Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Earlier this month, The Nation and The Economist held a debate in New York City. Billed as "America's Role in the World: Protector or Predator," it was a wide-ranging discussion about US foreign policy, the Bush Administration, American intentions and neo-liberalism.
WNYC's Brian Lehrer was an artful moderator and Economist editor Bill Emmott a civil and informed adversary. While he and I disagreed on many issues, we did agree on the importance of independent media in this era of consolidation. CSPAN, which broadcast the debate on June 21, plans subsequent airings and is selling copies of the videotape on its website. (You can also listen and watch on your computer.) Below is an adapted version of my opening remarks:
These are perilous times, ones that raise large and fateful questions: What kind of country does the US want to be in the 21st century? Empire or Democracy? Global Leader or Global Cop? I believe that in pursuit of global dominance, the Bush Administration is endangering the world order abroad and the republic at home.
Consider that this Administration is as disrespectful of the US Constitution as it is of the UN charter. Its policies have widened the rift between the US and the rest of the globe, further inflamed the Muslim world and weakened the international coalitions so crucial to the fight against terrorism. In short, this Administration is making the US and the world a more dangerous place.
Yet, in history and politics there are always alternatives. The question is how America's unparalleled power might be used, how it might engage the world so as to become a source of hope, not fear. What needs to be stated clearly is that there is no mandate in the US for the extremist policies of this Administration. Our Foreign policy has been hijacked by a small neocon cabal, whose models appear to be Hobbes and John Wayne (in his later period, after The Searchers), which has been busily working to remake the world in its image for the last decade.
Recent polls show the majority of Americans want an America that abides by international law, that is a constructive partner in international institutions and that can work cooperatively to solve global problems. And, as we know from the unprecedented worldwide demonstrations against the war--these views are shared by a global majority--what has become known as the world's "other superpower."
So, in the short term, what makes the American imperial project less sustainable is the fact that the American public has little appetite for nation building or empire building abroad (particularly at a time when the GOP is gutting nation building at home); it is contrary to America's traditional principles.
So, maybe not tomorrow or next month, but someday not too far off we may well see an opening for a more intelligent, constructive use of American power--one that builds on America's traditions of acting in a farsighted and collective manner--as exemplified by the founding of the UN and the International Declaration of Human Rights. A leadership that wins respect at home and abroad through its commitment to global partnerships and an understanding that the key to world order, peace and prosperity is not American unilateral dominance but the strengthening of international governance and rule of law.
Think about a world in which US power would be used to:
** lead a global campaign to meet the UN's Millennium Goal of halving world poverty, cutting child mortality by two-thirds and guaranteeing every child primary education by 2015.
**strengthen multilateral and verifiable arms control treaties that curb WMDs, while at same time promoting nuclear disarmament and international demilitarization.
**End dependence on foreign oil and invest in the development of alternative energy sources.
These are just a few of the projects of a wise and enlightened power, a constructive member of the international community. Now, more than ever, US foreign policy should draw inspiration from the deep but often suppressed democratic and internationalist foundations of this nation. Borrowing a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, this Administration needs to show a decent respect for the "opinions of mankind."
President Bush's support for Iranian student protesters reminds me of something a Russian friend said to me many years ago, during the Soviet era: "You Americans are an odd people. You love our dissidents, but you don't like your own dissidents. You should support your local dissidents, too."
Don't get me wrong. I think Americans should support Iran's student movement--while understanding that fundamental reform must come about peacefully, indigenously and without US interference. But I'd like to see a little respect for our own dissidents too.
On February 15th, when more than two million Americans protested the Administration's rush to war in Iraq, Bush contemptuously dismissed them as a "focus group." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added that "Often the message of the protesters is contradicted by history." Millions of Americans who have opposed corporate globalization have been treated with even more derision.
The other day Bush said, "I would urge the Iranian administration to treat [the protesters] with the utmost of respect." Okay, but how about treating your own dissidents with some respect, Mr. President?
Deploying his smashmouth style of personal diplomacy, Newt Gingrich is again assailing the State Department as a "broken institution," for its failures in implementing President Bush's foreign policy. This isn't Gingrich's first broadside.
In a speech last April at the American Enterprise Institute, the citadel of neoconism, he called for a purge of State, causing Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to retort: "It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy." It would be an amusing sideshow if this discredited politician didn't reflect the thinking of so many in the Bush Administration.
A close associate of Donald Rumsfeld and a member of the multi-conflicted Pentagon Defense Policy Board, Gingrich is a stalking horse for Administration forces who scorn diplomacy and international treaties in favor of unilateralism, pre-emption and overwhelming military supremacy. Like the men he fronts for, Gingrich is a threat to world order, national security and American interests abroad.
Want to know where to find weapons of mass destruction? Last weekend, the New York Times buried an article on how authorities in Thailand had seized as much as sixty-six pounds of Cesium-137, a radioactive material which could be used to make "dirty" bombs.
Experts said they were startled by the amount found. "Pounds? Most studies of 'dirty' bombs start off by describing weapons with an ounce of Cesium," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. "Cesium-137 is serious stuff, highly radioactive. You put it alongside ten pounds or more of dynamite, and you've got a really dangerous terror weapon."
Non-proliferation experts said they wouldn't be surprised if the Cesium came from the former Soviet Union--the source of much of the radioactive material seized on the black market in recent years. Just three days later, the New York Times' World Briefing section ran a tiny item noting that police in Tbilisi, Georgia had just discovered 170 pounds of Cesium-137, along with strontium 90 in a taxi.
WMD in a taxicab in downtown Tbilisi? WMD in a metal box in Bangkok? Isn't it time for a performance review of the job the Bush Administration is doing to ensure America's national security? In the postwar chaos, Iraq's nuclear sites have been looted, radioactive materials can't be accounted for and there's no sign ofany weapons of mass destruction. (And even if they are found, it's clear that they never posed an imminent and grave threat.)
It's no wonder former national security official and Special Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism Rand Beers, who resigned eight week ago, blasted the Administration's agenda as the reason for his departure: "They're making us less secure, not more secure."
With each passing day, the White House's priorities seem scandalously skewed. Just consider: The Bush team will spend close to $100 billion on war with Iraq, while they disastrously underfund vital programs to safeguard, destroy or neutralize Russia's vast and poorly-secured nuclear, chemical and biological stockpile. (Current funding for these nonproliferation programs is around $1 billion a year--less than 1/400th of the current Pentagon budget.)
You think I'm hyping the problem. Listen to former Department of Energy official Jon Wolfstahl's warning to Congress last May: "It is impossible to overstate the dangers posed by the continued lack of security over the weapons complex of the former Soviet Union. Each day, hundreds of tons of material and an unknown number of nuclear weapons--capable of killing millions of American citizens--are at risk of theft or diversion."
After reaching the same conclusion, a bipartisan task force headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler called on the US to commit to a $3 billion per year, ten-year plan to secure or destroy Russia's nuclear stockpile. But, as Wolfstahl says, the Administration continues to "spend a lot more time talking about 'evildoers' than spending time securing radioactive materials that could actually hurt Americans."
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.
"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.
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?
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."
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.
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?