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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.

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"?

Fried Rice?

Sunday's front page Washington Post story about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is such a powerful indictment of her role in the runup to the Iraq war that for the sake of her country's credibility Rice should immediately resign.

The article by Mike Allen and Dana Milbank (a master exposer of Bush Administration lies) makes clear that Rice is either incompetent or a liar. Listen to Rep. Henry Waxman:

"If the national security adviser didn't understand the repeated State Department and CIA warnings about the uranium allegation, that's a frightening level of incompetence....It's even more serious if she knew and ignored the intelligence warnings and has deliberately misled our nation...In any case, it's hard to see why the President or the public will have confidence in her office."

Even sources described as "generally sympathetic" to Rice question her many shifting and contradictory statements regarding Iraq's alleged uranium purchase and the WMD (non)threat. Several former officials scoffed at the idea that Rice didn't have time to review the National Intelligence Estimate about an enemy on the eve of war. "It's implausible that the national security adviser would be too busy to pay attention to something that's going to come out of the President's mouth," said a former NSC official.

Each time the buck passes, another level of incompetence--or deceit--is exposed. It's a no-brainer that Rice should resign. But that's not enough. So far, President Bush, the man ultimately responsible for taking the nation to war, has refused to take responsibility for his words. The American people deserve the truth. We have a right to know if Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or other White House officials manipulated intelligence to justify taking America to war. That's why we desperately need an independent commission to determine the veracity of other potentially suspect evidence used to convince Americans (and the world) that Iraq posed an imminent threat to our nation.

How you can help:

Click here for contact info for your elected reps. Please ask them to support H.R. 2625, legislation authored by Rep. Waxman to create an independent commission. You can also sign Move.On.org's nationwide petition by clicking here.

David Broder's Tipping Point

You know this is a tipping point moment when veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder, a barometer of conventional wisdom, writes that "the shadow of defeat" is crossing President Bush's "political horizon."

In a recent column Broder--the dean of American political punditry--offered a bleak picture of Bush's reelection chances. Why does this matter? Well, as Eric Alterman points out in his smart and timely book, "What Liberal Media," Broder is "revered by elite journalists for his alleged ability...to speak to what is understood to be the common sense 'middle ground' of American politics."

So, Beltway insiders take notice when Broder pontificates--in this case, he lays out the grim ramifications of AWOL WMDs, mounting casualties in a guerrilla war, and a rotten economy on Bush's reelection chances.

Could this signal that Bush's free ride is over? Let's hope that what one beltway reporter said of Broder still holds true: "There are those the rest of us seek out for guidance...This is particularly true in political journalism where one person stands out--David Broder."

**********

Boondocks Fantasy

Everyday brings news of the collateral damage inflicted on our democracy and economy by this Administration's war without end. We're no longer on the threshold of building a permanent war economy, which will distort America's priorities at home and abroad--we've crossed the rubicon.

And this week we learn that the US military--with a budget larger than the next fifteen nations combined--may not have enough troops to meet the US's expanding global commitments. Shouldn't that soldier from the Third Infantry, who called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, be honored instead of silenced?

If you fantasize, as I do, about what a sane and decent government, with humane priorities, could do for its citizens, check out a recent episode of Aaron McGruder's Boondocks strip:

Huey listens intently to a TV announcer:

"And in other news, President Bush announced sweeping changes in his administration's domestic policy today. Starting with quadrupling the amount of money spent on education and teacher pay raises...The additional money will come from a massive slashing of the defense budget combined with a complete elimination of corporate welfare programs. Following the changes to education, the President said he would break up media monopolies, guarantee health care to all citizens, and take critical steps to rescue the environment. 'These tasks are critically important to our future as Americans," said President Bush. "And I promise to get started immediately....." As Huey walks away from the TV in shock, Bush continues, "...Just as soon as the war on terror is brought to a triumphant conclusion.""Sigh," groans Huey.

If you're a Boondocks fan, like I am, watch for McGruder's forthcoming book, "The Right to be Hostile," with an introduction by Michael Moore.

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