Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
If there was any lingering doubt that this President rules by sowing division and fear it has been put to rest in these last weeks. As Dana Milbank's chilling front-page story in last Friday's Washington Post details, Bush and leading Republicans dare to argue that a vote for John Kerry is a vote for Al Qaeda.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert says he believes Al Qaeda would prefer a Kerry presidency. GOP Senate candidate John Thune of South Dakota says that his opponent, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's mild criticism of the war "embolden the enemy" and bring "comfort to America's enemies." Darth Vader VP Cheney strongly suggested that America would be more likely to be attacked if Kerry were elected.
These are Republicans who breed a culture of fundamentalism and intolerance, who betray the guiding and founding values of America. If a truly great Republican--Theodore Roosevelt--were among us today, he would expose the despicable politics of these fifth-rate offspring of the Grand Old Party and tell them--as he told the nation in 1918:
"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
And Then There Are True Conservatives...
Speaking of sane Republicans, did you see that Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) has made it known that he may not vote for Bush? Last weekend, according to the Washington Post, Chafee told a science seminar in his home state that he would vote for a Republican but not George W., who he has differed with on many issues including tax cuts, the Iraq war and stem cell research.
And let's hope a small item in Saturday's New York Times signals a trend: One of West Virginia's five electors says he may withhold his electoral college vote for Bush even if the President wins in the increasingly important swing state. Elector Richie Robb, the mayor of South Charleston, is incensed about the war in Iraq and painful layoffs in his town.
And by the way, do Bush and Co. believe that conservatives like John McCain, Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar--who have been all over the airwaves arguing that the US is in deep trouble in Iraq--are aiding and abetting the enemy? And what about the discontent with the commander-in chief from within the military itself? According to a Christian Science Monitor story, there is a "discernible countercurrent among US troops in Iraq--those who blame President Bush for entangling them in what they see as a misguided war." Will chickenhawk Cheney blast these soldiers in the field as unpatriotic.
The Army owes Captain James Yee, a Muslim Army Chaplain who was arrested on Sept. 10, 2003, an apology and an explanation. Last year, officials at a Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida discovered allegedly classified documents in Yee's bags. At the time of his arrest, Yee was serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he ministered to prisoners at the Navy's detention facility. He ensured that the prisoners were able to hear the Muslim call to prayer, and occasionally clashed with military officials over the treatment of Islamic detainees.
Yee was accused of espionage, sedition, mutiny and aiding the enemy (crimes punishable by death). He sat in solitary confinement for 76 days after his arrest while Defense Department officials anonymously pressed their case in the national media, portraying Yee as part of a Guantanamo spy ring that sympathized with Al Qaeda, and raising suspicions that Yee had passed military secrets to the Syrians. "The fear was that he had started mixing his loyalties," one official told the Washington Post.
Another official explained Yee's decision to become a spy this way: "He was disappointed that he wasn't being integrated into the interrogation process. He wasn't happy with the mission, and thought the detainees were being mistreated." (At the time, Yee's concerns about conditions at Guantanamo Bay were echoed repeatedly by human rights activists.)
All allegations against Yee were eventually dismissed. But then, in a decision that can only be characterized as outrageous overreaching, the Army decided to prosecute Yee for committing adultery and downloading porn onto his computer. Neither act is a criminal offense, and the move was widely regarded as vindictive because, traditionally, the only times when the military prosecutes adultery cases is when other charges like rape or sexual harassment are also involved.
Yee received a reprimand, but a month later, an Army general threw out even this judgment. Exonerated on all charges, Yee received word last week that the Army had authorized his honorable discharge, which is now set for January.
Experts in military justice have expressed disbelief at Yee's Kafkaesque journey from well-regarded Army Chaplain to Public Enemy No. 1. The malice exhibited towards Yee and the Army's incompetent handling of his case are staggering. "This whole thing makes the military prosecutors look ridiculous," John L. Fugh, a retired major general and onetime judge advocate general (the highest uniformed legal officer in the Army), told the New York Times.
The military owes Yee an apology because it dragged his name through the mud, damaged his family and destroyed his reputation. Yee said the Army's pursuit of the case against him has "irreparably injured my personal and professional reputation and destroyed my prospects for a career in the US Army."
But an explanation must also be forthcoming. "The notion that you would keep an officer in maximum security based on these charges is preposterous," Yee's civilian lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said while Yee was sitting in solitary confinement. The Army must explain why Yee was held in such primitive conditions on trumped-up charges.
It's also fair to ask whether Yee's questions about prisoner abuses put him in the crosshairs of Major General Geoffrey Miller.
Miller, who is a central figure in Sy Hersh's new book, Chain of Command, had been in charge of the Guantanamo Bay prison, where he brought a no-holds barred attitude to the interrogation process that created a climate of fear in which abuses were condoned. "Miller was permitted to use legally questionable interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, which could include, with approval, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in 'stress positions' for agonizing lengths of time," Hersh reported.
It was Miller, according to the US Southern Command, who made the major decisions about how to handle Yee's case, including deciding to bring the initial charges against him, to have him detained in the brig and to include the additional charges.
Miller may well have seen Yee as a threat to his mission to interrogate prisoners freely and without dissent. During his stint in Guantanamo, Miller was dispatched to Iraq to "Gitmoize" prisoner interrogations, where Miller's team, according to the report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, insisted that "the guard force be actively engaged in setting the condition for the successful exploitation of internees." When asked about Miller, Fidell said: "It is incomprehensible that General Miller would have been put in charge of Iraqi prisoners given his conduct in [the Yee] case."
Former counter-terrorism officials have pointed out that military commanders responsible for abuses were instructed to "[take] off the gloves" to glean better intelligence from prisoners. Yee was caught up in this "gloves-are-off" atmosphere. A kind of hysteria surrounded his case, and his treatment may well have been a result of his warnings about abuse of detainees. In prosecuting its case against Yee, the Army trampled on the values that underpin American ideas about fair play and equal justice for all.
Moreover, as David Cole pointed out in a recent Nation article, it is a record of prosecutorial abuse and failure: John Ashcroft has compiled a 0 for 5,000 record when it comes to successfully prosecuting foreign nationals the government has detained on suspicion of sponsoring terrorism.
"Yee was defamed and smeared and accused of being a spy," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Now that the case against Yee has disintegrated, it seems plausible, in retrospect, that Yee's only real crime in the brass' eyes was his willingness to raise questions about abuse of prisoners when few in the military, the media and the federal government had the wisdom to do so. Yee deserves better.
A friend and I were watching CNN the other night. After fifteen minutes of the Headline News, she asked, "Is there any good news in the world?"
Yes. But it's harder and harder to find.
As I wrote in this space last July, "It can be difficult, in these times, to maintain a sense of hope--as war, corruption, lies and injustices large and small loom all around,and outrage threatens to overwhelm us. But in these past months, as millions of us slug away, agitate, organize and mobilize, there have been some hard-fought victories to celebrate."
One sweet victory took place last week in Albany, New York when a young activist attorney named David Soares rocked the county (and the state) with his stunning landslide victory in the Democratic Primary for District Attorney. A nominee of the Working Families Party, his race was a referendum on the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, and his victory was a magnificent accomplishment for the urban-suburban, black-white, gay-straight, grassroots community-labor campaign led by Albany WFP chair Karen Scharff.
Soares brought a struggling Democratic machine to its knees--defeating incumbent Albany County District Attorney Paul Clyne, one of the strongest defenders of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. (Final tally was 62 percent for Soares compared to just 38 percent for the incumbent, with record turnout of more than 22,000.)
Soares, wrote the Albany Times Union, "had the nerve to stand up to the entire political establishment in Albany, fight for what's right--and win...Support for his stance on repeal of the strict Rockefeller Drug Laws and his platform of inclusion was seen in the incumbent's staggering across-the-board loss."
Soares' victory is a clear sign of popular support for reforming antiquated and cruelly ineffective drug laws. "This is the single most important development in more than a decade of trying to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws," according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which supported Soares' candidacy. "It's also the first time in contemporary American history that voters have thrown a politician out of office because he's a drug war zealot."
Soares' resounding defeat of an incumbent district attorney in New York State's capital, even in a primary election, sends an unmistakable message to other District Attorneys who, for years, have been the principal obstacle to reform. "All 'lock-'em-up, throw-away-the-key' DAs should take notice of what just happened to Paul Clyne," said Drug Policy Alliance's Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann. "I can't think of anything which will do more to change the prospects for...reform than this."
This victory is also a testament to the Working Families Party's role as a growing force in New York State politics. "The primary result," according to the New York Times, "highlighted the party's power to organize, raise money, make phone calls and knock on doors, as it did in aiding Mr. Soares in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 82,300 to 43,516 as of February."
As Dan Cantor of the WFP argues, Soares' victory is "evidence that a campaign that has a crystal clear stance on key issues, that appeals to the voters' best instincts, and that is unrelenting in getting its message out door by door by door can actually overcome the status quo and the advantages of incumbency."
Soares still has to win the general election in November, and the reform of the Rockefeller Laws still awaits legislative action, but it's worth savoring this sweet victory.
In the next few weeks, here are a few things you can do to support David Soares and the fight to repeal the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws:
1/ Support the Working Families Party.(Click here for info.)
2/ Support the Drug Policy Alliance Network(Click here for info.)
3/ If you live in New York State, write your local paper and call your local talk-radio show to stress how important Rockefeller reform has become in this year's election. You might even commend the New York Post for its editorial last week calling for reform of the drug laws. This represents a major reversal of the Murdoch-owned paper's longtime position. (Click here for contact info for your local media outlets.)
4/ Vote for David Soares in November if you live in Albany County--or tell your friends who live there to vote for him. And contribute to his campaign no matter where you live.
Finally, please click here to send me your nominations for small and sweet victories worth noting. I plan to keep highlighting them in this space in the weeks and months ahead and I want to include your responses.
"Anyone who says, 'I don't care if Bush gets elected' is basically telling poor and working people in the country, 'I don't care if your lives are destroyed. I don't care whether you are going to have a little money to help your disabled mother. I just don't care, because from my elevated point of view I don't see much difference between them.' That's a way of saying, 'Pay no attention to me, because I don't care about you.' Apart from its being wrong, it's a recipe for disaster if you're hoping to ever develop a popular movement and a political alternative."--Noam Chomsky, 2004
This quote comes from a recent e-mail sent out by Progressive Democrats of America--just one of a slew of groups, including Greens for Kerry, Repentant Nader Voters and United Progressives for Victory--making the case that even if you agree with Ralph Nader and/or the Greens on the issues, the paramount priority is to (re)defeat Bush in November.
Their appeal--and that of former Nader supporters issued last week--is ever more important now that the Florida Supreme Court has bolstered President Bush's prospects in a crucial swing state by ruling that Nader can appear on that state's ballot as the Reform Party presidential candidate.
Circulate Chomsky's quote widely!
The International Ethical Collegium is an important new global voice. Its membership includes philosophers, diplomats, scientists, human rights activists and current and former Heads of State and governments, like ex-President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who want the global community to respond "intelligently and forcefully to the decisive challenges facing humankind." (The group has recently published an important Open Letter to George W. Bush and John Kerry, which is reprinted below.)
The Collegium sees three great challenges confronting the modern world--all of which require robust multilateral solutions: an ecological threat that includes global warming, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and a shortage of drinkable water in many of the world's poorest regions; a global economy in which deregulation has created massive disparities in income and a less secure world; and, finally, a "crisis of thought and meaning" whereby humanity is thwarted by forces like "violence and intolerance [and] materialistic obsession."
In an interview this week, the International Collegium's Secretary General Sacha Goldman talked about how sovereign states' own self-interest, threatened to undermine the hope of collective action to confront the world's most immediate problems. "The US is losing its moral leadership," Goldman said, and that's troubling because nations "don't exist anymore on their own." Interdependence, as the Open Letter states, "is the new reality of this century--from global warming to global markets, global crime and global technology."
The Collegium was formed in the period leading up to the Sept. 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. The former President of Slovenia, Milan Kucan, and the former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, serve as its co-chairs. While the group has proposed solutions to specific transnational problems, the Collegium is most valuable for its ethics-based approach to problems like terrorism, poverty and environmental degradation.
The Collegium's Open Letter is another sign that our upcoming election isn't just about the American people. It's about America's future role in the world. Citing a "new era of interdependence," the Collegium's members are asking Bush and Kerry to make clear their views about large issues like the prospects for democracy at the global level, and the possibility of formulating common interdependent values.
Sadly, however, the possibility of the global community working together to tackle the world's vast inequities has been greatly diminished due to Bush's hyper-militaristic approach to solving global problems, his illegal and un-necessary war in Iraq, and his contempt for the UN in particular and the international community in general. Worse, Bush's policies have made the US more isolated--even hated--among former friends and foes alike. Recent polls conducted by GlobeScan and the University of Maryland show rising international mistrust of the US. Transatlantic Trends 2004 recently released a survey revealing that 76 percent of Europeans disapprove of Bush's handling of foreign affairs, up 20 percent in the last two years.
"If the people of the world were going to participate in the US election, Kerry would win handily," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. While that fact might be exploited by the Bush campaign, the Collegium's open letter should serve as a wake-up call to Americans that the US is stronger when it builds alliances. This assertion isn't new, of course, but this fact has gotten lost in this stormy campaign in which Vietnam--and a debate about whose service was nobler--has eclipsed the debate about Iraq's future, the genocide in Darfur, rising tensions in the Middle East, and Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
For the first time since 1972, international affairs and national security are the top concern of the American electorate. In turning his back on the concept of multilateral action to solve common problems, however, Bush has made America less secure by turning internationalism on its head.
Bush and Kerry have an obligation to listen to the Collegium's concerns and begin to address our greatest challenges in a serious and intelligent way. The Collegium's letter to the candidates provides an opportunity for both candidates to take that step. Read it below.
To The Candidates of the 2004 United States Presidential Elction: President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry.
On November 2, one of you will be elected the next President of the United States. Because your great country is powerful far beyond its borders, billions of women and men who cannot vote will be profoundly affected by the choice made by the United States electorate.
We, the members of the International Ethical Collegium, write to you as citizens of the world who are in effect your constituents, but who have no vote. We ask that you consider your responsibility not just to the United States and its citizens but also to the world in this new era of interdependence, when sovereignty still circumscribes elections but can no longer circumscribe the consequences of elections.
Interdependence is evident in our world, from global warming to global markets, global crime, and global technology. However, more than anything else, terrorism has unveiled this fateful interdependence that defines our twenty-first century world. The atrocious attacks of September 11, 2001, like those that followed in Casablanca, Bali, Madrid and elsewhere, elicited the condemnation and sympathy of the entire world, even as they showed that no nation can any longer be secure or sovereign by itself.
We believe that the realities of interdependence require that the promise of its benefits be realized in affirmative ways through an architecture of interdependence that assures full equality in the distribution of economic, social and human resources. This condition requires the United States to recognize four crucial principles and needs, that define the central concerns of the Collegium:
** the need to establish democracy at a global level, where it can regulate and offer popular sovereignty over global anarchic forces that have escaped the sovereignty of individual nations, and at the same time secure diversity and equality among diverse democratic cultures and civilizations;
** the need to define the public goods of our common world, and to protect them as common heritage--including such crucial goods as access to knowledge and information and communication technologies, as well as to such non-renewable resources as drinking water and fossil fuels;
** the need to establish and formulate common interdependent values that can act as a bulwark against relativism and cynicism, even as they invite intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue and democratic deliberation;
** the need to define economic, social and cultural rights as intrinsic to and inseparable from political rights, extending across cultures and generations.
We believe that these needs represent the fundamental concerns of the world's voiceless citizens who will have to live with the consequences of United States leadership. At the same time, we recognize that, as leaders of your great nation, you are agents of hope, capable of using the power given to you by the American people to the advantage of all humankind. We also know that since the United States can no longer find peace or justice without engaging cooperatively and multilaterally with the world and itsinternational institutions, the world can have neither justice nor peace without the involvement of the United States.
In this spirit, although you have a legal obligation only to your countryís citizens, we would ask you to read this letter and offer the world's citizens--your other invisible constituents--a considered response. You can be sure it will be met with a gratitude that recognizes that you have moved beyond the responsibilities of politics to embrace the responsibilities of ethical leadership and in doing so, have affirmed both the reality and the promise of interdependence.
Endorsed on behalf of the International Collegium members by:
Milan KUCAN , former President of Slovenia andMichel ROCARD, former Prime Minister of France,Co-chairs of the International Collegium
Andreas VAN AGT, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands;Henri ATLAN, Bio-physicist and Philosopher, France;Lloyd AXWORTHY, President of University of Winnipeg, former Foreign Minister of Canada; Fernando Henrique CARDOSO, former President of Brazil; Manuel CASTELLS, Sociologist, Spain;Mireille DELMAS-MARTY, Professor of law, Sorbonne and College de France; Ruth DREIFUSS, former President of the Swiss Confederation; Gareth EVANS, President of the ICG, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia; Malcolm FRASER, Chairman of the InterAction Council, former Prime Minister, Australia; Bronislaw GEREMEK, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Poland;Bacharuddin Jusuf HABIBIE, former President of Indonesia; H.R.H. HASSAN BIN TALLAL, Jordan; Vaclav HAVEL, former President of the Czech Republic; Stephane HESSEL, Ambassador of France; Alpha Oumar KONARE, former President of Mali; Claudio MAGRIS, Author, Italy;Edgar MORIN, Philosopher, France; Sadako OGATA, President of Japan International Cooperation Agency(JICA), former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Japan; Jacques ROBIN, Philosopher, Founder of Transversales, France; Mary ROBINSON, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Ireland;Wolfgang SACHS, Economist, Germany; Mohamed SAHNOUN, Ambassador of Algeria; George VASSILIOU, former President of the Republic of Cyprus; Richard VON WEIZSACKER, former President of the Federal Republic of Germany; Huanming YANG, Director and Professor, Beijing Genomics Institute, China.
If there was ever any doubt that Ralph Nader's former supporters understand that redefeating Bush is the top priority for progressives in this election, it ended this morning when the overwhelming majority of Nader's 2000 National Citizens Committee issued a strong statement urging support for John Kerry and John Edwards in all swing states. (Click here to read the statement.)
Among the more than 75 signers are Phil Donahue, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich (who used one of her New York Times column to come out against Nader), Jim Hightower, Howard Zinn, Tim Robbins, Eddie Vedder, Susan Sarandon, Ben Cohen and Cornel West.
This urgent call comes at a time when it appears that the Nader campaign has qualified for the ballot in some 23 states, a minimum of 10 of which are considered swing states. Nader will probably also qualify for several other swing state ballots by the time of the election. In a race which remains both close and highly polarized, any one of these states could end up as the new "Florida," and tip the electoral college vote to Bush.
While the 75-plus signers include a spectrum of views, all are united around a single proposition: Ending the national nightmare of Bush. As Noam Chomsky describes the stark choice: "Help elect Bush, or do something to try to prevent it."
A number of signers also stress the importance of working to (re)defeat Bush on behalf of the world community. "We are not just voting for ourselves," says political strategist Steve Cobble. "The entire world wishes they could vote in our presidential election--so they could vote against George W. Bush, pre-emption, bullying and unilateralism."
"As long as everyone is talking about what did or did not happen 35 years ago in Vietnam," writes Matt Miller, columnist and fellow at the Center for American Progress, "they're not talking about the candidates' rival visions for the future, or domestic policy differences between the parties that are huge."
Of course, the Bush campaign's scurrilous lies about Kerry's record as a war hero must be challenged forcefully. But what ever happened to the important debate about the costs of war in Iraq--we've just passed the grim milestone of 1000 US deaths-- particularly at a time in which poverty is rapidly growing?
In February 1968, when poverty and another war weighed heavily on people's minds, Robert F. Kennedy, as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on employment, manpower and poverty, held two field hearings in Eastern Kentucky to explore the causes of Appalachian poverty and gauge the success of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty programs.
This week, John Malpede, a performance artist from Los Angeles, is staging RFK in EKY, a re-enactment of Kennedy's visit to Eastern Kentucky. "Reality has been accommodating to us," Malpede observed in a recent interview in the New York Times, where he discussed his hope that history could refocus our political debate on poverty and the costs of war at home.
Under President Bush, the rich have gotten richer, the middle-class has shrunk, and the ranks of the poor have expanded. In 2003, according to the Census Bureau's latest statistics, America's poverty rate jumped from 12.1 percent to 12.5 percent. Currently, some 36 million Americans live in poverty, while the country endures the worst child-poverty rate of any industrialized nation. Some 45 million Americans went without health insurance in 2003.
In sharp contrast, under the Bush Administration, to cite one figure, the top 50 outsourcing companies paid their CEOs, on average, $10.4 million in 2003--a nearly 50 percent increase over a year earlier. The gap between the relative prospects of rich and poor in the age of Bush is driven home by Executive Excess, a new report released by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, which documents that, "If the minimum wage had increased as quickly as CEO pay since 1990, it would today be $15.76 per hour, rather than the current $5.15 per hour." (Click here to view the report.)
Remembering RFK's visit to Kentucky is a useful way to reframe the 2004 political debate and articulate a vision of what is possible in this country. As Malpede says of his play: "The idea is to revisit a moment in history that was significant to the community and see how it resonates now."
Although the Right has worked assiduously to discredit the War on Poverty, the effort was, in fact, successful. Between 1964 and 1973, the poverty rate declined from 19 percent to 11.1 percent due to programs such as Head Start, Medicare and food stamps. And we've made some strides since 1973. In an interview, Georgetown law professor and anti-poverty activist Peter Edelman pointed out that America has adopted the State Children's Health Insurance Program; expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, increased the number of housing vouchers, created Pell Grants for higher education, and the living wage campaign is successful in over 100 cities and counties from coast to coast.
Under Bush however, "the labor market has failed," Edelman says. The jobs being created aren't good jobs, and we need to "keep chipping away" at poverty. "We're in a particularly bad period now" with Republicans controlling the entire federal government, but at the same time, Edelman believes "the moral support in the country for doing something about[poverty]" is substantial.
Edelman was an aide to Kennedy in 1968, and he has stayed true to Kennedy's fusion of pragmatism and idealism. Kennedy was moved in Appalachia by the unmet needs of the community's inadequate schools, its environmental degradation, and the working families he spoke to who had trouble feeding their children.
"Family after family still survives on beans and potatoes or rice, cornbread and fat back," Kennedy said during his visit. "In many of the counties of Eastern Kentucky, more than half of the adult men, sometimes over three quarters, have no work." Kennedy was not only bringing attention to poverty--but also to how people in Appalachia were cut out of access to education, and decent jobs, and lived without health care. While conditions in Appalachia have improved in recent decades, there are still "two Americas" in this country.
Edelman, who will be a participant in Malpede's RFK in EKY, says the play "reminds us, as Robert Kennedy was fond of saying, that one person can make a difference, and that people working together in larger numbers can make a huge difference. This is an especially crucial time to be communicating those kinds of reminders."
In 1997, former Senator Paul Wellstone re-traced RFK's steps in Appalachia and other poverty-stricken regions. Some journalists ridiculed his efforts. But Wellstone's crusading spirit underscores the kind of courage, focus and real compassion that defined Kennedy's commitment to calling attention to poverty in all its guises.
In the weeks ahead, it is likely that the vicious attacks against Kerry and the distorted views about another war held by men who have never accepted Former Defense Secretary's Robert McNamara's assertion that we were "terribly wrong" about Vietnam, will remain central to the political debate. But at a time of gutter-ball politics, we should refocus the debate on the real issues in 2004: waging war against poverty and finding a wayout of the war in Iraq which is costing this country so much in lives and resources.
The bloody end to the hostage crisis in Russia leaves unfathomable human suffering. More than three hundred children, parents and teachers died in the grusome 52-hour siege that began when heavily armed Chechens--and possibly other guerrillas--stormed Beslan's Middle School #1.
The unconscionable slaughter of the innocents came just days after a female suicide bomber--most likely one of the "black widows," women who have lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Chechen war--blew herself up at a central Moscow subway station, killing nine bystanders and wounding scores of people. And this after two airliners crashed on August 24th--apparently blown up by terrorists.
These latest acts expose the bankruptcy of Vladimir Putin's policy toward Chechnya. After three years of peace, negotiated by Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin with the Chechen secessionists in 1996, Putin came to power by championing a renewed military offensive in the already war-torn region. A series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities that year were blamed on Chechen insurgents, and created mass popular support for the dispatching of tens of thousands of troops to the region. (A new Russian documentary, Disbelief, which was shown for the first and, so far, only time last week in Moscow, explores allegations that the Russian security forces set off the bombings as a pretext to secure Putin's electoral victory and create support for re-launching the war.) Early success in the war turned Putin, then Prime Minister, into a national hero and he easily won election as Yeltsin's handpicked successor.
From the beginning, Putin built his career and image on a promise to bring stability, order and security to the Russian people. Instead, the Russian President's brutal military policies--and his unyielding refusal to negotiate a political resolution with the Chechen government in exile, led by the last freely elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov--have spurred the wave of terrorism that now afflicts Russia.
During the past two years alone, more than 1,000 Russians have been killed in a series of increasingly lethal terrorist attacks inside Russia, including those in a Moscow theater in October, 2002.
Meanwhile, since the first war began in 1994, more than one hundred thousand Chechens, many also civilians, have been killed since 1994. A generation of young Chechens has grown up knowing nothing but war, brutality and the killing of family members. The once vibrant capital city of Grozny has been bombed into rubble. A decade of fighting has decimated the country's labor force, devastated its agricultural base, destroyed its infrastructure and left many people with deplorable living standards.
Russian troops have used harsh occupation tactics, destroying villages, rounding up and "disappearing" young men. Rape, according to human rights reports, is a routine feature of this merciless war. The decades-long conflict has strengthened the hand of the most murderous and extremist elements among the Chechen insurgency--such as those led by Shamil Basayev, who allegedly planned the school siege. It has also fueled even greater excesses of dehumanizing violence.
As one of the surviving hostages in Beslan told a Russian newspaper: "The terrorists say they are Chechens. They say they're demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. They also told us that their own children have been killed by Russians and they have nothing to lose. I asked one of them how they could put the lives of our children in danger like this. He answered that no one asked his opinion about anything when his children were being killed."
In the wake of Beslan's bloody siege, Putin has vowed an all-out war against terror in Russia. In a nationwide televised address last Saturday, he signaled that he is even more determined to link Russia's war against Chechen separatists to the global war against terror. "Terrorism is not an internal matter," Putin told his country, attributing the siege and other attacks to "the direct intervention of international terror against Russia." But this is Putin's war--not a global war. And though he carefully avoided using the word "Chechnya" in his address, Putin is fully aware that the political and historical roots to Russia's crisis are to be found in that grinding conflict.
While editorials in papers like the Wall Street Journal and terrorism "experts" like Steven Emerson work to conflate Russia's crisis with the battle against Al Qaeda, Moscow's leading liberal (Westernized) opposition politicians are criticizing Putin for blaming the Beslan siege on international terrorism. Even the Bush Administration broke ranks with Putin on Tuesday--stating that only a political settlement could end the crisis. When asked what he thought of Western calls for negotiations with Chechen rebels, Putin replied angrily, "Why don't you meet Osama Bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage him in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?"
Challenging Putin's assertions, Irina Khakamada, who ran against the ex-general in the March presidential election, said: "One can see the desire to explain all problems by international terrorism...it is a desire to evade responsibility for what is going on." Several leading Russian analysts also argued that the government was exaggerating the Arab connection in order to obscure the nationalist impulses of the Chechen insurgency. (The federal security forces quickly claimed that 10 "Arabs" were among the hostage-takers, but a Kremlin spokesman now says that, despite earlier assertions, no Arabs have yet been found among the terrorists.) While it does appear that Muslim fighters have joined the Chechen forces--as the conflict has broadened and festered over these last years, the essential driving force behind the resistance remains nationalist struggle.)
Without a political resolution, it is only a question of how many more civilians will die in a spiraling cycle of resistance and terror. Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading opposition politician and head of Russia's Yabloko party, has long argued that the first requirement for ending this mestasizing conflict is much broader political dialogue. "If you want a political process, you have to speak to your enemies. You should talk to anyone except those who are real criminals. Anything is better than what we have now."
One hopeful sign that there is an understanding of the need for political dialogue came with news that just hours before the end of the school siege last Friday, regional government mediators reached out through back channels to Chechen separatist leaders--notably former Chechen President Maskhadov, for help in resolving the crisis. ("I assured them that President Maskhadov was as distraught as they were," his chief representative Akhmed Zakayev said before the end came. "He is ready without any conditions to make all efforts to save these children and resolve this crisis.")
Yesterday, Maskhadov issued a statement disassociating himself from the torture and killing of the Beslan children. "There cannot be any justification for people who raise their hand against what is most sacred to us--the life of defenseless children."
And in the wake of the Beslan assault, regional officials--apparently desperate to avert a widening war in the Northern Caucasus, which Putin warned of in his address to the nation--announced they would seek to talk to the political wing of the Chechen separatist movement. (The Kremlin, seeking to distance itself from these efforts, insisted that such talks were purely a local matter.)
For the first time in many years, voices can be heard in Russia calling for a political solution as the only way out. There are also calls for an independent investigation into the handling of the hostage crisis and demands that the Putin government resign because of the "negligence that resulted in numerous civilian victims." Even the Motherland Party--formed with Kremlin backing--issued a statement demanding that the government resign. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Communist Party blasted the Administration's failed policies for the hostage taking. (Putin has rejected calls for an independent inquiry.)
Putin can no longer rule as he has--as a leader whose popularity was based on promises to bring order and security to his people. The trust he enjoyed has been seriously eroded.
In the short-term, however, the Russian President may well succeed in deflecting responsibility onto the corruption of the security forces, distancing himself from the misinformation put out during the crisis, and assigning blame to the Yeltsin legacy. (A survey taken this week showed that most Russians blame corrupt special forces for failing to prevent rising terrorism but few hold Putin directly responsible.)
The President's authoritarian instincts suggest he will try to counter any opposition through exploiting his peoples' fears of terrorism, strengthening the power of the security apparatus, cracking down on what remains of a free press, and implementing policies and methods that risk inflaming the Caucausus still further. (One sign of an imminent crackdown on the press came on Monday when the editor of Izvestia resigned under pressure after the paper criticized the authorities' handling of the terror attacks.)
Putin has already essentially wiped out any serious opposition and created a submissive Parliament--a body which was afraid to convene an emergency meeting in the hours after the siege. As political analyst Dimitri Furman out it, "We have created a system in which we reproduced the basic principles of the Soviet system--an unchallengeable government carrying out an unchallengeable policy."
Or, as another astute Russian analyst, Liliya Shvetsova, says in assessing the consequences of Putin's consolidation of power: "We have no other leaders. We have no other alternatives. We are at a dead end." And referring to her own country's political crisis, Shvetsova sounded a lament that will be all too familiar to many Americans these days: "Unfortunately, there is no tradition of accountability for lies and failures."
It may be that, as Shvetsova argues, "new leaders are needed on both sides to initiate a search for common interests and for a path to peaceful dialogue." But if Putin refuses to change course and seek open negotiations with credible and moderate Chechen leaders, Russia's future is grim: More acts of terror, possibly against one of the country's scores of nuclear reactors, a widening civil war throughout the Caucusus, more civilian deaths, the empowerment of extremists on both sides, an even tougher crackdown on the media and the growing power of hardline security forces.
The Fox News Channel ran a splashy full-page ad in our recent GOP Convention issue. In fact, Fox has bought several ads in The Nation in the last year, including our back page, leading some fifty readers to cancel their subscriptions in protest of the magazine taking what they considered tainted money.
But we stand by our advertising policy--one which starts "with the presumption that we will accept advertising even if the views expressed are repugnant to those of the editors.... Blatantly misleading ads, or ads purveying harmful products will fall into a gray area of discretion, but as a general principle, we assume our readers will have sufficient knowledge to judge for themselves the merits of commonly known products (such as cigarettes)." (For more on our ad policy, click here.)
In contrast, Fox News seems to believe its viewers must be protected from news free of White House spin and corporate agendas. More the cowardly lion than the faux-fierce Fox, the cable news network has just rejected a sixty-second TV ad that The Nation was planning to air during the Republican National Convention.
"Nobody owns The Nation. Not Time Warner, not Murdoch," the commercial says. "So there's no corporate slant, no White House spin. Just the straight dope." FOX rejected the ad "out of hand," according to the magazine's senior vice president for circulation Art Stupar, after our ad agency sent the commercial to the network. "I find it ironic." Stupar told the New York Times, which wrote about FOX's censorship. "They are the GOP cable station, a champion of free markets, and they got spooked at the thought of running an ad that doesn't publish spin or serve the agenda of corporate conglomerates." Could mention of Mr. Murdoch have been a problem? A man who takes money from some of the worst regimes in the world can't take a few bucks from The Nation?
Cowardly FOX may be running scared, but the ad appeared on Time Warner's CNN, as well as NBC Universal's MSNBC and Bravo, during RNC week. You can also click here to watch the spot online, and thanks to the readers and others who contributed money to allow us to air it.
And now for some good news this Labor Day. Not about a sudden turnaround in jobs, wages, health insurance, family incomes, poverty, or inequality, all of which continue their dismal course. Nor about the Bush Administration actually doing something to improve the fortunes of working families. No girlie men they.
In fact the good news isn't about the economy per se at all. It's about our growing ability as progressives to say something consistent and intelligent about economic developments, from multiple respected sources around the country--not just a few TV studios in Washington or New York--simultaneously. The Right has long had such an "echo chamber" on policy analysis and recommendations. (You know how it works: Some argument or made-up-fact surfaces in one place, and is suddenly heard nationwide.) We progressives have been slower to get such coordination on our message, which tends to be more truthful and less heard. But we're getting closer.
One good example is the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), which links local, state, and national groups that conduct and disseminate research on a range of economic issues, including wages and benefits, incomes, jobs, unemployment, workforce and economic development, minimum and living wages, Social Security, and other issues related to working class living standards. Started a few years ago--at the initiative of Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers, a professor at UW-Madison and director of its Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), and Larry Mishel, now president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), EARN now has 44 such groups, from 34 states, networked together.
In the next few days, in coordination with EPI's Labor Day release of its biannual State of Working America, most of the EARN groups will be releasing "State of Working [name the state]" reviews of conditions in their state. So instead of one organization we'll speak as 24, and instead of a few spokespeople we'll have closer to 100--all working off the same basic national facts and conclusions, and each able to relate those in detail to their own state. And what it's doing this week with its state reports, EARN, currently under the direction of Michael Ettlinger (known to many for his years of work at Citizens for Tax Justice), has done with a number of other simultaneous, multi-state releases.
Along with the national report from EPI and the Wisconsin report from COWS, look for upcoming releases from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, California Budget Project (www.cbp.org), Center for Governmental Studies with the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (IL) (www.ctbaonline.org), Center for Labor Research and Studies (FL) (www.fiu.edu/~clrs), Center for Public Policy Priorities (TX) (www.cppp.org/), Children's Action Alliance (AZ) (www.azchildren.org/caa/welcome.asp), Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute (www.cclponline.org/), Connecticut Voices for Children (www.ctkidslink.org/), Fiscal Policy Institute (NY) (www.fiscalpolicy.org/), Indiana Institute for Working Families (www.ichhi.org/), Institute for Labor Studies and Research (WV), Iowa Policy Project (www.iowapolicyproject.org/), Keystone Research Center (PA), Maine Center for Economic Policy, Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Minnesota Budget Project and Jobs Now Coalition, New Jersey Policy Perspective, New Mexico Voices for Children, North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, Oregon Center for Public Policy, Policy Matters Ohio, and Utah Issues Center for Poverty Research and Action.
So, on this Labor Day let's celebrate this new "echo chamber" and work to get the message out!