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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

Postwar? Or Guerrilla War?

On August 18th, one day before the horrifying bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, President Bush revised his earlier characterization of the fighting in Iraq. The once-swaggering commander-in-chief, who strutted on the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare victory, now allows that combat operations are still underway.

It always seemed premature to speak of the period in Iraq as one of "postwar." But that didn't stop the White House from rushing to declare that the conflict was concluded. However, the steady stream of American and Iraqi casualties, the increasingly sophisticated guerrilla attacks on Iraqi infrastructure--and, now, the UN headquarters--suggest that the Iraq war continues, and that only its conventional battlefield phase is over. Even the American military commander in Iraq recently described Iraqi attacks as classic "guerrilla warfare," a term Administration officials--until just recently--have been loath to use.

What is needed now is not--as many are demanding--an escalation of US forces but, rather, an acknowledgment that the US and its small band of allies, do not have the resources, legitimacy or even competence to stabilize Iraq. Instead of entrenching a Pentagon-led occupation, the White House should use this perilous moment to seek internationalization of the rebuilding and administration of the country, which can only happen if the process is turned over to the UN.

As Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, reminds, "The US-UK war and occupation were and remain illegal." By agreeing to participate under the authority of that occupation force, the UN, unfortunately, is providing a political fig leaf for an illegal occupation. If the United Nations is to be perceived by the Iraqi people as a legitimate and stabilizing force, it will need to play a genuinely independent role and disassociate itself from the US occupation. And so as to avoid the trap of internationalization on the cheap, the UN will need real resources--and control--in the reconstruction process.

But time is running short. Listen to terrorism expert Jessica Stern: The "bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one," Stern wrote recently in the New York Times. "The occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy...Most ominously, Al-Qaeda's influence may be growing."

We are now witnessing the tragic unfolding of consequences that The Nation--and millions opposed to war--warned against: the fueling of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world; the undermining of the global fight against terrorism and the deaths of innocent US soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

We also argued that occupation would mean more spending on war and less on homeland security and numerous unmet domestic needs. The Administration will continue to deny what it has created in Iraq. But shifting public sentiment suggests an opening: a recent PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll found that 64 percent of Americans want the UN to take the lead in rebuilding Iraq.

As long as the US is an occupying power--US v. International Jihad--the harder it will be to pull together the international resources, will and expertise required for the long-term project of stabilizing Iraq, reestablishing true self-government in that country, and combating terrorism around the world.

For Halliburton, Iraq Is a Cash Cow

War is a tragedy for some and a boon for others. As American soldiers continue to die in Iraq, and the length of the war and its costs escalate, Halliburton, the company headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney before the Bush Administration took office, announced that it had converted a half billion dollar quarterly loss of a year ago into a quarterly profit of $26 million for the same period in 2003. This profit comes largely from hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraqi rebuilding and oil contracts awarded by the Bush Administration.

But why should war be good for those who have been good to the Republican party? "The Bush Administration," the Baltimore Sun recently reported, "continues to use American corporations to perform work that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups can do more cheaply." "Both for ideological reasons," Paul Krugman observed in the New York Times, "and, one suspects, because of the patronage involved, the people now running the country seem determined to have public services provided by private corporations, no matter what the circumstances."

Representatives Henry Waxman, John Dingell and Maxine Waters are to be commended for monitoring the war profiteers and the conflicts of interest so pervavsive in this Administration. (In March, Waters offered an amendment that would have prohibited the Administration from awarding contracts to companies which had employed senior administration officials. In April, Waxman and Dingell sent letters to the General Accounting Office demanding an investigation into how the Pentagon was handling the bidding process for lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq.)

But where's the broader outrage? Isn't the issue of war profiteering a strong one for Democratic Presidential candidates? Or even for common-sense Republicans who put their country before profit? They could lead their party against a President and Vice-President rolling in corporate cash--some of it from companies that have directly profited from war. Where is the leader with the courage to say, as Franklin Roosevelt did during World War II, '"I don't want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster'"? Even Harry Truman, considered a model centrist by DLC types, referred to profiteering during World War II as "treason."

With all due credit to the World Policy Institute's new report ,"New Numbers: The Price of Freedom in Iraq and Power in Washington," let's call for:

*Transparency and Accountabilty: Let's demand a Senate Investigation on war profiteering comparable to the one that Truman conducted at the end of World War Two.

*Curbs on Profiteering: All contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq should be on a limited profit basis, not the open-ended deals that Halliburton and other US contractors have received thus far.

*Legislation which would require all rebuilding contracts for Iraq to be subject to an open bidding process, and a temporary "Truman Committee" to oversee all Iraqi war contracts, as The Nation proposed in an editorial last May.

*Putting the Political Money Machine on Hold: To avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest, Bush and all of his challengers should pledge that they will not accept campaign contributions from companies that have profited from the war in Iraq, or the subsequent rebuilding effort.

Muscular Congressional actions like these would go a long way toward tempering some of the most corrupt practices of this ethically-challenged and political tone-deaf Administration.

August Wakeup Calls

How skewed are this Administration's priorities? Consider the insanity of throwing away billions of dollars on hightech military boondoggles like Star Wars that don't work. Or doling out billions in tax giveaways to the richest Americans. If we want true security, shouldn't we be investing in our country's infrastructure--from upgrading our power grid to improving transportation, healthcare and education?

President Bush called the largest blackout in US history a "wakeup call"? (And that after his Administration lobbied against legislation that would have modernized the country's power grid.) Well, maybe Bush and his team need another wakeup call--relating to Iraq. This time last summer, many opponents of the rush to war argued that an invasion and occupation would serve as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda, fuel existing anti-Americanism in the region and make the US less secure.

One year later, these concerns seem tragically on target. Just this past weekend, a London-based research company, issued a report saying that the war against Iraq has made America more of a target for terrorist attack. According to the World Markets Reseach Center, the US is now the fourth most likely--of 186 countries surveyed--to be the target of a major terrorist act within the next twelve months. (Colombia, Israel and Pakistan top the list as the only countries with a greater terror risk than the US.)

"Networks of militant Islamist groups," the report observes, "are less extensive in the US than they are Western Europe, but US led military action in Afghanistan and Iraq has exacerbated anti-US sentiment."

And, as the US occupiers endure almost daily casualties--and with shortages of fuel, water and, yes, electricity, precipitating riots and fueling anger among the Iraqi people--it is worth paying attention to the underreported warnings of Ghassan Salameh, a senior UN official and adviser to the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, Kofi Annan's special representative to Iraq, who was killed today in the tragic attack at UN headquarters in Baghdad.

In a recent interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Salameh, a longtime observer of the Arab world, warns that prominent Iraqis who "despised" Saddam Hussein will take up arms against US forces if life under occupation does not quickly improve. "Many influential Iraqis who initally felt liberated from a despised regime have assured me," Salameh reports," that they will take up arms if the coalition troops do not arrive at a result. Time is short."

Salameh warned that ordinary people, frustrated by the lack of basic services four months after Saddam's fall, could rally behind ideological opponents of the occupying forces. "In reality, the population is very surprised," he told the French weekly. "They don't understand how such a level of efficiency during the war could be followed by such a lack of efficiency in ‘peace.'"

Slim Shady vs. Dubya

It sounds like a Texas wrestling match: Slim vs Dubya. But in a recent poll that asked about truthfulness, rapper Eminem scored higher than President Bush. According to a global marketing agency, Euro RSCG Worldwide, 53 percent of American adults aged 35-44 believe that Eminem's lyrics contain "more truth" than Bush's speeches. (62 percent in the 18-24 age group agreed.) It turns out that we may need to do a better job of protecting our kids from our President's gangsta' rap.

A Form of Looting

George Akerlof is becoming a household name. Well, sort of. The 2001 Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics, who teaches at Berkeley, was recently cited by Al Gore in his rousing speech to MoveOn at New York University.

Just a few days earlier, Akerlof had been quoted in the German magazine Der Spiegel condemning the Bush Administration as "the worst government the US has ever had in its more than 200 years of history." These words catapulted Akerlof to the top of Google for a few days but it's worth reading the full text of his illuminating interview with the German weekly for a look at how horrified another longtime member of the American establishment is at the extremism of the Bush Administration.

"This is not normal government policy," Akerlof says. "Now is the time for [American] people to engage in civil disobedience. I think it's time to protest as much as possible." When asked about the deficit, one of his many areas of professional expertise, Akerlof replied that with the current tax cuts, a realistic estimate would be in excess of six trillion, far more than the Administration is predicting.

So is the government just bad at doing the math? "The government is not really telling the truth to the American people...Past administrations from the time of Alexander Hamilton have, on the average, run responsible budgetary policies. What we have here is a form of looting."

Shrill and Unstable Fox

Even in this summer of political circuses (think California recall), Fox News Network's lawsuit against comedian and author Al Franken may win the silly season award.

Lawyers for Fox argue that the network has trademarked "Fair and Balanced" to describe its news coverage and that Franken's use of that phrase in the title of his forthcoming book ("Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced look at the Right," due in stores next month--and now, thanks to Fox, certain to be a bestseller) would "blur and tarnish" those words.

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows that Fox News (like the Bush Administration) is adept at saying one thing while doing another. (Its other motto, "We report, You decide," should be "We Distort, We Decide.") Fox is also a network filled with particularly shrill, mean-spirited and politically-motivated characters. Ironically, in their complaint against Franken, Rupert Murdoch's lawyers perfectly described Fox's leading personality and Franken-antagonist Bill O'Reilly, "...he appears to be shrill and unstable. His views lack any serious depth or insight."

For the legal view of this tempestuous trademark dispute, I sought the counsel of Peter Weiss--a widely respected trademark and human rights attorney. His suggestion: "Al Franken should countersue for damages under Section 11 of the US Code of Civil Procedure, charging abuse of the legal process." The downside though, Weiss added, is that "maybe he'll draw one of those new Bushie judges who haven't heard of the First Amendment."

On a lighter note, Weiss sent me his letter to Franken:

Dear Shrill and Unstable Al,

When I read today's New York Times story about Fox's idiotic suit to my daughter-in-law, her response was (A) "I love Al Franken" and (B) " 'fair and balanced' was the motto of the Congressional Research Service when I worked for it." That would have been about seven years ago; it may still be the case today. Either way, tell your lawyers.

Peter Weiss (semi-retired trademark lawyer)

Taking Back the Tax Debate

Maybe it's the summer heat, but I thought I was hallucinating when I picked up Monday's Washington Post and read the headline, "Democrats Not Shying Away from Tax Talk."

It seems like common sense to me, but for decades Dems have shied away from the T-issue for fear of being called soft on tax increases. But it turns out that Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has recent numbers suggesting that taxes can be a good issue for Democrats.

While voters still are likely to believe that Republicans have a more favorable position on taxes generally, they support Democratic efforts to close corporate loopholes and to make the tax system fairer.

If the issue is fairness, Democrats should have a field day. Take July 24, when the Republican's chief tax man, Representative Bill Thomas, introduced a budget-busting tax break for corporations. (It would reduce the top rate from 35 percent to 32 percent--and add a whopping $120 billion to the deficit over the next ten years.) Compare this to the Republicans' refusal to expand the child tax credit for low income families--a step whose ten-year cost of $3.5 billion seems paltry compared to the tax breaks being doled out to the super-rich.

In a recent survey, a majority of Americans (57 percent) say they want to move in "a significantly different direction" on the economy. What puzzles me is that Democratic stimulus programs, with few exceptions, have been uniformly tepid--focused more on targeted tax cuts than on necessary public spending.

What about the evidence that shows that voters see a more direct connection between government spending on streets, highways, bridges and school construction and the creation of jobs than the connection between tax cuts and job creation. As Jeff Madrick pointed out in a recent column in the New York Times business section, these are times that cry out for bold proposals from the Democrats. A bold--and sensible--new economic program, according to Madrick, would reject individual tax cuts and stress government spending that creates jobs.

A new program could include "adequate transfer of money to the states--as much as $100 billion. It could also include seriously financing the president's new education bill, which has been neglected...and innovative investment in transportation infrastructure." Given the dire state of the economy, what the nation needs is a jobs program. It might even be a winning ticket.

Parenting in 2003

On the eve of the Clinton Impeachment hearings in 1998, The Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS) sent out "Ten Tips for Talking about the Starr Report with Your Children."

"The upcoming impeachment hearing," SIECUS president Debra Haffner advised, "provides parents with a special opportunity to talk to their children about sexuality issues...The question parents need to ask is 'Who do I want to tell my children about this sad situation?' Another child on the playground? An acquaintance on the school bus? They are unlikely to tell your children the facts in a clear way. And only YOU can give YOUR children YOUR values."

It's now 2003 and if the events of these last weeks don't provide parents with that special opportunity to talk to their children about the president and values like truth, lies and consequences, then I don't know what does.

So, with all due credit to SIECUS, here are Tips for Talking about President Bush with Your Children:

*1) Think about your values as they relate to this situation. What are your family's values about telling the truth? What would you do if your child lied to you and when you scolded him or her, s/he replied: "I am not a fact-checker." Or added, "Isn't it time to move on?"

*2) Ask your children to tell you what words mean to them. Explain that words have consequences and lies can come in two, six or sixteen words.

*3) Clarify facts. Give short, age-appropriate answers. Explain that shifting strategies at damage control only lead to more unanswered questions. Make clear that even if facts are malleable for President Bush, they're not malleable in your home. Explain that even though the White House strategy may be to say whatever is necessary, even if they have to admit later that what they said the first time wasn't exactly true, you don't do it that way yourself.

*4) Use these talks with your child to encourage good decision-making. Let them know that if they grow up to become president and lead a nation into war, the right thing to do is take responsibility for their words and acts. (This is a good opportunity to explain what the saying, "The buck stops here" means.)

*5) Use television news as a springboard for discussion. However, do not let children younger than thirteen watch this coverage alone. It can be ugly and disturbing for children to watch the President and his aides scapegoat their subordinates with so little compunction.

*6) Help your children understand the larger issues. Let them know that it's not just about sixteen words. You could explain that there appears to be a pattern of dishonesty well beyond the uranium scandal that is extremely worrisome. Explain that the American people are entitled to the truth and they have a right to know if President Bush, Vice President Cheney or any White House officials misrepresented the facts to justify war.

*7) Keep the lines of communication open. Talk. Remember that this is not a one-time or a one-way discussion. Your children need your ongoing support in dealing with their President's tenuous relationship to the truth. Unfortunately, this sad situation is currently a fixed element of the political landscape they are growing up in.

A version of this weblog was published on the op-ed page of yesterday's Boston Globe.

The Diplomat Who Resigned in Protest

Remember diplomat John Brady Kiesling's powerful resignation statement last February?

Kiesling, who was serving as political counselor at the US Embassy in Athens, played a noteworthy role in strengthening opposition to war against Iraq. His resignation letter to his boss Colin Powell, a searing indictment of Bush Administration policies, was published by the New York Times, and pasted into e-mails that flew around the US foreign policy establishment, the US press and the world.

A twenty-year veteran of the US Foreign Service, Kiesling is a charter member of the Coalition of the Rational, an embryonic idea to bring a broad, transpartisan group of concerned citizens together to mobilize Americans in informed opposition to the Bush Administration's undermining of US security in our name. (Click here for more on the Coalition.)

And read last week's riveting Washington Post portrait of Kiesling by veteran investigative reporter Bob Thompson in the newspaper's (undervalued) Sunday magazine for more on how and why the extremism of the Bush foreign-policy agenda drove Kiesling out of government. Kiesling also offers valuable insights into the current postwar disaster.

The chaos of postwar Iraq, Kiesling argues, was easily predictable, and there's no guarantee that what comes out of it will serve US interests. As Thompson writes, "the idea that the war will produce American-style democracy in the Middle East seems to him [Kiesling] the equivalent of dynamite fishing: You toss explosives in a pond and hope the right thing floats to the surface. As for Iraqi's elusive weapons of mass destruction, Kiesling says, even if they are found, it's now clear that the intelligence on which we based our attack was worthless. This is no small problem."

'If you're going to talk about preemption or preventive war,' Kiesling explains, 'you have to have some standard, some threshold of action.' If preemptors don't care about that, the precedent is 'terrifying.'"

Who's 'Dangerously Irresponsible'?

Calling them "dangerously irresponsible," US District Judge Robert Blackburn last week sentenced three nuns to prison for up to three years for swinging a hammer at a Minuteman III nuclear missile silo and smearing their blood on it in the form of a cross. Prosecutors said the nuns, all close colleagues of the late peace activist Philip Berrigan, showed a blatant disregard for the law. The nuns argued that the Minuteman is a first-strike weapon prohibited by international law. Peace activists believe the felony convictions are unduly harsh and intended to have a chilling effect on other protestors.

Meanwhile, a few days before the nuns--members of the Sacred Earth Network, a national nuclear disarmament group--were sentenced, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham defended the Bush Administration's growing nuclear weapons programs in the Washington Post. Abraham cloaked the White House's decision to build new nuclear weapons in a haze of euphemism, alternately referring to these unprecedented new killing machines as "new challenges," "low-yield weapons," "advanced concepts" and "weapons concepts."

Nevertheless, even through the haze, it is clear that by reviving the nuclear arms race at home, the Administration's policy shift will dangerously undermine efforts to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

This is one more issue that, despite rational opposition across the political spectrum, the White House seems determined to ram down the country's throat. The American public is opposed to building new nuclear weapons. The military didn't even ask for them. Even, Rep. David L. Hobson,the Republican Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water expressed concern that the Bush Administration is planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to build new nuclear weapons before there is even a need for them.

So, three Roman Catholic nuns, who want to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction, will report to prison for multi-year sentences on August 25th. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is scrambling to launch a new global nuclear arms race. Who's "dangerously irresponsible"?

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