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Contemporary politicians who are struggling to determine when the time will be right to start talking about withdrawing troops from Iraq would do well to borrow a page from former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisconsin.
In the spring of 1964, when only about 16,500 U.S. troops were present in the country as "advisers," and when no one had heard of the Gulf of Tonkin, Nelson was asked by a television reporter to discuss the U.S. presence in southeast Asia. Nelson responded by suggesting that President Lyndon Johnson should reconsider the decision to commit troops to the region, arguing that the time had come to "set some timetable for withdrawal from the situation."
The Wisconsin senator completely rejected the notion that any good would result from an escalation in the U.S. role in the troubled country.
"I don't think that additional men and materials and economic aid ... is going to solve the problem in South Vietnam," asserted Nelson, who repeated his counsel that the time was coming for "an orderly withdrawal."
As the senator's biographer, Bill Christofferson, noted, "Nelson knew almost from the start that the Vietnam War was a mistake."
Even more significantly, Nelson had the courage to express that opinion when few others were willing to do so.
To be sure, Nelson, who died last week at age 89, will be most remembered as the originator of Earth Day. And his role in launching the contemporary environmental movement certainly merits recognition and praise. But it is important to recall that Nelson's green activism was only a part of his broader progressive vision and commitment.
Raised in the Wisconsin progressive tradition of former U.S. Sen. Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, who courageously and correctly opposed Woodrow Wilson's decision to march U.S. troops into World War I, Nelson emerged in the mid-1960s as an equally courageous and correct critic of Johnson's misadventure in Vietnam.
After being assured by Sen. J. William Fulbright, the respected chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the Johnson administration would not use the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as an excuse to expand the U.S. mission in southeast Asia, Nelson grudgingly voted for that August1964 measure. Only a pair of maverick senior senators, Oregon's Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, opposed it. But, as Nelson came to realize that Fulbright had been bamboozled by the president, the Wisconsin senator joined Morse and Gruening in working to end the war.
In May 1965, when Johnson sought a $700 million supplemental appropriation "to meet the mounting military costs of Vietnam," the Wisconsin Democrat broke ranks with the Democratic administration to join Morse and Gruening in opposing the spending measure. Speaking to the Senate, Nelson declared, "Members of the Senate, known as the world's greatest deliberative body, are stumbling over each other to see who can say 'yea' the quickest and the loudest. I regret it, and I think that someday we shall all regret it."
Noting that the administration had failed to make a compelling case that the war was necessary, let alone wise, the senator concluded, "Thus, reluctantly, I express my opposition to our procedure here by voting 'nay.' The support of the Congress for this measure is clearly overwhelming. Obviously, you need my vote less than I need my conscience."
Nelson would continue for the better part a decade to be one of the Senate's most passionate foes of the war. When the fighting was finished in 1973, he said, "Let us hope that our political leaders in both political parties have learned a lesson from this mistaken enterprise and will not involve the country again in a civil war where the vital interests of this country are not at stake."
With U.S. troops stuck in the quagmire that is Iraq, it is obvious that the lesson was not learned. And the only way they will get out alive is if more senators learn the lesson that Nelson taught: Start talking about withdrawal early and don't be afraid to vote your conscience.
Conservative radio and television personalities in the United States were unsettled after last week's bombings in London -- not because of the terrorist attack on a major western city, but because too few Londoners were willing to serve as props to support the right-wing ranting of the Americans. After one stoic Brit, who had blood on the side of his face, calmly described climbing out of a smoke-filled subway station, a Fox anchor exclaimed, "That man's obviously in shock."
Actually, the man appeared to be completely in control of his faculties, as did the British journalists who appeared that evening on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." Host Bill O'Reilly, the king of the hysterics, had a hard time with the Brits, who simply were not as feverish as he had hoped -- and who were genuinely bemused when he started ranting about how much he hated Britain's highly regarded Guardian newspaper.
O'Reilly, like too many other American radio and television commentators, expected the British attacks to provide a new opportunity to hype support for the war in Iraq, gripe about "open borders" and generally spin sorrow and fear into political gold for the conservative cause.
It didn't happen, though not for lack of trying by the folks at Fox.
The Fox commentary following the London bombings was surreal. Brit Hume babbled about how the dip in stock values after the attacks meant it was "time to buy," Brian Kilmeade suggested that a deadly terrorist attack on a country where the G8 leaders were meeting "works to our advantage," and John Gibson bemoaned the fact that the bombs hit London and not Paris. "They'd blow up Paris, and who cares?" chuckled Gibson, the host of one of the network's "news" shows.
But the Fox personalities and their allies in right-wing talk radio found few takers among the British for their efforts to politicize the gruesome developments in the British capital.
Try as American conservative commentators did to get Londoners to echo their pro-Bush, pro-war line, the British generally refused to play along.
This does not mean that most Brits who were interviewed embraced calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq or other alternatives to the Bush administration's misguided approach to the so-called "war on terror." But it does mean that, instead of parroting propaganda, the Brits preferred to engage in thoughtful discussions about what had happened, why the terrorists targeted London and what ought to be done to prevent future attacks. Few topics were off limits.
Veteran journalist Gary Younge suggested that the attacks were "Blair's blowback" -- the bloody wages of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to back President Bush's disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Some members of parliament called for Britain to quickly withdraw its troops from the quagmire. Others suggested that Britain needs to get more engaged in promoting the Middle East peace process. There was no single response, no lockstep approach, because the Brits were angry enough -- and determined enough -- to put everything on the table.
Unfortunately, a thoughtful, nuanced discussion that was focused on finding solutions -- rather than merely venting or promoting a particular political agenda -- didn't fit into the Fox format.
The inability of American right-wing media to recognize honest discourse prevented most U.S. media outlets from recognizing that which was genuinely meaningful and moving about the British reaction.
For instance, U.S. media pretty much missed the one truly Churchillian response to the attacks -- that of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a committed socialist and anti-war activist, who issued the following statement on the day of the attacks:
I have no doubt whatsoever that this is a terrorist attack. We did hope in the first few minutes after hearing about the events on the Underground that it might simply be a maintenance tragedy. That was not the case. I have been able to stay in touch through the very excellent communications that were established for the eventuality that I might be out of the city at the time of a terrorist attack and they have worked with remarkable effectiveness. I will be in continual contact until I am back in London.
I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.
That isn't an ideology, it isn't even a perverted faith -- it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other. I said yesterday to the International Olympic Committee that the city of London is the greatest in the world, because everybody lives side by side in harmony.
Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity alongside those who have been injured and those who have been bereaved and that is why I'm proud to be the mayor of that city.
Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.
I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others -- that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.
In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfill their dreams and achieve their potential.
They choose to come to London, as so many have come before, because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.
President Bush unwittingly provided an appropriate response to the gruesome terrorist attacks on London.
Highlighting the "vivid" contrast between the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles, Scotland -- where the world's most powerful leaders have been forced by grassroots pressure to address issues of global poverty and climate change -- and the carnage in London after coordinated bomb blasts killed dozens of commuters Thursday morning, Bush said, "On the one hand, we got people here who are working to alleviate poverty and to help rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS and that are working on ways to have a clean environment. And on the other hand, you've got people killing innocent people. And the contrast couldn't be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who've got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks."
Bush went on to promise that, "we will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate."
Imagine the cries of outrage and incomprehension that would have arisen from right-wing talk radio and television pundits if a President Al Gore or a President John Kerry had called, in the immediate aftermath of an attack linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, for spreading an "ideology of hope and compassion" as part of the response to terrorism.
Imagine if a President Gore or a Kerry had spoken, as Bush did, of bringing those responsible for the attacks "to justice" rather than pledging to "hunt them down and kill them."
Imagine if a President Gore or Kerry had failed to make any mention of the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- supposedly a critical front in the "war on terror" -- at such a moment.
Bush's amen corner in the media is, of course, packed with hypocrites who hear echoes of Churchill in the president's every utterance, just as they detect the language of treason in the mere mention of alternative approaches to fighting terrorism.
But the failings of his followers ought not obscure the fact that the president's response -- intentionally or otherwise --went to the issues that should be addressed.
Bush expressed his "heartfelt condolences," he called for bringing the killers to justice. And then he spoke -- in the context of a broader discussion about alleviating poverty, disease and environmental decay -- about combating terrorism with "hope and compassion." In the end, it will only be when hope and compassion are delivered to the world's most dispossessed peoples -- through debt reduction, aid and measures that combat the spread of easily treated diseases -- that those who preach violence as a response to inequity and injustice will be sufficiently marginalized to make it possible to talk of "winning" a war on terrorism.
Is it possible that the president is beginning to accept this reality? Could he be coming to realize that the challenges posed by international terrorism cannot be met merely with cowboy rhetoric and bombs?
Surely, the painful recognition that, almost four years after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Qaeda is apparently still capable of pulling off coordinated, and extremely deadly, attacks in one of the most security-savvy cities on the planet ought to cause Bush to rethink his misguided response to what he describes as the great challenge of his presidency.
Unfortunately, Bush has shown little capacity for growth in his knowledge or understanding of world affairs. So it is wise to remain skeptical about how far he plans to take his "hope and compassion" response.
That said, we ought to hold the man to his words -- and to remind the president's amen corner that it was not Ted Kennedy or Nancy Pelosi who responded to the news of a terrorist attack with a discussion about alleviating poverty and ridding the world of disease. It was George W. Bush. And, at least in that moment, he was right.
Organized labor is opposed to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Progressive farm groups are opposed to CAFTA.
Environmental groups are opposed to CAFTA.
Civil rights groups are opposed to CAFTA.
Human rights groups are opposed to CAFTA.
Virtually all of the organizations that are associated with what is loosely defined as the Democratic coalition are opposed to the trade deal that Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin says "will hurt American workers, hurt the workers of Central America and create instability in Central America that will force more immigration into the United States."
So, of course, Senate Democrats must have been united in opposition to the Bush administration's proposal to expand on the failed model of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- which has wrecked havoc with the economies of the U.S., Mexico and Canada -- to create a free trade zone that extends from the Panama Canal to the Arctic Circle. Right?
Just before the July 4 Congressional break, when the Senate voted on CAFTA, a dozen Republicans abandoned the administration to vote "no." That meant that, if Democrats had been united in their opposition, the trade deal would have been easily defeated and the president's plan to make it easier for multinational corporations to exploit workers, communities and the environment throughout the hemisphere would have been dealt a fatal blow.
Instead, ten Democrats -- New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, Washington's Maria Cantwell, Delaware's Tom Carper, California's Dianne Feinstein, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln, Washington's Patty Murray, Florida's Bill Nelson, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Arkansas's Mark Pryor and, Oregon's Ron Wyden, as well as Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats, voted for the president's proposal.
As a result, CAFTA won by a 55-45 margin.
Make no mistake, it was a failure of focus on the part of Democrats that gave Bush's trade policies Senate approval.
Fortunately, the fight is not done. Opposition to CAFTA is more widespread in the House of Representatives, which still must vote on the measure. More House Republicans have broken with the president on the issue and House Democrats appear to be more united in their opposition than ever before.
As U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, a steadfast foe of corporate-sponsored free trade deals notes, opposition to CAFTA has grown as members of both chambers "who (once) blindly accepted these agreements are now beginning to read the fine print."
Feingold's right. The trend is against CAFTA.
The sad thing is that, because 10 Democrats and Jeffords are still blindly accepting the flawed arguments of the Bush administration -- just as they did the flawed arguments of the Clinton administration before it – a trade pact that could do severe harm to workers, farmers and the environment in the U.S. and abroad cleared the Senate. Had those Bush Democrats bothered to read the fine print -- and to make a break with the corporate funders of so many of their campaigns -- the CAFTA fight would already be done.
As the 229th anniversary of the founding of the American experiment approached, President Bush provided a painful reminder of how far the United States has drifted from the ideals of her youth.
Speaking to soldiers who would soon be dispatched to occupy Iraq, Bush sounded an awfully lot like the King George against whom George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other revolutionaries of 1776 led their revolt.
America was founded in opposition to empire. The Declaration of Independence was a manifesto against colonialism. And the wisest of the founding generations abhorred imperialism.
Their opposition to empire was not merely rooted in their own bitter experience. It was, as well, rooted in a faith that American freedoms and democracy would suffer if the nation embarked upon a career of empire.
So, while Bush suggests that other lands must be occupied to preserve liberty at home, the patriots of our time recall will do well to recall words spoken on another July 4.
When America was younger and truer to her ideals, on Independence Day, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams appeared before the US House of Representatives and declared:
And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.
She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.
She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....
[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com
"A nation's success or failure in achieving democracy is judged in part by how well it responds to those at the bottom and the margins of the social order.... The very problems that democratic change brings--social tension, heightened expectations, political unrest--are also strengths. Discord is a sign of progress afoot; unease is an indication that a society has let go of what it knows and is working out something better and new."
Those are not the thoughts of a great civil rights leader, nor of a prominent progressive reformer.
They are the words of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the "swing" vote on the US Supreme Court, who on Friday announced that she is stepping down.
O'Connor joined the Court as an ideological conservative and, for the most part, served as such. But, as the above quote from her 2003 memoir, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, suggests, the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court was a conservative of the modern age.
Her nuanced stances on issues such as abortion rights--she defended the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion as "a rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce"--distinguished her from the Court's conservative judicial activists, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. (To get a full sense of what is at stake, see the list of 5-to-4 decisions where O'Connor cast the deciding vote, which follows this piece.)
With O'Connor's exit, the Court will move in one of two directions. No, not right or left. With O'Connor out, the Court will either go backward or forward.
If President Bush nominates and the Senate confirms an activist soul mate for Scalia and Thomas, the Court will not simply become more conservative.
It will move back toward the days before Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used their nominations in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to wrench the judicial branch out of a dark and undistinguished past. Those selections made the Supreme Court a functional branch of government, rather than an obstructionist defender of an often corrupt old order.
People for the American Way President Ralph Neas put it best when he said Friday, "A Scalia-Thomas majority would not only reverse more than seven decades of Supreme Court legal precedents but could also return us to a situation America faced in the first third of the twentieth century, when progressive legislation, like child labor laws, was adopted by Congress and signed by the President but repeatedly rejected on constitutional grounds by the Supreme Court."
Neas understands his history well. The contemporary image of the Supreme Court as a defender of civil liberties and civil rights, and an ally of progress, is one that developed over the course of the twentieth century. It was not always so. And there are no guarantees that it will remain so.
As such, this is not merely a battle over a Court vacancy, nor even over the balance on the bench.
If the Court moves backward to the bad old days, so too will the nation.
With a Court guided by a majority determined to reverse the progress made on issues ranging from reproductive freedom to privacy rights, affirmative action, church-state separation, environmental protection, consumer safeguards and worker rights, Neas warns, America would return to a time when the judicial branch took as its mandate the preservation of the status quo against the march of social progress.
"A Supreme Court with additional justices who do not meet consensus standards could radically rewrite our nation's fundamental definitions of justice," says Neas.
In so doing, it could also rewrite our sense of time. Instead of living in 2005, Americans could find themselves dragged backward to those nineteenth-century days when the Supreme Court was the nation's primary barrier to social and economic justice.****************************************************************
People for the American Way has compiled a list of 5-to-4 rulings in which Sandra Day O'Connor was the decisive Justice. Here are some of the decisions that the group says are in danger of being overturned:
1. Grutter v. Bollinger (2003): Affirmed the right of state colleges and universities to use affirmative action in their admissions policies to increase educational opportunities for minorities and promote racial diversity on campus.
2. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. EPA (2004): Said the Environmental Protection Agency could step in and take action to reduce air pollution under the Clean Air Act when a state conservation agency fails to act.
3. Rush Prudential HMO, Inc. v. Moran (2002): Upheld state laws giving people the right to a second doctor's opinion if their HMOs tried to deny them treatment.
4. Hunt v. Cromartie (2001): Affirmed the right of state legislators to take race into account to secure minority voting rights in redistricting.
5. Tennessee v. Lane (2004): Upheld the constitutionality of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and required that courtrooms be physically accessible to the disabled.
6. Hibbs v. Winn (2004): Subjected discriminatory and unconstitutional state tax laws to review by the federal judiciary.
7. Zadvydas v. Davis (2001): Told the government it could not indefinitely detain an immigrant who was under final order of removal even if no other country would accept that person.
8. Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (2001): Affirmed that civil rights laws apply to associations regulating interscholastic sports.
9. Lee v. Weisman (1992): Continued the tradition of government neutrality toward religion, finding that government-sponsored prayer is unacceptable at graduations and other public school events.
10. Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington (2003): Maintained a key source of funding for legal assistance for the poor.
11. Morse v. Republican Party of Virginia (1996): Said key antidiscrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act apply to political conventions that choose party candidates.
12. Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee (2001): Upheld laws that limit political party expenditures that are coordinated with a candidate and seek to evade campaign contribution limits.
13. McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003): Upheld most of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, including its ban on political parties' use of unlimited soft-money contributions.
14. Stenberg v. Carhart (2000): Overturned a state ban on so-called partial birth abortion.
15. McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005): Upheld the principle of government neutrality toward religion and ruled unconstitutional Ten Commandments displays in several courthouses.
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th attacks."
George W. Bush -- September 17, 2003
To the extend that George Bush had retained the slightest shred of dignity through the whole ugly Iraq imbroglio, it was found in his refusal to fully embrace the biggest of the Big Lies told by his aides: The claim that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The president was never honorable in this regard. He did not go out of his way correct the confusion among the American people, a majority of whom believed around the time of the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq that Hussein's regime was somehow linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Nor did he step up to challenge the misinformation being spread by members of his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, about a supposed connection between Iraq and al-Qaida. And, early on, he actually tried to defend Cheney's statements.
But, even before the the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States established that there was no collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida, Bush was a good deal more cautious than Cheney. And when the president was directly confronted this spring by reporters and asked whether he shared the vice president's view that a connection had been established, Bush detached himself fully from his vice president's mad ranting and made it clear that he knew of no evidence to support the charge.
In other words, Bush made at least some effort to avoid echoing Cheney's Big Lies.
On Tuesday night, however, the president abandoned the narrow patch of high ground that he had staked out and dove into the raging flood of deceit that his administration had unleashed.
In what was billed as a major address regarding Iraq, Bush mentioned the September 11 attacks no less than five times.
Before 750 members of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army's Special Operations unit, who had been assembled at Fort Bragg, N.C., to give Bush a respectful and unquestioning audience, the president declared, "The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. This war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us -- and the terrorists we face -- murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression, by toppling governments, driving us out of the region and exporting terror."
Bush went on to claim that, "After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: The nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war."
By suggesting that the invasion and occupation of Iraq should be seen as part of a legitimate and necessary response to September 11, as he clearly did on Tuesday, Bush made a deliberate break with reality -- not so complete a break, perhaps, as that of Cheney and the wingnut faction of the administration, but a break all the same.
The president speech was written and delivered with the intent of deceiving the American people into believing things that were never true.
Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, to be sure, but he ruled as a militant secularist, who gave Christians and members of other religious and ethnic minorities positions of power and authority within the governments he assembled. Hussein saw the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as a threat, and he meticulously -- sometimes violently -- kept that threat out of Iraq. To the extent that elements of al-Qaida are now on the ground in that country, it is not as a result of Hussein's invitation but as a result of his removal.
The point here is not to defend Hussein. The point is to recognize reality: The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not control the spread of terrorist activity in the Middle East. It handed the terrorists new opportunities for recruitment, and it gave them new territory in which to operate. Until the president acknowledges these fundamental realities -- and his own responsibility for making things worse -- it will be impossible to undo the damage.
George Bush set out to deceive to the American people Tuesday. That was morally wrong, and tactically foolish.
But George Bush also deceived himself, by engaging in the fantasy that some new spin will allow him to avoid taking responsibility for making the world a more dangerous place. Ultimately, that is the bigger, and far more dangerous lie.
In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, then-President Thomas Jefferson made it clear that the intent of the founders was to maintain a "wall of separation between church and state." It was for that reason, Jefferson explained, that the First Amendment to the Constitution barred the government of the new nation from engaging in the promotion of a particular religion.
Jefferson and the other founders had no doubts about the need to prevent any mingling of the affairs of church and state. They had seen the damage done to government and religion by the state religions of Europe -- particularly, though not exclusively, King George III's Church of England -- and they wanted to assure that the United States would avoid the patterns of hatred, discrimination and violence that arise when one faith is officially sanctioned. They also recognized the advantages that came with keeping politicians out of pulpits and preachers out of policymaking. Though many of the founders were Christians, they held dramatically different views regarding the practice of religion. And, as George Washington and others made clear, they respected the contributions made to the new Republic by Jews and other non-Christians.
History has proven the concerns of the founders to have been well placed. When Jefferson's wall has been maintained, the American experiment has been at its best: welcoming, tolerant, open to new ideas and respectful of science, reason and progress.
When the wall has been undermined, however, the country has often degenerated into bitterness and dysfunction.
Fights over religion have caused divisions so serious that they have warped not just politics but basic human interactions at the hometown level.
Certainly, that has been the case in recent years in several southern states.
The highest profile fight has been seen in Alabama, where a local judge named Roy Moore began stirring controversy in the late 1990s by ordering the display of the Ten Commandments in his DeKalb County courtroom. Moore argued that the United States was founded on Christian principles such as those contained in the list of Biblical injunctions, and that it thus was appropriate to display them in a prominent location as a set of guiding principles.
But Moore's true intent, which was obvious from the start, was to stir up support among Christian fundamentalists for his political ambitions. He tried to undermine the wall of separation between church and state in order to provoke a high-profile fight that would identify him as a "defender of the faith" against the "threats" posed by secularism that Jefferson, Madison and other founders clearly believed was essential to the success of the Republic.
To be sure, Moore is a sly politician. He parlayed the Ten Commandments controversy into a successful run in 2000 for the state Supreme Court, where as that body's chief justice he ordered the display of the Ten Commandments in front of the court building.
The ensuing fight made national news, and created fierce tensions in Alabama. Moore, who was forced to step down as chief justice, entertained the notion of seeking the presidency as a "Christian" challenger to President Bush in 2004 and is now talking about running for governor of Alabama in 2006.
But, while Moore may be a sly politician, he is a poor reader of the Constitution.
That fact was confirmed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed by government agencies in a manner intended to suggest a church-state connection.
The decision in a case involving the display of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses saw the high court's majority -- which included Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- signal that the Biblical document cannot be so showcased by a government agency when there is a "predominantly religious purpose" in doing so. A second decision, in a related case from Texas, maintained the flexibility that has traditionally been seen in debates about such matters -- with the court permitting reasonable displays of the Ten Commandments in historical and educational contexts.
Make no mistake, however, about the Supreme Court's clear intent.
The majority's overall message was clear: It is unconstitutional for politicians to use the Ten Commandments, or any other statement of religious principle, as battering ram against the Mr. Jefferson's wall.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) and has written extensively about religion and politics.
Rarely in recent years has Washington seen so dramatic a clash between the legislative and executive branches as was witnessed Thursday, when U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Masschusetts, went after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the question of whether the Pentagon chief should resign for mismanaging the war in Iraq.
"This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged. And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying. And there really is no end in sight," Kennedy said, as the Secretary of Defense sat opposite him during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Arguing that "the American people, I believe, deserve leadership worthy of the sacrifices that our fighting forces have made, and they deserve the real facts," Kennedy told Rumsfeld, "I regret to say that I don't believe that you have provided either."
Rumsfeld was clearly shocked by the aggressiveness of the senator's comments.
"Well, that is quite a statement," huffed the Secretary of Defense, who pointedly told Kennedy, "The suggestion by you that people -- me or others -- are painting a rosy picture is false."
But the Massachusetts senator, who has been one of the most ardent Congressional critics of the war, wasn't buying the secretary's line. Nor was Kennedy cutting Rumsfeld any more slack.
"In baseball, it's three strikes you're out," Kennedy told Rumsfeld. "Isn't it time for you to resign?"
Rumsfeld, who was evidently shaken by the question, paused briefly before saying, "Senator, I've offered my resignation to the president twice."
President Bush rejected Rumsfeld's offers, which came at the height of the scandal over the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Secretary of Defense told the committee he would defer to the president on the question of when he should step down. "That's his call," Rumseld said of Bush.
The intensity of Kennedy's questioning illustrated a shift that has begun to take place in Congress in recent weeks, as more and more Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, have begun to bluntly challenge the administration's inflated claims about the "success" of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In fact, even Rumsfeld distanced himself from Vice President Dick Cheney's absurd assertion that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes."
After General John Abizaid, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, told members of the committee that he believed "more foreign fighters (are) coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Rumsfeld was asked whether it sounded to him like the insurgency has entered the "last throes" stage.
Noting that he had not uttered the "last throes" line, an obviously exasperated Rumsfeld said of Cheney's choice of words: "I didn't use them, and I might not use them."
Perhaps Kennedy should have asked Rumsfeld if Cheney ought to resign.
Alternatively, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, at its state's convention earlier this month, passed a resolution that would seem to cover all the bases.
The delegates called for immediate steps to be taken to impeach Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.
There is painful irony in the fact that, during the same month that the confirmation of "Deep Throat's" identity has allowed the Washington Post to relive its Watergate-era glory days, the newspaper is blowing the dramatically more significant story of the "fixed" intelligence the Bush Administration used to scam Congress and US allies into supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Last week, when the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, chaired an extraordinary hearing on what has come to be known as the "Downing Street Memo"--details of pre-war meetings where aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the fact that, while the case for war was "thin," the Bush Administration was busy making sure that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy"--the Post ridiculed Conyers and the dozens of other members of Congress who are trying to get to the bottom of a scandal that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly identified as "worse than Watergate."
Post writer Dana Milbank penned a snarky little piece that, like similar articles in the New York Times and other "newspapers of record," displayed all the skepticism regarding Bush Administration misdeeds that one might expect to find in a White House press release.
To his credit, Conyers hit back.
In a letter addressed to the Post's national editor, the newspaper's ombudsman and Milbank, the veteran House member was blunt.
"Dear Sirs," Conyers began, "I write to express my profound disappointment with Dana Milbank's June 17 report, 'Democrats Play House to Rally Against the War,' which purports to describe a Democratic hearing I chaired in the Capitol yesterday. In sum, the piece cherry-picks some facts, manufactures others out of whole cloth, and does a disservice to some 30 members of Congress who persevered under difficult circumstances, not of our own making, to examine a very serious subject: whether the American people were deliberately misled in the lead up to war. The fact that this was the Post's only coverage of this event makes the journalistic shortcomings in this piece even more egregious.
"In an inaccurate piece of reporting that typifies the article, Milbank implies that one of the obstacles the Members in the meeting have is that 'only one' member has mentioned the Downing Street Minutes on the floor of either the House or Senate. This is not only incorrect but misleading. In fact, just yesterday, the Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, mentioned it on the Senate floor. Senator Boxer talked at some length about it at the recent confirmation hearing for the Ambassador to Iraq. The House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, recently signed on to my letter, along with 121 other Democrats asking for answers about the memo. This information is not difficult to find either. For example, the Reid speech was the subject of an AP wire service report posted on the Washington Post website with the headline 'Democrats Cite Downing Street Memo in Bolton Fight.' Other similar mistakes, mischaracterizations and cheap shots are littered throughout the article.
"The article begins with an especially mean and nasty tone, claiming that House Democrats 'pretended' a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room and deriding the decor of the room. Milbank fails to share with his readers one essential fact: the reason the hearing was held in that room, an important piece of context. Despite the fact that a number of other suitable rooms were available in the Capitol and House office buildings, Republicans declined my request for each and every one of them. Milbank could have written about the perseverance of many of my colleagues in the face of such adverse circumstances, but declined to do so. Milbank also ignores the critical fact picked up by the AP, CNN and other newsletters that at the very moment the hearing was scheduled to begin, the Republican Leadership scheduled an almost unprecedented number of 11 consecutive floor votes, making it next to impossible for most Members to participate in the first hour and one half of the hearing.
"In what can only be described as a deliberate effort to discredit the entire hearing, Milbank quotes one of the witnesses as making an anti-semitic assertion and further describes anti-semitic literature that was being handed out in the overflow room for the event. First, let me be clear: I consider myself to be a friend and supporter of Israel and there were a number of other staunchly pro-Israel members who were in attendance at the hearing. I do not agree with, support, or condone any comments asserting Israeli control over US policy, and I find any allegation that Israel is trying to dominate the world or had anything to do with the September 11 tragedy disgusting and offensive.
"That said, to give such emphasis to 100 seconds of a 3 hour and five minute hearing that included the powerful and sad testimony (hardly mentioned by Milbank) of a woman who lost her son in the Iraq war and now feels lied to as a result of the Downing Street Minutes, is incredibly misleading. Many, many different pamphlets were being passed out at the overflow room, including pamphlets about getting out of the Iraq war and anti-Central American Free Trade Agreement, and it is puzzling why Milbank saw fit to only mention the one he did.
"In a typically derisive and uninformed passage, Milbank makes much of other lawmakers calling me 'Mr. Chairman' and says I liked it so much that I used 'chairmanly phrases.' Milbank may not know that I was the Chairman of the House Government Operations Committee from 1988 to 1994. By protocol and tradition in the House, once you have been a Chairman you are always referred to as such. Thus, there was nothing unusual about my being referred to as Mr. Chairman.
"To administer his coup-de-grace, Milbank literally makes up another cheap shot that I 'was having so much fun that [I] ignored aides' entreaties to end the session.' This did not occur. None of my aides offered entreaties to end the session and I have no idea where Milbank gets that information. The hearing certainly ran longer than expected, but that was because so many Members of Congress persevered under very difficult circumstances to attend, and I thought--given that--the least I could do was allow them to say their piece. That is called courtesy, not 'fun.'
"By the way, the 'Downing Street Memo' is actually the minutes of a British cabinet meeting. In the meeting, British officials--having just met with their American counterparts--describe their discussions with such counterparts. I mention this because that basic piece of context, a simple description of the memo, is found nowhere in Milbank's article.
"The fact that I and my fellow Democrats had to stuff a hearing into a room the size of a large closet to hold a hearing on an important issue shouldn't make us the object of ridicule. In my opinion, the ridicule should be placed in two places: first, at the feet of Republicans who are so afraid to discuss ideas and facts that they try to sabotage our efforts to do so; and second, on Dana Milbank and the Washington Post, who do not feel the need to give serious coverage on a serious hearing about a serious matter-whether more than 1700 Americans have died because of a deliberate lie. Milbank may disagree, but the Post certainly owed its readers some coverage of that viewpoint.
"Sincerely, John Conyers, Jr"
The years of the Bush presidency will be remembered as a time when American media, for the most part, practiced stenography to power --and when once-great newspapers became little more than what the reformers of another time referred to as "the kept press."
The Conyers letter, like the thousands of communications from grassroots activists to media outlets across this country pressing for serious coverage of the "Downing Street Memo" and the broader debate about the Bush Administration's doctoring of intelligence prior to the launch of the Iraq war, is an essential response to our contemporary media crisis. That it had to be written provides evidence of just how serious that crisis has grown.