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Progressives See No Progress

When it comes to the Iraq War, the 72-member Congressional Progressive Caucus has generally been a source of energy in the Democratic Party, as its members have quite vocally pressured party leaders for legislation that could lead to an end to the war. But at a sparsely attended "townhall meeting" Wednesday morning at the Cannon House Office Building, venerable caucus leaders sounded a distinctly defeatist note, glumly explaining that Congress simply lacks both the votes and the spirit to undo Bush's war.

"It is one of the worst times to ever be in the Congress of the UnitedStates," complained California's Maxine Waters. "We look incapable of doing what the public wants us to do." A downbeat Waters also said that "even though members of Congress were elected on a platform to get us out of Iraq, they have prioritized getting along instead of following their heart and intellect."

Steven Cohen, a freshmen House democrat from Tennessee who has steadfastly opposed the war, didn't point fingers at his Democratic colleagues but nonetheless shared Water's frustration: "I think our Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] is a good leader, but maybe the leadership would be stronger if there was hope in the Senate to get the votes." In other words, the antiwar Democrats are stuck because of those Senate Republicans who refuse to break with George W. Bush on the war.

On the Senate side, there certainly is not much hope for change among Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would no longer try to bring troops home by spring. And it appears that an incremental strategy change being pushed by Senator Jim Webb that would give troops longer breaks between deployments is not likely to come to a vote.

During today's meeting, the progressive caucus, chaired by Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, once again called for Congress not to approve further funding for the war without a timetable for withdrawal. But the members did not come across as fired up to make such a measure happen. Nor did they threaten to break with Pelosi if legislation of this sort was not offered by the House leadership. They remain antiwar--but they came across as unsure what to do about it.

Senate Fails on Habeas Corpus

Today the US Senate fell four votes short of restoring Habeas Corpus, the fundamental constitutional right of individuals to challenge government detention, which the Republican Congress revoked in last year's Military Commissions Act. Fifty-six senators supported a procedural move to tie the Habeas provision to legislation authorizing defense spending--a step that requires sixty votes.

The amendment was sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, Senator Arlen Specter, who voted for the legislation that the amendment attempts to reverse, and Senator Chris Dodd, who blasted today's vote. "Each of us in the Senate faced a decision either to cast a vote in favor of helping to restore America's reputation in the world, or to help dig deeper the hole of utter disrespect for the rule of law that the Bush Administration has created. Unfortunately, too many of my colleagues chose the latter," he said.

Backers of the amendment and human rights organizers say they will continue to press for habeas restoration. Leah Adler, an organizer with Working Assets, wrote today that activists should focus on the U.S. House, which will "likely consider legislation to restore habeas corpus in the next few weeks."

Today's vote also suggests a new Senate majority for Habeas Corpus. (Last Congress, a similar amendment did not even break 50 votes.) And yes, it is a sad sign that we are reduced to counting votes for which members of Congress are upholding their oath to support the Constitution.

Iran Blowback?

Be careful what you wish for--that might be the catch phrase for American relations with Iran since the CIA helped overthrow the elected government of that country in 1953 and installed the young Shah in power. Much of our present world--and many of our present problems in the Middle East and Central Asia--stem from that particular act of imperial hubris. The Shah's Iran was then regarded by successive American administrations not just as a potential regional power, but as our regional bulwark, our imperial outpost. The US helped bulk up the Shah's military, as well as his fearsome secret police, and, under President Dwight Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, actually started Iran down the nuclear road which today leaves some administration figures threatening bloody murder, even while former Centcom commander John Abizaid claims that an Iranian bomb would not be the end of the universe. ("There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran... Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with [other] nuclear powers as well.")

The White House has reportedly given secret approval for covert operations to "destabilize" Iran and, evidently, its backing to small-scale terror strikes inside that country, while Iranian influence inside Shiite Iraq remains (as it has long been) significant. Meanwhile, a war of words (and charges) only escalates. President Bush heightened the anti-Iranian rhetoric in his September 13th post-Petraeus-hearings address, while an escalating campaign of charges against the activities of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards in Iraq continues to intensify, just as reports are coming out that the Pentagon is building a new base in Iraq, right up against the Iranian border. The Iranian nuclear situation remains at a boil.

There are also regular, if shadowy, reports that Vice President Cheney's office is pushing hard for a shock-and-awe air campaign against Iran. Recently (and not for the first time), the Iranians shot back: General Mohammed Hassan Koussechi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, threatened to respond to any American action in his country by firing off missiles with a range of at least 1,200 miles against American and Western targets across the Middle East including, presumably, the enormous military bases the Pentagon has scattered across Iraq. ("Today the Americans are around our country but this does not mean that they are encircling us. They are encircled themselves and are within our range.")

While US aircraft carrier battle groups slip in and out of the Persian Gulf, a murky Israeli air attack on a site in the Syrian desert, combined with a bizarre and unlikely nuclear tale involving the North Koreans, has added a further touch of paranoia to the situation. (According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, ex-United Nations Ambassador John Bolton has claimed that the Israeli bombing should be taken as "a clear message to Iran.... that its continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are not going to go unanswered.")

The President has indicated, more than once, that he would not hand the Iranian nuclear situation over to his successor unresolved (unlike the war in Iraq). Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man who knows well the dangers a U.S. attack on Iran poses, continues to claim that "all options are on the table" when it comes to the Iranians. So consider the Iranian-American relationship, splayed on the "table" of Iraq, to be the potential crucible of disaster for the planet between now and January 2009.

At Salon.com, Steve Clemons, the Washington insider who directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, has just weighed the likelihood of an American air assault on Iran and managed to suggest a number of hair-raising scenarios, even while indicating that President Bush may have backed off from the possibility. Former US ambassador Peter Galbraith, who considers the Iranian-American relationship in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books (in an essay posted at Tomdispatch.com) suggests that, "of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran's strategic victory is the most far-reaching," and explains just how the Bush administration has actually forwarded Iranian interests in Iraq at every level.

"The US," he concludes, "has good reason to worry about Iran's activities in Iraq. But contrary to the Bush administration's allegations--supported by both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in their recent congressional testimony--Iran does not oppose Iraq's new political order. In fact, Iran is the major beneficiary of the American-induced changes in Iraq since 2003."

Who would be the beneficiary of a late-term Bush administration assault on Iran? Only one thing is clear at the moment--not the United States.

 

Scholarships Happen

He's back.

Having apparently spent sufficient time with his family since being sacked, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is battling to rebuild his disgraced image. In Phase One, he sought to set the terrain with a folksy article in GQ about life on his ranch outside of Taos.

Phase Two was a verbal salvo during an interview on Fox News at MoveOn.org for its "General Betray Us" ad. Donald criticized moveon.org for criticizing General Petraeus, because he's afraid that this uncivil war of words discourages public service.

During this same interview, Donald laid out Phase Three: the creation of the Rumsfeld Foundation. The left flank of this good-deeds offensive will provide micro-loans to the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Apparently, he feels he's already done enough for Afghanistan and Iraq.

The right flank will provide research fellowships to graduate students for the purpose of encouraging public service. Never mind how much better the world would have been if Rumsfeld's public service had been discouraged, just think of these two words on your resume: Rumsfeld Fellow. It would be like the D.C. equivalent of a Razzie Award.

As for whether Rumsfeld's media surge strategy will win the battle and restore his reputation that is a known unknowable. But as you know, you go to a P.R. war with the credibility you have. And Rumsfeld lacks a sufficient number of troops.

Good Muslim Immigrants

Here's an interesting -- and not always in a good way -- article from Der Spiegel on American Muslims. Its thesis is that American Muslims have responded in a positive and potentially empowering way to the challenges of post-9/11 America because the United States has a better immigration policy than European nations.

The article does an excellent job of highlighting the ways in which the American Muslim community has met post-9/11 racism with greater political participation, civic activism, and engagement -- rather than retreating into anger and alienation. The US press hasn't paid enough attention to this angle.

But a some of the language is problematic and just plain odd. Like the bit where the writer claims that "America's new Muslim immigrants now find themselves being associated with [black] people who were traditionally viewed as America's losers" because they now vote almost entirely for Democrats. Huh? There's an odd whiff (or should that be stink) of elitism that runs through the article, as in: Wealthy, educated immigrants are good; working class, uneducated immigrants, bad.

Equally perplexing is the way the writer simply sweeps away the entirely different reason for Muslim immigration to Europe. Yes, immigrant Muslims in America tend to be better educated, perhaps, but they are also significantly smaller in number. The Muslim "ghettoes" that the author criticizes were created when countries like Germany and France "imported" large numbers of cheap, unskilled workers from countries like Turkey to solve their labor shortage problem in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

And as Der Spiegel itself documents in this 2004 article, these immigrants were then treated like guest workers with no rights, and not integrated into the society or given a path to citizenship. So it should hardly be a surprise that they're more alienated and at odds with mainstream Germany.

So, fine, it is indeed a "better" immigration policy to embrace the people you invite into your country to do your dirty work. Maybe American Muslims can teach Republicans to apply that lesson to certain other immigrants in this country.

Scholarships Happen

He's back.

Having apparently spent sufficient time with his family since being sacked, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is battling to rebuild his disgraced image. In Phase One, he sought to set the terrain with a folksy article in GQ about life on his ranch outside of Taos.

Phase Two was a verbal salvo during an interview on Fox News at MoveOn.org for its "General Betray Us" ad. Donald criticized moveon.org for criticizing General Petraeus, because he's afraid that this uncivil war of words discourages public service.

During this same interview, Donald laid out Phase Three: the creation of the Rumsfeld Foundation. The left flank of this good-deeds offensive will provide micro-loans to the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Apparently, he feels he's already done enough for Afghanistan and Iraq.

The right flank will provide research fellowships to graduate students for the purpose of encouraging public service. Never mind how much better the world would have been if Rumsfeld's public service had been discouraged, just think of these two words on your resume: Rumsfeld Fellow. It would be like the D.C. equivalent of a Razzie Award.

As for whether Rumsfeld's media surge strategy will win the battle and restore his reputation that is a known unknowable. But as you know, you go to a P.R. war with the credibility you have. And Rumsfeld lacks a sufficient number of troops.

Skepticism Required in Review of AG Choice

President Bush's nominee to succeed the most lamentable Attorney General of the United States since Warren Harding's scandal-plagued accomplice, Harry M. Daugherty, is undoubtedly capable of doing a better job than Alberto Gonzales.

But, with all due respect to the president's pick, retired Federal Judge Michael Mukasey, a randomly-selected recent law school graduate -- provided that the degree is not from an institution affiliated with Pat Robertson's legally-embarrassed "Preeminent Christian University" -- would make a better Attorney General than Gonzales. Similarly, a randomly-selected second-year law student would have been a better choice than Bush's preferred replacement for Gonzales, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, whose role in the Bush-v-Gore manipulation of the Florida presidential election recount of 2000 marks him as an even more dangerous partisan than the exiting AG.

There is real danger in settling for a nominee who looks good by comparison with Gonzales or Olson. While pressure from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee forced Bush to select a more mainstream nominee than he would have liked, Mukasey's record calls for intense scrutiny by the committee and the full Senate.

On the plus side, the former federal prosecutor and jurist is a more independent player than Gonzales, who was saw himself not as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer but as Bush's personal lawyer. And, though Mukasey is a conservative, his reasonably measured decisions suggest that he is not inclined toward the radical judicial activism favored by Federalist Society firebrand Olson.

But Mukasey is something less than a rule-of-law man when it comes to Constitutional matters. As a contributor to the right-wing editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the retired judge has written several articles that suggest he would have trouble balancing civil liberties and national security concerns.

For instance, in a May 10, 2004, op-ed, which was published as the debate about fixing fundamental flaws in the Patriot Act was heating up, Mukasey defended of some of the act's most extreme excesses and dismissively told critics to avoid what he termed "reflexive" or "recreational" criticisms of it.

In an op-ed published just last month, as something of set-up piece for his nomination by Bush, Mukasey argued against transparency and the application of basic criminal-law standards in terrorism prosecutions like that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen designated by the Bush administration as an illegal enemy combatant. As the judge who issued the first ruling in Padilla's challenge to his detention, Mukasey ruled that the government has a right to imprison the suspect without charging him with a crime. To his credit, however, Mukasey also granted defense motions to allow Padilla to meet with his attorneys and to speed up appeals regarding the legitimacy of the Bush administration's "enemy combatant" designation.

By any reasonable measure, Mukasey's is a complex record that demands intensive scrutiny and – considering the Bush administration's sorry history of disregarding the Constitution – aggressively skeptical questioning by committee members of both parties.

As U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution notes, "The next Attorney General will take over a Justice Department plagued by scandal and low morale. As Attorney General and White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales disregarded statutes, treaties and the Constitution to help this administration consolidate more and more power in the executive branch, and he misled Congress and the American people repeatedly. As a result, Congress and the public now lack confidence in the administration's commitment to impartial justice. The new Attorney General must make it a top priority to repair the damage done by Alberto Gonzales."

"To that end," argues Feingold, "Judge Mukasey must demonstrate that his first loyalty will be to the rule of law, not to the President. In particular I will be interested in his views on executive power and the need to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans while fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates aggressively. I will also expect Judge Mukasey to commit to reversing the course set by Alberto Gonzales by fully cooperating with ongoing congressional oversight of this administration's misconduct, and by always telling Congress and the public the truth, starting with his confirmation hearings. Congress, the Department's many committed employees, and the American people deserve nothing less from their Attorney General."

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John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Puppet Talks Back

The news that the Iraqi government has banned Blackwater USA, the notorious mercenary firm, from operating in the country reveals another of the great fictions promoted by the Bush crowd in the course of this catastrophic war. The notion that Iraq is a sovereign nation in control of its own destiny.

The Bush Administration announced this myth several years ago after Iraqis adopted a Constitution and started electing a government. It was shrewd political propaganda--a reassuring sign of progress--but the claim was not true then or now. Major media and American political leaders, nevertheless, embraced the happy talk and pretended it was real.

(The Nation's own Jeremy Scahill has done pathbreaking reporting on Blackwater: See Bush's Shadow Army and Mercenary Jackpot, among others. Scahill also testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in May about the impact of private military contractors on the conduct of the war.)

The banning of Blackwater makes it impossible to ignore the fact that Iraq is not in charge of Iraq. We are. Iraq's Interior Ministry announced that authorities have cancelled Blackwater's licence to operate in the country and intend to prosecute the company for a shooting that killed eight Iraqis.

The New York Times account added this disclaimer in the second paragraph:

"But under the rules that govern private security contractors here, the Iraqis do not have the legal authority to do so."

Who says? The occupying Americans. The Coalition Provisional Authority issued a "law" when they supposedly handed over sovereignty to Iraq--Order No. 17--that gave Blackwater and other US contractors immunity from Iraqi law. How clever of the American pro-consul.

The basic reality in wars of occupation--see the history of colonialism--is that a country can never regain true sovereignty so long as the occupying army remains on the scene, able to impose its will by force of arms. That of course is Iraq's situation, no matter what the White House says or Americans wish to believe. Iraq will not become a sovereign nation until the US troops depart. Maybe this why polls show 76 percent of Iraqis want the US out.

The end game for colonialist regimes nearly always started with the imperial power allowing the people to "elect" their own government. But these were typically puppet governments, composed of carefully screened and supposedly safe political figures. More to the point, they remained under the control of the occupying army. People in the Middle East or Africa or Asia understand this distinction because liberation is still fresh in their national history.

So now the US puppet government in Iraq is talking back to its mentor--claiming to have powers the US has not given it. The Americans may not tolerate such uppity behavior. Prosecute Americans for crimes against Iraqi citizens? How dare you. Blackwater could become an interesting problem for the American overseers to resolve. Maybe Washington will decide that Bagdad is not yet ready for sovereignty, after all.

A Pro-Democracy Movement

With the nation's first billion dollar presidential campaign, pay-to-play scandals occurring at breakneck speed (think Jack Abramoff and Norman Hsu), results in elections that are flawed by suppressed votesand machine error(and a War that Stays the Course despite the millions who went to the polls in November 2006 with a demand to end it), the public has had it with politicians who don't listen to them, care about them, or respond to their concerns. This climate of discontent has led to a rethinking among champions of public financing and clean elections about how to channel their efforts into a larger, more holistic pro-democracy movement. The key question for these reformers is this: how do we fashion a movement that taps into voters' frustrations and captures the imagination for a cleaner, more democratic way?

Certainly there is good momentum in this direction. In Congress – where, for example, the entire Alaskan delegation is either under indictment or soon will be and the pressure for constant fundraising is unsustainable – there is a convergence of democratic values and ideals and more pragmatic considerations wrought by fundraising fatigue. ("The result of this nonsense is that almost one-third of a senator's time is spent fundraising," former Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings wrote in a Washington Post op-ed lat year.) There are two excellent bills with impressive co-sponsorship, the Durbin-Specter Fair Elections Now Act (S 1285) and in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007 (HR 1614). Both bills would allow candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt-out of further private contributions to receive public funding. According to Senator Durbin, "Support is increasing for the idea of public financing in fair elections: seventy-four percent of all voters support public financing… 80 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 78 percent of Independents."

There are also important state battles being waged and won in this arena. The Congressional legislation was modeled on successful public financing systems in Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. Connecticut has a new Clean Elections program and this week a Republican became the first candidate in the state to qualify for public financing in an upcoming special election. Maryland recently passed a public funding bill through its House of Delegates and fell just one vote short in the Senate. In all, seven states and two municipalities currently have publicly financed elections in which large private contributions are replaced by public grants and small donations.

"The environment for public financing is strong," says Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign, "due to both the continuing political scandals and the steady, inexorable rise in the cost of campaigns. There are new state victories ahead and the federal work is moving forward, though we are really only at the beginning of the Congressional fight…. It really seems to me that the key thinking needs to move from policy to strategy and organizing."

Which is why Nyhart and many of his colleagues are working to knit these democracy issues into a larger whole. Nyhart says that focus groups reveal that Americans of diverse economic, racial, and geographic backgrounds share a common, core complaint about politics today: that their representatives don't listen to them and aren't accountable to them. Pro-democracy proponents are finding new ways to frame issues – ranging from the racket of protecting incumbents through gerrymandered redistricting, to unreliable and easily hacked voting machines, to getting people to the polls with Election Day registration rather than suppressing votes through bogus allegations of voter fraud – in a manner that makes those standing in the way of reform pay a political price.

Nyhart likes to draw an analogy with the environmental movement. "In 1964, saying ‘I'm an environmentalist' had no meaning," he says. "Ten years later saying that made a candidate more electable. Right now, saying ‘I'm a pro-democracy' candidate' doesn't mean much. There is no set of issues for the public to relate that statement to. And you can't establish it with a single issue. So organizations are working to find a politically salient group of issues to achieve that kind of impact."

Returning to the example of the environmental movement, one modest proposal is to take a page from the League of Environmental Voters' invention of the "Dirty Dozen." This was an extremely powerful and effective way to identify politicians who stood in the way of bipartisan environmental progress. Many of them were defeated in their re-election bids in the 70's. So how about an Anti-Democracy Eight? Or a Democracy Day á la Earth Day devoted to maximizing voter turnout, making campaigns affordable for ordinary citizens, and producing reliable election results?

Perhaps Democracy Enemy #1 would be Senator Mitch McConnell. (Please offer your nominees for the Anti-Democracy 8 below!) Recently, an ad by Public Campaign Action Fund highlighting Sen. McConnell's favors to political donors was pulled by Insight Communications, a cable system owner. NBC, CBS, ABC and two other cable systems ran the ad after thorough fact-checking. But Insight pulled it without explanation in the 11th hour. Turns out Insight Communications executives – including the corporation's CEO and chief lobbyist – are allies of McConnell. After receiving 6,000 petitions in one day questioning Insight's motivations and demanding the ad run, the company reversed its decision. In trying to squash free speech, Insight proved the very point the ad raised about the cozy relationship between McConnell and his donors. Adding to the irony is that the ad concerns an $8.3 million McConnell earmark to a firm with ties to the senator. The contract paid the firm to provide MP-3 players to tribesmen in Afghanistan that played – of all things – pre-recorded messages promoting democracy!

There are plenty of good activists and groups who have crafted a broad pro-democracy agenda in recent years. In March, the New Democracy Project, Demos, The Nation, and the Brennan Center for Justice released The Democracy Protection Act – 40 Ways Toward a More Perfect Union. The measures suggested in the report – building on the policies crafted by a score of good groups – challenged a system we described this way: "We have too much money and too few voters in our electoral process. Too much corruption. Too high barriers blocking access to civil justice. Too much contempt for the Rule of Law." We looked at things like national voting standards, paper trails, secure voting machines, Election Day registration, voter suppression and intimidation, lobbying laws, public campaign funding, and free air time for qualifying candidates.

But the challenge now – at this moment when democracy's image has been so tarnished by scandal, big bucks, and a shameful war falsely waged in its name – is to move beyond the policy suggestions to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Such a movement will go a long way toward retrieving democracy and restoring its promise.