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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.

Pity David Frum

Conservative talking head and former Bush speechwriter David Frum was quoted yesterday by Howard Kurtz in his online Washington Post media column criticizing my "amazing breath control" and "dazzling long-windedness" during a recent TV program on which the two of us appeared.

I must apologize if Frum felt deprived of his fair share of air time. As we all know, conservative pundits tend to be shy and reserved. Pity Frum and his comrades--Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Fred Barnes--for not being able to express themselves fully in the face of the widespread "microphone-hugging stunts" of the "hard left." Next time, I am on-air with Frum, I promise--really, I do--to throttle back so that his side finally has a chance to reach the public. And perhaps he will take that opportunity to engage the arguments at hand and not worry so much my breathing. Though if he is really interested, I can send him the name of a good yoga instructor.

Kerry & Dean--Where's the Beef?

About a month ago, George Soros sent me a letter along with a copy of a recent speech he'd delivered offering his views on "America's Role in the World." (I'm sure I was one of thousands to get the mailing.) Soros wrote that he was looking for a presidential candidate "who could articulate an alternative vision for America's role in the world and so far I have found two, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont and Senator John Kerry."

I thought of Soros' letter after reading that Kerry's campaign had blasted Dean's credentials as potential commander in chief. As Kerry's communications director, Chris Lehane, put it in attacking the former Vermont Governor's comment: "No serious candidate for the presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America's military supremacy." But who's talking about eroding US military supremacy? (Maybe Kerry went on the attack because he is stung from being derided for "looking French," by an unidentified White House official.)

It turns out that the former Vermont governor was quoted on Time.com as saying something eminently reasonable: "We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won't always have the strongest military." Some might consider this an alternative vision. I think it's just common sense. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said all his candidate was saying was that Bush's foreign policy will ultimately leave the nation less safe in the war against terrorism by relying too heavily on military force at the expense of diplomacy.

But, my worry is that Dean's foreign-policy vision isn't unconventional enough. When I heard him speak a few months ago, he vowed he wouldn't touch the defense budget. If Dean wanted to lay out a credible and progressive security policy he could counter Kerry's attack by noting that the current US defense budget of $400 billion is larger than those of the next fifteen nations in the world combined. He could make the case that unless the Democrats confront the waste in Bush's defense budget (and his reckless tax cut), they will have no money for concrete gains in healthcare, education and the other domestic issues they claim to champion--even if they do win the White House or Congress.

So hell, why doesn't Dean make the case for spending five times more on weapons and the armed forces than the rest of the world combined? Or ten? We'll still have the strongest military for decades to come. Right now, the US has more people without healthcare than any other advanced industrial country. Why not make sensible cuts in the defense budget and let America start competing to be number one in education, employment, housing, literacy, life-expectancy and child health standards? Do the math: Cut one "upgraded" Abrams Tank and we have the money to enroll 1,100 underprivIeged children in (recently defunded) Head Start programs; Cut the Army Comanche Helicopter program and Navy Joint standoff weapons and we can build housing for 600,000 homeless families; Reduce the nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads--more than enough to destroy all our potential enemies--and cancel three cold war weapons programs, the F-2 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey aircraft and the new attack submarine, and we can reduce all classes nationwide in the first, second and third grades to fifteen students total.

Yes, the Democrats need to counter the (wrongheaded) view that they are "softer" on defense than the Republicans. (Instead they continue to abet it by trying to punt in favor of domestic issues.) And there is a real opportunity--after Iraq--to lay out a credible alternative security policy that deals effectively with the dangers of a post-Sept. 11 world--from stateless terrorism to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. After all, it's becoming clearer that we may be the most powerful military might in world history, but preemptive war, unilerateralism and a $400 billion defense budget aren't creating a safer, secure, more democratic, or more prosperous planet.

Shouldn't presidential candidates show some boldness? The way to start is by being honest and saying that America can't continue to increase military spending and still deliver a credible domestic agenda for working Americans.

If Dean wants to look tough while talking common sense (and maybe securing Soros' potentially valuable support), he might take a page out of a true Republican war heroes' playbook? Listen to Dwight Eisenhower: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Unbuilt Monuments

The toppling of the monument of Saddam Hussein on April 9 was seen by millions and replayed 24/7, but monuments not built can reveal as much about a country's true condition as ones put up and pulled down.

Barely a week after the statue of Hussein was brought down in Baghdad, a long-delayed proposal to build a monument in Moscow in honor of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel prize winning pro-democracy dissident, was halted by an unlikely opponent. His widow, Yelena Bonner, bitterly opposes the project because she believes the human rights abuses, poverty and authoritarianism of Russia's political life today do not reflect the principles or vision and, thus, memory of her late husband.

"What is Russia today?" Bonner wrote in a widely-circulated open letter. "It is a country in which a third of its population lives below the poverty line...a country waging a bloody war in Chechnya...a country where nearly every day free mass media are being destroyed by political or financial pressure....this Russia violently contrasts with the idea of erecting a monument to Sakharov." Putting up a monument to Sakharov, she believes, would be a "very big deception."

Bonner's scathing description of Russia today is an indictment not only of the Putin government but also of American media commentary. Fragments of Russia's cruel economic collapse are occasionally reported in the US press, but the full dimensions of impoverishment, disintegration of the middle classes, and official corruption are perpetually underplayed. (See Stephen F. Cohen, "Failed Crusade" for the full story of the media's failure.)

Indeed, only a few days before Bonner spoke out, the New York Times published a boosterish piece--one of many in US business pages--about Russia, which served to obscure the true reality of Russian life. "People are getting happier," correspondent Michael Wines wrote, in a piece that was largely devoted to publicizing a new luxury mall in Moscow's suburbs. Like this New York Times article, most mainstream commentators buy the neoliberal view that Russia is a financial success story.

But ask an expert: Nobel prize winner and former Chief Economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz recently observed in the Guardian that, "No rewriting of history can change the fact that neoliberal reform produced undiluted economic decline in Russia." A period during which "poverty and inequality increase enormously as a few become wealthy cannot be called a victory for capitalism or democracy."

Tragically, providing dramatic evidence of Russia's instability, only hours after Bonner expressed opposition to the monument, Sergei Yushenkov--the legislator who originally proposed the project--was gunned down outside his apartment in a political assassination. One of Russia's most prominent opposition politicians, Yushenkov sympathized with Bonner's views on Russia. Nevertheless, Yushenkov believed that a monument to Sakharov would help remind Russians "that the outstanding sons of our country clashed with the government" over human rights.

In the long run, no monument will improve the lives of tens of millions of people living below the poverty line or repair Russia's ravaged public health system, idle factories, decaying farms, polluted rivers, and collapsing educational system. Nor will it restore democratic accountability, bring back the thousands of soldiers and civilians killed in Chechnya, halt corrosive corruption or force oligarchs to reinvest the billions they've stolen and stashed in offshore bank accounts.

Yet, it is also true that the way a society thinks about its monuments reflects how it deals with its own past, present and future. Bonner's words should serve as a living monument to Sakharov's legacy--and a reminder to us that we are still not getting the real story about Russia from our media.

Emperor Bush

Is Bush taking lessons from Julius Caesar? Apparently so. When Caesar's short but bloody conquest of the Celtic tribes led to the founding of the Roman province of Gaul (modern France) in 52 B.C. he divided the country into three parts. Well-connected sources tell us that Bush plans to divide Iraq into three parts as well: Premium, regular and unleaded.

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."

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