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Bush Wants to Read Your Mail

Two days after the Democrats took control of the House and Senate, they are already facing a challenge by this administration's claim of "Unitary Powers." This time it's not our telecommunications they want to spy on, it's our mail.

According to the Washington Post, "a 'signing statement' attached to a postal reform bill on December 20 says the Bush administration 'shall construe' a section of that law to allow the opening of sealed mail to protect life, guard against hazardous materials or conduct 'physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.'" This move seems to have opened the door for the government to open mail without a warrant.

This makes more than 750 presidential signing statements, according to the Associated Press, by an Administration that has consistently tried to alter laws that it finds unpalatable. This total surpasses the number of signing statements issued by all American Presidents combined before #43. The threat to democracy is obvious if laws that members of Congress have crafted after research, debate and bipartisan negotiation can be gutted with a few strokes of the president's pen.

Back to James Monroe, signing statements, usually innocuous comments, accompanied some bills after final passage. Since signing statements aren't subject to congressional review or override, they are tantamount to unilaterally changing laws passed by the legislative branch. The problem is that, as Republican Senator Arlen Specter was moved to say last year, "this president has taken the signing statements far beyond the customary purviews."

"That," as the conservative daily Macon Telegraph politely editorialized today, "places entirely too much power in the hands of an executive."

Read the Boston's Globe's extremely useful survey of Bush Administration signing statements to date and click here to send a letter to your Senators asking them to support efforts to put the brakes on statements such as these.

Taunting Bush on Saddam's Gallows

Those cries of "Muqtada! Muqtada!" were aimed at more than Saddam or even Iraq's Sunnis. They went right to the heart of the President's policy failures.

Every now and then, you have to take a lesson or two from history. In the case of George Bush's Iraq, here's one: No matter what the President announces in his "new way forward" speech on Iraq next week -- including belated calls for "sacrifice" from the man whose answer to 9/11 was to urge Americans to surge into Disney World -- it won't work. Nothing our President suggests in relation to Iraq, in fact, will have a ghost of a chance of success. Worse than that, whatever it turns out to be, it is essentially guaranteed to make matters worse.

Repetition, after all, is most of what knowledge adds up to, and the Bush administration has been repetitively consistent in its Iraqi -- and larger Middle Eastern -- policies. Whatever it touches (or perhaps the better word would be "smashes") turns to dross. Iraq is now dross -- and Saddam Hussein was such a remarkably hard act to follow badly that this is no small accomplishment.

A striking but largely unexplored aspect of Saddam Hussein's execution is illustrative. His trial was basically run out of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad; Saddam was held at Camp Cropper, the U.S. prison near Baghdad International Airport. He was delivered to the Iraqi government for hanging in a U.S. helicopter (as his body would be flown back to his home village in a U.S. helicopter).

Now, let's add a few more facts into the mix. Among Iraqi Shiites, no individual has been viewed as more of an enemy by the Bush administration than the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. American troops fought bloody battles with his Mahdi Army in 2004, destroying significant parts of the old city of Najaf in the process. American forces make periodic, destructive raids into the vast Baghdad slum and Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City to take out his followers and recently killed one of his top aides in a raid in Najaf. The upcoming Presidential "surge" into Baghdad is, reputedly, in part to be aimed at suppressing his militia, which a recent Pentagon report described as "the main threat to stability in Iraq."

Nonetheless at the crucial moment in the execution what did some of the Interior Ministry guards do? They chanted: "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" In all press reports, this has been described as a "taunting" of Saddam (and assumedly of Iraqi Sunnis more generally). But it could as easily be described as the purest mockery of George W. Bush and everything he's done in the country. If, in such a relatively controlled setting, the Americans couldn't stop Saddam's execution from being "infiltrated" by al-Sadr's followers -- who are also, of course, part of Prime Minister Maliki's government -- what can they possibly do in the chaos of Baghdad? How can a few more thousands of U.S. troops be expected to keep them, or Badr Brigade militiamen out of the streets, no less the police, the military, and various ministries?

Despite the changing guard of military commanders and at our Baghdad embassy, consider the "new way forward," then, just another part of the Bush administration's endless bubbleworld.

For more on Bush's "New Way Forward" speech next week, check out Robert Dreyfuss's "The Surge to Nowhere."

Top 10 for a More Perfect Union

The "thumping" taken by the Republican Congress on election day was notjust a rejection of K Street corruption and the catastrophe in Iraq. Itwas a call to action on issues that are more immediately relevant topeople's lives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin to answer thatcall by pushing a "100 Hours" agenda--including common-sense legislationto increase the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans and open theway for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

That's a good beginning, but it's only a down payment on a broaderagenda. As Bill Moyers writes in this issue, progressives now have theopportunity to develop a new vision that returns power to the Americanpeople for the first time in generations. Moyers is right that to-dolists don't add up to a vision. But Democrats must show they are seriousby passing bold measures that define a new "people's agenda." With thatin mind, here are ten existing pieces of legislation thatdeserve to be passed by our new Congress. Some of these billsare eminently passable, a few are related to the "100 Hours" agenda andothers can be seen as long-term goals. But all would help return ournation to the path to a more perfect union (note: Bill numbers maychange in the new Congress).

1. Healthcare for All

More than 47 million Americans are now living without health coverage.Representative John Conyers's United States National HealthInsurance Act (HR 676) would create a single-payer healthcare system byexpanding Medicare to every resident. All necessary medical carewould be covered--from prescription drugs to hospital services tolong-term care. There would be no deductibles or co-payments. Fundingwould come from sources including savings from negotiated bulkprocurement of medications; a tax on the top 5 percent of incomeearners; and a phased-in payroll tax that is lower than whatemployers currently pay for less comprehensive employee healthcoverage. With seventy-eight Congressional co-sponsors, and theendorsement of more than 200 labor organizations as well as healthcaregroups, there is muscle and momentum behind this bill. To get involved,check out www.Healthcare-Now.org.

2. Counting Every Vote

Representative Rush Holt has introduced the Voter Confidence andIncreased Accessibility Act (HR 550) requiring all voting systems toprovide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot forrecounts and audits. It would also insure accessibility for voters withdisabilities. The bill, which was introduced in February 2005 andwhich currently has 222 bipartisan co-sponsors, was tied up incommittee by the Republican Congress. Senators Hillary Clintonand Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jonesintroduced the Count Every Vote Act (S 450 and HR 939), which also callsfor a voter-verified paper trail and would improve access for languageminority voters, illiterate voters and voters with disabilities.Co-sponsors of that legislation include Senators John Kerry, FrankLautenberg, Patrick Leahy and Barbara Mikulski, and seventy-nineHouse members.

3. Healthy Families Act

According to Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce, "nearly half of allprivate-sector workers in the United States do not have a single day ofpaid sick leave. And more do not have a paid day off that can be used tocare for a sick child." Seventy-five percent of low-wage workers lackpaid sick leave--the very people who can least afford to take a day offand still be able to pay the bills. In 2005 Senator Edward Kennedy andRepresentative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act (S 932and HR 1902)--a bill that would require employers with fifteen ormore workers to provide one week of paid sick leave for those who workthirty or more hours a week. Employees who work less than that wouldreceive prorated leave. The leave could be used to care for family aswell. The new Democratic Congress is expected to hold hearings on thelegislation, which has fifteen original co-sponsors in the Senate andseventy-one in the House, in early 2007.

4. The Right to Organize

The Employee Free Choice Act (S 842 and HR 1696) would strengthenworkers' freedom to organize by requiring employers to recognize a unionafter a majority of workers sign cards authorizing representation.It also would create stronger penalties for management violations of theright to organize when workers seek to form a union. Currently there are214 co-sponsors of Representative George Miller's House bill (includingfourteen Republicans) and forty-four co-sponsors of Kennedy'slegislation in the Senate (including Republican Senator Arlen Specter).This legislation would go a long way toward helping the 57 millionnonunion workers in the United States who, according to polls, wouldform a union tomorrow if given the opportunity.

5. No Permanent Bases in Iraq

Representative Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional ProgressiveCaucus, has proposed House Conference Resolution 197, which declaresthat it is "the policy of the United States not to enter into any baseagreement with the Government of Iraq that would lead to a permanentUnited States military presence in Iraq." By passing this bill, Congresscan send a clear and immediate signal to the Iraqi people and theinternational community that the United States has no intention ofstaying in Iraq indefinitely. There were eighty-six co-sponsors of Lee'slegislation, including three Republicans.

6. Stop Outsourcing Torture

Representative Ed Markey's Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act (HR 952)directs the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual listof countries where there are substantial grounds for believing thattorture or cruel and degrading treatment is commonly used in detentionor interrogation. The bill prohibits the direct or indirect transfer orreturn of people by the United States for the purpose of detention,interrogation, trial or other purposes to a listed country. Given therecent history of black sites, torture flights, innocent victimsand suspension of habeas corpus, this legislation should be animmediate priority. It is one modest step in the right direction. Itcurrently has seventy-seven co-sponsors.

7. Access to Higher Education

Senator Richard Durbin and Representative George Miller'sReverse the Raid on Student Aid Act (S 2573 and HR 5150) wouldcut interest rates on college loans for student and parent borrowers.The legislation would save $5,600 for the typical student borrower, whocurrently graduates with $17,500 in student-loan debt. The Durbin-Millerlegislation cuts interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4percent, for students with subsidized loans, and from 8.5 percent to4.25 percent for parents. Earlier this year, the GOP Congress cut $12billion out of federal student aid programs to help finance tax breaksfor the wealthiest Americans. The average tuition and fees at four-yearpublic colleges have risen 40 percent when adjusted for inflation, since2001, according to the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges. Andthe average student debt has increased by more than 50 percent over thepast decade, according to the Project on Student Debt. With economicinequality and the concentration of wealth reaching unprecedentedlevels, improving access to higher education is essential. It also iscritical if we are to reverse the trend of the US workforcelagging behind other nations in education.

8. Free and Independent Media

Representative Maurice Hinchey sponsored the Media Ownership ReformAct (MORA--HR 3302), which seeks to restore a diverse media bysignificantly lowering the number of media outlets one company ispermitted to own in a single market. Since 1996 the FederalCommunications Commission has promoted massive media consolidation byincreasing that number, allowing telecommunications corporations to buyup a larger share of television and radio stations, newspapers and othermedia outlets, and forcing independent and local media owners outof business. There are sixteen co-sponsors of MORA in the House.

9. Public Financing of Campaigns

Representative John Tierney introduced the Clean Money, Clean ElectionsAct (HR 3099) last year with thirty-nine Democrats and oneIndependent as co-sponsors. The bill establishes a voluntary system thatoffers candidates an option for public financing and reduced rates onbroadcast advertising in exchange for self-imposed limits on campaignfinancing and spending. Participating candidates get a dollar-for-dollarmatch, up to a set limit, if a nonparticipating opponent spends morethan the basic public-financing grant. This system would free candidatesfrom the burden of continuous fundraising; allow those who obtain aprescribed number of contributions to run regardless of their economicstatus or access to large funders; and, perhaps most important,eliminate the skewed priorities caused by the financing ofcampaigns by special-interest contributors.

10. Clean Energy

Last May Senator Maria Cantwell introduced the Clean EDGE Act (S 2829)with twenty-four Democratic co-sponsors. The bill sets a goal ofreducing US petroleum consumption by 6 million barrels a day by 2020--or40 percent of America's projected imports. It mandates that 25percent of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2010 be flex-fuelcapable (able to run on higher blends of biofuels, which help todisplace petroleum), rising to 50 percent by 2020. It also sets anational goal of installing alternative fuels at 10 percent of US gasstations by 2015. The bill also makes gas price-gouging a federal crime.It ends subsidies for major oil companies and extends incentives forrenewable energy and efficiency technologies. To shrink US dependence onfossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill requires that10 percent of all US electricity come from renewable sources by2020. A report by the Apollo Alliance and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Clean EDGE Act would create more than 500,000 jobs,including tens of thousands in states hit hardest by the loss of 3million manufacturing jobs.

This list is by no means all-inclusive. But these are good and importantinitiatives that address longstanding and formidable challenges.

Will a New Congress Check and Balance Bush?

The wonder of American democracy is the fact that power can be transferred from one party to another peacefully and, at times, even graciously.

The reason for this, of course, is that the United States is governed by a Constitution that assures the power that is transferred is never absolute. Thus, a defeated party and its followers know that they are not consigning themselves to political oblivion when they cede their authority to another group of partisans.

The separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, and protected by that document's system of checks and balances, was designed to assure that neither the executive nor the legislative branch of government could become so dominant that basic rights might be undermined or that the nation itself might be endangered.

There is genius in the design. But it is only fully functional when those who are entrusted with the duty of upholding the Constitution choose, in fact and deed, to do so.

That is the test of the new Congress. The Republicans who controlled the House and Senate but, by their own admission, failed to serve as an effective check and balance on the Bush administration's excesses, have now been consigned to opposition status. The Democrats, who promised a change of direction, have majorities in both chambers.

But the question remains: Have we seen a peaceful transfer of power, along the lines that the founders intended? Or have we merely shuffled some office assignments and changed the names on some doors?

The answer to those questions will come in the response of the new Congress to the excesses of the Bush administration.

Conveniently, on the eve of the swearing in of the Democratic House and Senate, the president set up a challenge that the new Congress can -- indeed must meet.

After signing an otherwise mundane postal reform bill on December 2O, Bush issued a so-called "signing statement" that claimed for himself sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail.

As with the warrantless wiretapping of Americans' telephone conversations, which Bush continues to authyorize, the president's claim of an authority to open letters and packages according to personal whim is contrary to existing law. In fact, this abuse of power is in conflict with the very postal bill he was signing -- not to mention with the privacy protections contained in the Constitution.

"The signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming." says Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, who explains that "The danger is [that the administration will be] reading Americans' mail."

To be sure, that is a danger and it must be addressed.

But there is a deeper danger,

If this president is permitted to continue writing his own rules -- as did the British monarches against whom the American patriots of two centuries ago revolted. Bush is creating what Thomas Jefferson most feared: an "elective despotism." He is ruling, not as the servant of the people but as the "king for four years" that the drafters of the Constitution sought to guard against.

If power has been well and truly transferred to the new Congress, then Bush will be prevented from continuing to abuse his authority. The president's ability to spy and pry without warrant will be constrained, and his determination to trample the rule of law will be met with Constitutional remedies that the founders intended: censure and sanction.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com

Labor Rights Begin at Home

The right to workplace democracy, that is the right to form a union and collectively bargain, is a human right. Perhaps it sounds overly grandiose to say this, but that alone shows how far labor rights in the this country have fallen. Labor rights are internationally recognized as part and parcel of the broader litany of human rights that constitute the kind of international norms that the US govenrment professes to support. It's not coincidental that that one thing nearly all autocratic and repressive regimes -- from the Communist Party of Poland of the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein, to the current mullahs running Iran -- share is antipathy towards organized labor. It makes sense. Workers coming together to have a say in their workplace is fundamentally a democratic exercise and once they start doing that, who knows what else they'll try to organize around.

For this reason, it's more than a little troubling that a new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that one in seven workers who try organize a union right here in the US are illegally fired. While the CEPR finds that situation has gotten worse under Bush, the dismal state of labor law enforcement isn't new. Six years ago, even before the Bush administration ushered in an even more anti-union era at the NLRB, Human Rights Watch released a report titled UNFAIR ADVANTAGE: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards. HRW found that the US fell short of many international labor rights standards. For instance:

The basic international norm protecting the right to organize is stated in ILO Convention 98: "Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination . . . more particularly acts calculated to cause the dismissal of or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership or participation in union activities." The NLRA's Section 8(a)(3) appears to meet this goal, making unlawful any discrimination against workers for concerted activity, including union activity.

Firing a worker for organizing is illegal but commonplace in the United States. Many of the cases examined by Human Rights Watch for this report reflect the frequency and the devastating effect of discriminatory discharges on workers' rights. An employer determined to get rid of a union activist knows that all that awaits, after years of litigation if the employer persists in appeals, is a reinstatement order the worker is likely to decline and a modest back-pay award. For many employers, it is a small price to pay to destroy a workers' organizing effort by firing its leaders.

None of this is going to even begin to change until we reform the way unions are certified. As the labor movement has argued repeatedly, the current NLRB election process makes it nearly impossible for workers to form a union because it's so easy for employers to simply fire or threaten to fire the troublemakers. That's why we need card-check elections. Here's to 2007 being the year of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Going Local

Most ActNow readers will be familiar with many of the well-known liberal bloggers and blogs. Sites like The DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, Atrios and The Huffington Post all draw massive daily audiences for their largely national commentary, reporting and analysis.

But there's a quieter revolution taking place among local blogs that are increasingly engaging the maxim that all politics is local. With a tight focus on the frequently unique, quirky issues of small municipalities, these blogs are offering an invaluable resource that is usually legitimately impossible to find elsewhere.

But how to find them? Since the internet doesn't come with zipcodes attached to urls, it's not always obvious how to discover these nodes of conversation and community? One good way is to read former Nation editor and current Executive Editor of Personal Democracy Forum Micah Sifry's recent post detailing Seven Ways to Find Local Political Blogs. It's an extremely useful primer on how to access what you want to know online. And if you have other suggestions for ways to go local, please let us know in the comments field below.

Murtha: No Surge For Bush

In the first really bold move of the new Congress, Jack Murtha told Arianna Huffington in an interview published today that he plans to block Bush's plan to escalate the war in Iraq by refusing to fund a so-called "surge" of additional troops.

From Arianna's interview:

When we asked about the likelihood of the president sending additional troops to Iraq, Murtha was adamant. "The only way you can have a troop surge," he told us, "is to extend the tours of people whose tours have already been extended, or to send back people who have just gotten back home." He explained at length how our military forces are already stretched to the breaking point, with our strategic reserve so depleted we are unprepared to face any additional threats to the country. So does that mean there will be no surge? Murtha offered us a "with Bush anything is possible" look, then said: "Money is the only way we can stop it for sure."

He says he wants to "fence the funding," denying the president the resources to escalate the war, instead using the money to take care of the soldiers as we bring them home from Iraq "as soon as we can."

As chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Murtha has power over the war purse. He's right: the only way to prevent a surge is to refuse to fund it. And the only surefire way to end the war starts with blocking the $100 billion supplemental bill President Bush plans to hand the Congress soon. Many Democrats have been reluctant to pursue such an approach. Maybe Murtha's latest statement--like his dramatic call for redeployment in November 2005--will wake up his party.

The Year of the Democratic Woman

History will be made on Thursday morning with the US Capitol serving as a backdrop as Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as the first woman Speaker of the House. Pelosi was unanimously elected Speaker last November to serve in this position that is third-in-line to the Presidency.

But what is being touted as "The Year of the Democratic Woman" extends far beyond this important victory.

Minnesota elected Amy Klobuchar as its first-ever female Senator. Klobuchar ran as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate, and joins newly elected Senate colleagues Jon Tester, Sherrod Brown, Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders in winning on an economic populist platform.

Anti-war candidate Carol Shea-Porter is the first woman ever elected by New Hampshire to represent the state in Congress. She too ran on a populist message in a solidly Republican district, and spoke out strongly against the war and for accountability and oversight, particularly with regard to war profiteering.

In all, eleven Democratic women will serve in the Senate and fifty in the House.

In the Senate, Barbara Boxer is the new Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman. As I noted in a previous post, Sen. Boxer is a welcome change from global warming denier James Inhofe – a breath of fresh air, one might say (bad pun, but true nonetheless). Only four women have previously served as chairs of Senate committees prior to Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who will now chair the Rules and Administration Committee). And Sen. Patty Murray (WA) will become the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate as the newly elected conference secretary.

In the House, no woman has chaired a committee since 1997 and, thankfully, that pitiful streak now comes to an end. Representatives Louise Slaughter, Nydia Velazquez and Stephanie Tubbs Jones – all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) – will respectively chair the Rules Committee, Small Business Committee, and Ethics Committee. Other leadership positions are still being determined.

It should be noted too that the CPC – the largest caucus in Congress – is chaired by Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee (who have been at the forefront of opposition to the war and leaders in finding a more just path to security), and it includes other strong and tested progressives like Jan Schakowsky, Sheila Jackson-Lee, and Maxine Waters. In fact, 22 of the 64 CPC members in the last Congress were women and that number is expected to rise in the new Congress.

If the 110th Congress is to fulfill its mandate for change it will do so in no small measure through the new and much overdue leadership of Democratic Women. Now let's just hope that the history-making Speaker reflects the Nancy Pelosi who often scored 100 on progressive scorecards, not the equivocating Nancy Pelosi who failed to gain the endorsement of her hometown newspaper.

Join the Marines... for the Summer

The other day, the college-age daughter of a friend received an e-letter from a Marine Corps Officer Selection Officer, inviting her to "an awesome summer training program called the Platoon Leader's Course." Think of it as Marine Corps summer camp. No uniforms ("This is not ROTC!"), but reasonable amounts of moolah. Here's some of what was on offer to her, part of a desperate military's Iraq-era appeal to citizenly duty:

"You will earn approximately $2,400 (six weeks) or $4,000 (ten weeks) plus room and board during the training. How's that for a summer job?.... You will not incur any obligation to the Marine Corps even after completing the training. (You can choose whether or not to continue with the program).... Tuition assistance will be available to you after you complete training this summer. You could potentially earn $8,000 to $25,000 for school, depending on graduation date."

Imagine! The Marine Corps is willing to pay young people to go to a uniform-less summer camp to test their "leadership potential," with no commitment to the Corps necessary. Consider that; then consider what was certainly the President's only significant decision of the holiday season past--to permanently expand the US military by as many as 70,000 troops.

Now, as in some old math problem, the question is: How do you connect these two points. (Hint: Not with a straight line.)

Faced with a December shot across the bow in testimony before Congress by Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker, who warned that the Army "will break" under present war-zone rotation needs, President Bush responded by addressing the "stressed" nature of the US Armed Forces. He said, "I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops--the Army, the Marines. And I talked about this to Secretary [Robert A.] Gates, and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building [the Pentagon], come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea." All this was, he added, "to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists."

Ah... that makes things clearer.

Of course, to get those new "volunteer" officers and men, who have generally been none too eager to volunteer for the Army and the Marines in the midst of a disastrous, far-away, increasingly incomprehensible set of double wars, you'll have to pay even more kids more money to go to no-commitment summer camp; and, while you're at it, you'll have to lower standards for the military radically. You'll have to let in even more volunteers without high school diplomas but with "moral" and medical "waivers" for criminal records and mental problems. You'll have to fast-track even more new immigrants willing to join for the benefits of quick citizenship; you'll have to ramp up already high cash bonuses of all sorts; you'll have to push the top-notch ad agency recently hired on a five-year contract for a cool billion dollars to rev up its new "Army Strong" recruitment drive even higher; you'll certainly have to jack up the numbers of military recruiters radically, to the tune of perhaps a couple of hundred million more dollars; and maybe just for the heck of it, you better start planning for the possibility of recruiting significant numbers of potential immigrants before they even think to leave their own countries. After all, it's darn romantic to imagine a future American all-volunteer force that will look more like the old French Foreign Legion--or an army of mercenaries anyway. All in all, you'll have to commit to the fact that your future soldier in your basic future war will cost staggering sums of money to hire and even more staggering sums to retain after he or she has had a taste of what "leadership potential" really entails.

Put another way, as long as Iraq remains a classic quagmire for the Army and Marines, any plan to expand the U.S. military in order to make it easier to fight such wars in the future, threatens to become a classic financial quagmire as well. In other words, Iraq and military expansion don't fit together well at all. And yet, looking at the state of our military in Iraq in a certain light, expansion seems so… well, logical.

After all, the American military, now at just over 500,000 troops, stood, at the time of the First Gulf War, at 703,000. (Of course, no one now counts the quite expensive hired mercenaries who envelop our military -- the privatized, Halliburton-style adjuncts, who cook the food, build the bases, do the cleaning, deliver the mail and supplies, perform interrogation duties, and so on, and whose increase has been striking as has the growth of rent-a-mercenary corporations whose armed employees are, for instance, all over Iraq.) In addition, it has long been clear that the Armed Forces could not take the strain of failing wars in Central Asia and the Middle East forever, not to speak of increased "commitments" in the Persian Gulf and the normal massive global basing and policing that the Pentagon regularly refers to as our "footprint" on the planet. Added to this, the President seems to be leaning towards increasingly the pressure on military manpower needs by "surging"--the Vietnam era word would, of course, have been "escalating"--up to 30,000 troops into Baghdad and al-Anbar province, while naval and air forces (with an obvious eye to Iran) are simultaneously ramped up in the Persian Gulf.

In light of Iraq, military manpower needs cry out to be dealt with. In light of Iraq, dealing with them any time soon will be prohibitively expensive.

In Washington, this conundrum leads nowhere in particular. Instead, in the spirit of imperial-mission logic (and with the urge to bash the Bush administration for being late to such an obvious support-our-troops position), Democrats simply leaped onto the expand-the-military bandwagon even faster than Republicans. In fact, leading Democrats had long been calling for just this sort of expansion. ("I am glad [the President] has realized the need for increasing the size of the armed forces... but this is where the Democrats have been for two years," commented Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the new House Democratic Caucus chairman.) The Democratic leadership promptly pledged to make such an expansion one of its top reform priorities in the New Year.

To get those numbers significantly higher will, it's estimated, take a decade and unimaginable sums of money (as well as those lowered standards). And, if the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan worsen, as they almost certainly will, and American casualties rise with no end in sight, you can start going through your multiplication tables. This could be considered but a form of ongoing blowback from American imperial shock-and-awe tactics in Iraq and presents some curious choices to our leaders. After all, to take but one example, those most eager to expand the military, with their eyes on the imperial future, should be eager to liquidate the Iraqi mission as soon as possible.

But a far more basic choice lurks--one rarely alluded to in the mainstream. If we voted on such things–-and, in truth, we vote on less and less that matters--the choice that actually lies behind the Marine e-letter to my friend's daughter might be put this way: Expand the military or shrink the mission?

This is the essential question that goes largely unmentioned--and largely unthought as well. In the meantime, money will continue to pour into military recruitment ad campaigns, bonuses, and summer camps. In the meantime, those Marine e-letters will continue to go out. In the meantime, money will continue to pour into the Pentagon and the national security world generally. In the meantime, we will continue to build our near billion-dollar embassy, the largest on the planet, in the heart of Baghdad's Green Zone. In the meantime, the imperial and military paths will continue to fuse, and the Pentagon will continue to take on new roles, even outside "declared war zones," in intelligence, diplomacy, "information operations," and other "self-assigned missions"; so that, as Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times recently described it, even our embassies will increasingly be militarized outposts in the global war on terror.

Shrinking the mission--choosing some path other than the imperial one (in part by redefining what exactly our national interests are)--would, of course, address many problems. It would make paying young people thousands of dollars to test their leadership potential or thinking about scouring Central America for a future Foreign Legion far less necessary. But no one in Washington--not in the Bush administration, not in James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group, which recently captured the Inside-the-Beltway "middle ground" on Iraq policy, not in the Democratic leadership--is faintly interested in shrinking the American global mission. No one in Washington, where a kind of communal voting does go on, is about to vote "no" to that mission, or cast a ballot for democracy rather than empire.

Expanding the military may seem like a no-brainer in response to the Iraq crisis. As it happens, it's anything but. Unfortunately, few ever discuss (as, for instance, Chalmers Johnson did in his book, The Sorrows of Empire) the 700-plus military and intelligence bases we retain around the world or ask why exactly we're garrisoning the planet. No one, in these last years, has seriously challenged the ever expanding Pentagon budget; nor the mushrooming supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, including the record-setting latest for almost $100 billion; nor, generally, the fact that paying for actual war-fighting is no longer considered an appropriate part of the Pentagon's normal budget process.

No one challenged it when, in 2002, the United States gained a new North American Command (Northcom), making U.S. citizens but another coequal part of the Pentagon's division of its imperial world, along with those who live in regions covered by Centcom, Paccom, and the just authorized Africa Command (Africom). No one challenged the vast expansion of Pentagon intelligence activities. No one offered a challenge as the military took on ever more civilian domestic duties, including planning for the potential arrival of a pandemic disease on our shores or for future Katrinas. No one seriously challenges the plans the Pentagon has on the drawing boards for exotic, futuristic hardware meant to come on line decades from now that, along with futuristic military tactics already being worked out, will help predetermine the wars most Americans don't even know we are going to fight--from the vast mega-slum-cities of the Third World to the borderlands of space.

No one considers what the Pentagonization of our world and the Homeland Securitization of our country is doing to us, because militarism here has never taken on the expectable forms--few vast military parades or displays (despite the almost full-scale militarization of Presidential funerals); few troops in the streets; no uniforms in the high councils of government. In fact, it's one of the ironies of our particular form of militarization that when our military--no longer really a citizen army--goes to war and troops begin to die, less Americans are touched by this than perhaps at any time in our recent history.

Shrink the mission or expand the military? Your choice?

Fat chance.