Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

A General's Farewell

Remember General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, who warned that occupying Iraq might require hundreds of thousands of soldiers for an extended period? He was immediately reprimanded by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for being "wildly off the mark."

It's now two months since Baghdad fell, no WMD's have been found and US forces are bogged down in Iraq. American generals, happy to boast about the rapid defeat of Saddam's regime, now admit the war is far from over. The other night, General Barry McCaffrey predicted that US troops would be in Iraq for five years and warned that three divisions of the National Guard might be needed to reinforce Army divisions already deployed. And Lieutenant General David McKiernan, commander of US ground forces in Iraq, recently said his troops would be needed for a long time to come, that Baghdad and a large swathe of northern and western Iraq is only a "semi-permissive" environment, and that "subversive forces" are still active.

Since Bush strutted onto the USS Lincoln to declare "Mission Accomplished," more than forty Americans have been killed with many more wounded, (sixty-six have been killed since the fall of Baghdad on April 9.) No wonder General Shinseki--the highest-ranking Asian-American in US military history--retired the other day with a blast at the arrogance of the Pentagon's civilian leaders:

"You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader," he said. "You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance."

Read between the lines. The Army chief of staff is telling us that men like Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are arrogant commanders, who not only exaggerated the threat Iraq posed but gravely underestimated the problems of postwar occupation. Americans would do well to heed General Shinseki's final warning.

How to Really Save Private Lynch

"We face an unemployment problem that is certainly without precedent in my lifetime," said Paul Bremer, the US-appointed Governor of Iraq, as he unveiled a $100 million public works program for that battered country, using funds drawn from the Iraqi Central Bank. The move, according to the Wall Street Journal, is part of a broader effort to get Iraqis back to work, rebuild the country's hospitals and highways and, generally, jump-start the moribund economy.

Meanwhile, back in Palestine, West Virginia--best known as the hometown of Private Jessica Lynch--nearly half of the adults in Wirt county are unemployed, the poverty rate hovers near 20 percent and funds for civic projects like rebuilding the 41-year old county swimming pool have completely dried up.

West Virginia generally derived little benefit from the "boom" years of the 1990s, and has been hit hard by the recent economic downturn. Research by the National Center for Children in Poverty shows that the state's child poverty rate of 27.5 percent is almost ten points higher than the national average. And, according to recent census data, six percent of all West Virginia families still use wood as the sole fuel to heat their homes, five percent of households have no telephone service of any kind, and 12,009 families live without either plumbing or kitchen facilities.

So, where are the nation-building plans for Palestine, USA--and the other towns across America, forced to shorten school years, increase class size, eliminate preschool programs, close libraries, lay off highway workers, and slash health benefits? Where is the jobs program for the almost nine million unemployed Americans--and the many millions more underemployed (and underpaid)? Why can Iraqi public funds be used for hospitals, schools and highways, while, increasingly, US public funds are shrunken through tax cuts for the rich and diverted away from rebuilding our infrastructure and domestic security?

Next time this Administration announces a plan to build schools or roads or housing in Baghdad, we should ask: where is a similar plan for rebuilding Palestine, West Virginia?

It seems to me that the most authentic and appropriate way to support Private Lynch's service would be to offer her community genuine assistance in overcoming poverty. In short, federal policies that provide opportunities and urgently-needed aid for the poorest communities in America--the places that disproportionately supply the ranks of the brave soldiers risking their lives in Iraq today.

Where's the Accountability?

Remember the outrage over Bill Clinton's dissembling about Monica? But where's the outrage on the right over this Administration's manipulation of intelligence regarding Iraq's WMD? (Factoid: Did you know that the investigation of what went wrong in the run-up to 9-11 is currently funded at $15 million, less than one-fourth of what the Republican-led Congress authorized for the Monica Lewinsky investigation?)

New York Times columnist William Safire, who lived in a constant state of outrage during the Clinton years, argues that anger over the Bush Administration's manipulations is overblown. But the evidence that a cabal of neocons misled America into war just keeps on coming. (On Friday, a declassified September report from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that there was "no reliable information" that Iraq was producing new chemical weapons.)

The White House faces a mounting credibility gap of staggering scale. Newspapers around the globe are accusing the Administration of lying to the world. Tony Blair is facing fierce pressure at home over the issue. Analogies to Watergate are rife. Indeed, the celebrated question of that scandal is as relevant today as it was then: What did the President (and his key people) know and when did they know it?

As Malcolm Savidge, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament, told MSNBC's Brian Williams the other night: If the WMD allegations are true, "it would be a graver charge [than Watergate] and it really would fit into the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors which we in Britain used to have as a basis for impeachment and which, of course, you still have as a basis for impeachment."

Rumblings of impeachment are also being heard on our side of the Atlantic. John Dean--a man who knows something about political scandal--wrote an astonishing column published on CNN's website this past weekend:

"In the three decades since Watergate, this is the first potential scandal I have seen that could make Watergate pale by comparison...To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be "a high crime" under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony "to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose."

Or listen to what Robert Byrd said on the Senate floor last Friday: "Could it be that the intelligence was wrong, or could it be that the facts were manipulated? These are very serious and grave questions, and they require immediate answers. We cannot--and must not--brush such questions aside. We owe the people of this country an answer. Every member of this body ought to be demanding answers."

As almost every major institution in America--from the New York Times, baseball (see Sammy Sosa), domestic diva Martha Stewart, to the Catholic Church--is held to some standard of accountability, shouldn't the Bush Administration be held accountable on the gravest of all charges--deceiving its citizens in order to lead them into war?

Reality TV and Historical Amnesia

As Gore Vidal likes to say, we're living in the United States of Amnesia. If you had any reason to doubt the great man, check out the new reality shows crowding our TV screens currently. There's Dog Eat Dog, NBC's new offering, in which "six sexy and savvy players play upon each other's strengths and weaknesses" to compete for $25,000.

The other night, in the show's quiz section, a young female contestant was stumped when asked: "Which West Point graduate led the allied forces in Gulf War One?" A fog of amnesia passed over her youthful face, then she lit up and blurted: "Al Gore." Gore Vidal would have enjoyed that.


Ari, Watch What You Say

Aaron McGruder knows how to say goodbye to outgoing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. (Remember the chill you felt, just weeks after 9/11, when you heard Fleischer tell Americans that they needed "to watch what they say.")

In a recent Boondocks, my favorite comic-strip as even casual readers of this weblog know, Huey asks Caesar, "You heard Ari Fleischer is resigning as White House spokesman?" Caesar: "Did they say why?" Huey: "Presumably to spend less time lying to the public and more time lying to his wife."

The Risks of Inaction

Remember Vice President Dick Cheney's dire warning, in the run-up to war against Iraq: "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." I'd like to see Congressional hearings in which the VP is forced to account for that statement, in light of growing evidence that the Bush Administration grossly manipulated intelligence about those weapons of mass destruction.

While we're at it, let's throw Cheney's warning back at him in another context. How about the argument that the risks of inaction on fundamental healthcare reform are much higher than any of the risks associated with a major overhaul of our failing system?

As David Broder noted in a recent Washington Post column, even leading private sector leaders and heads of several of America's major corporations are beginning to make the case that, as the head of California's public employees retirement system known as CalPERS put it, "fixing our dysfunctional health care system...needs to be our top priority."

CalPERS and several large corporations are members of the bipartisan National Health Coalition on Health Care. Even this moderate coalition, co-chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, understands that only a comprehensive approach, like universal health insurance, can head off our looming healthcare crisis.

But, despite a growing national consensus for healthcare reform, when it comes to the human security of 41 million uninsured Americans, the Bush White House is comfortable living with the risks of inaction.

The United States of France?

Condoleezza Rice is still lecturing the French for refusing to support war against Iraq. Congress is still serving "freedom" fries for lunch. Donald Rumsfeld has consigned France to the dustbin of "Old Europe." And George W. is withholding the coveted Crawford ranch invitation from French President Jacques Chirac.

So, you'd never know that a majority of American citizens have more in common with Chirac's view of world order than with the Bush Administration's unilateralism. Don't believe me? Check out an April poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. The survey found strong opposition to Bush's "global cop" approach and overwhelming support for a multilateral US foreign policy--with a central role for the United Nations. Most striking is the degree to which the public rejects the kind of international role pushed by neocon hawks in the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office.

When asked to choose among three options to describe the role Washington should play in the world, only 12 percent favored the "preeminent" world leader position; 76 percent said "the US should do its share in efforts to solve international problems with other countries;" while 11 percent said Washington should "withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems." With each passing day, it's clearer that this Administration has no mandate to pursue an extremist agenda at home--or abroad?

Another World is (Still) Possible

In these days of defensive shadow boxing, it's a rare world leader who has something visionary to say. But amidst the pompous rituals of the G-8 summit in Evian, France, Brazilian President Lula da Silva's speech reminds that another world is possible. His proposal to create a global anti-hunger fund, which would be funded by a tax on international arms sales, makes both moral and practical sense.

"Hunger cannot wait," Lula said."My proposal is the creation of a global fund capable of feeding those who are hungry and at the same time creating the conditions to eradicate the structural causes of hunger." He also proposed that richer nations could use a percentage of debt repayments from developing nations to help fund the program. Let's hope that Lula's ideas receive more attention when he comes to DC on June 20th for a meeting with President Bush.

Burying Torture

The great journalist and former Nation Washington editor I.F. Stone, who often saw what others missed, once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never knew on what page you would find a page-one story."

I thought of Stone's observation recently, while reading a New York Times article about the terrorist bombings in Casablanca, Morocco. Buried toward the end of the piece, Elaine Sciolino reported: "The king is widely credited in the United States for being an unabashed ally in the war on terror. Morocco has a very close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, which has used the kingdom to conduct interrogations of suspected terrorists, often without regard to due process." Why isn't the CIA's outsourcing of torture front-page news?

Saturday at Jimmy's Uptown

It was conceived as the beginning of a conversation about how to raise issues of social and economic justice through music, journalism, literature, TV, theatre and film.

The venue was Jimmy's Uptown--a hip Harlem restaurant/jazz club at 130th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Organized by the Center for Community Change, a New York-based group dedicated to empowering low income communities, yesterday's afternoon gathering brought together actors/activists Danny Glover, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, former congressman Ron Dellums, pollster Celinda Lake, writer Nelson George (Hip-Hop Nation), hip-hop artist Boots Riley, screenwriter James Kearns (John Q ), film producer Lee Daniels (Monster's Ball), and about a dozen other writers, journalists, musicians and cultural activists.

Glover, speaking first because he had to leave early for rehearsal, reminded people how Dellums, when in office, had helped reframe the language around apartheid, giving people a sense that their voice and vision mattered. "We need to change the language," Glover said, "and create one which excites people, one which makes people feel we're speaking to them."

Glover sounded like many progressives these days in talking about how we must take a page from the Right's playbook. "We need to become active at the local level, on schoolboards, in sheriff's races, all down the line, like the Right. They have their think tanks, their language, their message. We need to build our own, and create a different dynamic."

The conversation ranged widely. Dellums invoked Martin Luther King, Jr., "that master of words," in reminding people how important it is to transform the antiwar movement into a movement for peace and justice. "Peace is more than the absence of war; it is the presence of justice."

Others raised questions: What words can we use to convey our message? How can we best engage young people in a political process that appears increasingly neglectful of their needs? What is the poem that can move people on the question of poverty, the rap song that will encourage people to vote, the script that compels Americans to consider the benefits of peace?

"What's been lost," Nelson George told the group, "is our ability to tell stories. We need a narrative, a story. I remember, as a kid, watching the civil rights movement--the March on Washington, Selma. There was a sense of momentum, of progress, some of it refracted through the media. That spirit was lost, and Hip-Hop replaced the momentum. It's time to create a counter-narrative, to counter the Right's 'welfare queen' crap. We need a sense of optimism, some achievable goals, a message, and an empowering narrative. We have the storytellers and stories to tell."

Ossie Davis, who's seen about everything there is to see in his 86 years of life, began by telling the story of a pygmy philosopher, who was once asked: How do you eat an elephant? One step at a time, the thinker replied.

"One reason the Right rolled over us in these last months," Davis declared, "is that it controlled the definition of patriotism with television, images, language. I'd like our fellow hip-hoppers to come up with our own definition of patriotism. No stiff declarations, please. We can use humor. Raise tough questions. Expose the corruption and absurdity of those who say if you didn't support the war you're unpatriotic. We can be clever too--use a song, a joke or an argument to define true patriotism--so it speaks to brothers on the street, in jail, in the military. We have to do it. People in Congress ain't going to do it for us."

Davis concluded with a challenge. "Here's a test for all of us. We should be able to meet a brother on the corner and explain the whole damn thing to him before the light changes."

Who's ready for the Ossie Davis test?

Doing it Right

"Running for President? Health Care Better Be Your Priority" is the hard-to-miss slogan on a poster in the Des Moines, Iowa airport. Dreamt up by the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care workers' union in the nation, the billboard seems to be already having an impact on the Democratic presidential debate. Instead of squabbling over who is most electable, most of the contenders are competing over who can best address the nation's escalating health care crisis.

Now, it's true, as Robert Kuttner recently pointed out in the Boston Globe, that with a few exceptions, the health plans released by the democratic presidential contenders are inadequate to dealing with the crisis. "They leave the current system largely intact," Kuttner notes, "and use subsidies and tax credits to reduce the number of uninsured--as if the whole system were not broken." And he rightly argues, to have any chance in 2004, the Dems will "need something bolder to get real political traction from health insurance, let alone to solve the problem."

So it surprised me that he failed to mention Dennis Kucinich in his roundup of the candidates. Kucinich fully supports government-financed health care for all Americans, something Kuttner presumably favors. The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray also omitted Kucinich when he wrote that, "What's interesting about the Democratic proposals is that none of them, so far, endorse a government-run 'single-payer' health-care system--the solution on which most other developed countries have settled." Well, Kucinich's plan is just that, Mr. Murray.

Kuttner has it right when he says that even incremental proposals by Democrats will be attacked as too costly and entailing too much government. So, they "might as well do it right," he adds. Kucinich may not be electable, but he's trying to "do it right." The least he could get is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Kuttner, Murray and a media that seems more interested in marginalizing Kucinich than exploring his policy proposals.

And while universal health care is attacked by both party's strategists as utopian, costly and wasteful, the largest and most wasteful defense budget in the country's history just sailed through Congress with little discussion of the costs or debate about the rationale for a slew of new weapons systems.

Instead, Republicans and most Democrats vied to outdo each other in praising the defense package. Only that latter-day dissident, Senator Robert C. Byrd, voted against the bill. And only Byrd raised tough questions about why a country which now spends more on defense than "all other 18 members of NATO, plus China, plus Russia, and plus the remaining rogue states combined," needs to spend billions more while stealing from investments in health care, education and retirement security that helped make America strong in the first place.

"In an age when we talk about smart bombs and smart missiles and smart soldiers," Byrd declared, "any talk of smart budgets has gone out the window." Is Byrd the last sane person in Congress?

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