Capital Games | The Nation


Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The Hubris of the Neocons

It took US policymakers and the American public many years, perhaps decades, to realize that hubris--arrogant and uninformed self-confidence--had played a crucial and negative role in the Vietnam tragedy. As Richard Helms, the CIA director for much of the Vietnam War, said in 1981, "We were dealing with a complicated cultural and ethnic problem which we never came to understand. In other words, it was our ignorance or innocence, if you will, which led us to misassess, not comprehend, and make a lot of wrong decisions, which one way or another helped to affect the outcome." This time out, the nation is more fortunate: the perils of hubris have become evident within days of the first attack.

The year-long run-up to the war allowed for much debate: why it was needed (or why not), what it would take to win, how the Iraqis and the rest of the world would react. Most advocates of war argued that it would not be a difficult endeavor and that the Iraqis would be grateful for a US invasion and welcome what American war-backers called "liberation."

Neither of those propositions has panned out. Yes, it's early. But the point was that the collapse of the Iraqi forces and the dancing in the streets would happen early. Shortly before the war was launched, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted Saddam Hussein's troops would "step aside" and that victory would take "weeks rather than months." His remarks reflected the argument that war advocates--led by Washington's neoconservatives--had been pushing for over a year.

Immediately after September 11, according to Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tried to convince President Bush to attack Iraq rather than Afghanistan, maintaining that Hussein's government was a brittle regime that could crumble easily, that Iraq was a pushover and Afghanistan was not. In February 2002, Kenneth Adelman, an assistant to Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s and now a leading neoconservative defense intellectual, wrote, "demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." He predicted that Saddam Hussein would quickly fall if the US military attacked his "headquarters, communications, air defenses and fixed military facilities through precision bombing."

In his book, The Right Man, neocon David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, suggests that the war in Afghanistan demonstrated that Iraq could be taken with "ten thousand men and a few hundred planes." Throughout the previous year, I often spoke with TV generals in favor of the war, and most were claiming the war would be short and sweet. Their scenarios usually began this way: Day One, we take Basra. (That, of course, didn't happen.) Then, within days, the US forces would be outside of Baghdad and controlling most of the rest of the country. What about Baghdad? I asked repeatedly. The answer was always some variant of, that will take care of itself. In other words, the regime will collapse, an anti-Hussein coup will occur, the dictator will flee, or something will happen to make the invasion of the city unnecessary. This jibed with what a prominent Pentagon correspondent told me late last year: the military had a wonderful five-day plan for the war, a plan that ended with US forces ringing Baghdad. Then there was no plan.

And last May, Richard Perle, then the chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and the godfather of Washington's hawks, told me it would not be necessary to amass a force of 250,000 troops to solve the Hussein problem. What was the Perle plan? To use 40,000 troops to grab control of the north and the south, particularly where the oil fields are located. Cut off Hussein's oil, Perle said, and he would tumble. What surprised me was not his belief that Iraq could be conquered so easily, but his disdain for the leaders of the military services. As he described his take-Baghdad-by-Tuesday scheme, his voice dripped with contempt for the wimpy generals and admirals who insisted on deploying hundreds of thousands. His lack of confidence in overly-cautious military commanders might have been warranted, but if Perle's attitude was at all representative of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, it was clear trouble was brewing. It would be hard for the military to prosecute a war if the civilians and the brass were at war with one another. It's true that Perle's proposal has not been put to the test, but after the first week-and-a-half of fighting, it does appear safe and fair to say that he was utterly out of touch with reality, that a smaller and lighter force would not have done better and achieved a "cakewalk" success.

And what of the war of liberation? President Bush termed it so, as did Rumsfeld. Many pro-war commentators practically promised the troops would be met by garlands and gushing Iraqis. To date, that has not happened. A question: is it a war of liberation if the "liberated" ones don't consider it so? When John Donvan, an unembedded ABC reporter visited "liberated" Safwan, a Southern border town, he found the residents there more resentful than appreciative. "They saw the US-led invasion as a takeover, not liberation," he recounted. Toward the end of the first week of war, there were news reports that thousands Iraqi exiles in Jordan, some of whom had previously fled Iraq to escape Hussein's repression, were heading back to Iraq (or considering doing so) to join the fight--not against Hussein, but against the United States. It wasn't that they were rushing to defend Hussein. They wanted to protect their homeland from a US invasion. To these people, this is not a war of liberation. And the Iranian-based leader of the Shi'ite opposition in the South issued a statement urging his followers in Iraq not to rise up, not to support the American invasion of Iraq (and not to fight for Hussein either).

On March 31, the London Times reported that refugees outside Basra were throwing stones at British forces. "British soldiers sitting on their Warrior vehicle," the story noted, "looked stunned when a couple of packets of sweets that they had thrown to children were hurled back by their fathers." Several thousand refugees fleeing the city have been forced to pass single-file through a checkpoint. The Brits did not bother to have translators present who could explain why they were making people faint with heat and dehydration wait. Nor did they have water or medical assistance for these Iraqis. One refugee, who shook his fist at the British, told a reporter, "I have no love for Saddam, but tell me how are we better off today when there is no power, no water. There are dead bodies lying on our streets, and my children are scared to go to bed because of the shelling."

It may well be that if the US and British forces achieve military success, a wary Iraqi public might express gratitude. Memories are long, and Iraqis remember that they were urged in 1991 by the United States to rebel against Hussein and that those who heeded the call were slaughtered. Some US commentators who asserted the Iraqis would respond positively to a war of liberation have lately been saying, patience, patience. But timing may not be everything in this regard. As Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum, notes, Iraqi resentment may be deep-rooted: "They're losing their sovereignty. That's not something a very proud, fierce, nationalist people will accept very easily….Iraqis will be happy Saddam Hussein is gone. But they will not be happy to be occupied."

From a comfortable office in a Washington think tank--or the People's House?-- it probably was easy to gaze at Iraq and "the long-suffering Iraqi people" (as Bush put it) and see the obvious. Why wouldn't they welcome being freed from a brutal, murderous tyrant who reportedly fed opponents into a wood-chipper? It was also easy to dismiss the Iraqi military. Why would anyone fight for such a regime, particularly when the outcome was so obvious? Yet the people have not mounted uprisings and embraced Bush's war, and the Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary squads have fought back. They must be fighting for something. Or against something.

Perhaps the soldiers and thugs--threatened or intimidated by Hussein's regime or not-- are only resisting out of self-preservation. Whatever the motivation, their ability to defy the US military seems to have caught our leaders and war advocates by surprise. Bush and his supporters often compare the struggle against Iraq to the battle against fascism. But did the people of Germany rebel against the Nazi dictatorship? Did the German military roll over? It was the people of France, occupied by a foreign power, who were glad to see the Yanks--not the Germans, who, like the Iraqis of today, lived under a brutal homegrown regime. What reasons did US policymakers and the pundits have for believing events in Iraq would follow their expectations? Was it too inconvenient for them to factor in Iraqi nationalism or resentment? Or were they unaware such sentiments might become sand in the gears? Their hubris came in projecting American assumptions (or wishes) upon the realities of Iraq.

Maybe the optimistic predictions will still come to pass--the Iraqi regime and military falls apart and Iraqis celebrate their liberation and then work with the postwar occupation to establish a democratic and prosperous Iraq. But if hubris helped pave the way to as-of-yet-untaken Basra, such countermeasures as humility and understanding ought to be introduced into the US arsenal as postwar plans are drafted. Let's hope the United States is soon in a position to use them.

Postwar Democracy? Iraq is a Hard Place

The angry guy with the shoe.

Those who have been watching the war on television are familiar with the video footage: after the US military took control of Safwan, the southern Iraqi border town, this fellow was captured on film banging on a large, partially destroyed wall portrait of Saddam Hussein with his shoe. It was the closest the world has so far come to viewing joyous Iraqis dancing in the street before their American liberators. Such images may yet arrive, validating the assurances of American and British war advocates who maintained that this military action is indeed liberation, not conquest; that Iraqis would welcome such intervention; and that the invasion and occupation would place Iraq on the road to democracy. But if the dancing does not happen soon, the war planners can expect to have a tougher time securing Iraq and creating the environment necessary for reconstruction and democratization.

Consider the celebratory heel-banging in Safwan. A few days after the shoe-heard-around-the-world smacked against Hussein's forehead, ABC News reporter John Donvan and his crew--working unembeddedly--crossed the border into Kuwait and visited the town. They witnessed no rejoicing. Townspeople surrounded the journalists and passionately voiced their opinions of the US invasion. "We learned," Donvan reported, "that just because the townsfolk don't like Saddam, it doesn't mean they like the Americans trying to take him out....They were angry at America, and said US forces had shot at people in the town. They were also angry because they needed food, water and medicine and the aid promised by President Bush had not appeared....They asked us why the United States was taking over Iraq, and whether the Americans would stay in Iraq for ever. They saw the US-led invasion as a takeover, not liberation."

Resentment and suspicion, not gratitude and embrace. If the sentiment of these people was an accurate indicator of how other Iraqis are or will be reacting to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the coming (or so the Bush administration promises) mission to democratize and remake Iraq will face severe challenges.

Now that the war is under way--damage done--the Bush administration's professed desire to free the repressed citizens of Iraq and introduce them to democracy and liberty ought to be supported and encouraged, and the White House's commitment to this supposed war aim closely monitored. ("This nation never conquers, but we liberate," Bush said. Did he forget the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the subjugation of Native Americans and other past glories, including the invasions of Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic? Oh, never mind.) But how does Bush plan to seed Iraq with democracy? He and his administration have not offered any specific plans. It may well be because they do not truly know. "I'm not sure they've gotten beyond platitudes and wishful thinking," says one federally-funded democracy -development expert. But whatever their strategy may be--or end up being--it won't mean much if the Iraqi people are not with the program.

Before Operation Bring 'em Democracy can kick off, the war has to be won and the country secured. As of this writing, these goals remain unattained. And it seems at the moment that if the war is indeed won in the conventional sense, there still may be resistance throughout the country to an occupying force. If that opposition is widespread and persistent, it could soak up attention and resources that might otherwise be directed toward rebuilding (politically and otherwise) Iraq. Lingering resistance could also produce a security situation not conducive to democracy-building. If military officials in the field have to deal with an ongoing insurgency--an intifada?--it will be even more difficult for them to create rudimentary democratic structures. Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum, has suggested that if Saddam Hussein survives the US attack, he might reemerge to lead an underground guerrilla force that fights the US occupation. To use Vietnam terminology, Iraq has to be pacified before it can be saved.

And that pacification needs to happen fast. Democracy-building experts cite several factors as crucial to success in Iraq. Foremost among them is a good and quick start. As a report of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, US forces should enter Iraq with the "mission to establish public security and provide humanitarian aid. This is distinct from the tasks generally assigned to combat troops." A retired general with experience in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo told me, "You have to begin immediately with two major endeavors simultaneously. You have to establish public security and bring about stability within the country, and you have to mount a humanitarian effort to give meaning to your claim you're here to help the Iraqi people. After that you have to try bottom-up and top-down efforts to build a semblance of political order."

By supplying security and aid expeditiously and effectively, US forces can take a stab at conquering the resentment and distrust. As Donvan found out in Safwan, residents there were already complaining about the absence of assistance. The administration had a good initial excuse: the opposition in Basra and the South was tougher than expected, and humanitarian supplies could not be moved into Iraq. But there should have been a plan for such a scenario. (Aid started flowing once British and US forces secured portions of the South.) "People are suspicious," the retried general notes. "We've just bombed and strafed their town. There is 12 years of anger. There were sanctions. Twelve years ago, we crapped out on them [by not supporting the resistance that occurred during the first Gulf War]. Most of this stuff is in the eye of the beholder, not the declarations of the occupiers. People have to believe you are doing what you say and not that you're just there for the oil."

The credibility gap that must be overcome is pronounced, says Kipper. "It is very unlikely any American transition plan...will be accepted," she maintains. Noting that Iraq has been an independent country since 1921, Kipper observes, "they're losing their sovereignty. That's not something a very proud, fierce, nationalist people will accept very easily." And, she adds, "we are culturally and linguistically deprived" in matters related to the Middle East. "We will have to wait until [the war] is over and see how sensitive we can be," she says. "This is a war of choice--an American-led war against a Muslim-led country and that has consequences. Iraqis will be happy Saddam Hussein is gone. But they will not be happy to be occupied."

To address the likely distrust--which might not be surmountable--the occupiers must take rapid steps toward establishing a new political order. In cities and towns across the country, US officials--presumably military people--will have to identify locals (tribal elders, prominent citizens, bureaucrats) with whom to work toward developing some form of representative governance. "This is hard, very hard," says the retired general. A former military official who was in charge of an Iraqi town during the first Gulf War notes, "You're a battalion commander and you have an interpreter, this is what you do: you go looking for the old guys. You try to pull together a clan of elders. But you need someone who can explain the clans, the tribes, and the gossip. I wish I had had that. And if you're giving out copious amounts of aid and doing medical work, you create some jobs by paying people to clear up road intersections." (By the way, there are 150 tribes and 2000 clans in Iraq, some of which may attempt to establish their own militias. The democracy-builders of the US occupation will have to understand and take into account the rivalries and conflicts among the groups.)

At the same time, the retired general adds, some kind of national structure has to be established. In the run-up to the war, there was disagreement within the US government about whether to ready a provisional government composed of Iraqi exiles, most notably millionaire Ahmed Chalabi, who has lived outside Iraq since 1956 and who was convicted of financial fraud in Jordan in 1992. (He claims it was a set-up.) "I'm very suspicious, as are most Iraqis, of Chalabi," says the retired general. "We need a collective gathering of folks who at least appear to be a reasonable cross-section of the Iraqi people and let them start the process. Everything we do will be assessed as to whether this is for our purposes or for those of the Iraqi people. One reason we needed more allies was to create the impression this is not being done for our gain." In addition to providing security, aid, and a roadmap to self-representation, the United States also will have to oversee, strengthen or establish the courts, the police, the banking system, the energy and water systems, and, of course, the oil industry.

"I don't think they understand what the fuck they just bought into," the retired general says. "They're like the dog that catches the car, but it's an 18-wheeler. This is work that requires more patience and more commitment that I've seen to date. Exhibit One is Afghanistan."

A recent article by Larry Goodson in the Journal of Democracy, which is published by the National Endowment for Democracy, should cause Iraqis to fret about their occupiers. Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the US Army War College, was a consultant in 2002 to the Afghan loya jirga that chose Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's president. In the piece, he recalls being "excited to see democracy (of a sort) in action" when he witnessed Afghans voting last May for members of the loya jirga, He even gave a short speech, "telling the soon-to-be voters that the whole world was watching Afghanistan, and that any of them who had a complaint could come to me, as a representative of the international community."

Now the optimist is a pessimist. "Afghanistan's transition," Goodson writes, "even to stability (much less democracy) is highly unlikely. What is worse, after a largely successful military campaign, the United States and the rest of the world may have only a limited window of opportunity within which to aid Afghanistan's transition. Moreover, they may be losing interest in doing so, which would almost certainly doom any chance that the country might have." The United States, he argues, failed to do what was necessary to achieve stability in the country--that is, it did not maintain a security presence throughout Afghanistan, nor did it mount a "swift and massive" reconstruction. It essentially blocked "any serious international peacekeeping" outside of Kabul, which has enabled warlordism to rise outside the capital city. "Total spending on peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan during the past year," Goodson notes, "was $540 million, or about 5.4 percent of the roughly $10 billion that it cost the US-led military coalition to operate there."

Money pledged to Afghanistan by the United States and other nations for rebuilding was insufficient. The $1.8 billion promised for 2002 was less per capita than what was spent in Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor or Kosovo. Washington and the international community, Goodson maintains, botched the political reconstruction by pushing a centralized model rather than a federal system. "Most Afghan leaders today," he observes, "derive their authority from a combination of appeals to Islam, illicit economic activities (such as the opium trade), and gunmen."

Iraq is not Afghanistan. But Washington is still Washington. And a broken commitment in Afghanistan does not augur well for the new commitment in Iraq. In February, there was a preview in Washington of the debate that might ensue within the administration over how far Washington should go to bring stability to Iraq. General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, testified in the Senate that "several hundred thousand" troops will be needed for an effective postwar operation in Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz blasted that estimate two days later, dismissing it as "wildly off the mark" and "hard to imagine." How many troops does the administration intend to commit to postwar Iraq? It hasn't said. But is it serious about achieving stability throughout Iraq? "With nation-building as with peacekeeping," Goodson writes, "there are no shortcuts and no substitutes."

Ray Jennings, a fellow at the US Institute of Peace who previously was a senior field adviser for the Office of Transition Initiatives at the US Agency for International Development, agrees the United States' record in Afghanistan is not encouraging. Moreover, he notes, "the US track record on nation-building is discouragingly mixed. Of the eighteen regimes the United States has displaced by force this past century, democratic rule has prevailed in only five places."

Money, resources, and planning count--and so does tone. "It is with some humility, then, that the United States should enter Baghdad," Jennings maintains. "The seductions of privilege and absolute control that accompany occupations may make it difficult to rule Iraq without hubris--but it is essential that the United States make the effort. Arrogance will almost certainly prove disastrous. Every gesture will carry political significance in an environment where international legitimacy for occupation is in short supply. Rebuilding a nation, occupying it in order to free it, is an inherently arrogant act."

Can Washington breed democracy in a land it occupies? Can it provide security and stability without being heavy-handed and imperious?How to balance the need to not rule for too long with the need to remain committed (and not repeat its near cut-and-run performance in Afghanistan)? "If the United States meddles far too much with the shape and form of what comes next," Kipper says, "it will not work. The Iraqi people have to take charge of their own destiny....American rhetoric is very important. We must speak in respectful terms and we need to say over and over we will be there a short time." What's a short time? Administration officials have testified in Congress that the United States might have to stay in charge for two years. And Kipper is not alone among Middle East experts in noting that for the United States to be seen as acting in good-faith by Iraqis and other Arabs it must vigorously "address the Israeli-Palestinian problem."

Building--not rebuilding--democracy in Iraq will be a task requiring both delicacy and vigor. It will have to be conducted with speed and with steadfastness. And, as Joe Wilson, a former acting US ambassador to Iraq, says, "we should not be surprised if the outcome is not what we would like to see." Install democracy in Iraq and what arises may not be a national government that is friendly (and grateful) toward the United States. Perhaps the people will chose leaders who want the United States out of Iraq sooner than later, who intend to nationalize the oil industry and do business with non-American firms, who fully support Palestinian extremists, who ally themselves with the mullahs of Tehran or other Islamic fundamentalists. What would Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Cheney and George Bush (let alone Bill Kristol and the other neocon war-cheerleaders) do then? Celebrate the triumph of the people's will?

After all, what does that guy with the shoe and his neighbors want? Is it the same thing as Richard Perle? If not, whose desires will win out?

To date, Bush has not shown the skill and talent needed to navigate the difficult assignment he has assumed: growing democracy in Iraq. He's been a my-way-or-the-highway sort of guy who does seem to appreciate policy nuances. Prior to September 11, he scoffed at nation-building. After the al Qaeda attack, he had to pay it heed, but he failed to embrace it fully in Afghanistan. And after abandoning the United Nations Security Council, Bush has to court allies and international organizations to participate in the rehabilitation of Iraq. The administration has started discussions with the UN about how to handle the postwar period, but will it again insist its own priorities and policies come first?

Will Bush the Liberator stick it out in Iraq and export democracy to that troubled nation? Will he even get the chance? He's but one piece of a big and unwieldy puzzle. There's also the Iraqi people: the liberated ones, who may not consider themselves liberated.

Finally, A Dream of War Comes True

A few months ago, I was in a television studio with one of Washington's leading pro-war cheerleaders. After we finished our mini-debate, he asked if I thought war was coming. Well, I said, it seems to me that when enough people want a war, it is likely to happen. "But," he said, only half in jest, "we've wanted so many wars, and we didn't get them. And we've wanted this one for years." Well, now his dream has come true.

I hope that the get-Iraq crusaders--neocon kingpin Bill Kristol; columnist/bombardier Charles Krauthammer; more-hawkish-than-thou Democrats Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards; reluctant warrior Colin Powell; inspections-thwarter Dick Cheney; strategic kibitzer Richard "of Arabia and the Entire World" Perle; unilateralist extraordinaire Donald Rumsfeld; and, oh, yes, President/Sheriff George W. Bush--are right.

That the war goes easy, with few casualties and little collateral damage (which is also known as crushed, maimed, and burned children and adults). That Saddam is dethroned. That liberation occurs, with flag-waving and moustache-shaving in the street. That food, medicine, electricity and water reach the Iraqi people, many of whom are already undernourished. That the country remains intact and does not descend into chaos marked by fighting among or between its various ethnic groups and battles between Kurds and Turks. That if there are awful weapons of mass destruction or scientists with dangerous know-how in Iraq, the US military is able to prevent these arms and their designers from reaching those who would put them to evil use, all while prosecuting the war and securing a nation of 23 million or so people. That the subsequent occupation proceeds smoothly.

That democracy and human rights sprout in a society with no democratic tradition and spread to other nations in the region. That the Iraqis select public-interest-minded democrats and secularists--not religious fundamentalists, demagogues, or Iranian-backed America-haters--to represent them. That the abilities of global terrorists are curtailed. That the invasion and occupation do not bolster al Qaeda recruitment, embolden terrorists to strike American targets, or cause other governments to tumble and fall to Islamo-fascists. That the reconstruction of Iraq is well-financed and managed effectively--in a multilateral manner. That the nation's oil wealth is used for the benefit of its people. That its economy--destroyed by sanctions and Saddam Hussein's ways--rebounds. That the United States does not become a despised occupier. That somehow the changes in Iraq enable a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That America's security is enhanced and the Middle East starts to be transformed into a region of tranquility, stability, prosperity, and justice.

There are a lot of promises being attached to this war. It's not just a matter of chasing off a ragtag bunch of Islamic fundamentalist students who have taken over a poor and undeveloped country and blasting the remnants of several terrorist camps. War in Iraq has been presented as a cure-all. We can protect the United States and the world, transform a dictatorship into a democracy, and address the many dilemmas of the Middle East by mounting an unfriendly takeover of Iraq using an army of nearly a quarter-million people. And--at no extra charge--we can enforce the United Nations' mandate, for the UN is too weak to do that itself.

But in addition to fifty states (and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Somoa, the Virgin Islands, and Guam), Bush will now also be responsible for Iraq. Forget reforming Medicare, how do you keep the hospitals in Basra open and stocked with sterile gauze? CEO of Iraq--how will that look on his résumé? Some of the costs of the war and occupation can be calculated in advance. After months of ducking the question, the administration has conceded that the military action alone will probably run in the $70 billion to $100 billion range. And an estimated cost of occupation is $20 billion a year. For how long? Who knows? (Perhaps John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean and the other Democratic presidential wannabes are now running to be in charge of two countries.)

But the less tangible costs are impossible to calculate. What's the price of the United States' image in the world? A poll conducted in early March by the Arab American Institute and Zogby International asked Arabs in various countries whether they possessed a favorable or unfavorable view of America. In Jordan, the positive/negative ratio had dropped from 34/61 in March 2002 to 10/81. In Morocco, it fell from 38/61 to 9/88. Pissing off people in other countries may not be reason not to act on principle or in self-defense (assuming that's what this war is about, which I don't). But it is foolish to behave as if the opinions of others do not count and are of little consequence. In calculating security threats to the United States, how do you factor in overseas animosity?

During his get-out-of-Dodge speech, Bush declared, "The terrorist threat will be diminished the moment Saddam Hussein is disarmed." Yet how can he assert that? The repercussions of war are unpredictable. (Did the first Gulf War, which ended with a US military presence in Saudi Arabia offensive to Islamic extremists, lead to September 11?) Consider the opening line of a recent New York Times front-pager: "On three continents, al Qaeda and other terror organizations have intensified their efforts to recruit young Muslim men, tapping into rising anger about the American campaign for war in Iraq, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials." A senior American counterintelligence official told the newspaper: "An American invasion of Iraq is already being used as a recruitment tool by al Qaeda and other groups."

So you remove Saddam Hussein--who, according to a CIA finding last fall, did not pose a terrorist threat to the United States unless directly threatened by Washington--but there's a recruitment boom for al Qaeda (at a time when Osama bin Laden's network seems to be under the gun). Is that a net diminution of the "terrorist threat" to America? No one can accurately say. Yet Bush--disingenuously--has been guaranteeing results. He has been over-promising. Just as he has been hyping the still unproved link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, a connection that would call for severe action. Just as he has been misrepresenting criticism of his policy by suggesting that his opponents prefer "inaction." No, war skeptics in the United States and the Security Council have proposed other courses of action, including coercive inspections and hard-and-fast deadlines. Bush could have argued these alternatives were not likely to succeed. Instead, he dishonestly has ignored their existence. Likewise, he has claimed to be pursuing diplomacy, when all that meant to him was pressing the Security Council to endorse war.

A tangent: in his most recent war speech, Bush called on Iraqi military and civilian personnel to "not destroy oil wells, a source of wealth that belongs to the Iraqi people." Was that an affirmation of socialism? Can the Iraqis expect to see the US viceroy in Baghdad oversee the revitalization of a nationalized oil industry?

Perhaps the war-backers will triumph and the assorted scenarios mentioned above will come to pass. Unlike other big-time endeavors sought by the neocons and conservatives, this is a no-holds-barred effort. To use a cliché, a swing for the fences. Conservatives often gripe that their principles are never fully put to the test. Ronald Reagan cut taxes, but deficits occurred because Congress didn't curtail spending. Welfare reform was passed, but it wasn't strict enough. Ballistic missile defense hasn't gone operational yet because the program has not been sufficiently funded and supported. Saddam Hussein was pushed back in 1991, but not pursued. This time out, the cons and neocons should have no complaints. This is what they have desired for years. Bush has his war, and it's step one in their (and his) crusade.

Bush and the rest are placing much at risk for their grand promises. Let them take credit, if success transpires. And let them bear responsibility for whatever might be unleashed.

Bush's Irrelevant Case for War

President George W. Bush has a case for going to war. It's a slim case, but a case. And he keeps undermining it with dishonest remarks. During his Thursday night press conference--only the eighth news conference of his presidency (Bill Clinton had logged 30 by this point in his first term)--Bush once again tried to argue for war. He offered nothing new. And, to be fair, at this stage of the game--after months of prep work--no one should expect to hear much in the way of fresh argument. But Bush took one more shot at explaining his thinking.

He asserted that "Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people. If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime...free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risk....We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to confront threats wherever they arise."

In the post-9/11 world, any possibility of a brutal dictator with anti-American sentiments acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has to be considered worrisome and worthy of a vigorous response. Bush and his crew are right: one cannot assume that absence of evidence (of weapons of mass destruction) is the same thing as evidence of absence (of WMD). The US government ought to identify potential foes and potential attacks and develop the means to neutralize them early. Perhaps it might even be prudent in some circumstances to move against such threats before undeniable proof can be assembled, more so if the targets are known murderers, torturers, and thugs who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even if questions remain about a preemptive course of action, it may still be warranted, particularly if the potential threat were sufficiently dire. (If Washington had sketchy indications that Kim Jong Il was poised to sell a nuclear bomb to a terrorist outfit, how long should it wait--how much evidence should it amass--before deciding to intervene and forcibly stop the transfer?)

One could argue that while the actual danger posed by Saddam Hussein (and whatever weapons he might possess or might develop) is difficult to assess, the United States cannot risk guessing wrongly. At the news conference, Bush declared, "My job is to protect the American people." Clearly, his expansive view of that mandate includes going to war against a tyrant whose actions may end up threatening the United States.

Bush's problem has been that a case for war based on the potential threat from Iraq is, obviously, not as compelling as a case predicated on an actual and immediate threat. If a nation faces a potential threat, it has the luxury of weighing--and debating--various aspects of going to war: the moral legitimacy of the action, the possible consequences and costs, how other governments and populations will react, the alternatives to an invade-and-occupy response. Many of these concerns, though, could be shoved aside, if the United States were confronting a clear-and-present danger.

Consequently, Bush has had to hype the case--to present it in black-and-white terms in order to turn a judgment call into an imperative. So there he was on Thursday night, again talking up the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. He claimed that Saddam "has trained and financed" al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He referred to "a poison plant in northeast Iraq" and "a man named Zarqawi who is in charge of the poison network." And he said, "To assume that Saddam Hussein knew none of this was going on is not to really understand the nature of the Iraqi society."

Bush was referencing statements Secretary of State Colin Powell had made to the UN in early February, when he claimed, "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants." But after Powell's speech, The Washington Post reported, "A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi's network, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it." And reporters who visited the so-called "poison plant"--which was set up in an area of Iraq not under the control of Saddam Hussein--found only a primitive base for a local fundamentalist outfit. Even at the eleventh hour, Bush still cannot persuasively tie Baghdad to al Qaeda. (Would he say that Pakistan was "harboring" Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the top al Qaeda official recently arrested there?)

Since Bush cannot make the threat-end of his case more convincing--he seems to have stretched the available evidence as far as it can go--he has attempted to strengthen his argument by dissembling on other fronts. During the press conference, he said he was willing to stick with "diplomacy" for a little while longer. That is not so. What he is willing to do is to spend a few more days trying to wring out of the UN Security Council a resolution that would directly or indirectly approve a US-led attack against Iraq. But diplomacy entails more than winning approval for war. In most instances, it would mean resolving a conflict without resorting to the use of force. But Bush has offered no alternatives to all-out war. Sure, if Saddam fled the country, Bush might accept that as a reason to call off the invasion.

But Bush and his top advisers have scoffed at inspections, which are one form of diplomacy. If Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted--and he is not--then no matter what steps Iraq takes, Washington can never have 100-percent confidence Saddam has fully complied with the Security Council resolutions and disarmed. And if 100-percent confidence is the working standard, as the Bushies seem to insist, then all talk from the administration of disarming Saddam is bunk. The only disarmament they can accept is de-Saddamization. And that, in all likelihood, can only come through war. Bush and his officials have refused to entertain the possibility of coercive inspections--that is, inspections backed by military force. (Imagine a no-fly zone across almost all of the country, or military raids against suspected WMD sites.) Not only is diplomacy not an option for Bush; neither is force short of war.

In this vein, at the press conference, Bush said--as he has repeatedly--"the risk of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow that inaction will make the world safer is a risk I'm not willing to take for the American people." With this statement, Bush was presenting a false dichotomy: war or nothing. If that's the choice, war may seem less avoidable. Yet the nations opposing his push for war--France, Germany, Canada--have indeed proposed other courses of action involving more aggressive and intrusive inspections. Bush is free to argue that such means cannot succeed and are not worth even attempting. Instead, he dismisses his opposition by suggesting it is naively and foolishly counting on Saddam's transformation into a saint. This has been one of the critical distortions he has used to promote his war.

Bush repeated his claim that war is necessary to preserve the relevance of the United Nations. This was the type of arrogant remark that has been fueling anti-American sentiment overseas since Bush assumed office. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 promised there would be "serious consequences" if Saddam Hussein did not comply with its disarmament orders. It did not define these consequences. What Bush has been saying is that unless the Security Council embraces his definition of "serious consequences"--war right now--it is a pointless body. "The credibility of the Security Council is at stake," he maintained. But what if the Security Council were to decide to toughen up the inspections and conduct them for another five months? Why would that be evidence of its meaninglessness? Indeed, it is Bush who is placing the Security Council in a position of irrelevance. Should he ignore the deeply-felt sentiments of its member-nations (and the populations they represent) and launch a war unsupported by the Security Council, it will be he who is declaring--and proving--that the United Nations does not really matter.

At the press conference, Bush said once more that his war against Iraq would be a war of liberation for the Iraqi people. That may well be--unintentionally. Bush's war-for-democracy pitch is essentially window-dressing. This administration would have no interest in sacrificing American lives and assuming political risks if the goal were primarily to help out people ruled by a brute. If war does occur, let's hope a free and democratic Iraq is an outcome. But it's hard not to wonder what the Bush administration will do if an Iranian-backed demagogue who wants to nationalize the oil industry and supports the Palestinian uprising is freely and fairly elected in the "new" Iraq.

At the moment, what Bush has to say matters little. He has no new evidence to reveal. He has no better case to make. He's got what he's got. Moreover, there's no jury or judge he has to convince. It's his decision, and it appears it has already been rendered. The only answer to this threat (real or potential) is a disarmed Saddam. The only disarmed Saddam is a dethroned Saddam. That requires war. What happens in the UN over the next days seems to have no bearing on what will transpire in Iraq. The question is merely whether Bush has to run a red-light on his way to Baghdad. His foot is already heavy on the gas. Emboldened by his own half-truths and lies, he is heading off to war.

The Democratic Beauty Contest

As was evident during the most recent episode of the Democratic Party's Star Search--a meeting in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, where most of the presidential contenders spoke--here's what each of the party's 2004 candidates need at this early point in the race:

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean: More time as a second-tier candidate so he can continue to make progress under the radar.

Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: A reason why Democrats should give a damn about his future.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts: The war to come and go quickly.

Representative Richard Gephardt of St. Louis: Reconsideration.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina: An agent in Hollywood.

Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois: A rationale for running other than becoming another first.

Representative Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland: A function button on his laptop to remove references to FDR.

Provocateur-turned-activist Al Sharpton: His own television show.

Dean, as the buzz-watchers agree, generated the most positive vibes at the gathering. He hit the podium with a sharp declaration: "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?" He then blasted the party's leaders for not challenging President Bush on whether there should be any new tax cuts; for obsessing over a patients' bill of rights rather than "standing up" for providing health care insurance for all; and for going along with Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" education legislation, which he claimed would leave behind "every student, every teacher and every school board." After this machine-gun opening, he paused and said, "I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Cue the applause? Actually, applause lights were not needed. Many in the crowd jumped up and cheered.

Using that old Paul Wellstone line, Dean--who is the first to say that as a balanced-budget fanatic he is not a "Wellstone liberal"--provoked one of the strongest reactions of the two-day candidate-tasting. He went on to extoll his record (balancing budgets in Vermont, expanding a state health program so that essentially every child up to the age of 18 receives health coverage, conserving hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, signing legislation that established legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples) and whacked Bush and the Republicans for cynically and falsely using the word "quotas" to attack affirmative action. ("White folks in the South driving with Confederate decals on the back of pickup trucks ought to be voting with us, not them, because their kids don't have health insurance either.") Dean finished up by proclaiming that the task for Democrats is not merely succeeding in 2004: "Is this party about the next election, or is it about changing America?..Only by changing America will we win back the White House." More applause. Much more.

Many Democratic activists and officials had come to the DNC meeting looking to fall in love with a candidate. And Dean's expression of passion tugged at heartstrings. One top DNC fundraiser told me, "Maybe because he was speaking to my youth, I felt jazzed by him. Now I want to know more about Dean. And I'm about as cynical and jaded as it gets." Dean had managed to come across as both idealistic and pragmatic in the same speech. And forceful. Prior to this meeting, he had already earned the title of sleeper-candidate-to-watch--a dubious distinction, since in the past this mantle has been bestowed upon such nonstarters as Bruce Babbitt and Paul Tsongas. Dean, until the recent entries of Kucinich and Moseley Braun, had the antiwar position largely to himself. (Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt--for; Kerry--critical of Bush's approach, supportive of Secretary of State Colin Powell's last UN presentation, and willing to vote to grant Bush the authority to launch war on his own.) But Dean's speech showed he might be able to woo Democrats with a pitch wider than just antiwar. "What happens after the war?" I asked a Dean adviser. "What will his campaign be based on then?" He smiled and said, "People are still going to need health insurance." And while most of the candidates make sure to talk up their yearning for universal coverage, Dean, a former doctor (and before that a stockbroker), has a convincing manner when he discusses his plan to expand Medicaid and Medicare and provide business and individuals health insurance subsidies to achieve bare-bones universal coverage. Sure, he has a touch of Dukakis in him (un-Lincolnesque), but he's tougher. Dean is no great liberal hope (he has an A rating from the NRA, and he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Treaty without changing it). But he speechifies like a great liberal hope. And in the party, there are folks looking for such a candidate.

With his speech at the DNC meeting, Lieberman showed he has little to offer to Democratic voters. Memories of 2000? Well, that's not enough. And they are bittersweet. He kept going on about The Dream: The Dream this, The Dream that. Of course, he meant the American Dream of which he--the Jewish son of a baker who rose to become nearly the vice president--is one embodiment. "To restore that Dream is my dream and my purpose in this campaign," he told the crowd. It was not rip-roaring stuff. And his defense of his pro-war stance was not in synch with what seemed to be the assembled's skepticism toward war and its fundamental distrust of Bush. Lieberman made sure to point out his more progressive side: bashing Bush for pulling out of Kyoto, attacking the Bush tax cuts. But the other Dems offer the same--without being outright hawks, and without being cultural conservatives (a side of himself that Lieberman kept in check in front of these hardcore Democrats). And the new ideas Lieberman offered--a payroll tax credit to encourage companies to create jobs, a zero capital gains rate for long-term investments in entrepreneurial firms, a National Homeland Security Academy, and a Frontline Initiative that would provide funding, training and information to firefighters and police--didn't cause anyone in the audience to separate his or her derriere from his or her chair.

Worse for Lieberman, in the hallways, the chatterers all seemed agreed on a crucial point: Lieberman has no obvious breakout state. It appears he will be barely campaigning in Iowa, where dovish Democrats are strong among the voting pool. New Hampshire, even though it allows independents to vote in party primaries, will be tough; Kerry and Dean hail from neighboring states. Florida? If home-state Senator Bob Graham joins the fray, as is expected, that could freeze out Lieberman. South Carolina? If Lieberman is going to be embraced by any Democrats, it probably would be Southern ones. But Edwards was born in South Carolina and now represents the state's northern neighbor. Of all the better-known candidates, Lieberman faces the most severe strategic obstacles--and his speech to the DNC crowd didn't reveal too many clues as to how he believes he can surmount them.

Kerry was a no-show, due to his recent prostate cancer surgery. But it was clear that Dean intends to keep pressing Kerry on the war. In interviews, Dean scoffs at Democrats who criticize Bush's handling of Iraq but who voted for the Iraq resolution. He won't name names, but there's only one fellow who fits that description. Kerry has been quasi-straddling for months. Once the war comes--and that does seem likely--he will have to say yea or nay. (Not that Congress will vote on the question; it has already punted. But in our republic Kerry still has to answer to Tim Russert.) As the prewar season continues, Dean has more opportunity to entice antiwar Dems and argue that Kerry is being politically cautious. With Dean clearly on one side, and Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt clearly on the other, the longer the war remains an issue in the race (it could fade quickly as an issue depending on what happens in Iraq), the longer Kerry will be placed on the spot. Many DNCers are looking at Kerry as the wannabe most likely to become a frontrunner. And--no small matter--he seems to have the lead in money and organization. But as that senior DNC fundraiser said, "this time around money and organization may not be enough, message may tumble money." Dean is positioning himself as a message candidate, and he is gunning for Kerry.

As the fellow who led the Democrats in the House to four consecutive losses, Gephardt might warrant an automatic disqualification. When he announced he was running once more for president--he took a stab in 1988--doubters said he would have trouble escaping the view that he's yesterday's news. He responded by noting that sometimes a person just wants to slip into an old pair of sneakers. But at the DNC meeting he did not present himself as the comfort candidate. And his address demonstrated why a Gephardt bid is not a completely delusional exercise. He, too, had to defend his embrace of Bush's war in Iraq. But he, no fool, didn't dwell on this matter. His remarks centered on showing how Dick Gephardt--son of a milkman, son of a "labor household"--and his family have needed outside assistance to succeed in life. Government loans got him through college and law school. Health insurance paid for the experimental therapies that saved his two-year-old son from cancer. His mother worked at four jobs but not long enough at any to qualify for a pension. (Gephardt pays her bills now.) His daughter followed her dream of becoming a teacher. (Now, because the pay is so lousy, she lives with her parents.) So Gephardt proposes a law requiring every employer to provide health insurance (with the help of tax credits), establishing a pension plan that follows workers, and a Teacher Corps that will pay for the college education of people who commit to teach for five years. There's more: he calls for an international minimum wage, a living wage in he United States, and "an Apollo Project to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions."

Gephardt took The Dream shtick and married it to specific--and, yes, somewhat bold--policy proposals. And he did it an effective style, revealing his personal history, proving his smarts. (Gephardt has a long history of being an inconsistent speaker. He can wow labor crowds; he can also induce ZZZZs.) Several DNCers I spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised by Gephardt's presentation and believed it might resonate with voters--particularly in Iowa. (The no-shit conventional wisdom: if Gephardt doesn't clean up in Iowa, he can pack up his sneakers and call it a day.) If voters and the party pros and activists judge Gephardt on his ideas and intentions--and are not put off by his record as minority leader, the haven't-we-seen-this-before feel of his candidacy, and his partnership with Bush on the war (all decent-sized ifs)--he might not be as discardable as an old Nike.

Edwards spoke as if he had already wrapped up the nomination. He dared Bush to come after him for having been a trial attorney. "Mr. President, if you want to talk about the insiders you've fought for versus the kids and families I've fought for, this is the message I have for you: Mr. President, bring it on." A standing ovation followed, and Edwards went on to recount the time he had defended a little boy named Ethan Bedrick who had cerebral palsy and needed daily physical therapy in order to have freedom of movement later in life. An insurance company bureaucrat--who had never seen this boy--had said no to the treatment. "I will stand with Ethan Bedrick--and so will every person in this room," Edwards declared. (Edwards never told the crowd what happened in the case; presumably, he won. And when one reporter asked an Edwards press person how much Edwards had made while working for the boy, the Edwards aide said she did not know and would not even bother to find out.)

Edwards is the smoothest of the bunch. He does the populist routine. Noting his dad was a mill worker, he vows "to be a champion for the regular people." That is, folks who have lost retirement security, seniors who cannot afford prescription drugs, kids suffering from asthma due to air pollution. He called for putting off Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and proposed a $500 tax credit to help every American family meet its energy needs. He made damn sure to come across as a fighter, but also--to show he's not a fuzzy-headed liberal--as a politician who wants to impose "fiscal discipline, which, let's be honest, is a challenge for both parties." He quickly referred to his support for war against Saddam Hussein. ("He has chemical and biological weapons now, and has used them in the past.") But in a savvy move, he noted "the real test for America will come after Saddam is gone." In other words, he laid down a marker, ahead of the other candidates, for the coming debate on postwar Iraq--which could come to shape the primary election, if not the general election, more than the war itself.

Edwards has a central-casting air. He looks not so much like a president as like a casting director's idea of a president. His moves are as mannered and (seemingly) as rehearsed as those of, well, a trial lawyer. (He's only been a senator four years.) The crowd response was encouraging for the Edwards backers. My out-on-a-limb hunch is that people will fall for him or they will not. They either will be entranced by the act (and not all acts are insincere), or they will feel put off by someone who appears to have one. There is an Edwards spell. But will it get thin as he spreads it further?

Moseley Braun came off flat. She read a well-written speech in which she explained she wants to be president "because now is the time for inclusion, and equality, and real democracy." The first African-American woman elected to the Senate, she now pitches herself as being ready to become another pioneer. "My campaign began," she said, "when citizens from across this country challenged me to bring my experience in the laws and in local, state, national and international government to bear on substantive issues facing our country, and to help develop the voice of the Democratic Party in a national dialogue about future directions." (I missed that popular uprising.) Many DNCers believe her campaign began when DNC strategist/operative Donna Brazile egged her on, mainly to dilute the African-American vote that Sharpton might attract. Moseley Braun's stint in the Senate was marked by several ugly ethics problems, including one episode in which she cozied up to a Nigerian dictator. Her speech--full of all the right progressive touchstones but delivered in less-than-inspiring fashion--did little to convince a listener that she was indeed responding to a call from the citizenry or that she deserves another opportunity to handle the public's trust.

Kucinich mentioned FDR at least four times in his speech--which may be four times too many. Not to slight the Great One, but Roosevelt references are not very forward-oriented. As someone preaching the old-time gospel of progressivism, Kucinich might increase his effectiveness by avoiding throwback metaphors. One of the lesser-known speakers, he started out with self-deprecating humor: "Two days before I filed at the FEC, I had 2 percent in the polls. Since no one knows who I am, I can only go up. And money? With me, money is no object, because it has never been the subject." He then quickly moved into a severe critique of the war--outpacing Dean in intensity and stridency. ("The administration battle plan calls for a two-day missile attack on Iraq; a total of 800 missiles are to be aimed at Baghdad, a city of five million. An invasion will follow, with house-to-house fighting. This will put America's moral standing in the world at risk.") This was red meat for committed progressives, for the most antiwar of Democrats. But the audience, which appeared mostly antiwar, did not react warmly.

Though the war was his motivation number one, Kucinich criticized Bush's tax cuts for the rich and decried the state of the economy. He urged creating a "single-payer system" of universal health insurance and dumping Nafta. In true progressive fashion, he referred to a good education, decent housing, clean water, and food fit to eat as rights. "We have," he declared, "stepped into the world of George Orwell where peace is war, where security is control, where bombing innocent people is liberation....Someone must step forward. Someone must say stop. Someone must say America must take a new direction....We have a right to a job....We have a right to be free of the fear. We have a right to be free of war. We have a right to be human." Kucinich didn't fully connect with this (mostly) well-dressed crowd. One question for him is whether more ideologically-driven Democratic voters or just plain folks (say, union voters) will respond favorably to his unadulterated and stark message.

As for Sharpton, the Democrats should get one of their multimillionaire backers (who can no longer cut a seven-figure soft-money check to the national party) to finance a television show for him. He is obviously looking for a platform, and a presidential campaign is awfully convenient. He even deserves a venue of his own. But must it be a public office? Sharpton is funnier than Chris Rock. On Reaganomics: "we never got the trickle; we got the down." On US intelligence: "I don't understand why our intelligence can tape conversations in Baghdad but can't find a man hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. A man who comes out every two months with a new video." On the Bush move to appoint "diverse" federal judges: "During the abolition movement, we didn't fight to have more diversified slave masters, we fought to get free." On Bush and affirmative action: "He's the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election." On himself: "Everybody in politics has baggage, some folks have enough money...to get others to carry their bags."

This is good stuff. And the crowd laughed heartily. (HBO? After Bill Maher?) When it comes to rhetoric, Sharpton also can do poignant and touching. "How is it an honor for...men and women to risk their lives in Iraq," he wondered, "when it's a burden for the rich to pay their share of taxes." He called for a $250 billion program to rebuild the infrastructure, outlawing the death penalty, and enhancing workers' rights to organize. Sharpton, with his charlatan's past, is a showman. The DNCers enjoyed the show, but they are fretting about him. He's a nightmare. What happens in South Carolina? Could he win enough African-American votes to prevail in a crowded field? Would the media then portray him as one of the leading Democrats? How would that help the party in the general election? It's possible that in a race with a large and divided field, no candidate will end up with a majority of the delegates. So might Sharpton--if he collects any delegates along the way--be a powerbroker at the convention?

The party wants him to go away, but it's afraid to push him. After his speech, I and a few reporters asked Donald Fowler, a former party chairman who hails from South Carolina, to compare Sharpton to Jesse Jackson. "There are big differences between them," he said. Such as? He refused to say. "You really don't think I'm a fool?" he explained. As we were pressing him to provide examples, Brazile sauntered past, heard what was going on, and said to Fowler, "You better not answer that question."

Sharpton took on the "nightmare" charge directly. He told a story about falling asleep on an airplane. He was far gone when a flight attendant nudged him to see if he wanted to eat. At first, he thought he was having a nightmare, then he realized that was not the case. "It made me think," he told the Democrats. "Sometimes when you're asleep what you think is a nightmare may be a wake-up call." The crowd tittered but did not cheer this line.

The dynamics of the Democratic contest are likely to change in the weeks ahead, especially if other candidates parachute in. Besides Bob Graham, former Senator Gary Hart, former NATO commando Wesley Clark, Senator Christopher Dodd and Senator Joseph Biden are still mulling. Imagine a debate or future beauty contest with thirteen candidates. It's enough to make a Democrat's head spin. What will cause Democrats to swoon, though, is not apparent. What the candidates need is far more obvious than what Democratic voters want.

Bush's Presidential Malpractice

If a doctor handed you a strong medication--saying you had no choice but to swallow it--but didn't talk to you about the host of new ailments and problems that might be caused by the medication, that would be damn irresponsible. Well, meet George W. Bush, M.D. He has been claiming the United States must take the most extreme measure--war--to keep itself safe and healthy. Yet he has refused to address the knotty matters (post-op complications?) that will follow in the wake of war.

This dereliction of duty--or presidential malpractice--was readily evident on Tuesday when top administration officials appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the future of Iraq. (Looks like its present has been settled: invasion and occupation, unless Saddam Hussein scoots.) At this session, under-Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith noted that while the Pentagon has spent months positioning troops and readying to de-Saddamize Iraq, it only opened an office for postwar planning three weeks ago. At the same hearing, Feith and under-Secretary of State Marc Grossman said there would be at least a two-year US military occupation of Iraq following an invasion. So with the gameplan war and occupation--and the Bush administration has been considering taking over Iraq since September 12, 2001--the Pentagon managed to get serious about planning for the post-invasion period merely a month or so before, it seems, the invasion is to come. (The duo did claim that the Pentagon had been thinking about postwar matters for ten months.)

With Feith's and Grossman's testimony, the administration has acknowledged it intends to rule Iraq for quite a while after the war. (Their two-year estimate may be quite optimistic. One former US ambassador quips there are two possible occupation scenarios. Plane One is an occupation that lasts for ten years. Plan Two is an occupation that is supposed to last for five years, but goes on for ten.) So then, how does the Bush White House intend to install (eventually) a democratic government? (Remember this war is also for the liberation of the Iraqi people, as soon as the United States decides it's time for its occupation to end.) How will the US manage the oil industry of Iraq? Who will pay for the construction costs? Who will feed the Iraqi people, most of whom now rely on the Iraqi government for their food supply? "There are enormous uncertainties," Feith said. "The most you can do in planning is develop concepts." Actually, in planning, you can develop plans--hire staff, call in experts, consult with multilateral outfits and aid organizations, and begin drafting proposals. These plans may end up not working. They may have to change. But you can give it a go and, at least, establish a baseline. For his part Grossman observed, "How this transition will take place is perhaps opaque at the moment." From the fog of war to the fog of postwar.

The senators were perturbed. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pushed the pair for information on how a transitional government would be kick-started following an invasion. After receiving an insufficient response, he exclaimed (Biden is quite good at exclaiming), "When we're three weeks away from war or five weeks away from war, possibly, you don't know the answer to that? You haven't made a decision yet?" Note to Biden: don't forget you voted to give Bush the right to invade Iraq whenever he deems appropriate, without having to obtain a declaration of war from Congress (or present a workable, confidence-building plan to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). Grossman, though, did concede that the financial costs of whatever comes in Iraq will be high: "There are things in our own country we're not going to be able to do because of our commitment in Iraq." Somehow that point was not covered in the budget Bush recently submitted to Congress. A printing error? The President is already squeezing domestic spending on such things as heating assistance for low-income Americans while pushing for a variety-pack of tax changes benefiting the well-heeled. And he refused to leave any space in his budget for a war, let alone the potentially more costly occupation.

By the end of the hearing, perturbance had transitioned into dismay. Richard Lugar, the mild-mannered Republican chairman, woefully commented, "What we have heard is not good enough; we are way behind. Who will rule Iraq and how? Who will provide security? How long might US troops conceivably remain? Will the United Nations have a role? Who will manage Iraq's oil resource? Unless the administration can answer these questions in detail, the anxiety of Arab and European governments, as well as that of the American public...will only grow."

It wasn't just the specifics-free presentations of Feith and Grossman that was worrisome. Retired General Anthony Zinni, former head of US Central Command, raised questions that ought to provoke pause. Zinni has been a war-skeptic, one of the leading ex-military voices against striking Iraq, maintaining that Saddam is not an imminent threat, that he is "very well checked," and that now is "the worst time to take this on." (The ranks of this platoon thinned last weekend when former General Norman Schwarzkopf of Gulf War I--who had not, long before, shared his heartfelt opposition to US military action in Iraq with The Washington Post--pulled a quick retreat on Meet The Press perhaps after having heard from the Bush clan.) Zinni, once in charge of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in northern Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia, knows his postwar stuff. And in his testimony to the committee, he made a few eloquent and troubling points.

"In addressing the issues that might be faced in a post-conflict Iraq, the first question that has to be answered deals with the end state envisioned or desired," Zinni said. "Do we want to transform Iraq or just transition it out from under the unacceptable regime of Saddam Hussein into a reasonably stable nation? Transformation implies significant changes in forms of governance, in economic policies, in regional status, in security structure, and in other areas. Without a determination of the scale and scope of change desired, it is not possible to judge the cost and level of effort required. Certainly, there will not be a spontaneous democracy so the reconstruction of the country will be a long, hard course regardless of whether a modest vision of the end state is sought or a more ambitious one is chosen."

So is it transition or transformation? The President hasn't said which. Nor has the Secretary of State Colin Powell. Nor has Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (the often acting-Secretary of State). Feith and Grossman didn't supply any illumination. But doesn't the public--which will pay for the war and occupation in all ways--deserve to know which vision Bush embraces? Or if he even has one?

Zinni, in a polite but unflinching fashion, noted that he, too, considers the Bush administration unprepared for the post-battle battle. "A lot of thought has been given to the kinds of problems and tasks that we will face in the aftermath," he testified. "I have read several recent studies and pieces produced by groups of knowledgeable people. Generally, these works have, in my opinion, captured the broad requirements and the issues very well. Defining the problem, however, is only half the task. The other half deals with how you solve the problem. I have not seen a lot of specifics in this area." And it's his job, as an armchair-thinker at the Center for Strategic and international Studies, to locate and evaluate such specifics. Yet they're not out there. One example: Zinni said that six out of ten Iraqis depend on the "oil for food" program managed by 40,000 feeding stations run by Saddam's government. No one in the Bush administration, he added, knows if this program can continue to function after an invasion. If not, there will be millions of Iraqis without food. Will the US proconsul in Iraq be ready to feed 12 million or so people? "Who's going to do it?" Zinni asked. "Where are they? You know, if you have hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground formed up into divisions and wings and ask forces at sea, where is the counterpart to these on the other [humanitarian, political, and economic] sides? It isn't going to be a handful of people that drive out of the Pentagon, catch a plane and fly in after the military peace to try to pull this together."

Maybe it will be. This war is not about what comes next. And Bush is not keen to tell the American people what might happen after he "disarms" Saddam. In some instances, a threat may be so pressing that a nation does not have time to consider what is likely to occur after it acts to neutralize that danger. (War boosters like to pooh-pooh war critics who fret over postwar consequences by noting that when the United States entered World War II there were no plans other than those for victory.) But the Bush administration has had many months to consider--and openly discuss--a postwar Iraq, as well as the financial and security costs of maintaining a US military occupation for years. And it has not leveled with the public. In his bellicose speeches, does Bush ever say, "You know, the American people should realize that we may have to stay involved and run Iraq for a number of years and that we will pay for this noble endeavor with higher taxes, diminished services, and/or larger budget deficits. But to protect us and our children and our grandchildren, that's what we need to do"? Such words would give Karl Rove a stroke.

If Iraq is not poised to strike--or to enable another party to strike--the United States, the decision to go to war can be weighed judiciously. Such a deliberation ought to take into account possible consequences and costs. They may not determine the ultimate judgment, but they should to be in plain view. Yet Bush has not been candid. Informed consent is not part of his prewar plan

The Banning of Rabbi Lerner

War looms. Troops are moving into place. Administration officials refuse to discuss alternatives. And everyday George W. Bush has some new rhetorical device to turn up the heat. The game is over. The game is really over. I mean it: the game is really, really over. Americans opposed to (or skeptical about) this war are desperately trying to mount preemptive protests, as conquest--bombing, invasion and occupation--nears. Antiwar actions have been organized for the weekend of February 15 and 16, to coincide with protests around the world. In the United States, the main events will be demonstrations held in New York and San Francisco. This could be the last chance the antiwar warriors have before the cruise missiles fly. Yet the peaceniks pulling together the San Francisco march and rally may have tainted their efforts by allowing the banning of Rabbi Michael Lerner as a speaker.

Lerner is the progressive Jew. He edits Tikkun, a magazine mostly written by lefty Jews. (Its name is Hebrew for "to mend, repair and transform the world.") He can be counted on to sign on to most liberal causes. He is a signatory to the Not In Our Name antiwar pledge. His Tikkun Community is a member of the United for Peace & Justice coalition that opposes a U.S. war against Iraq. (Other members include the American Friends Service Committee, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, TransAfrica, Working Assets.) He has been a leading Jewish voice against the hawks of Israel and a supporter of Palestinian rights, while calling himself a Zionist.

So it was natural that his name was floated as a speaker for the protest. Not In Our Name and United for Peace & Justice were two of the four coalitions behind the event. (According to Lerner, he did not ask to address the San Francisco rally. "You can't say much in three minutes," he notes.) But International ANSWER, another of the organizers, said no.

Lerner's crime: he had dared to criticize ANSWER, an outfit run by members of the Workers World Party, for using antiwar demonstrations to put forward what he considers to be anti-Israel propaganda. That ANSWER objected to Lerner is not surprising. The WWPers in control of ANSWER are socialists who call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, who support Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, who oppose UN inspections in Iraq (claiming they are part of the planning for an invasion aimed at gaining control of Iraq's oil fields), and who urge smashing Zionism. Last month, referring to an upcoming ANSWER demonstration, Lerner wrote, "In my view, the organizers of this demonstration have allowed far too many speakers who believe that this war is being done because Israel wants the war, far too few who share my view that this war is not in the best interests of either Israel or of the United States." Yet Lerner didn't let his differences with ANSWER trump his opposition to the war; he encouraged people to attend the rally. After that protest, he told The New York Times, "There are good reasons to oppose the war and Saddam. Still, it feels that we are being manipulated when subjected to mindless speeches and slogans whose knee-jerk anti-imperialism rarely articulates the deep reasons we should oppose corporate globalization."

ANSWER's nyet doesn't irk Lerner as much as the fact that Not In Our Name and United for Peace & Justice didn't oppose it. Before Lerner had been suggested as a speaker, the coalitions engineering the San Francisco event had agreed that any individual who had publicly disparaged one of the organizing groups could be vetoed as a speaker by that group. ANSWER used this right to banish Lerner. (The rabbi maintains he had no intention of using his podium time to slam ANSWER: "Why waste my three minutes on ANSWER?") Other organizers of the San Francisco event argued against ANSWER's thumbs-down but ended up abiding by the agreement. (ANSWER has not been involved in the organizing of the coming New York City protest.)

ANSWER could cite Lerner's criticism of ANSWER as a reason for blocking him. But its objection to Lerner also jibes with the group's political agenda. On January 28, Tony Murphy, the media coordinator for ANSWER, appeared on a radio show in New York and said, "I know that the ANSWER coalition would not have a pro-Israel speaker on its platform." (Lerner is pro-Israel in that he supports the existence of the Jewish state.) ANSWER's anti-Israel stance has also been reflected in its relationship with at least one troubling anti-Zionist. At its January march in Washington, ANSWER handed a microphone to Abdul Malim Musa, a Muslim cleric. On October 31, 2001, Musa had appeared at a news conference at the National Press Club with other Muslim activists and members of the New Black Panther Party, where speakers asserted that Israel had launched the 9/11 attacks and that thousands of Jews had been warned that day not to go to work at the World Trade Center. At that press conference, Musa blasted the "Zionists in Hollywood, the Zionists in New York, and the Zionists in D.C." who "all collaborate" to put down blacks and Muslims. ANSWER has room in its antiwar coalition for Musa, but not Lerner.

On Monday, Lerner disseminated an email reporting he had been banned. And Beyt Tikkun synagogue, where Lerner serves as a rabbi, released a statement saying, "we do not believe that had ANSWER been criticized by a major feminist or gay leader and then vetoed that leader to speak at a demonstration that the other coalition partners would go along with that. So why should criticism of anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing be treated differently?....So why should our voice of critique of ANSWER's anti-Israel policy serve as justification for excluding our rabbi from speaking?"

ANSWER did not return my call seeking comment. Which isn't a shock. I've written critically about their role in the antiwar movement, and their folks, in return, have assailed me. I also tried reaching Andrea Buffa, the San Francisco-based co-chair of United for Peace & Justice, and didn't hear back. Bert Knorr, an organizer in the San Francisco office of Not In Our Name, says, "We're concerned with what happened and hope it can be amicably resolved." On Monday evening, organizers of the rally tried to "resolve" the matter, according to one source. But Lerner was not offered a speaker's slot. Instead, he says, he has been asked by the organizers to talk about all this after the event. In the meantime, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio have interviewed Lerner about ANSWER's rejection of him and the other organizers' acceptance of that. And over 150 progressive writers and activists have signed a letter decrying the Lerner ban. (Click here to read the petition.)

"This is about the suppressing of dissent among the dissenters," Lerner asserts. "My progressive Jewish allies said, 'Don't raise this issue, it's more important to stick to the struggle against the war.' But in my view, we should be able to critique the war and this section of the antiwar movement, just as did the women who fought against sexism in the antiwar movement in the 1960s. I don't accept an either/or."

Some peace activists in San Francisco were dismayed that Lerner took the dispute public. "What Michael did doesn't help," one says. But Lerner was more of a mensch than the people of ANSWER. Even after being blackballed, he has been advising people to attend the protest. "I don't want to boycott the demonstration," he says. "It's extremely important for progressive Jews to be standing up and critiquing the war, particularly when so many in the Jewish world are supporting it. We'll be part of the event, no matter what they do to me."

Perhaps he should have stayed silent for the good of the cause. Who needs such tsuris right before an important protest? But Lerner was not the source of the problem; ANSWER was. This distracting episode shows what can happen when sincere do-gooders enter into deals with the ANSWER gang. If the reasonable and responsible foes of war are fortunate enough to have further opportunity to rally opposition to the conflict before it occurs, they ought to reconsider their alliance with the censors of ANSWER.

Powell's One Good Reason To Bomb Iraq--UPDATED

Secretary of State Colin Powell convinced me. I am ready to bomb Iraq and wipe out the terrorists. Allow me to explain.

It's not that an invasion and occupation is justified at this time. Powell's presentation at the United Nations made a strong case...for the proposition that Saddam Hussein is a deceitful SOB who probably does want to preserve whatever sort of mass-killing weapons programs he can hide from UN inspectors. Let's accept as a given that Saddam is concealing such programs and not fully cooperating with the inspections program. Is the most effective response a massive US military action aimed at toppling his murderous regime and one that leaves Washington responsible for what comes next?

George W. Bush, Powell, and the rest of the gang can argue that the United States merely will be enforcing Resolution 1441, which compels Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction. But such enforcement ought to be the prerogative of the United Nations Security Council. If Saddam is in violation of one of its resolutions, the Security Council ought to debate and determine the "serious consequences" it promised to deliver in 1441. One option might be to beef up inspections. Send in several hundred more inspectors. Hell, maybe a thousand. Use the intelligence information Powell shared at the UN for more in-your-face inspections. Threaten the selective use of force at sites where the Iraqis might not be cooperating. The mission: drive the Iraqis nuts, as they try to evade and thwart inspections. The more time and energy they devote to concealment and evasion, the more their WMD program will be disrupted. The previous inspections prevented Iraq from making large strides in the WMD business for seven years.

Certainly, such an option has risks. It cannot guarantee an Iraq completely devoid of WMD. Perhaps Saddam will still find a way to develop and hide horrific weapons. But this risk has to be weighed against the possible costs of an invasion--which might have to be a unilateral strike--and a subsequent occupation. The question needs to be asked, how significant will it be if Saddam, in the face of a rigorous, intrusive, aggressive inspections program, does manage to preserve a WMD cache and a hindered capability to produce additional arms? To answer that query, one must address the issue Powell ducked at the United Nations: is Saddam a threat to the United States, its interests, or its allies?

Not a potential threat, but an actual threat warranting a full smackdown, with or without a UN green-light. There are plenty of potential threats in the region. Iran and Syria both have nasty weapons and the governments of each have histories of hobnobbing with terrorists to whom they could slip chemical weapons. Why does Saddam deserve all the attention? Last October, CIA chief George Tenet--who sat behind Powell at the UN--sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee that reported CIA analysts had concluded Saddam was unlikely to mount a terrorist attack against the United States, unless he felt threatened by Washington. Days ago, a CIA official told The New York Times that the agency had not altered this judgment. At the United Nations, Powell did not offer a compelling argument that Iraq poses an immediate and direct threat. (In fact, during his State of the Union speech, Bush implicitly acknowledged that Saddam does not present a right-now danger when he said, " if this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions…would come too late.") Sure, Powell painted a grim portrait of a brutal regime that might still possess usable chemical and biological weapons and that may well be angling to create a nuclear weapon (apparently without yet getting too close). But in the absence of firm evidence that Saddam does maintain a deployable WMD arsenal and has a reason and ability to use it, why send in the Marines now?

From the Bush administration's perspective, there are two replies. One is, who knows what will happen if we wait? (Tough to argue with that.) The other is, we cannot dilly-dally because Saddam is (or could be) working with al Qaeda to hit the United States, and since he probably has some awful weapons at his disposal, he could pass WMD to the terrorists tomorrow. To bring the point--and the threat--home, Powell maintained that a "sinister nexus" exists between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's network. After all, if Saddam and al Qaeda are truly in league, that would be reason to be more concerned about whatever weapons he might have or be seeking--and reason to consider action that could result in a 100-percent WMD-free Iraq (or, at least, a Saddam-free Iraq). If Saddam were enabling al Qaeda, that would place him in the Taliban category. An operational link between Osama bin Laden and the Baghdad Butcher, depending on its nature, could be a casus belli.

The Bush administration has been harping on the al Qaeda-Iraq connection for over a year without nailing it. (Remember the supposed meeting between the 9/11 mastermind and an Iraqi intelligence official? The White House eventually had to let that one go.) Listening to Powell, I thought, finally, they have produced proof. "Iraq today," he said, "harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants." Zarqawi, Powell noted, had overseen a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan specializing in poisons and that "when our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosives training center camp...in northeastern Iraq." He maintained the Zarqawi network was teaching its operatives how to produce ricin--a pinch of it will kill you--and other poisons.

This sounded like damning material. Powell's slide show even included a picture of the Zarqawi camp. But when one looks at the transcript of Powell's remarks, the need for more information becomes apparent. He did acknowledge that the camp is in "northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq." (Should we declare war on the Kurds, then?) "But," he added, "Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization, Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000, this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven in the region." What sort of agent is this? Is the fellow actually a representative of Saddam Hussein? Or is he someone who interacts with the Iraqi regime but has an agenda of his own? (For what it's worth, the leader of Ansar al-Islam has denied any connection to Baghdad.)

Powell also reported that Zarqawi--who has been linked to the murder of a US Agency for International Development official in Jordan last October--received medical treatment in Baghdad last spring and stayed there for two months, and that his network has "been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months." Is Iraq providing the Zarqawi network assistance and support, permitting it to operate there? Powell suggested this was the case. He said that "last year, an al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, 'good,' that Baghdad could be transited quickly." But the same might be said by a terrorist of Kuala Lumpur. The Washington Post reported on February 5, "US intelligence officials have said up to now that they had no direct evidence that Zarqawi met with Iraqi leaders." If Powell wants to bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq because of heinous activity conducted by Zarqawi from a Baghdad office, he ought to produce more evidence. In June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iran of offering "a haven for some terrorists leaving Afghanistan," and US officials have cited Zarqawi as one of the individuals allowed to stay in Iran. Washington did not choose to attack Iran over this.

Powell also revealed that Washington asked a "friendly security service to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi," and Iraq did not move to apprehend him. The "friendly service" apparently belonged to Jordan, and when this occurred, according to the Post, Zarqawi left the country and "US intelligence does not know where he went."

Zarqawi is bad news. Investigators in England have reportedly said he appears to be connected to suspected terrorists arrested in London for allegedly developing biological weapons such as ricin. But is Iraq still "harboring" Zarqawi and his associates? Has he set up shop elsewhere? Powell needs to show that an invasion of Iraq at this point would neutralize the threat that comes from Zarqawi or others like him. Powell did assert there were other ties between al Qaeda, noting that in the 1990s Iraqi intelligence officials met with al Qaeda and even at one point (according to an unnamed al Qaeda source) hammered out an agreement under which al Qaeda would no longer support activities against Baghdad. But contacts are not partnerships. Did no other Arab intelligence service have contact with al Qaeda operatives? Powell did claim that one of Saddam's former intelligence chiefs in Europe said that in the mid-1990s Iraqi intelligence personnel provided document-forgery training to al Qaeda. Is this as far as Iraq went in actually helping al Qaeda?

Asuming all his assertions are true, Powell has provided cause to be concerned about an al Qaeda-Iraq alliance. But is the picture so clear that conquest and occupation is the only option? Does the United States want to assume control of a country because there were contacts between its security services and al Qaeda several years ago? But here's the first question that struck me after Powell's presentation: why hasn't the United States bombed the so-called Zarqawi camp shown in the slide? The administration obviously knows where it is, and Powell spoke of it in the present tense. If it is an outpost of chemical weapons and explosives development for al Qaeda, why not take it out, especially since it is situated within a part of Iraq uncontrolled by any national government? The United States has fighter jets patrolling the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. Cruise missiles can easily reach the area. This part of Powell's briefing reinforced a crucial point: al Qaeda is the pressing danger at the moment. The most direct way to strike al Qaeda would be to hit this camp, rather than invade Iraq. So bombs away, but only for this target--regardless of what the French might say.

[UPDATE: After Powell's presentation, it seemed that his information on the Iraq-Zarqawi-al Qaeda nexus indeed was slim. The Washington Post interviewed "a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts and reported that "Powell's description" of this link "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said. 'You're left to just hear the nouns, and put them together,' said Judith S. Yaphe, a senior felow at the National Defense University who worked for 20 years as a a CIA analyst." The newspaper noted, "A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi's netowork, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it." And days following Powell's address, Ansar al Islam allowed reporters to visit the camp that Powell had connected to Zarqawi and described as a poisons and explosives factory. The New York Times' C.J.Chivers, one of the journalists permitted into the camp, reported that he and his colleagues "found a wholly unimpressive place--a small and largely undeveloped cluster of buildings that appeared to lack substantial industrial capacity. For example, the structures did not have plumbing and had only the limited electricity supplied by a generator." The State Department stuck by Powell's description. But could it be that the reason the United States has not bombed this camp is that it's not worth bombing? ]

Powell, for his purposes, made good use of the material he had. He demonstrated that Saddam was defying the United Nations. He described patterns of behavior that would allow a reasonable person to assume that Iraq has been trying to hide some kinds of chemical and biological weapons. But he shared no hard data confirming Iraq has these evil goods in dangerous supplies. (He did note that four defectors have said Saddam has developed mobile bio-weapons labs in trucks that cannot be easily detected. Defector testimony is traditionally iffy, but this claim deserves further investigation.) Powell suggested but did not substantiate the existence of an al Qaeda-Iraq collaboration. He supplied much to worry about, without proving conquest is the only answer. Such a presentation should have been the start of a debate over what to do, rather than the initiation of an endgame that seems predetermined.

Bush: Eager for Combat

The compassionate warrior. That's the image Bush offered in his second State of the Union address, as he deftly blended his 2000 campaign schtick (and all of its policy disingenuousness) with his post-9/11 position as the nation's protector. He talked softly about helping drug addicts, at-risk children, and AIDS sufferers at home and in Africa. And he waved one damn big stick at Saddam Hussein, practically promising war. He was, to be polite, less than honest on several fronts.

The instant-analysts were right to point out that Bush essentially delivered a double feature. Spectacle One was his standard policy speech, with a few new special effects. Spectacle Two was a pseudo-declaration of war. In the opener, Bush claimed credit for his 2001 tax "relief" package (without explaining why he considers it "relief" to give the bulk of his nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts to the top 5 percent); for the so-called education reform legislation (without mentioning the extensive criticism the law has recently received from state officials and education experts worried about its real-world consequences); for the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security (without mentioning his initial opposition to the birth of this super-bureaucracy); and for the corporate-crime measure passed last year (without mentioning the White House's efforts to trim some of the stricter provisions). He then proceeded with a familiar script: new tax cuts that favor the well-heeled, Social Security privatization, Medicare reform, his energy plan, and limiting medical malpractice awards. In doing so, Bush replayed many of his classic fibs.

Tax cuts. Hailing his latest tax-cut plan, Bush tossed out misleading numbers. He claimed that on average 92 million tax-filers will gain almost $1,100. This is a meaningless figure. As Citizens for Tax Justice has noted, the bottom 80 percent of earners (those making $77,000 or less) would generally receive much less than this amount. The average gain for taxpayers in the $46,000-to-$77,000 slice (the second-from-the-top quintile) is $657. People below that would get much less. And Bush pitched his proposal to eliminate the tax on certain dividend income as a way to help 10 million seniors. How considerate. He left out the fact that nearly three-quarters of this assistance for seniors would go to old folks making $75,000 or more. He referred to his plan as fair, without addressing the criticism that half of its overall benefits would end up in the pockets of the top 5 percent, at a time when homeland security needs are not being fully funded and an expensive war-and-occupation looms.

Social Security. Bush gave a big wet kiss to would-be privatizers (yes, I know, partial-privatizers). He revived his call for allowing younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in retirement accounts they would control. Given that many Republicans have distanced themselves from privatization in the post-Enron period--and that the White House has, for its part, refused to use the word "privatization"--the privateers had said, pre-speech, that even one line in the address would be an encouraging sign. They got the one line. But Bush declined to note how he would pay for this change in the Social Security system, which could well cost $1 trillion. (The huge cost occurs because the money taken out of the system is already slated to pay for the ongoing obligations of the program. Social Security is not a pension plan, but a pay-as-you-go program, with today's workers paying for the benefits received by today's retirees.) To raise the banner of partial-privatization without confronting the financial consequences is irresponsible.

Healthcare. Spooked by the possibility that healthcare could once again become a potent political topic--Bill Clinton's use of this issue in 1992 helped sink W.'s dad--Bush called for "high-quality affordable health for all Americans" [sic]. He left out the word "care." In any event, he said he favored a system in which every American has a good insurance policy and can choose his or her own doctor. How to achieve that? Well, that he didn't say. (During the campaign, he proposed a tax credit that was too small to help most of the uninsured.) Bush did explain he wanted to "begin with" Medicare, the federal insurance program that covers the elderly, and that the first priority was adding prescription drug coverage to the system. Seniors, he asserted, should be able to keep their coverage "just the way it is"--that is, be permitted to stick with the doctor of their liking--and have the "choice" of a health care plan that provides prescription drugs. The rub: according to a variety of media reports, the likely Bush plan would offer a prescription drug plan to seniors who enrolled in a private HMO or something equivalent. Seniors would then face this "choice"--your doctor or your drugs. The TelePrompTer must have dropped the paragraph explaining this.

As he did during the campaign, Bush packaged his conservative proposals (which include a call to criminalize late-term abortions) with ain't-I-compassionate measures. Nearly half-a-billion bucks to bring mentors to disadvantaged kids. Six hundred million dollars to help 300,000 drug addicts receive treatment. (Reportedly, they will receive vouchers that could be used to pay faith-based outfits as well as rehab centers.) He spoke movingly of the devastation wrought by AIDS in Africa--30 million people afflicted, 50,000 receiving the medicine they need--and proposed spending several billion dollars a year to prevent 7 million new cases there and to treat at least 2 million. And in addition to his drill-and-drill energy plan, he promised to push for $1.2 billion for developing emissions-free, hydrogen-powered cars. That's a start, though hardly a crash-course.

Big tax cuts for the rich, a nod to the privatizers who have their eyes on Social Security and Medicare, and support for the antiabortion movement, coupled with concern for the environment, poor kids, addicts, and deadly-sick Africans. Karl Rove sure earns his pay. Bush may be slipping in the polls regarding his performance on economic matters. But the politicos of the White House do know how to sell core-Republicanism as well as it can be sold. The window-dressing may not be enough to keep the store afloat--particularly if Bush's plan to prime the pumps of millionaires somehow does not lead to the creation of millions of jobs. But there's always Plan B--war.

From the evil of AIDS ("a plague of nature," Bush said, not-too-coyly distancing himself from a recent, controversial appointee who had blamed AIDS on gays and was forced to withdraw his name), Bush turned toward the evil of Saddam. He asserted that "we are winning" the war on terrorism and listed several al Qaeda leaders who have been arrested or who--nod, nod, wink, wink--"no longer are a problem." And he cited several homeland-security measures underway. In this category--which includes 50,000 new screeners at airports and an early warning system for biological attacks--he included a ballistic missile defense system. But his cherished antimissile program has yet to be proven successful. Bush talked about it as if it were up and running. Comparing the screeners (real) with BMD (not real) was a sleight of hand. And he reported that the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon were putting together a joint center to analyze terrorist threats. That's not a bad idea--if these agencies can overcome the bureaucratic tensions that always hinder such efforts. But not much of what he listed addressed what Bush termed "the gravest danger in the war on terrorism": a rogue state developing weapons of mass destruction and handing them over to terrorists.

So Saddam must go. Or sort of. After quickly mentioning Iran and North Korea--Bush had to stay true to his "axis of evil" line in last year's SOTU--he made (once again) his case for war against Iraq. In short: Saddam has defied the UN for 12 years. His government has not accounted for some biological and chemical weapons, or their possible components. In the 1990s, Iraq had a robust nuclear development program. (The day before Bush's speech, UN inspectors noted that there is no sign such a program now exists.) The Brits say Iraq sought weapons-usable uranium. US intelligence says the Iraqis are hiding thousands of documents, sanitizing inspections sites, and are having Iraqi intelligence officers pose as weapons scientists. And--to top it off--Saddam is assisting and protecting terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. All this is serious stuff. Details now should follow--particularly on the al Qaeda-Saddam link. (Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush said, is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on this and other matters next week. Presumably, the American public might be provided the supporting material as well.)

Bush certainly argued effectively that Saddam is not to be trusted. But he did not counter the argument that inspections should continue, that they did work to constrain and contain Saddam in the 1990s, and that they could do so now. This is how Bush presented the alternative: "trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy and it is not an option." Now who among the responsible advocates that?

Bush did not claim the threat from Saddam is immediate. In fact, he essentially conceded it was not. He noted he wants to make sure such a threat is not "permitted to fully and suddenly emerge." Apparently, he takes his doctrine of preemption seriously. Moreover, he expanded his reasons for confronting Saddam beyond protecting the United States or enforcing the UN resolutions (whether the UN wants the United States to do so with an invasion or not). Bush described the grisly forms of torture employed by Saddam and his thugs, highlighting the practice in which Saddam's henchmen torture children in front of their parents. "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning," Bush declared--and who can argue with that? He told the Iraqi people that they deserve "liberation." But it's back to that old question: is this a war for disarmament or for regime change? "If he does not fully disarm, " Bush vowed, "we will lead a coalition to disarm him." Suppose Saddam actually does disarm (merely for the sake of this rhetorical point). Is Bush then going to leave the Iraqis unliberated and in the hands of such evil? If not, should the Tibetans start planning for their liberation?

Bush's remarks pointed to war. (Could he be bluffing?) The more he decries Saddam, the more he points to the possible threat Saddam poses, the more Bush is obligated to act. If Saddam cannot be trusted--and he cannot--then how can Bush (and the world) ever be certain that the Iraqi dictator has indeed fully disarmed and given up entirely on the pursuit of awful weapons? In Bush's either/or view of the war on terrorism, Saddam can never be on the right side of the line. And Bush has seemingly rejected the notion that Saddam can boxed in, that continuous, robust inspections can inhibit any Iraqi WMD development. Consequently, war must come. As for those pesky allies who are squeamish about a new Gulf War, Bush declared, "The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others." This line, as far as I could tell, received the loudest applause of the evening.

The speech was not so much an evaluation of the state of the union, but more a report on the Bush presidency. He has reacted to the recent chatter about his own possible troubles by sticking with his bold strokes. And the Democrats' first-responder, Washington Governor Gary Locke (a.k.a. the first Chinese-American governor in the United States), took a few pokes at Bush, dealing more with Speech One than Speech Two. He slapped Bush's tax plan as "upside-down economics." With war, relieve-the-rich tax cuts, Social Security privatization and Medicare reform, Bush has set up several mother-of-all-battles for himself. This is one compassionate warrior who seems eager for combat.

Class Warfare By (Fuzzy) Numbers

How does he do it? Every day Ari Fleischer takes the stand--so to speak--but, luckily for him, it's not under oath. That is, he provides a briefing in the White House press room and emits--oh, how to say it politely?--the most creative statements in defense of his boss's policies. A plainspoken fella--someone like our tax-cutter-in-chief--might feel compelled to brand a deceptive answer a "lie." But in the case of Fleischer v. Truth , I'm going to let you be the jury.

The case before us concerns the obsession of a powerful man and how far that man and his most trusted aides will go to serve that all-consuming passion. In other words, George W. Bush and tax cuts loaded for the well-to-do (a.k.a. people like him). After Bush unveiled his bold plan--the size of which was doubled at Bush's insistence--the task of defending the proposal (which included deep-sixing the tax on certain dividends and accelerating the scheduled reductions in income tax rates) fell to Fleischer. The President, before releasing (or unleashing) the package, had launched a preemptive strike against his critics, warning them not to engage in "class warfare" in their inevitable assault upon his tax scheme. Bush's stance provokes a natural question: why is it that handing out more money to the rich than to middle- and low-income people is not class warfare but merely noting the disparity is class warfare? (Let us stipulate that class warfare is such an ugly, anti-American tactic that any proper-thinking person ought to recoil from the charge, even though that should not always be so.)

Enter Fleischer. At the January 9 White House briefing, a reporter asked, "The President used the phrase 'class warfare' again today, alluding to criticism of his tax plan. Why is it class warfare to point out that the overwhelming majority of the tax cut would go to the wealthiest people in the country?" Fleischer answered, "Well, I'll tell you, it's class warfare to say that there are wrong people in America and these wrong people are not deserving of tax relief. The President doesn't look at the American people and say, I'm from the government, I know who the right people are -- I'm from the government, I know who the wrong people are. The President believes that's a divisive approach."

But the President does indeed say, "I'm from the government, and I know who the right people are." In this instance, he is saying that the "right people" (those deserving of a tax cut) are people who hold stocks--outside of 401(k)s and other tax-free retirement accounts--that pay out dividends. What about investors who place their money elsewhere? Why won't interest on a certificate of deposit be tax-free, under the new Bush plan? Bush is indeed deciding who gets a break. He also proposed expanding the child credit. That hardly rewards singles or couples without young ones. Tax policy is about choices, about who gets what--and choices deserve to be judged.

At the same briefing, Fleischer was pressed further on the class-warfare business. He maintained "it's inaccurate to say that the benefits will go to the wealthy" and that "because it's inaccurate, [this criticism] is used in...a way to divide and to play class warfare, in an effort to portray some Americans as unworthy of tax relief and other Americans as worthy of tax relief based on their class."

Using Fleischer's standard, Bush, by focusing on income taxes as opposed to, say, payroll taxes, is determining that low-income Americans (who do not make enough to pay income taxes but who are hit by payroll taxes) are "unworthy of tax relief." Moreover, what is inaccurate about the charge that the rich would make out like bandits under Bush's tax proposal? Citizens for Tax Justice report that one-third of the tax cut would flow to the top 1 percent (taxpayers with incomes over $374,000) in 2003. Almost half would go to the top 5 percent ($154,000 and above.) As for the top 20 percent ($77,000 and up)--they would get over three-quarters. The lower 60 percent (those pulling in $46,000 and less) would bag only 8.4 percent. How could Fleischer claim that a plan that eliminates dividend taxes and lowers the top income tax rate does not reward the well-to-do? But he did. The CTJ numbers would have to be inverted--be off by a factor of 7 or more--for Fleischer to be in the right.

There's more. Having pooh-poohed any bias toward the well-heeled, Fleischer then went on to praise the progressivity of Bush's initiative. "Because the share of taxes paid by people at the top actually goes up," he said, "because as you remove people from the bottom of the rolls...you have fewer people actually paying any taxes at all at the bottom. Therefore, the burden that is left is shared increasingly with those who remain at the top." That is correct. But while the rich may end up paying more percentage-wise, what counts--for them, of course, and for the federal budget--is what's taken out of their pockets. In that regard, their "relief" is much more--both in terms of their real tax bill and as a percentage of their income--than lower-end taxpayers. Moreover, the reduction in revenue will somehow have to be covered--by government borrowing or program cuts that tend to be of more need to low-income individuals.

In promoting Bush's contribution to progressive taxation, Fleischer undermined part of the reasoning for the tax cuts. "Let me address," he said, "one thing about why this issue about who benefits from tax cuts, I think, is such a different issue in Washington than it is in the real world. If you make $30,000 a year, and you pay, for example, $2,000 in taxes, and you receive a $1,000 tax cut, you just received a 50 percent cut in your taxes. A thousand dollars to somebody who makes $30,000 a year means all the world to them. It is a huge difference in their life. Take somebody toward the top end of the scale, somebody who makes $200,000, and they pay $50,000 in taxes. To begin with, they pay far more in income taxes, a point which opponents of the President never make. They pay far more in income taxes than others who earn less. They receive a tax cut that in dollar amounts may be larger than somebody who receives less. To them, that tax cut won't change their life as much as it does somebody who doesn't earn as much. Their life will change more so, more beneficially, than somebody toward the top."

First, his example is not supported by the CTJ numbers. According to that analysis, the average taxpayer in the $29,000-to-$46,000 income group (the middle 20 percent) will receive a total of $289 from these tax cuts in 2003. That's much less than the $1000 figure Fleischer used in his anecdote. Putting that aside, Fleischer was essentially arguing that the big earners won't see their lives changed drastically by the tax cuts. So why bother? Why defund the federal government--at a time of war, maybe two wars, maybe more--if it's no big diff to the main beneficiaries? Similarly, if it's so important to have a large impact on the lives of the lower earners, why not send more relief their way?

Fleischer engaged in additional arithmetic acrobatics. At his January 6 briefing, he pushed the tax cuts as a package that would provide 92 million taxpayers with an average tax cut of $1,083 in 2003. This is about as disingenuous as it gets. The CTJ numbers show that most of the bottom 80 percent ($77,000 and less) receive much less than one thousand bucks. The average gain for taxpayers in the $46,000-to-$77,000 slice (the second quintile) is $657. Obviously, the people below will get less. According to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, nearly 80 percent of income tax filers would receive a tax cut below $1083. Almost half of all tax filers would get a tax cut of less than $100. The average tax cut only hits four digits because so much is tossed at the top 20 percent. That raises the average--but has no real consequence for the under-$75,000 crowd.

When asked whether the White House disputed the notion that most of the benefits from eliminating the dividend tax would end up with better-off taxpayers, Fleischer responded, "When you look at the statistics, more than half the money from dividend taxation goes to seniors." But being a senior is not inconsistent with being wealthy. The Tax Policy Center calculates that 40 percent of the dividend-exemption benefits that would accrue to the elderly will land in the hands of seniors with incomes exceeding $200,000. Nearly three-quarters would go to those with incomes above $75,000. Fleischer was being misleading. Even if the elderly do claim half of the dividend exemption tax cut, most of that half would find its way to the top 20 percent of seniors. The Bush plans helps rich people--young and old.

Fleischer has not been the only dissembler. In his speech unveiling his tax plan, Bush sold his package by noting that a family of four making $40,000 would see its taxes in 2003 fall a whopping 96 percent from $1,178 to $45--mostly due to the expansion of the child credit. (Funny, Bush didn't tell us how much a single-parent HMO CEO would save.) As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, Bush's example could come true. But it adds, "the tax cuts that would benefit this family constitute less than one-quarter of the overall cost of the bill." In other words, you could dump three-quarters of his package and still assist middle-income families. To suggest this package overall is of direct assistance to middle- and lower-income individuals is dishonest. Only pieces of it--the smaller pieces--do that. Like press secretary, like president. The Bush tax cut is literally class warfare by numbers.

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