Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Putin's War

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.

FOX Rejects The Nation

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.

Getting the Word Out

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!

Zig Zag Zell Wigs Out

Former Congressman Ben Jones had it right when he said last month, "I think that the devil has got into Zell Miller, and he needs an exorcist." Zell "Zig Zag" Miller's vicious keynote speech Wednesday night was so over the top and below the belt that it left even some of the coolest members of the so-called liberal punditocracy stunned.

"I've never heard such a speech...so wildly inaccurate, filled with wild distortions by the basketful...just over the top angry," Time magazine's Joe Klein told CNN's Aaron Brown. The usually cool and crisp CNN analyst Bill Schneider seemed visibly shaken, even somewhat disheveled, as he described Miller's speech "as angrier that Buchanan's in '92." Chris Matthews seemed shocked after Miller exploded on his show and threatened him in an out-of-control screed. Jeff Greenfield almost pulsed with rage after listening to Miller's scurrilous and slanderous attacks on Kerry's character and credentials.

In a post-speech interview, Greenfield (and Judy Woodruff) pushed Miller to defend his serial distortions about Kerry's Senate votes on defense appropriations. But there was no time to ascertain the truth--as is almost always the case on cable TV. At the close of his show, Aaron Brown asked Klein--in his signature, 'aw shucks manner--"We all want our politics at a higher plane. Was the line crossed tonight? " Klein shook his head, looked disgusted, and admitted he didn't know how this latest round of Bush's scummy politics of personal destruction by proxy would play in the country (and in those all important swing states.)

Here's a modest proposal. How about giving over ten minutes on all cable shows, beginning tonight, to a "just the facts" segment. No shouting heads, no blustering anchors. Just bring on a representative from one of the non-partisan "truth squad" election monitoring groups like the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.Org to ascertain the truth of the speeches and charges of the day. We have 60 days left until the election. Why not try to lift our politics out of the gutter which Bush's character assassins have thrown us into?


Cut Bush's Time in Half

At a Labor Day Rally yesterday--rescheduled by New York's unions to take advantage of all the Republicans in their city--the President of New York City's Central Labor Council Brian McLaughlin got it right when, referring to the Bush Administration's gutting of overtime protection, he said: "If George Bush can cut our time-and-a-half, then we should cut his time in half."

Zig Zag Zell

Zell Miller has hypocrite stamped all over his forehead. It's hard to imagine anyone more Janus-faced than the Democratic Senator from Georgia. In 1992, Miller nominated Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention. At a 2001 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Georgia, Miller described John Kerry as "a good friend,""one of this nation's authentic heroes," and "one of this party's…greatest leaders."

But Miller's a cheap date. Earlier this year, the aptly dubbed "Zig Zag Zell" published A National Party No More, a book blandishing blurbs from Sean Hannity, Robert Novak and Newt Gingrich, which characterizes the Democratic Party as a fringe organization. Employing one-liners in place of logic, Miller wrote, "If this is a national party, sushi is our national dish. If this is a national party, surfing has become our national pastime." The Washington Monthlycalled it "a rather dreadful [book]"; a "toxic combination of corny folkisms" and "over-the-top jeremiads against fellow Democrats."

Miller's ideology is simplistic, and hubristic. He recently argued in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the struggle for the modern Democratic Party has been won by "Hollywood sleazemaker" Michael Moore and other assorted "Bush-bashers." Miller complained that America Coming Together was hiring ex-felons to help with its get-out-the-vote campaign, and that Democrats were joining forces with criminals everywhere. In Miller's opinion, radicals dominate party ranks, and moderates have zero influence. (He apparently doesn't know that in his own backyard, Inez Tenenbaum--the Democratic candidate for South Carolina's Senate seat-- is touting family values and supports the amendment banning gay marriage.)

When Miller delivers the keynote at the Republican convention Wednesday, he will bash his "good friend" Kerry and highlight his organization, Democrats for Bush. "Before it's all over, I think you're going to see a very impressive group of Democrats from around the nation supporting the Bush-Cheney team," Miller declared at a kick-off press conference in March. It's in large part a sham organization. According to the group's web site, the only other truly prominent Democrat in the group is former New York Mayor Ed Koch. The "Democrats for Bush" Steering Committee includes the not exactly household names Paul Berube (a pastor in New Hampshire), and Robert Allen Blankenship, (a retired sheriff in Arkansas.)

While the press lavishes attention on Miller, a more important story is being ignored; the Republicans who are deserting Bush in droves. US servicemen and women, senior diplomats, libertarians and social moderates are attacking Bush's foreign and domestic agendas.

*Numerous Republicans who served in high diplomatic and military positions under Reagan and Bush's father, for example, have formed Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change. As William Harrop, Ambassador to Israel under Bush's father, put it: I really am essentially a Republican. I voted for George Bush's father and I voted for George Bush. But what we got was not the George Bush we voted for." In the official statement, the group argues that the Bush Administration has weakened our security, and that it is time for a change."

* Nebraska Republican Congressman Doug Bereuter. Vice chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, this Midwestern conservative just two weeks ago told constituents that Bush's invasion of Iraq was "a mistake." (Click here to read John Nichols' online article about Bereuter's letter.)

*Conservative commentators like Pat Buchanan have argued that, "if prudence is the mark of a conservative, Mr. Bush has ceased to be a conservative."

*Bush's lying about Iraq, argues Ron Reagan, in this month's Esquire, has alienated Reagan Republicans along with many moderates who served under Bush's father. (Bush is still waiting for the Log Cabin Republicans to endorse his campaign and the GOP's anti-gay rights, anti-abortion agenda.)

*The Republican animosity towards Bush is also powerfully expressed in MoveOn.org's Real People ads highlighting ordinary Republicans who are voting for Kerry. (Click here to see the series.)

Like theDemocrats for Bush organization he leads, Miller is more a sideshow than a force to be reckoned with. (Or as Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman, challenging Miller to a debate, summed it up: " I think that the devil has got into Zell Miller, and he needs a exorcist." He has convinced few important Democrats, if any, to join his quixotic crusade. Miller will be feted at this week's convention, but the GOP will be pinning their hopes on an empty vessel.

The Rubble

As speaker after speaker Monday night invoked the iconic image of President Bush standing amidst the rubble of Ground Zero in the days after 9/11, I had a different image--of the rubble we all stand atop today.Yes, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans experienced a quickening of the national spirit.

As The Nation wrote about those days, "The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of 'infectious greed' generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face of real danger and collective greed. These developments contained a hopeful thread of reconstructing our frayed democracy."

But three years later, our frayed democracy is under siege and we live amidst the rubble created not by terrorists but by an Administration that has pursued a faith-based, messianic and militarist foreign policy. It is rubble created by a White House that has violated the most essential trust in a democracy, killing close to a thousand Americans in a reckless and unnecessary war based on manipulated intelligence and the persistent exploitation of fear.

It is rubble in which lies about the links between the war on terror and the war on Iraq--masterfully exploited by Bush's surrogate character witnesses (or, more accurately, attack dogs) John McCain and Rudy Giuliani on Monday night--have grown roots. And it is rubble strewn with the lives of the millions of Americans who have lost jobs, who lack health insurance and who live in poverty.

And now we live under the rubble and garbage of a campaign of character assassination fomented and financed by Bush surrogates. For those GOP speakers this week who remind us of those days of unity and shared sacrifice amidst the rubble of 9/11, remind them of the rubble created by a President who has ruled through division and fear.

RNC Has Extreme Makeover

Remember the incessant media punditry during the Democratic National Convention--particularly pervasive on Fox and CNN--which echoed GOP claims that what viewers were seeing wasn't the true face of the party? (As Paul Krugman put it in response: "Apparently all those admirals, generals and decorated veterans were ringers.")

Well, it's going to be a lot easier to make the case that the GOP has had an extreme makeover when the party sends out its array of sort-of-moderate, pro-choice speakers while keeping neanderthals like Tom DeLay, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback under wraps. But maybe it's only fair that GOP moderates dominate the prime slots at the convention. After all, if Bush is elected in November they will not be seen or heard from again for four more years.

Bush's Flip-Flop

Now that the damage has been done to Kerry's campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans, Bush is trying to play the good guy. After the demonstrably false charges against Kerry has made news for weeks--abetted by cable news shows which have effectively provided free campaign advertising for his attackers--Bush now wants to drop the debate over their respective wartime service. See the story buried on page A23 in the August 28 Los Angeles Times. (Unfortunately the paper's website makes it impossible to link to its articles.)

Bush's flip-flop came shortly after a video resurfaced on the Internet showing former Speaker of the Texas House Ben Barnes describing--and apologizing for--the sleazy way in which he personally pulled strings to get Bush into the National Guard.

On the video, Barnes states: "My name's Ben Barnes. I was Speaker of the Texas House when George W. Bush went into the National Guard. He got preferential treatment. I know. I gave it to him. His family sent a representative to my office and asked me to move their son up on the waiting list. And I did. It was wrong. He was jumped over hundreds of others in line. Some of them went off to Vietnam and died. I made a mistake supporting that war. And as other, less-privileged kids were going off to be killed, I helped the son of a congressman avoid combat. I wish I had not. But I think it's time people know. And it's time for George W. Bush to stop attacking the people who did serve."

I don't think the debate about Bush's service should be dropped. Why? Because this posturing flip-flopper of a President continues to needlessly send American troops to their deaths while campaigning as a resolute war president. Just watch the convention script this week.

We also still need answers to the unresolved questions surrounding Bush's stint in the Texas National Guard from 1968 to 1973. Specifically, what explains the gap in Bush's Guard service between April 1972 and September 1973, a 17-month period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay was issued though Bush was allegedly on duty in Alabama.

The White House has released hundreds of documents--after Bush said in a TV interview in February that he would make all his military records available. But the files released so far haven't answered those questions, and some documents have yet to be made public. And since February, the White House spin-machine has banned all Guard and military commanders outside the Pentagon from commenting on Bush's military record. At least a half-dozen news organizations have filed requests for Bush's files under the Freedom of Information Act, but judging from this White House's systematic clampdown on information--including blocking the scheduled release of presidential papers from Bush I's period--it seems unlikely that the relevant documents will see the light of day--at least until after the election.

Oil and the Bush 'Fear Factor'

Last week, the price of oil futures reached $49.40 a barrel--the highest in 21 years of trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil prices are already up 50 percent this year, and some experts--notably energy consultant Daniel Yergin--believe there's a good chance that oil could reach a steady level of $50 a barrel in the next two months.

The surge in prices has several causes, including political instability in Venezuela and Russia, turmoil in Nigeria, global market speculation and increased Chinese demand. But, in the short term, it is the "fear factor"--the insecurity and instability created by the Bush Administration's Middle East policies, notably the invasion of Iraq--that has raised costs between $8 and $15 a barrel.

It is increasingly clear that the high cost of the war can be seen not just in the number of deaths, and the ballooning federal budget deficits but also in the record oil and gas prices. In a speech in Smithville, Missouri earlier this month, John Kerry squarely blamed the Bush team's wars and failed policies for oil prices hitting new highs.

If prices stay at these levels for three to six months, some economists believe the risk of recession grows dramatically. (And at $50 a barrel, oil would be about 70 percent above the average price of $29 a barrel that has prevailed since 2000.) In that case, the oil shock of 2004 may well affect the outcome of both the US election and the global economic recovery.

While it's hard to find a silver lining--what with a slowing economy, lost jobs and hard hit consumers--the situation may act as a brake on a possible US (or Israeli) preemptive strike against Iran. Such an "October Surprise" would be designed to display Bush's toughness in dealing with prospective nuclear threats, while diverting attention from the debacle in Iraq. But most nonproliferation and energy experts argue that a strike would be counterproductive, further destabilizing the region. And though chaos may be what Ariel Sharon wants, as well as the diehard neocons (what with Iraq such a disaster), cooler heads in the Administration worry about a strike increasing oil prices to $60 a barrel--perhaps the one thing that could ensure Bush's defeat in November.

High oil prices also act as a wake-up call--reminding us that oil is a finite resource and that we are fast approaching the point of peak production, after which global output will fall. It is a moment to launch what Kerry and leading progressive and environmental groups are calling for an "http://www.apolloalliance.org/ Apollo Project" to invest in energy independence. http://www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20040830&s=hertsgaard">This call is good politics and good policy. In a recent poll, 86 percent of Americans placed a priority on reducing dependence on Middle East oil, with 63 percent believing that investment in a combination of renewable power, efficient technology and conservation is the answer to improving security.

But change will not come while there's another "fear factor" on our increasingly polluted horizon--a president who sits idly by while oil shock threatens our future. "If oil prices were Olympic events, George Bush would win medals," Senator Chuck Schumer said last week. He's fiddling while Rome is burning." Bush has compiled the worst environmental record in modern times, while allowing our laws, regulations and policies to be crafted and corrupted by oil and gas lobbyists, polluters and indicted CEOs.

Let's rid ourselves of the Bush "fear factor"--and then fight hard to craft a sane energy policy. It's one of the most urgent challenges facing this country and the world.

The Bush Air War

As is appropriate and necessary, there's currently much attention being focused on the patently false GOP-supported swift boat ad. But, there's more to the nasty air wars raging across a handful of battleground states this political season. Spending on political commercials has gone through the roof, distortion reigns supreme and Bush has made negativity the norm.

Last month, the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin reported that the campaigns are ignoring 60 percent of Americans who don't live in the swing states. Out of 210 media markets nationwide, only 93 of them are airing any political commercials. But in Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida the airwaves are thick with ads, and voters are under heavy bombardment in 14 or 15 additional states.

According to Ken Goldstein, director of the Advertising Project, the campaigns are fixed laser-like on "maybe two, two and a half percent of the voters" who "are actually persuadable in this race." But in the uncontested blue or red states (California, Texas, New York) where the outcome isn't in doubt, a kind of political famine has deprived voters of a firsthand look at this year's (nasty) give-and-take.

Bush is waging perhaps the most negative--and expensive--television assault on a challenger in modern times. Through mid-July, Bush had already spent $84 million on television advertising--most of it negative. His campaign, according to the Washington Post, is defined by "unprecedented negativity." Seventy-five percent of his ads, or almost 50,000 commercials through May 31st were devoted to attacking John Kerry. (Kerry, by contrast, went negative in only 27 percent of his ads during the same period.) In 30-second bombshells saturating the airwaves in swing states, Bush routinely misleads voters by charging that Kerry supported repealing wiretaps on terrorists; proposed a $900 billion tax hike on the middle-class; advocated a fifty-cent gas tax increase; opposed weapons systems that would have helped America fight terrorists, and failed to attend crucial Senate Intelligence Committee hearings.

The drumbeat of distortions is so nasty that even the watchdogs get tired of cleaning up so many White House smears. In April, FactCheck.org, which is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said wearily of Bush's ad attacking Kerry's voting record on military hardware: "We've de-bunked these half-truths before but the Bush campaign persists."

Bush's surrogates--or as Maureen Dowd calls them, "Third-Party political assassins"--have also been busy boys. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, well-funded by big GOP donors, is running an ad charging that one of Kerry's Bronze Stars for bravery and two of his three purple hearts were the result of Kerry fabricating events. Sen. John McCain urged Bush to denounce the smear. But Bush and his cronies have refused to condemn the patently false ad. (On Friday, the Swift Boat attackers announced that they were unrolling another anti-Kerry TV ad--this one sliming his antiwar activity.)

Meanwhile, Kerry's campaign is finally responding. Last week, it filed a complaint against the group with the federal elections commission. But by the time the complaint was filed, more than half the country has already heard about or seen the Swift Boat ad, according to the Annenberg Center (Click here to read David Corn'sNation weblog for more on this deceitful ad.)

What's clear is that this incumbent, wartime president and his strategists will use dirty tricks and character assassination to win. "This is the bitterest, most unsavory campaign in the nation's history," McCain said this week. "And it's only going to get worse."

The latest poll numbers have only fueled Bush's desperation. In key battleground states, most polls suggest the President is hurting. (USA Today's latest numbers show Kerry with a 10 percentage point advantage in the key swing state of Ohio. ) The White House has decided that the way to stop the bleeding is to attack Kerry as a flip-flopper and a liberal. (And to use surrogates to do some of their dirty work.) That means jettisoning the campaign's pledge to use August to roll out a second-term agenda. (Remember Karl Rove telling the New York Times, "We need, as we go into the convention, to put more of an emphasis on our agenda. This gives us a chance to tell people what he wants to do over the next four years.") Instead, Rove & Co have gone negative, big-time--revealing Bush as the real flip-flopper in this campaign.

The current campaign system is broken in many ways. When it comes to the air war, these negative ads do little but bestow big benefits on large media companies, advertising agencies and political consultants. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group which tracks political advertising, candidates in 2002 at the federal, state and local levels spent a combined one billion dollars on political commercials (a four-fold increase from 1982). And the result? The public discourse was debased (remember Saxby Chambliss, who ran the ads that featured consecutive photos of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Democrat Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam?), and media operatives and companies made out like bandits.

To try to address this spiraling madness, Senators McCain, Feingold and Durbin are introducing the " Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act." The bill is a modest reform. It recognizes that the airwaves are a public trust; it will cut the cost of political communication, will open up new room for fresh ideas, and even perhaps elevate the level of discourse. Let's take a sensible step to fix a system that, as our president has shown in dramatic and mean-spirited ways, is completely dysfunctional.

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