The Nation

Pelosi's Spring Break in Syria

If it's spring break in Washington, then that must be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi--accompanied by, my goodness, the perpetually pro-Israel Tom Lantos!-- heading for Syria this week.

Pelosi's delegation is currently in Lebanon. AP's Zeina Karam writes there that the Speaker,

    said she thinks it's a good idea to "establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence" between the US and Syria.

"We have no illusions, but we have great hope," she said.

Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, said she would speak to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in the fight against terrorism, their support for militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas--whose exiled leaders live in Damascus--as well their influence in Lebanon.

And guess who's waxing apoplectic about this? Yes, that would be Dana Perino, the fill-in for Tony Snow as White House spokesperson. Karam's piece notes that Perino said,

    "We ask that people not go on these trips... We discourage it. Full stop." [Plus, it] "sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there (to Syria) to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits."

Oops! Then I guess having the Bush administration's very own Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs Ellen Sauerbrey go to Syria last month was all a terrible mistake then?

Even Israel's Acting President, Dalia Itzik, was much more moderate than Perino. She told Pelosi yesterday that,

    "Your expected visit to Damascus has naturally touched off a political debate in your country, and of course, here... I believe in your worthy intentions. Perhaps a step, seen as unpopular at this stage ... will clarify to the Syrian people and leadership they must abandon the axis of evil (and) stop supporting terrorism and giving shelter to (terrorist) headquarters."

But the main thing Washington needs to talk to Syria about right now is Iraq. And this strand of the American-Syrian diplomatic dance is quite complex, and in some ways very counter-intuitive. Did you think that it was the Syrians and their Iranian allies who want US troops out of Iraq and the stubborn old Bush Administration that wants them to stay?

To a great degree you'd be wrong, on both counts. Here in London a couple of weeks ago my friend the veteran strategic analyst Hussein Agha told me (and on reflection, I quite agree) that, for now, all of Iraq's neighbors prefer that US troops stay tied down inside Iraq, rather than withdraw. The gist of what Agha said was that for some of those neighboring countries--and this definitely includes both Syria along with Iran--the status quo lessens the likelihood of US attacks against them. Meanwhile for others of the neighbors (and yes, that includes Syria, once again) it represents a situation strongly preferable to the regional turmoil they fear might follow US withdrawal.

As for the Bush administration--well yes, at the ideological/political level of Bush and his resident "brain", Dick Cheney, it is quite possible that some of them still believe all that stuff about "staying the course", the value of the "surge", etc. But Matthew Dowd, who was a key Bush political advisor during the 2004 election campaign is only one of the former Bush supporters who has now been "mugged by reality", and has come out as openly critical of the way the Prez has been waging this war.

As for the serving military, it has been clear for some time that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace has been prepared to quietly push back against the Bushites' rampant bellophilia. And former commander of the US Army War College Maj.-Gen. (Retd.) Robert H. Scales recently wrote openly in the Washington Times that,

    the current political catfight over withdrawal dates is made moot by the above facts. We're running out of soldiers faster than we're running out of warfighting missions. The troops will be coming home soon. There simply are too few to sustain the surge for very much longer.

Since Scales is also a former advisor to Rumsfeld when Rummy was at the Petnagon, I guess that makes him a clear defector from the Bush project in Iraq, too.

Here's the bottom line though: It is now not only (or perhaps, even, not mainly) the Dems, in Washington, who now want to find the speediest and safest possible exit for the US troops from Iraq. It is also the uniformed military--and also, quite likely, the very low-key Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who seems to see his role overwhelmingly as acting as the "anti-Rumsfeld" in the Pentagon.

But the Syrians, Iranians, and all the rest of Iraq's neighbors are meanwhile (quietly) quite keen to see the US troops remain in Iraq. I have a little direct evidence of that myself. When I defied the President';s injunctions and went to Damascus at the end of February, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem was adamant during the interview I conducted with him that the US should effect a complete withdrawal of all its forces from Iraq--but when I pressed him to specify the time period over which he thought this withdrawal should occur, he notably declined my invitation to do that.

So the diplomacy of this US withdrawal from Iraq look set to be very interesting indeed.

(Cross-posted to my 'Just World News' blog.)

Legislation Watch: Dodd’s Moral Compass

Presidential candidate Senator Chris Dodd has made defending our Constitution a focus of his campaign in a way that the "front-runners" have not. In February, he introduced the Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007 to address the wrongs of last year's Military Commissions Act. The bill was recently referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Military Commissions Act – passed on the eve of the 2006 elections – is an absolute disgrace. It allows a president absolute power to define an individual as an enemy combatant, imprison that person indefinitely, without charging a crime or having the case reviewed by a civilian court. Lock a person up, throw away the key, and pity if we got it wrong. The Orwellian legislation also allows the president to redefine the meaning of torture without regard for the Geneva Conventions or any other human rights laws.

"Righting the wrongs of the Military Commission Act becomes more critical with each passing day," said Dodd. "The people who perpetrated these horrendous crimes against our country and our people have no moral compass and deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but by taking away their legal rights, we are jeopardizing our own moral compass as well." In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, Dodd – along with three cosponsors, Senators Boxer, Feingold, and Menendez – wrote, "The Military Commissions Act has weakened our nation's standing throughout the world and placed the system designed to prosecute enemy combatants under a cloud of legal uncertainty."

Dodd's bill would restore habeas corpus – the right of any person held in US custody to appear before a court to determine whether imprisonment is lawful. It would require that the United States live up to its Geneva Convention obligations and not wordsmith them out of existence. It would prevent the use of evidence obtained through torture or coercion. It also ensures that government officials are held accountable for torture and abuse – whether in an interrogation room or handing down orders from on high.

We deserve to hear from all of those running on how they intend to repair the damage done to our democracy in these last years. In the meantime, contact your representatives and tell them to cosponsor Dodd's great bill. (And go www.newdemocracyproject.org to learn about The Democracy Protection Act-- co-sponsored by The Nation-- and what you can do to build a more perfect union.)

United in Support of Iranian Women

As the crisis between Iran and Britain enters its second week, and confrontational rhetoric fills our newspapers and airwaves, it is worth reading a statement published just a few days ago by Iranian,Iraqi and British women activists, academics and politicians (including a few Western colleagues).

(Genuine) Conservatives Say: Gonzales Must Go

Memo to Fox Fanatics and All Other Defenders of Alberto Gonzales: Your Partisanship is Showing.

Fox News and its talk radio echoes, led by Rush Limbaugh, are among the staunchest defenders of the scandal-plagued Attorney General.

But that defense is not based on conservative values or ideas. Rather, it is a "my-president-right-or-wrong" rallying around an embattled Bush administration. This is old-school, maximum-leader politics, of a sort that places loyalty to a man over loyalty to the truth or to the Republic.

According to Fox's Bill O'Reilly, "(The) U.S. attorney thing is absurd, a fabricated event designed to hurt the president and make it easier for the Democrats to consolidate their power and elect a president in 2008."

Fox's Sean Hannity says the whole scandal is a production of "the mainstream liberal media."

Apart from the trouble O'Reilly and Hannity have determining whether Gonzales' problems are a Democratic scheme or a media production, they are at least on point when it comes to repeating the official line from the White House. That line holds that someone other than Alberto Gonzales is to blame for Alberto Gonzales' problems.

But that's not what genuine conservatives are saying.

The Fox personalities and their buddies on the AM dial may be reading talking points. But they are not reading conservative talking points. Some of the most right-wing members of the House and Senate -- led by New Hampshire Senator John Sununu (Lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 93.2)-- have called on the attorney general to step down.

In recent days, key rank-and-file Republicans in the House have begun calling for Gonzales to leave. These members form the political backbone of the conservative movement.

They feel betrayed by Gonzales -- and, though they will not always say so publicly, by a Bush administration that has treats Congress will so little respect that it would dismiss the Attorney General's lies as matters demanding nothing more than "clarification."

Consider the comments of Nebraska Republican Lee Terry.

Terry had been a Gonzales defender. But after the attorney general tried to claim on Friday that he had been aware his staff was drawing up plans for the firings -- even though top Justice Department aides are testifying that Gonzales was actively engaged in the process -- Terry said, "I trusted him before, but I can't now."

Before Gonzales began mounting a "defense" that actually make him appear to be more guilty of abusing his authority and lying to Congress, Terry explains, "My views were that this was Democrat posturing and a witch hunt."

Now, Terry says, "My trust in him in that position has taken a hit because of these contradictory statements by him."

The bottom line from the Republican congressman on Gonzales: "Frankly, until these statements came out that contradicted his first statement, I was backing him, saying that he shouldn't resign. Now I think that he should."

Terry has a 90 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, making him one of the most ideologically right-wing members of the House. In fact, he was often rated as more conservative than former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, before DeLay's exit on ethics charges.

So is the Gonzales controversy a Democratic fantasy or a liberal media pipedream. Or is this the most serious scandal involving a sitting attorney general since Republican President Warren Harding's man at the Justice Department, Attorney General Harry "Teapot Dome" Daugherty, was forced from office in 1924, after a Republican-controlled Senate began to pummel him?

If only there was an authoritative conservative voice that could sort things out. Why, here's the latest editorial from the nation's most widely circulated and respected conservative journal of opinion, The National Review:

Time to Go

By The Editors

The story of the eight fired U.S. attorneys has been relentlessly overhyped. We do not know that any of them was fired because the administration put its political interests ahead of his or her prosecutorial judgment. Sen. Dick Durbin's recent insinuation that the attorneys who were not fired had kept their jobs by compromising their prosecutions was outrageous.

If congressional Democrats are wrong to bluster, however, they are within their rights to investigate. They may yet turn up enough evidence to prove that some of the firings were improper violations of political norms.

We do not need more evidence, however, to reach a conclusion about the suitability of Alberto Gonzales for the leadership of the Department of Justice. While we defended him from some of the outlandish charges made during his confirmation hearings, we have never seen evidence that he has a fine legal mind, good judgment, or managerial ability. Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence.

His claim not to have been involved in the firings suggests that he was either deceptive or inexcusably detached from the operations of his own department. His deputy, Paul McNulty, insulted the fired prosecutors by claiming that they had been asked to resign for "performance-related issues." But many of them received good reviews, and none of them said he was told about any disappointment with his performance. If Justice wanted to clear them out to make way for new blood, or to find attorneys who shared their prosecutorial priorities, that would have been perfectly legitimate. By saying what he did, McNulty guaranteed that the fired attorneys would lash out in the press. Gonzales's latest tactic has been to concede that improper motives may have played a role in the firings, but to blame his underlings for any misconduct and to pledge to get to the bottom of it.

What little credibility Gonzales had is gone. All that now keeps him in office, save the friendship of the president, is the conviction of many Republicans that removing him would embolden the Democrats. It is an overblown fear. The Democrats will pursue scandals, real or invented, whether or not Gonzales stays. But they have an especially inviting target in Gonzales. He cannot defend the administration and its policies even when they deserve defense. Alberto Gonzales should resign. The Justice Department needs a fresh start.

Reasonable observers might differ with some of the points made by The National Review. But one thing is clear: The debate over whether Gonzales should stay is no longer a left-versus-right dispute.

Honest conservatives want Alberto Gonzales to step down.

Only on-bended-knee apologists for the Bush administration's most wretched excesses are now defending the Attorney General.


John Nichols' new 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.'"

"Kerry Was Right"

You know things aren't going well for the Bush Administration when a former top advisor to the President drafts an op-ed entitled "Kerry Was Right."

Matthew Dowd (no relation to Maureen) painted Kerry as a flip-flopper in 2004. Now he sides with the former Democratic nominee in calling for a withdrawal from Iraq. "If the American public says they're done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want," Dowd told the New York Times in an interview published on Sunday. "They're saying, 'Get out of Iraq.'" He calls his former boss "secluded and bubbled in."

Dowd may be late to the party, as some have commented, but his entrance is a stirring one nonetheless. He's not the first Bush insider to speak out against the policies and tactics of this Administration. Think of John Dilulio and David Kuo and Lawrence Wilkerson and Flynt Leverett.

Yet Dowd's the most high-profile ally-turned-critic yet. And it's fair to say he won't be the last.

Teach Bush To Google

From my blog at www.davidcorn.com....

Here's a frightening sign of how bad things are in the Bush White House. In Friday's Washington Post reporter Peter Baker reports on the recent staff exits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The director of strategic initiatives, the counsel, the political director--each is fleeing the S.S. Bush, as chief of staff Joshua Bolten says this all part of the "natural ebb and flow." The departed include Thomas Graham, Bush's top Russia adviser. In recounting all these escapes, Baker writes:

The departures take their toll, though. Bush was embarrassed to learn that a Russian general he hosted in the Oval Office this week has been accused of war crimes in Chechnya. Some officials suggested that would not have slipped onto his calendar had Graham, a veteran Moscow watcher, still been at the National Security Council.

Now this is what's scary. You don't need to be a "veteran Moscow watcher" to know that that Vladimir Shamanov--the Russian general Bush had to the White House--is a suspected war criminal. Type his name into Google and the first reference is his Wikipedia entry, which starts,

Vladimir Shamanov is a governor of the Ulyanovsk region of Russian Federation. Shamanov is a Major General in the Soviet and Russian Army, awarded with title of Hero of Russia. He has been criticized by human-rights groups for failing to control his troops in military actions during the Second Chechen War.

War Crimes Accusations
When he was a commander in the North Caucasus (Chechnya) region, he was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation title for actions around the village of Alkhan-Yurt. However, Human Rights Watch have asked the Russian government to open an investigation into the incident, which HRW has declared a "massacre."

The "War Crimes Accusations" heading does appear in bold on that page.

Most sentient White House staffers would realize it might be problematic for Bush to meet with a general accused of overseeing a massacre. Isn't it SOP for White House staff to vet visitors and brief Bush about the foreign officials he invites to the White House? So even if Bush's top Russia guy had split, an intern could have Googled the general and prevented Bush from rubbing elbows with a fellow with bloody hands. If the White House cannot get something like this right, the Bush administration--and the country--is really in trouble. After all, anyone who wages war in the 21st Century really ought to know how to use the Internet.

Diplomats to the Sidelines

Ever since September 2001, the President's central operative image has been "war" -- specifically, his "global war on terror" (promptly transformed into the grim acronym GWOT). With it went the fantasy that we had been plunged into the modern equivalent of World War II with--as George loved to put it--"theaters" of operation and "fronts" on a global scale. Remember how, as we occupied Baghdad in April 2003, administration pronouncements almost made it seem as though we were occupying Tokyo or Berlin, 1945? And when things went badly in Iraq, that country quickly became "the central front in the war on terror" in the President's speeches. Well, now it may indeed be just that.

In the framework -- essentially a fundamentalist religion -- of global force and "preventive" war adopted by the Bush administration, the only place for diplomats was assumedly on the sidelines, holding the pens, as the enemy surrendered to the military. (Too bad, when we hit Baghdad, there was no one around to surrender, no way to put a John Hancock on our "victory.") Otherwise, as classically happened in Iraq, where the State Department, despite copious planning for the postwar moment, was cut out of the process and left in the Kuwaiti or Washingtonian dust by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, all issues of diplomacy were essentially relegated to Wimp World. After all, as the infamous neocon slogan once went, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." And it was well known that diplomats were not "real men."

Nowhere on the planet was a diplomat worth a sou. Not surprisingly, then, the two central figures in George W. Bush's second-term diplomatic non-endeavors became his two key female enablers, Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, and Karen Hughes, now undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. Not surprisingly, Rice has managed to do nothing of significance on our planet -- even the great diplomatic "success" of this administration, its shaky deal with North Korea, was basically crafted by the Chinese on terms worse than could have been obtained years earlier -- and Hughes, as diplomacy's spinmeister, has managed to put less than no polish on our globally disastrous image.

By now, of course, we've arrived at a moment in the Middle East so grim, so fraught with dangers, so at the edge of who knows what, with so many disparate crises merging, that it's even occurred to Rice something must be done. As Tony Karon, senior editor at Time.com, and the creator of the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog points out, Rice has so far gotten a "free ride" here. Her approval ratings, until recently, hovered well above 50%, while the President's were sinking close to 30%. Now, there's desperate work to be done, and while the Saudis gear up, denouncing the "illegitimate foreign occupation" of Iraq, cancelling state dinners at the White House, consorting with the Iranians, and attempting to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Rice (and the U.S. media) remain mired what Karon calls a "fantasy" version of diplomacy. "They must serve up some pretty powerful Kool Aid in the press room down at Foggy Bottom," he writes, "judging by U.S. media coverage of Condi Rice's latest ‘Look Busy' tour of the Middle East." Don't expect results.


In an unusual move for a Sunday talk show pundit, this week Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel publicly replied to criticism of inaccurate statements he made about the prosecutor purge on Sunday's Chris Mathews Show. (Riveting YouTube clip here.) Stengel had told Mathews he was "so uninterested" in Democratic efforts to make Karl Rove testify regarding the prosecutor scandal because doing so would be politically "bad" for Democrats, since such investigations are "not what voters want to see." In fact, the public overwhelmingly supports congressional investigations into the Bush Administration's conduct, according to nonpartisan polling, as Salon's Glenn Greenwald reported in several thorough essays this week. After prodding by Greenwald, other bloggers, Time readers and Time blogger Ana Marie Cox, Stengel replied in a strange email posted on Time's blog, most of which is below:

... I realize that I've been caught out speaking as a citizen rather than as editor of Time. Lord knows, the Democrats going after Karl Rove is "interesting" in an objective way for Time and for journalists in general. It's hard to overstate Rove's role in this administration and it would certainly create yards of headlines and good copy if the Democrats manage to get some traction. But as a citizen, I think it's unfortunate and perhaps short-sighted for Democrats to be perceived as focusing on the past rather than the future. If people see the Democrats as obsessively concerned with settling scores, that's not good for the Democrats or the country... (emphasis added)

There are two deeply disturbing problems with this response. The first problem, as Greenwald and others have noted, is that Stengel refuses to address his own error. Even when writing in response to factual criticism, he does not acknowledge the overwhelming public data undermining his assertion, let alone correct himself. (If Time had published the same claim, a correction would be in order.) It is disturbing to see a journalist, especially the managing editor of one of the leading news magazines in the country, so resistant to factual correction.

But there is a second, more subtle problem with the response that's been largely overlooked. Critics have rightly focused on Stengel's erroneous claims about public opinion. But even if Stengel weren't wrong about public opinion, his email still reveals a cynical premise about how he thinks Congress should act.

Writing "as a citizen," he finds it "unfortunate" that Democrats are pursuing these investigations, because that could lead people to perceive the Democrats as obsessively trying to settle scores. And that perception would not be good "for the Democrats or the country."

The entire analysis consists of naked political strategizing, supposedly on behalf of the Democratic Party.

There is no pretense of addressing the proper nonpartisan role of congressional oversight. There is no analysis of how the Justice Department should serve the rule of law and the American public. The Democrats' political prospects - supposedly jeopardized by a perception of score-settling - are simply conflated with what is "good" for the country.

When you look at it, Stengel's vapid argument boils down to this: Democrats are playing politics with attorneygate, but they're playing politics ineptly because the investigations will politically backfire, so Democrats should back off because that would be good for them politically. In other words, instead of playing politics by aggressively investigating, they should play politics by not aggressively investigating.

I think that sounds more like the logic of a cynical political operative than a "citizen" or journalist. But more importantly, the argument leaves Stengel calling on Congress to act on political expediency. Does he simply think Congress should not conduct worthwhile investigations that are politically unpopular? Should then-Senator Harry Truman have avoided investigating the military spending of his own party during World War II? Should the Republicans on the Watergate committee have refused to vote against their party's president? And if, as Stengel believes, Democrats are taking a political risk by investigating the Bush Administration, is that really a good reason to back off investigations?

Stengel owes his readers an actual correction and a fuller explanation. Polls show Americans are "interested" in investigations precisely because the public resents the complete politicization of the government - which is what got the prosecutors fired in the first place. When Stengel implies that the only "interesting" issue is the cynical calculations he imputes to investigators, he endorses that very politicization.

Making Mitch Pay

Because of procedural rules, it usually takes 60 votes to pass even nominally controversial pieces of legislation in the US Senate. Democrats only have 50 votes, give or take Joe Lieberman. That means that Republicans can stall, block and "obstruct"--to borrow a phrase they repeatedly leveled against Democrats in the minority--pretty much anything they want to.

The man pulling the strings is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell's kept a pretty low-profile over the years, mastering legislative minutiae and blocking any attempts to get big money out of politics. But now he's front and center--and Democrats and progressive groups intend to keep it that way. Their goal is to paint McConnell as lead obstructionist, blocking not only debate on the Iraq war--as he did a few weeks back--but also on populist priorities such as energy independence, cheaper drugs and student debt relief.

"He long ago became one of the legendary money grubbers in modern American politics," the Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized recently. "He spells it P-O-L-I-T-I-C-$."

Americans United for Change launched a "McConnell Watch" campaign this week, starting with a television ad lambasting the Senator's rosy view of the war in Iraq. For a long-time Senator and leader of his party, McConnell is surprisingly vulnerable. In the latest Survey USA poll, 49 percent of Kentuckians approve of the job he is doing, versus 43 percent who disapprove. He's not endangered, but he can't get too comfortable, either.

Democrats almost knocked off Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning in '04. They'll be gunning for McConnell in '08.