Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Thursday's Wall Street Journal reports that "the American left is seeing signs of political revival" as Bush's economic and foreign policies alienate growing numbers of Americans. More people are identifying themselves as "liberals" while fewer are willing to call themselves "conservatives," a term many believe has lost meaning since the fiscal excesses and extremist policies of the Bush Administration have replaced traditional conservatism.
The Journal story reports that this shift in America's political identity is also reflected in the country's reading habits. As John Harwood writes, "The flagship publication of the left, the Nation, claims to have captured the highest circulation of any weekly political magazine." The article continues, "The Nation has seen its circulation grow to 160,000 from nearly 140,000 in mid-2003 and just over 102,000 in June 2001. The latest figure exceeds the circulation of longstanding conservative stalwart National Review, which is roughly 155,500, down from about 159,000 in mid-2001."
In a recent interview with Buzzflash.com, I had a chance to talk about politics, passion, principle, the role of The Nation, and my new book Taking Back America--and Taking Down the Radical Right, (co-edited with Robert Borosage).
Buzzflash.com is a progressive news headline and commentary site that has more than 3.6 million visitor sessions a month. It is dedicated to the principle that an informed public is essential to the preservation of our democracy.
The pioneering genius of political advertising, Tony Schwartz, used to preach that the most effective ads don't seek to convey information but to reach into the target audiences' mind to pluck the "responsive chords" already there. And Bill Schneider, the shrewd public opinion analyst, has said, "What the American people want most in a President is what they didn't have in the last one."
So perhaps one way of plucking the "responsive chords" of those four-in-ten Republicans who now say they would reconsider their support for Bush in November is to ask them such "responsive chord" questions as the offhand sampling below.
Would you rather have a President:
Who can change his mind when his vision of reality turns out to be mistaken? Or one who dares not change for fear of appearing weak?
Who believes that evidence necessary to justify a war has to be carefully weighed?Or one who is satisfied when his CIA director tells him the evidence is a slam-dunk?
Who fires advisors who have misled him? Or one who fears to reveal that he knows they have misled him?
Who asks a variety of wise men and women to advise him as well as God? Or one who thinks that it is enough that he hears and recognizes God's voice?
Who goes back to the Constitution for guidance on liberty and values? Or one who goes instead to religious fundamentalists?
Who, when considering healthcare policy, gives first priority to the health of children and parents? Or one who gives first priority to the interests of the drug and insurance corporations?
Who either confides in and trusts his Secretary of State or else replaces him? Or one who does not give his Secretary of State information that he discloses to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?
Who, when on 9/11 he hears that Washington and New York are under deadly attack, takes charge immediately? Or one who, not knowing what to do, goes on reading to a third-grade class he is visiting?
Who can remember his mistakes, hence moves to remedy them? Or one who says he cannot remember any, hence cannot do any remedying?
Who claims victory when it is won? Or one who claims it before it is won?
Who gives a high priority to humane programs like keeping veterans off welfare? Or one whose priorities run instead toward insuring that corporate contributors like Halliburton receive profitable contracts?
Who faces the media frequently and accepts the obligation to inform press and public? Or one who fears the press and relies on one-liners to divert it?
Who reads some of the newspapers that oppose--or support--him. Or one who does not read any paper?
Who seeks advice from a wide array of energy experts and experienced people? Or one who draws heavily on the oil industry?
Who tries to understand the variety of Americans and the variety of their problems and needs? Or one who thinks his circle of friends is representative of America?
Who appoints a diverse committee to investigate how 9/11 could have happened? Or one who stacks the committee with allies and cronies?
Hopefully some of these questions will spark some "responsive chords." I also welcome readers' suggestions for questions. Click here to send them to me (one per reader!) and I'll post a sampling in the coming weeks.
(I also want to thank Nation Editorial Board member Michael Pertschuk, the former Chair of the FTC, co-founder of the invaluable Advocacy Institute and resident of a battleground state, for his suggestion that we try this project.)
Clarification: Several vigilant readers have complained that my weblog of June 2, "It's Not a War on Terror," is inaccurate because I mention Roosevelt telling Americans during World War II that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. They point out that his famous remark, which went, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," was from his first Inaugural Address in 1933, as the country confronted the Great Depression. I was paraphrasing Roosevelt in a general, not time-bound, way to illustrate how he used hope and courage--not fear--to inspire and lead America through the war and the Depression. Roosevelt's belief that it was dangerous to exploit fear is as relevant to the war years as it is to the Depression. Just think of his idea of the right to freedom from fear, how he made that a pillar of his Four Freedoms--and stood by that belief during the war years.
A close friend writes: "Here is something I ran across in the new Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (sorry, I know poetry isn't your thing). It's in a note to The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, a famous poem in his first collection. In an interview from 1963, Lowell said, 'If I have an image for [America], it would be taken from Melville's Moby Dick: the fanatical idealist who brings the world down in ruin through some sort of simplicity of mind.' Now who does that remind you of?"
It's time to stop calling the post 9/11 struggle against terrorism a "war." Iraq is a (disastrous) war; Afghanistan was a brief one. But the struggle against stateless terrorists is not the same thing. And framing it as a war, as columnist Matt Miller argued earlier this year, "was a conscious decision made by Bush and Karl Rove and others in the first days after 9/11."
Rove understood that if the indefinite struggle against terror was generally framed as a "war," it would become the master narrative of American politics giving the GOP the chance to achieve "a structural advantage, perhaps in perpetuity" over Democrats.
The "war" metaphor, as retired American ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in a provocative piece last March in the Vermont Rutland Herald, "is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat.... A 'war on terrorism' is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics.... The President has found this 'war' useful as an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn't want to do; fuzziness serves the administration politically. It brings to mind Big Brother's vague and never-ending war in Orwell's 1984. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always-available tool."
It's easy to see how this Administration has used the "war" as justification for almost anything. Just last week, Amnesty International's annual report exposed how the US has been flouting international human rights standards, "resulting in thousands of women and men suffering unlawful detention, unfair trial and torture--often solely because of their ethnic or religious background"--and all in the name of the "war on terrorism."
Labor rights have also been rolled back on behalf of the "war." Remember that Orwellian statement by the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Security in announcing that the Administration had denied 60,000 airport security screeners their collective bargaining rights. "Mandatory collective bargaining," retired Admiral James Loy said, "is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war on terrorism."
As I watched the celebration of Washington's WWII memorial this Memorial Day weekend, I was reminded of how, during the despair of World War II, a greater threat to the existence of our country than what we face today, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, we all live in the shadow of September 11--a crime of monumental magnitude. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation; our response should not undermine the very values that define America for ourselves and the rest of the world.
This Administration has shamelessly exploited America's fear of terrorism for political purposes. ( It is as if, to paraphrase Roosevelt, this team has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.) But a hyper-militarized war without end will do more to weaken our democracy, and foster a new national security state, than seriously address the threats ahead.
Yet few political leaders have the courage to say that what we face is not a "war" on terrorism, or that this President, as Ambassador Spiers said, "has found this 'war' an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn't want to do." But by failing to challenge the "war" framing, we allow it to seep into the national psyche and let Rove and Co. get away with couching virtually all foreign policy discourse in terms of terrorism. The media also plays a role: "War" is the term used routinely not only by Fox "news" anchors and pundits but also in our top print outlets. It's then amplified in sensationalized TV wall-to-wall graphics.
It's a hopeful sign that John Kerry not so long ago questioned whether the "war" on terror is actually a war at all. "I don't want to use that terminology," he said. In his view, what we are engaged in is "not primarily a military operation. It's an intelligence-gathering operation, law enforcement, public diplomacy effort." Kerry is right. It is time to end this political hijacking of our language and concentrate on the real struggle ahead.
As Shirin Ebadi, a champion of women and children's rights, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and someone who has stood up to the fundamentalists in her native land of Iran, said the other day: "Governments don't just repress people with false interpretations of religion; sometimes they do it with false cant about national security."
See "Clarification" in the "Editors' Cut" for June 8.
You need look no further than the prisoner abuse in Iraq to understand the importance of the work of the Correctional Association of New York.
For almost 160 years, since a law passed in 1846 gave it the legal authority to do so, the CA has been visiting and inspecting New York State prisons and reporting its findings and recommendations to the State Legislature and the public. It usually follows up its reports with public education and advocacy in support of reform legislation.
Off and on over the course of the CA's history, it has had contentious dealings with state prison officials. But, since the summer of 1999, the relationship has been especially combative. In the past the CA would produce a report and the Department of Correctional Services would attack it, dismiss the findings, even villify the CA and its staff in the press and threaten the organization's access to the prisons.
The latest incident dates to last August. Shortly after receiving a draft copy of the CA's report Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons, officials in the Department of Correctional Services retaliated by imposing a range of restrictions on the organization's prison access, including how and with whom it can conduct visits, to whom it can speak during visits, and what part of the prisons it can see.
The Lockdown New York report, it's important to point out, powerfully documents the many problems plaguing the state prisons' punitive segregation units, especially the mistreatment and neglect of the disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who end up confined there for 23 to 24 hours a day for week, months, sometimes years at a time with little or no social interaction. The report documents extreme sensory deprivation; high rates of suicide and acts of self-harm; men in their underwear cowering in corners, mumbling incoherently; men ranting so feverishly that it was unclear whether they were insane to begin with--or driven mad by the conditions of their confinment.
It's too bad, isn't it, that the Correctional Association can't bring cameras into the prisons, rather than having to conjure up the images in words. But in important ways, the CA is our society's camera. Its representatives go everywhere in the prisons: the cellblocks, clinics, yards, visiting rooms, kitchens, program areas, punitive segregation units. Its members talk to prisoners and guards. (The CA's public education and advocacy program after the Lockdown New York report led to first steps toward more humane and sensible policies: The New York State Assembly passed a law banning the confinement of mentally ill people in disciplinary units; Governor Pataki also included an additional $13 million in his proposed budget for increased mental health services in the prisons.)
For months the Correctional Association tried "back channel" negotiations to resolve the dispute with the State, but prison officials remained intransigent on key issues involving access. Finally, in March, the CA sued in federal court, asserting that the State had effectively violated its First Amendment right to exercise free speech. The judge in the case has urged both parties to meet and seek a negotiated settlement; the CA has engaged in these meetings. What the outcome of these discussions will be is not yet clear.
So far legal fees for the case have amounted to over $100,000 (and that despite the 25 percent discount offered by CA's lawyers, Emery, Celli, et al.) Since these costs were not budgeted, the CA must find a way to find untapped sources to cover them.
In my view, speaking as both a longtime board member of the CA and as a concerned citizen, it's crucial that the Correctional Association prevails in this case, not only so that it can regain its access to our prisons--so critical to the organization's valuable work--but also to send a message that the state government's ugly, bullying tactic doesn't carry the day. For information on how you can help, click here or contact Susan Gabriel at the Correctional Association at 135 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003, 212-254-5700 or email@example.com.
If only Candidate Nader were Citizen Nader. That's what I kept thinking as I listened Monday evening to his speech delivered in the citadel of America's establishment--the Council on Foreign Relations. When Nader castigated Bush for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" by misleading the nation into a war "based on false pretenses," it may have been the truest thing ever uttered in the mahogany-paneled chambers of the CFR.
But while the message is strong; the medium is wrong. As The Nation has repeatedly said, America's consumer rights crusader got the important thing wrong when he decided to run for President this year.
At the Council, the mood was as if an exotic animal had loped into the building. Nader was greeted sourly by some, apprehensively by others, warily by many. A few leading Democratic Party fundraisers had come to check out his current message. Former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson sat in the front row--and seemed to welcome Nader's nod to Sorenson's recent book which includes a section on America's unmet needs. The crowd of about 150 people included affluent investment bankers, lawyers and assorted journalists and foundation types.
Peter Osnos--publisher of Public Affairs Books--introduced the speaker with a quip about how few people have enjoyed Nader's "political durability." He mentioned three others--"there's Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan and Jesse Jackson." And to put it candidly, Osnos said, "lately Nader has been driving many of his admirers nuts."
It wasn't only his admirers who looked like they'd been driven nuts. At times, it was as if the elaborately framed portraits of former Council chieftains like David Rockefeller were rattling on the wall as Nader issued a ringing call for Bush's impeachment.
In his speech, "Waging Peace, Advancing Justice, Promoting Security & the Civic Displacement of Corporate Globalization," (or as he joked, "how to twist the tail of the cosmos in 20 easy minutes"), Nader criticized the phony handover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30th and called on the White House to set a date to end its military and corporate occupation of Iraq.
In the Q & A period, Nader was grilled by several people about why he's running in a year in which the stakes are so high. Wouldn't he be a spoiler, as he was in 2000? (Readers of this space know his answer.) Nader's response that he could gain support among Republican and conversative voters disgusted with this administration was met with palpable skepticism. And, stubborn as ever, Nader didn't bend on his message that on the fundamental issues that affect the future of our democracy, the differences between the two parties are still virtually indistinguishable.
"Yes, the parties are polarized on social issues and access to civil justice and rights, but both parties have sold our politics to the highest bidder and are unwilling to challenge sovereignty of corporations over people. The rhetoric is different; the reality is not." That comment elicited a slight hissing in the room. Later Nader said, somewhat contemptuously: "We've been completely abandoned by liberals."
Nader's speech netted a story in the New York Times, which focused on Nader's call to impeach Bush. But there were a few other tidbits:
* Nader thought it was hopeful that there was "increasing rebellion among retired foreign policy and intelligence officials," and that "this war was waged against the considered opinion of so many of them."
* Nader consciously attempted to cloak himself in President Eisenhower's legacy by drawing a connection between his speech and the General's classic speech warning of the military-industrial complex. Any talk of cutting our bloated military budget is more taboo today than it was twenty years ago, Nader rightly observed. (He referred the crowd to the work of Columbia professor Seymour Melman.)
* The "drive to war" represented the "fragility of our democratic institutions. The "lack of any deliberative process by the US Congress, the lack of an investigative process by the media--which clicked their heels" is a "severe scar on our democratic process."
* The Founding Fathers, Nader said, "did not want the declaration of war put in the hands of one man."
* "The last war that Congress declared was the War on Poverty." If our institutions of government had worked, we might have avoided this quagmire, he argued.
* We have a messianic militarist as a President; and our re-engagement with the world is hindered because Bush talks like "an out-of-control West Texas sheriff" and has a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and for our constitution," Nader stated.
* Saddam was the US's dictator. The US supported him as a bulwark against Communists, Nader stated, and we averted our eyes to his atrocitieswhen it suited our strategic needs. "The economic sanctions imposedon Iraq were a clear violation of international law and contributedto the deaths of thousands of children."
* He decried the Administration's exploitation of fear since 9/11: "To say that President Bush has exaggerated the threat of Al-Qaeda is to trip into a political hornets' nest." But it is time to raise the "impertinent question" about whether we've seen a vast exaggeration of the threat of terrorism" for the purpose of fulfilling the GOP's agenda. "Chill the other party; chill dissent; distract attention from domestic necessities and from the fact that a lot of corporations who are pouring money into Bush's private kitty get a lot of contracts; and Bush maintained his position in the polls--until recently."
* Citing William James, Nader made the case for why "we need very, very strenuously the moral equivalent of war." We need a humanitarian foreign policy, he argued. It should be a "shame on our conscience that we can't find billions to pursue the goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, that we can't find the money to take on the greatest assault of WMD that is heading our way: tuberculosis, pandemics heading from China which will take hundreds of thousands of lives here, millions there."
* Nader has finally woken up to the possibilities of the internet, quipping that "Other than the use of the internet, presidential politics hasn't had an innovation since TV makeup."
* He believes that he will be on as many state ballots as in 2000.
* Asked about the veepstakes, he followed up on what he said on ABC This Week. "I think Kerry should pick Gephardt or Edwards. Either would help him. They're both good on their feet, have their own constituencies, and are already vetted."
* Called on people to support the work of Citizens' Debate Commission to challenge the two party corporate control of the debates. (Do it at least as an antidote to insomnia, he urged, prompting some laughter in the hall.)
* He spoke little about his recent meeting with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, but did say that when he asked Kerry how he would push through his energy independence policies,in the face of oil and gas and other energy lobbies, Kerry told him, "Just let me get in the White House and I'll use the bully pulpit." "I told him I just didn't think that was a sufficient answer."
The applause at the end was wary and light. Nader may have been invited into the citadel but he was not welcome for long. On the sidewalk outside, a lone Green Party member was leafleting. I didn't see anyone taking.
When I wrote about South Dakota populist Stephanie Herseth in this space in April, the polls showed her well ahead of her rightwing rival in the race to finish out Bill Janklow's Congressional term. And, although she still leads in the contest for South Dakota's only US House seat with less than two weeks left before the state's special election on June 2, new polls indicate that the race has narrowed, in large part due to the 1.5 million dollars spent on television advertising by national Republicans anxious to hold onto the seat.
Click here to read "A New Populist on the Block," my weblog detailing why Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions (although she isn't perfect--as some readers pointed out in smart comments.) And click here to donate urgently need funds to counter her opponent's war chest.
The non-partisan Drum Major Institute has just released its first-ever scorecard of votes on legislation that significantly impact America's middle class. In "Middle Class 2003: How Congress Voted," representatives were graded on their votes on key legislation that both helps the middle class (the American Dream Downpayment Act, the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act) and hurts it (Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act and the Death Tax Repeal Act).
The results are clear: legislators need to put their rhetoric about the middle class where their votes are. While the Senate earned a B grade overall, fully one quarter of Republican Senators received an F. The scores in the House of Representatives revealed a similar divide: the House received an overall grade of C, but ninety-nine percent of Democrats passed compared to only one-third of Republicans.
The GOP is good at talking the middle-class talk, especially during an election year. But what about the walk?
"Middle Class 2003: How Congress Voted" makes it possible to hold elected officials accountable for the legislation that determines the quality of life for middle-class families. Check out the Drum Major Institute's website for the scorecard which was sent home with every legislator as they return to their districts this week. It's a valuable tool for the press, policy makers and voters alike.
The facts on the ground are inescapable--the US occupation of Iraq must be ended. Over the last several weeks, many of the nation's pundits, policy-makers and military brass have concluded that "the American position is untenable," to quote former US ambassador to the United Nations and Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke. One Pentagon consultant spoke for many in the military when he referred to Bush's Iraq policy as "Dead Man Walking."
Meanwhile, the Army Times called on Donald Rumsfeld and other senior defense officials to step aside in the wake of the metastasizing Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal--"a failure that ran straight to the top."
Support for the occupation among both Iraqis and Americans is also eroding quickly. Recent Coalition Provisional Authority polls found that 80 percent of Iraqis distrust the US. And, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup, the majority of Iraqis now want the US to leave Iraq immediately, while only a third of Iraqis believe the US-led occupation is doing more good than harm. (And that poll was taken in late March and early April.)
In the United States, the most recent polls found that 60 percent of Americans think that we've "gotten bogged down in Iraq." Moreover, by a 54 to 44 margin, Americans say that unseating Hussein was not worth the mounting cost in blood and money.
America's politicians, of course, are trailing behind public opinion. In setting the parameters of this debate, neo-conservative hawks like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz–and even some leading Democrats--have presented the world with a false choice. "Stay the Course," they urge, because if we leave Iraq now, we will consign the country to civil war and an Iranian-style dictatorship for years to come.
At this point, there are no good options but Kerry, sadly, has bought into this assumption by making the case that the US must remain in Iraq lest it descend into chaos. Shorn of the neocons' pipedreams for a democratic Iraq, Kerry's rhetoric is, essentially, an "Internationalization of Staying the Course."
But, by staying the course, America risks doing much more harm than good. We create new recruiting tools for terrorists in the region with our widespread abuses and neglect hotbeds of terrorist activity along the Pakistan-Afghan border. We will simply trap the US and UN in a spiral of unending violence, as the stand-offs in Najaf and Falluja demonstrate. And the occupation itself is breeding instability and violence, while strengthening the most radical Islamic forces. The world will grow even more cynical about America's global intentions, Iraqi morale will keep plummeting, and the UN's credibility as an independent body will continue to erode.
While the neocons frame the debate over Iraq as a war between light and darkness, civilization and terror, democracy and Islamic-fascism, the uprising against the Americans is, in fact, nationalist in character. War in Iraq has never offered the hope of finding Osama bin Laden, avenging 9/11 or dealing the terrorists a major military or psychological blow.
"Iraq's twentieth century resistance to foreign threats has typically been national in character, not separatist, beginning with the revolts against British occupation in the 1920s," wrote William Pfaff recently in the International Herald Tribune. America, Pfaff argues, must leave Iraq soon based on a strategy of "Iraqi national interest and Iraqi nationalism"--real sovereignty that grants Iraqis full responsibility for managing their nation's resources, security and foreign affairs.
Kerry has the opportunity to articulate just such a bold vision--let's call it the "Internationalization of Withdrawal." The capacity to admit a mistake and change course for the sake of the nation and the world is the ultimate test of any true leader.
For the sake of our nation's credibility; of the untenable security situation; the mounting US and Iraqi deaths and casualties; and of the worldwide crisis of confidence in the United States triggered by Bush's unilateral policies, America needs a Kerry exit strategy.
Here at home, the political landscape is shifting rapidly to pressure Kerry to change course. On May 18, thirty-nine groups--organized by the Win Without War coalition--launched a campaign calling for withdrawal from Iraq. They plan to use email and telephone campaigns--as well as public protests--to push Kerry and Democratic members of Congress to craft a credible exit plan.
As one of the key organizers put it, "there's a lot of frustration among some people that Kerry has not distinguished himself from Bush on this policy." Kerry should seize the moment, they argue.Still, many of the coalition's leaders intend to vote for him in November--and not Ralph Nader, who has called for the US to pull out of Iraq in six months. As someone involved in Win Without War's work made clear: "We do not wish to complicate or oppose" Kerry's campaign. "But the peace movement must stand for what it believes is right.and become an independent factor that politicians cannot take for granted. We appreciate Senator Kerry's criticism of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, but we not agree that more American troops should be sent to that unlucky country. We hope Senator Kerry will remember his Vietnam experience as he reflects on the crisis in Iraq."
The same day Win Without War launched its campaign, two leading foreign policy establishment figures called on Kerry to craft an exit strategy. In an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post, James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser in the Clinton Administration, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue that it is critical to set a date to get out. (Both men have advised Kerry.)
Kerry now has the opportunity to join not only a swelling movement for withdrawal, but also to ally himself with many leading military officials--and with the increasingly demoralized US occupation forces and their families--who are saying that this is a war we cannot win, and one that will bleed both the American forces as well as the Iraqi people. It is clear that only the Iraqi people can successfully fight for their own future.
Kerry can say that he agrees with a majority of Americans that we were deceived about WMDs, credibly declare victory by calling for early elections to be administered by the United Nations or other international organizations and endorse a hand-off of genuine sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
As soon as those elections are over, our job would be done. We don't need long-term bases in Iraq, and we should respect the Iraqi people's right to self-determination. Kerry should make the case that by leaving Iraq quickly and responsibly, America will improve its security, not weaken it.
If he can muster the courage, Kerry certainly has the background to take on this president and re-frame this debate. He also has the moral authority to do what is right for America and reject the politics of caution that so far has defined his campaign and disappointed so many supporters. Kerry saved the lives of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam and later was the eloquent and moderate leader of the veterans' antiwar movement.
While I still strongly believe that Ralph Nader has made a terrible mistake by running in a year when all energy must be focused on defeating Bush, he is now challenging Democrats to give Americans a clear choice in Iraq. Kerry would be wise to offer some bold ideas for creating a smarter, safer security policy and giving the Iraqi people a genuine opportunity to figure out their own future.
As if the military, political, and moral fallout from George Bush's regime change in Iraq isn't enough, the White House has now announced its intentions "to bring an end" to the Castro government in Cuba.
Last week's release of a 500-page report of the Presidential "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba"-appointed by a year ago under a barrage of pressure from Cuban-American hardliners in the politically pivotal sub-state of Miami-marks a new escalation in the 45-year effort to roll back the Cuban revolution.
Peter Kornbluh, a regular contributor to The Nation who follows Cuba policy at the non-profit National Security Archive, compares Bush's new initiative to "an Operation Mongoose without the CIA covert sabotage and assassination efforts." The Commission, he notes, is adopting what the report describes as "a more proactive, integrated and disciplined approach to undermine the survival strategies of the Castro regime."
The Commission's recommendations, which Bush has adopted, add $45 million dollars to the budget for "hastening change" in Cuba. Among the new operations: a White House plan to send a C-130 plane on a mission to circle Cuba and beam the signals of TV and Radio Marti onto the island; a major expansion of propaganda operations to discredit and isolate Castro, i.e. spreading the specious and threatening charge that Cuba has the capacity to make biological weapons; escalating the political operations of the US interest section on the island; and further efforts to squeeze Cuba economically by curtailing the ability of US citizens, including Cuban-Americans, to travel to, and spend money on, the island.
That last component not only violates the rights of US citizens--last year both the House and the Senate voted to lift the ban on free travel to Cuba, only to have Bush's Congressional allies, Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, strip the legislation of that clause in committee--but hurts the very families in Miami whose votes Bush hopes to win in 2004. Under Bush's punitive rules, Cuban-Americans will only be able visit their relatives once every three years, instead of once a year, as is the case under the already draconian travel policies.
The new Bush policy means that Cuban-Americans will be prevented from seeing elderly parents still on the island for interminable periods of time and that relatives in Cuba will have to go without the emotional, financial and material support these already limited visits bring.
According to Silvia Wilhelm, who runs Puentes Cubanos, a non-profit group in Miami promoting exchanges with Cuba, these measures will only hurt ordinary Cubans, not the Castro government. "It will determine, in some cases, the people who will survive or perish," she says. "In the name of democracy, I might add." Even Cuba's leading dissidents--including Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez, two of the island's best-known democracy activists--have rejected Bush's initiative. Paya has said that it is up to the Cubans, not the US, to design a post-Castro transition.
The Administration's new initiative, according to a recent editorial in the Financial Times, "combines ideology with the narrowest political short-termism." And, as is the case in every electoral cycle, it immediately transforms Cuba into a game of political kickball. John Kerry, who also wants votes in Miami, supports continuing the embargo, but favors lifting the restrictions on travel as a less threatening and more promising approach to bringing US influence to bear on an eventual post-Castro transition of power.
With brother Jeb in the background, Bush is taking the low road. For now his new Cuba policy will be associated with Secretary of State Colin Powell who chaired the Commission. But this just gives more weight to Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, who seems to understand the folly of Washington's approach. In an interview in next month's GQ Magazine, he describes the embargo and efforts to isolate Castro as "the dumbest policy on the face of the earth. Its crazy," he said. We couldn't agree more.