hypocrisy of Reed, who parlayed his association with the Christian Coalition into a lucrative political consulting gig that saw him wrapping a "moral values" cloak around the lobbyist's sleaziest clients, Georgia Republicans gave the nomination for the state's No. 2 job to Casey Cagle, a state senator who shared Reed's conservatism but not his crookedness.

With most of the votes counted, Cagle was ahead by a solid 56-44 margin.

Reed had entered the race as the clear frontrunner. His years of close association with the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups had earned him a reputation as a virtuous Republican – a reputation he hoped to ride into the lieutenant governorship, the governorship and the Republican nomination for president in 2012 or 2016.

But Reed didn't count on the lobbying career of Jack Abramoff -- his buddy from College Republican days – blowing up into one of the seediest political scandals in decades. Nor did he think that his emails to Abramoff – including one in which "Mr. Moral Values" declared, ``I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts." – would be made public.

Abramoff did, indeed, help Reed get the big accounts. And Reed returned the favor, aiding Abramoff by exploiting his reputation as Christian conservative to help the lobbyist defend casino gambling interests and corporations exploiting sweatshop labor.

All the sordid details came out during a primary campaign capped by the announcement that a Texas Indian tribe had filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Reed and others, claiming that Reed conspired with Abramoff to shut down the tribe's casino while hiding the fact that they were in the pay of another tribe and competing casinos.

Cagle did not hesitate to exploit those details. One television ad from the Cagle campaign detailed Reed's involvement with Abramoff's efforts to prevent passage of federal legislation that would have extended labor-law protections to women and children working in garment factories in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. "Reed worked with Abramoff to deny women and children legal protection from sweat shops in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory -- even though our government warned that women on the Islands were subjected to forced abortions and children were coerced into prostitution," the ad charged. As the words "Forced Abortions" and "Prostitution" flashed on the screen, and announcer declared: "Ralph Reed, his values are for sale."

Cagle ads, with their emphasis on the delicious irony of Reed's flexible morality, propelled the little-known state senator into a victory few would have imagined possible at the start of the campaign.

They also made Reed the first prominent political victim of the Abramoff scandal.

Reeds political ambitions are now on hold, perhaps permanently.

But the man who led the Christian Coalition and then went on to promote casino gambling and sweatshops is not without accomplishment. While he is certainly not without competition for the title, Ralph Reed is, arguably, the most prominent hypocrite in America.

Mideast News: Beyond the Mainstream

For coverage of the unfolding conflagration in Lebanon and beyond, the best English-language newspaper coverage has been that of David Hirst at The Guardian (such as his latest op-ed), and Robert Fisk at The Independent, who has won numerous awards for his reporting on the Middle East. His Elegy for Beirut, published in the July 19 Independent shows why.

My colleague Stan Alcorn helped put together a round-up of other good sources, including history professor Juan Cole's popular Informed Comment blog, which aggregates the world's reporting and offers his "informed commentary" on current events throughout the Middle East. The Truth Laid Bear is a less discriminating collection of political blogs and websites on the Middle East, and includes bloggers throughout Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. If you have Internet Explorer or Firefox 1.5, check out "map view" to see a cool interactive map featuring bloggers across the region. From an unscientific survey, the better blogs seem to include Beirut Spring and From Beirut to the Beltway. The Angry Arab News Service offers less polemical content than its name would suggest, though the especially disturbing pictures of children killed in recent bombings do inspire anger, among other emotions. Faithful reader ZERO made a good suggestion with Global Voices, which carries many interesting non-US weblogs. The Electronic Intifada is a good portal for news, commentary, analysis, and reference materials about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective. Since Israel's attack on Lebanon began, the site has posted 112 articles from the ground on the conflict while continuing to keep track of simultaneous Israeli aggression in Gaza. And check out Electronic Lebanon, a new section of the site devoted exclusively to the new (but old) Israeli invasion.

I also wanted to plug an essay by Larry C. Johnson which I read at Alternet and which I think reminds us of some important facts. "Israel is not attacking the individuals who hit their soldiers. Israel is engaged in mass punishment. How did Israel respond? They bombed civilian targets and civilian infrastructure and have killed many civilians. Let's see if I have this right. The Arab "terrorists" attack military units, destroy at least one tank, and are therefore terrorists. Israel retaliates by launching aerial, naval, and artillery bombardments of civilian areas and they are engaging in self-defense."

And, of course, there's always Al Jazeera and, for a good counter-point, the excellent Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Finally, for good background, see the Nation Books' edition of Fisk's Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon and Hirst's The Gun and the Olive Branch, a classic, myth-breaking general history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Please use the comments section below to let me know what sources I should have included in this survey but didn't. I'll also soon be highlighting some concrete ways we can try to help stop the immediate violence--25 Israeli and 295 Lebanese civilians have been killed to date--and aid the innocent victims caught between Hezbollah and Israel.

EVENT NOTE:
If you happen to be in or around New York City this weekend, my friend Anthony Arnove is staging an emergency forum to discuss ways to help stop the Israeli attack on Lebanon. It's taking place this Saturday, July 22, at 5:00pm, at the Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square South. Featured speakers include Arnove, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, and Jafer Al Jaferi of the National Council of Arab Americans.

Does Bush's Lawlessness Have Any Limits?

On May 9th, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) announced it could not pursue an investigation into the role of Justice lawyers in crafting the warrantless wiretapping program. In a letter to New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey --the most dogged Congressional advocate for investigation of the spying program --H. Marshall Jarrett, OPR's Counsel, explained that he had closed Justice's probe because his office's requests for security clearances to conduct it had been denied.

"I am writing to inform you that we have been unable to make the meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," Jarrett explained in his reply to Hinchey. "Beginning in January 2006, this Office made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. On May 9, 2006, we were informed that our requests had been denied. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation."

Who denied the requests? Who obstructed justice?

It turns out --according to Bush's very own Attorney General Alberto Gonzales- it was the President. Under sharp questioning this morning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter, Gonzales said that Bush would not grant the access required to allow the probe to move forward.

Hinchey, and others like Representatives John Lewis, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, who originally requested the probe should demand that Gonzales and his Department reopen the investigation. And they should also demand that President Bush explain why he obstructed a vital probe.

As Hinchey said at the time the probe was blocked, "The Bush Administration cannot simply create a Big Brother program and then refuse to answer any questions on how it came about and what it entails. We are not asking for top secret information." What becomes clearer with every revelation about this President's lawlessness is that Bush's arrogance and abuse of power must be checked.

Israel Lobby in Action

I almost never write about Israel. Someone who supports the Jewish state but opposes the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, as I do, generally gets flack from all sides. Too many on the left are reflexively anti-Israel. But too many in the so-called American mainstream are too quick to back whatever military excursion Israel undertakes--no matter how unproductive or misguided.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk support of Israel more clear than in the debate in Congress this week--or lack thereof--over the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Leaders of both parties have been quick to forcefully condemn Hamas and Hezbollah while offering unconditional support for Israel's bombing of civilian Beirut.

Just take a look at the draft copy of the resolution under consideration in the House:

"Be it resolved that the House of Representatives reaffirms its steadfast support for the state of Israel; further condemns Hamas and Hezbollah for cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields...calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Israeli soldiers held captive by Hezbollah and Hamas; (and) affirms that all governments who have provided continued support to Hamas or Hezbollah share responsibility for the hostage-taking and attacks against Israel and, as such, must be held accountable for their actions."

Only a few senior statesmen have raised an alarm about the ferocity of Israel's response. Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving Democrat in the House, called the Israeli counterattack "disproportionate and counterproductive."

"The use of force has brought about a tragic amount of civilian deaths and has weakened a promising democracy in Lebanon," Dingell said in a statement. "The United States-–as a leader of the free world--must take immediate steps to bring about a cease fire so that negotiations may begin."

Likewise, Senator John Warner, the hawkish Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has been a lone voice in holding up legislation in the Senate viewed as unnecessarily slanted toward Israel. "Our support for Israel is very strong, Mr. President, but it cannot be unconditional," Warner said on the Senate floor yesterday. "I urge the Administration to think through very carefully how Israel's extraordinary reaction could affect our operations in Iraq and our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue," he added in a statement.

Why are so few in Congress following the advice of Dingell and Warner? Perhaps it's because of the influence of what professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call "The Israel Lobby," particularly its largest player, AIPAC.

Even former Bush and Clinton Administration Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, a sharp critic of Mearsheimer and Walt, admits that AIPAC exerts a disproportionate grip on the Congress. "It's pretty clear that they are a significant force on the Hill," Ross recently told NPR, "And that shouldn't be underestimated."

Ralph Reed Runs For President, er, Lt. Governor

Tuesday's primary election in Georgia will decide whether former Christian Coalition commander Ralph Reed has fooled enough home-state Republicans to win the party's nomination for lieutenant governor.

Reed, who made millions of dollars exploiting his reputation as "Mr. Moral Values" to help GOP influence peddler Jack Abramoff defend casino gambling interests and corporations exploiting sweatshop labor, is so compromised that some Democrats hope he wins the nomination, since they think they can beat him in November. The Democratic desire to run against Reed in November was heightened by the primary-eve announcement that a Texas Indian tribe had filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Reed and others, claiming that Reed conspired with Abramoff to shut down the tribe's casino while hiding the fact that they were in the pay of another tribe and competing casinos.

But, as Atlanta's smart alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, noted in its endorsement of Reed's primary rival, state Senator Casey Cagle: "Careful what you wish for."

It is not just Georgians who should be worried about this race.

With all the flack he's taking, the politically-savvy Reed would have backed out of this race if he was just running for the not-particularly-exciting office of lieutenant governor. He would not have risked the defeat that polls suggest could be handed him by Cagle.

But Reed is not just running for lieutenant governor.

Tuesday's primary is the first step on a campaign trail that the hyper-ambitious candidate hopes will take him to the governorship of Georgia in four years and then to a presidential run in 2012 or 2016.

Reed's betting that, if he can overcome all the talk about his Abramoff ties now, he'll be able to put the scandal behind him by the time he enters the national spotlight.

A crazy notion? Hardly. Republican strategists generally agree that, if Reed wins the primary and prevails in November, he will instantaneously emerge as the most prominent Christian conservative politician in the country. Based on his track record, Reed will parlay that prominence into a fund-raising campaign that will fill his campaign treasury with more than enough money to advance his state and national ambitions.

If Reed takes the governorship in four years, as a slew of Georgia lieutenant governors have in the past and as pundits suggests is certainly within the realm of possibility, he will be positioned to begin making the moves that are necessary to launch the presidential bid that has always been the end goal of the man who built the Christian Coalition from the remnants of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 campaign for the Republican nomination.

That's why Reed is running so hard this week. The critical first rung on the ladder of electoral politics he has been preparing to climb for more than two decades is within reach. The only question is whether Georgia Republicans will overlook his scandalous behavior and help him grasp it.

Will Plame vs. Cheney, Libby & Rove Unearth New Info?

Several years ago, I was talking to a Democratic senator on the intelligence committee about the CIA leak case. I asked if Democrats had any intention of pushing for a congressional investigation of the administration leak that appeared in Robert Novak's column and that outed Valerie Wilson as a CIA operative. The senator noted that a special counsel (Patrick Fitzgerald) was already on the case. That's true, I said, adding that it was not Fitzgerald's job to tell the public about his findings. His task was to investigate (secretly) a crime and then mount a prosecution if he could. Any information he would unearth would only become public were he to mention it in an indictment or a subsequent prosecution. He would not be issuing any report. And at the end of Fitzgerald's inquiry, I said to the senator, there might no prosecution (or merely a limited prosecution) and that the public might not learn all there was to know about the case. So, I asked this legislator, if Democrats cared about the leak, shouldn't they push for a non-criminal investigation? The senator replied in an exasperated manner: "You want us to investigate everything?"

Well, why not? But it was clear he wasn't interested in a congressional probe of the CIA leak case. Nor were many other Capitol Hill Democrats. Many were satisfied by the Fitzgerald appointment. But after investigating the case for over two years, Fitzgerald, has only indicted one Bush official, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and that was not for the leak but for lying to the FBI and Fitzgerald's grand jury. (Libby disclosed Valerie Wilson's employment at the CIA to New York Times reporter Judy Miller and confirmed it for Time correspondent Matt Cooper.) In the course of the indictment and pretrial process, Fitzgerald has made some critical information available--such as the fact that it was Cheney who first told Libby that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, a unit in the agency's clandestine operations directorate. But Fitzgerald has not--and cannot under Justice Department guidelines--share all that he knows about the leak with the public. Thus, much of the story remains untold. And George W. Bush and his White House still refuse to answer any questions about the leak case, continuing a stonewalling strategy that has served them well.

Enter a new lawsuit. On Friday, Valerie and Joseph Wilson filed a lawsuit against Cheney, Libby and Karl Rove. (Prior to the Novak column, Rove leaked information about Wilson's classified employment to Time correspondent Matt Cooper; he also confirmed this information for Novak. Fitzgerald, though, was not able to bring a criminal case against him.) In the suit, the Wilsons accuse the three Bush officials--and unnamed coconspirators--of having violated their various rights, such as Valerie Wilson's privacy rights and Joe Wilson's right to express his opinions, which he did in a New York Times op-ed piece that criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy. That article led White House officials to assail him.

The lawsuit is based on the Bivens case, in which a man named Webster Bivens was arrested in 1965 by agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He later sued, complaining that the agents had searched his home and arrested him without a warrant and that he had suffered humiliation and mental suffering as a result. He argued that he could directly sue the narcs to remedy an unconstitutional invasion of his privacy rights. The Justice Department, representing the six unnamed narcotics agents, argued that Bivens had no right to bring a federal claim and could only initiate a tort action in a state court. A federal district court and then a federal appeals court tossed out his suit. But in 1971, the Supreme Court reversed those decisions. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan declared this sort of lawsuit was needed to check a federal official who was "unconstitutionally exercising his authority."

I'm no lawyer--though I occasionally play one on television--and cannot comment on whether Rove secretly sharing classified information with Cooper (or Libby doing the same with Miller) is the legal (and constitutional) equivalent of narcs busting into someone's home, throwing him into manacles in front of his wife and children, threatening to arrest the entire family, and searching the entire apartment, all without a warrant. And if Joe or Valerie Wilson had asked my advice, I might have suggested that they skip the suit, so Valerie Wilson can focus on writing her I-was-a-suburban-mom-spy memoirs--which is sure to land her on Oprah's couch, the bestsellers list, and (probably) a movie screen. (Angelina Jolie playing a real-life Mrs. Smith?)

But if the Wilsons can get their lawsuit to the discovery stage--and that might be a big if--they will be able to take depositions and demand documents from their targets and others. (Will they go after journalists?) Such action could yield information beyond what Fitzgerald has disclosed to the public. A private lawsuit is often an imperfect device to dig out the full story of any controversy. But this one is a reminder that the public has not yet received a full and official accounting of the leak case.

Stem Cell Madness

It's been over a year since that bastion of liberalism – the U.S. House of Representatives – approved federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. It looks as though this week the Senate will finally do the same.

But President Bush, in his ever-expanding role as "The Decider," is threatening his first veto and holding public health hostage to his skewed-faith-based reality and ideological crusade (see DefCon's ad in today's New York Times: "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job").

Despite our need for a sane science policy – and supporters of the legislation including Flip-Flopping Dr. Frist and Nancy Reagan literally urging Republicans to enact this for the Gipper – Bush prefers to side with such well-informed (non) members of the scientific community as:

Rev. Pat Robertson: "Before long, we'll be harvesting body parts from fully formed people. Once you begin this...utilitarian use of cells, then everything is up for grabs."

Rev. Jerry Falwell: "...the President was right to ban federal money going to this dangerous and unethical research."

James Dobson: "Experiments on the blastocytes, which are fertilized eggs, has a Nazi-esque aura to it."

As David Broder writes in The Washington Post, "… in the nation as a whole, polls show that public opinion supports expanded stem cell research." As many as 72% of Americans, in fact. But this administration is once again showing its true colors in this latest act of pandering. One hopes voters will make proponents of zealotry over science pay at the polls in 2006.

World Burns, Cheney Campaigns

As the world burns, Dick Cheney campaigns.

Today Cheney will spend seven hours in Iowa, stumping for two Congressional candidates and addressing the Iowa National Guard. No doubt Cheney will brag about how the Bush Administration is spreading peace and democracy across the globe.

But with the Middle East in flames, is political campaigning really the best use of the Vice President's time? We are talking about the man who effectively runs the White House.

Shouldn't top Bush Administration officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be in the region right now, working round the clock to defuse the crisis?

When it comes to engaging the world, a political campaign is no substitute for a foreign policy.