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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.

Democracy Bush-Style?

Skip the stories about pro-consul Jay Garner, Bechtel's war profiteering and the Bush Administration's professed commitment to building democracy in Iraq. For a clear-eyed view of democracy-building according to Bush, see today's edition of Aaron McGruder's celebrated comic-strip Boondocks.

Chief protagonist and avid news junky Huey Freeman sits in front of his TV, listening to the latest news report:

"To guarantee free and fair elections in Iraq as soon as possible, President Bush announced he would be sending Katherine Harris to Baghdad next week."

Our Evangelist President

With America's leading evangelist in the White House, is it any wonder that Christian preacher Franklin Graham and his relief agency, Samaritan's Purse, are "poised and ready" to bring their missionary zeal to the Iraqi people?

Franklin Graham, Billy's son, has, like his father, earned the title of "pastor to presidents." He has also earned widespread criticism from Muslims for calling Islam a "very evil and wicked religion" bent on "world domination." Such statements have made many people, not only Muslims, question the decision to give him a role in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Graham and his relief agency are about to head into Iraq, eagerly awaiting, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "to inveigle Iraqi infidels with a blend of kitchen pantry and Elmer Gantry."

And, in the meantime, Donald Rumsfeld invited Graham to deliver this past week's Good Friday prayer service to a packed audience at the Pentagon--over the objections of the lay leader of the Pentagon's Muslim community, who charitably called Graham a "divisive' figure, and a number of Muslim Pentagon employees. (Washington Post," At Pentagon, Graham Lets Controversy Sit Silently.")

Yes, let's raise tough questions about Graham's divisive statements and what they augur for his missionary work in Iraq. But, let's remember that it's our President, Evangelist #1, who bears ultimate responsibility for the religious right's strength--at home and abroad.

Click here to listen to President Bush's weekly radio address from April 19. It's a sermon worthy of the best of Franklin (or Billy) Graham and may help explain why so many people around the world see the war in Iraq as part of a crusade against Islam.

Rather Takes on Rumsfeld

When asked by Larry King about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's charges that the media had exaggerated the lawlessness and looting in Baghdad in the early days of the US occupation, Dan Rather, not given to picking fights with the White House, couldn't lay off this one. See the excerpt below and click here for the full transcript from April 14.

KING: Secretary Rumsfeld has said that the media has given an exaggerated picture of the looting and the lawlessness. What have you found?

RATHER: Well, I don't have any argument with the Defense Secretary. But I will say that I'm here. I try to be an honest reporter, be an honest broker of information. And I--it's my judgment that if Secretary Rumsfeld had been here, he might have worded that at least in a somewhat different way. There's no question the looting has been rampant and widespread. It was for several days here. We were told that it began to taper off some today. And in fact, I think it did, but primarily because most things of value have been stripped out of most places where they could be.

But you know, it's not a time to argue. The Defense Secretary has his judgment, and if that's his judgment, well, he'll ride with it. But as a reporter, I can simply say that I don't--I've never seen anything like the looting here. I don't think anybody else has seen anything like the looting here. It was widespread, and it did have a depressing effect on the population. To say that it was just, quote, "exuberance," unquote--you know, the Secretary of Defense has to talk about a lot, and he probably would want to take back that word himself, if he had a chance to do so.

No Profits for Profiteers

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it well: "War is a tragedy for some and a boon for others." (Spoils of War, April 10.) "The war against Iraq," Herbert writes, "has become one of the clearest examples ever of the influence of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against so eloquently in his farewell address of 1961. This iron web of relationships among powerful individuals inside and outside the government operates with very little public scrutiny and is saturated with conflicts of interest."

Thanks to the Center for Public Integrity's recent investigation we now know that at least nine of the thirty members of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board--a non-elected group that is central in the formulation of US foreign policy--are linked to companies that were awarded more than $76 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002 alone. (We're also likely to see many of the same corporations--like the Bechtel Group--that made hundreds of millions of dollars doing business with what they knew was a murderous Iraqi regime receive billons of dollars worth of contracts to now rebuild Iraq.)

There's a word for what's going on--war profiteering. Fortunately some are taking notice: Representatives Henry Waxman (D, CA) and John Dingell (D, Michigan) are to be commended for taking on the issue and the corporate conflicts of interest so pervasive in this Administration.

On April 8, they asked the General Accounting Office to conduct a comprehensive investigation into how the Pentagon is handling the bidding process for lucrative contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq. They also urged the GAO to investigate whether Halliburton (Vice-President Cheney's old company--through which he is still eligible for deferred compensation) has received special treatment from the Administration in the awarding of Defense Department contracts.

It's estimated that corporations and their well-connected bosses will cash in on some $100 billion worth of postwar reconstruction contracts. But why should war in Iraq be good for those who have been good to the Republican party? Why should US companies who did business with Hussein profit from his ouster? Why should working people in the US support their tax dollars being used to pay for rebuilding schools, roads and hospitals destroyed by the US in Iraq, when those things are also crumbling in the US?

If you believe that postwar contracts should be designed to rebuild Iraq--not line war profiteers' bank accounts--consider supporting the following proposals:

* Fund the rebuilding of postwar Iraq through a special 50 percent Excess Profit/"Windfall for War" tax on all contracts offered to US corporations.

* Support Rep. Rahm Emanuel's (D-IL) "American Parity Act," which seeks to balance America's investments in housing, education, health care and other domestic priorities with equal spending in the Iraq postwar reconstruction plan. (So far, the bill has 28 co-sponsors, including Reps. Hinchey, Lee, Schakowsky, McGovern, DeFazio, DeLauro and Woolsey.)

* And consider the idea offered by Robert Jervis of New York in a letter to The New York Times from April 14:

"The Bechtel Group and other American companies could make a great contribution to both Iraq and America by renouncing all profits from the rebuilding of Iraq. People all over the world believe that the United States fought the war to make money. Our companies have a unique opportunity to show that this is false."

Apologist for Looting

Listen to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld excusing the looting and turmoil which wracked Iraq over the last few days: "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things." Am I crazy to think that if there's looting when the next blackout occurs in the US, it is unlikely that Rumsfeld will be as understanding?

Sy Hersh and the Wizard of Oz

Sy Hersh has seen it all. So, it's worth paying attention to what the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist had to say when he received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Jornalism at Harvard University on March 11th:

"...I think it's a very tough time for us in Washington. I've been around, let's see, 35 or so years. I make the joke that I haven't been so afraid since I watched "The Wizard of Oz" with my six-year old daughter. These guys scare me. They're insulated. They're tough to get to....I've never seen my peers as frightened as they are....There is no real standard anymore of integrity and truth because the White House doesn't have any, and so we're all left on our own to sort of stagger around and try to figure out what's going on. He is the president, and he does have the power to send our children to commit murder in the name of democracy, and we respect that, we do, but a real crisis is coming, and I can tell you I wish there was better reporting out of Washington. I know how hard it is. I know how tough it is."

The Phantom Antihawk

The "phantom antihawk" is not a new video game or Ben Affleck blockbuster. It's a nickname for George Bush, America's 41st President and father of George W. And, according to Elizabeth Bumiller, writing in the New York Times, "as the conflict has unfolded, the father has become the ghost at his son's White House war council." Interviews with dozens of Bush 41's former associates "do nothing to dispel the view of him as an internationalist worried about the influence of the go-it-alone hawks in his son's administration." In certain circles, Bush 41 "is even seen as the third member, with Mr. Powell and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain" of what some in DC are calling "the axis of virtue." I've never associated virtue with any of these men, but Papa Bush apparently has enough common sense to know that his son's hawks , now controlling America's national security, are not true conservatives but radical extremists.

This sense is clearly shared by Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser during the 1991 Gulf war. In a speech to the Norwegian Nobel Institute on April 8th, Scowcroft urged the US to let the United Nations organize the postwar administration of Iraq and warned that a quick push for democratic transformation could explode into sectarian violence or civil war. And he argued--as he did last August--that preemptive war against Iraq was an unwarranted and divisive distraction from the fight against global terrorism. Scowcroft also lamented that the UN Security Council and other "structures we've built to handle our security are under significant stress and may not survive to serve us in the future."

Kommissar Kristol

William Kristol's April 7 editorial in The Weekly Standard denouncing critics of the war on Iraq as "anti-American" is startlingly reminiscent of the menacing directives issued for decades by the Soviet Communist Party's Department of Ideology.

Any literate person of Kristol's generation surely remembers the repressive charges of "anti-Sovietism" leveled by the pre-Gorbachev Kremlin against domestic opponents, including the great pro-democracy (and, yes, pro-peace) dissident Andrei Sakharov. Now Kommissar Kristol lays down the line that all critics of the White House's war are guilty of holding "anti-American" opinions. According to Kristol, the "anti-Americans" include "the Teddy Kennedy wing of the Senate Democrats, the Nancy Pelosi faction of the House Democrats, a large majority of Democratic grass-roots activists" and the "bulk of liberal columnists, the New York Times editorial page, and Hollywood."

No doubt Kristol, with his censorious, antidemocratic instincts, would have risen high in the apparat of the old Soviet Communist Party. But there may be a larger, more ominous parallel here: Once upon a time, the Kremlin also used force to try to remake the world in its own image.

Conservatives claim to learn from history. Kristol's outburst--one of many such dissent-is-unpatriotic statements issued by pro-White House cheerleaders in the media--is more evidence that the people who now control America's national security policy are not really conservatives but extremists.

Where's the Leadership?

Read the New York Times' article (" Democratic Lawmakers Keep Their Heads Down While Letting the Generals Speak Out") for clues about what's wrong with the opposition party in this great country. It is silent, virtually mute. (For notable exceptions, see Dennis Kucinich's recent statement, "This War is Wrong and Must End," and Barbara Lee's Resolution 141, titled "Disavowing the Doctrine of Preemptive strategy.") Res 141 was co-sponsored by 21 House Democrats, all members of the Progressive Caucus, including Jesse Jackson, Jr, John Conyers, Barney Frank, Lynn Woolsey, George Miller, Bob Filner and Maxine Waters.

As one Democratic Party consultant put it: "Democrats don't need to do any criticism of the Bush Administration right now. The unnamed generals are doing that job for them." So, now we're depending on retired generals, rather than our elected representatives, to speak the truth about this war. If the majority of Democrats in Congress are afraid to criticize for fear of Republican backlash, who will speak for the millions of Americans who oppose the war? The generals? Not my idea of leadership.

For a much needed civics lesson, George Kennan's " Letter to the Editor" in the Washington Post (March 25, 2003) should be required reading for all Dems. One of America's leading establishment figures, now age 99, frail and living in Princeton, Kennan has more mojo than the current Democratic leadership combined.

"I am extremely concerned about the shameful, almost total passivity of Congress during the period of preparations for our military attack on Iraq. (I recognize as exceptions Senator Robert Byrd's noble statement in the Senate and the belated but vigorous statements of Senator Thomas A. Daschle.) Congress's inaction is a dangerous precedent in executive-legislative relations. In light of this precedent, future presidents will be tempted to seize virtually dictatorial powers under the title of commander in chief and nothing in our history rules out the possibility of their yielding to that temptation. This seems to be the meaning of the recent crisis."

Saving Brain Cells With Boondocks

I love Aaron McGruder's strip The Boondocks. Last Sunday, as I watched the parade of talk shows and listened to the "sabbath gasbags," (props to Calvin Trillin for that delightful term), I saved a few brain cells by savoring McGruder's celebrated syndicated comic and its two central characters.

Huey Freeman: "American democracy is a thing of the past. The media conspire with this administration to misinform a public that is either too scared or too stupid to reclaim their government."

Caesar: "Someone once said, 'The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.'"

Huey: "And people need to stop wasting precious time coming up with worthless sayings." (Washington Post, Sunday, March 30, 2003)

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