The Iraqis are having a hard time pulling together a constitution quickly enough to meet President Bush's public-relations timeline.
As I am not an Iraqi, I have no interest in meddling in the affairs of that troubled land. Of course, I would prefer that the Iraqis establish a system of self-governance that, like ours in the United States, seeks to erect a wall of separation between church and state, preserve the rights of small states and political minorities, protect against military and police abuses, and guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press and all the other basics of a functioning democracy.
If I was really writing a wish list, I might also recommend that the Iraqis do a better job than we do of limiting the power of corporate monopolies, keep special-interest money out of their politics, treating healthcare and education as basic rights and establishing reliable electoral systems.
But as an American, I should not be worrying about perfecting the Iraqi constitution before I go about the work of getting things right here at home.
This seems like basic logic to me.
But that logic escapes our President.
It is true that George W. Bush was not born and raised in my home region of the Upper Midwest, where the legacy of Wisconsin Progressive, Minnesota Farmer-Labor and North Dakota Non-Partisan League activism has imparted a rich faith in the perfectability of the American experiment and a keen awareness of the folly of telling the peoples of other lands how to organize their governments. As such, the President has little familiarity with what I happen to think is the healthiest of American political traditions.
But it would be reassuring if the President at least had a passing acquaintance with American history.
As efforts to reach agreement on an Iraqi constitution have stumbled again and again, Bush has sought to comfort in a bizarre analogy.
"We had a little trouble with our own conventions writing a constitution," the President told reporters in Idaho the other day, continuing a pattern of comparing the US and Iraqi experiences of writing a constitution that began several months ago when Bush explained, "[We] must remember the history of our own country. The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos.... Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably--it took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President.... No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts. What separates those nations that succeed from those that falter is their progress in establishing free institutions. So to help young democracies succeed, we must help them build free institutions to fill the vacuum created by change."
To hear members of the Bush Administration and their amen corner in the media tell it, suicide bombs must have been going off like clockwork in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston back in the 1780s. But, of course, that was never the case.
While there were rowdy demonstrations and loud dissents during the years following the end of the British occupation of the Empire's former colonies along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, the period was characterized by relative calm as factions within the new nation debated the extent to which states should cooperate with one another.
Try as Bush and his followers may, they will find no historical record of Ayatollah Alexander Hamilton's militia hunting down followers of radical secularist Thomas Jefferson, nor of rival Christian gangs blowing up one another's houses of worship. Nor will they find a record of renegade Green Mountain Boys gunning down foreign troops who were supposedly present to "help young democracies succeed."
In fact, there were no foreign troops prodding the process along. The French, who played a critical role in helping the American revolutionaries throw off British colonial oppression, exited quickly. The Marquis de Lafayette, as good a friend as the American rebels had, did not return to the new republic until 1824.
To be sure, Lafayette had ideas about how the Continentals ought to organize the American experiment. But he was smart enough to recognize that constitutions are organic documents that cannot be written under timelines imposed by foreign powers, just as he recognized that democracies cannot form or flourish under occupation.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.
It's a late August midnight, I'm on vacation, a hurricane named Katrina is heading to Florida--and I'm online. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I have spent half of my time this vacation in (thrice) daily contact with the office. Heck, I've even read the business section of the New York Times on Saturdays and watched Meet the Press on Sundays.
But I did get the hang of climbing out of my superstructured world. I've stared at the ocean for hours. I've slept late, taken a few cat naps (and then worked into the wee hours). I've sharpened my driving skills, and zip around narrow roads with the radio blasting Motown. I learned how to make a wicked martini and cook two new dishes.
As for reading material, I've polished off two novels (and the biography of Thomas Paine for political inspiration). I also brought along a copy of one of my favorite "self-help" books. I first read The Importance of Being Lazy two (long) years ago, and I recommend it to all you Type As who don't know what to do with yourselves on vacation. Read on, enjoy, and get into that hammock before fall descends.
What Are They Reading?KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
[originally posted online on August 12, 2003]
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LAZY:In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations.By Al Gini.Routledge Books. 182 pp. $22.95 (cloth).
I know how to work hard but not how to play. Take last summer. On my first night of vacation, I went to bed with David Brock's Blinded By the Right. I woke at 3:00 AM filled with guilt that I was not at The Nation, on the barricades, fighting vigilantly against the right-wing forces destroying our country. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I spent most of my time that vacation in (more than) daily contact with the office by e-mail, cell phone and fax.
Another summer is here. It's been a long, arduous yet productive year at the magazine. (Don't get me wrong. I love my job. After all, how many people have work they find meaningful, filled with passion and purpose? But boy, am I tired.)
So, this August, I decided that I needed some justification for playing, dozing, gazing, ambling and goofing off without guilt. And, after some research, I found my guide: The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Loyola College philosophy professor and Chicago radio personality Al Gini.
It's an engaging, eclectic, idiosyncratic account of the history of vacations and play--and a reasoned justification of why we need leisure in our lives. In fact, Gini goes even farther, drawing on studies of Americans' vacation habits to show why "doing nothing" is a fundamental human necessity. (Gini relies on the latest academic research as well as interviews, personal anecdotes, the writings of various ancient and contemporary theologians and the well-chosen observations of people like Aristotle, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Juliet Schor and Arlie Hochschild.)
The book's thesis is both simple and liberating:
Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude and inertia...All of us need to play more. All of us need to 'vacate' ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the 'everydayness' of our lives. All of us need to get absorbed in, focused on, something of interest outside of ourselves. All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don't want to be. All of us need to gain some feeling for, some knowledge of, the differences between distraction and insight, merriment and meaning, entertainment and recreation, laziness and leisure, rest and inertia.
We live in a society, Gini observes, in which modern workers talk about sleeping the same way that hungry people talk about food, and where Americans are now working more than ever before. (Perversely, we allow downtime for maintenance and repair of machinery but not for employees.)
As Joe Robinson, a former adventure-travel magazine editor, says, "Americans' most hazardous work-related illness is vacation deficit disorder or vacation starvation." (Did you know that there is only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America?)
Robinson--entrepreneur and business owner himself--isn't against the work ethic per se. What he's against is the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic. And he's started a crusade for federally required vacation time. After all, why is it that America is the only industrialized nation without a minimum paid-leave law? If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn't the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks' vacation time annually, at minimum? (For more info or to add your support to Robinson's crusade, click here.
The movement's rallying cry has a familiar echo: "Workers and travelers of America, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our stress!" Can't do much better than that. I'm going to go practice what I preach--take a nap on the porch, lie in the hammock and read a few novels. And, after that, I'm going to try to continue to put leisure time on the political map as an issue that should be near the top of any progressive agenda.
In the new issue of The Nation, Karen Houppert investigates how the US military has gone beyond trying to recruit tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders and is now actively chasing children as young as eleven years old. Growing desperate amid repeated failures to meet recruitment quotas and empowered by provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, military recruiters are working the schools like never before.
Houppert shows how many parents are increasingly resisting these efforts. "A lot of people are concerned," she quotes one Los Angeles parent as saying, "but don't know what to do about it." But now there's a new coalition designed to aid parents--and all concerned citizens--alarmed by the military's increasingly predatory efforts to woo teenagers into the armed forces.
Spearheaded by Working Assets, Mainstream Moms and ACORN, the Leave My Child Alone coalition is trying to raise awareness of the military's often stealthy recruiting ploys and make sure that all parents know that the Pentagon has established a database with the names of 30 million 16 to 25 year olds as a recruitment tool and that their children can opt out of their school's military recruitment lists and the Pentagon's database.
The LMCA site offers a step-by-step account on how to opt-out as as well as a raft of educational and activist resources. Check it out and circulate word about this new coalition. (The Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities also offers good ideas on how to "demilitarize our schools.")
What You Wear Does Matter
These days, with the AFL-CIO weaker than at any time since the inception of the labor federation, would seem an unlikely period to witness the growth of a sophisticated, anti-sweatshop movement. But thanks to the steadfast work of numerous grassroots groups, the dedication of student activists with organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops, and perhaps a little protectionist China-bashing, there's a greater awareness of the actual "cost" of the clothes most Americans wear.
The Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR) is one of the most effective independent organizations working to inform and mobilize grassroots activists in solidarity with international anti-sweatshop struggles. Considered the "grassroots mobilizing department" of the anti-sweatshop movement, CLR has worked with more than 500 communities in the US in support of both local and overseas labor struggles. A current campaign calls on Dole to desist in actively engaging in anti-union activity aimed at Colombian flower workers who have successfully organized themselves into an independent union. Click here for more info on CLR and click here to support the group's efforts.
Creating Your Own Reality
Regular posters to the Comments section of our blogs will notice a new feature: "Ignore this person," a simple function that allows participants in online discussions to render invisible posts that they find offensive or off-topic.
How best to moderate a free-wheeling online discussion is a question which has bedeviled scores of webmasters. At The Nation, we're particularly disinclined to ever censor anyone based on political perspectives, especially those we abhor. But it can be disruptive when, as happened recently, someone decides to paste dozens of versions of the same Ann Coulter piece to all five of our weblogs in an obvious effort to disrupt the conversation. Or when someone simply unleashes an obscene tirade with no argument being made.
So what we've come up with is a way for readers to create their own realities by offering the option of "ignoring" a given poster.
We hope that everyone will employ this option sparingly and will use it only as a last-resort to rid themselves of those few posters explicitly trying to prevent the free and feisty exchange of ideas. We strongly discourage anyone using it to shield themselves from unwelcome points of view.
Often, when an executive faces lingering questions about his skills, he works extra hard to make sure that every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed.
Not so George W. Bush.
Indeed, if the "CEO of the USA" who is currently enjoying a five-week sojourn at his ranch in Texas keeps vacationing at the same rate, he will have spent the better part of two years of his presidency away from work.
Bush achieved a leisure landmark this month. The previous record for presidential slacking-off was 335 days. On August 18, Bush surpassed that number of days off, and he still has more than three years left in his second term.
Britain's Financial Times newspaper has dubbed Bush "the best-rested president in U.S. history."
That's a dubious distinction for a man who is not known for his attention to detail. Critics have not hesitated to suggest that the President's rest-ethic has cost the country dearly--after all, it was in August 2001, during the President's first extended stay in Crawford, that a briefing paper crossed Bush's desk detailing Osama bin Laden's intention to launch terrorist attacks within the United States. Instead of putting the country on high alert, the President put the report aside and continued relaxing--returning to Washington only a few days before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
While Bush may not be very good at managing major endeavors--he ran four corporations into the ground and then took a make-work job as a baseball team executive before finally turning to the family business of politics--the President is no slacker when it comes to rest and relaxation.
Now, if only he'd help the rest of us to get a break.
While Bush has been taking almost one week out of every month off since assuming the presidency, a substantial proportion of Americans are lucky if they get one week a year of paid vacation. And millions of workers get no compensated time off.
The United States, unlike other industrialized countries, fails to set a base standard for paid holidays. European countries have long required corporations to provide workers with three, four or even five weeks of paid vacation time. "Even developing countries often force companies to allow employees some time to recharge their batteries," the Financial Times notes. "El Salvador, Indonesia and Mongolia have all established a minimum of 10 to 15 days paid leave a year."
That's hardly a break at all when compared with Bush's annual average of almost ten weeks of vacation. But its a good deal more than most American workers will ever enjoy under the current system. Indeed, Americans are now working almost 500 more hours a year than their Dutch counterparts and thirty-seven hours--almost a full week--more than the average worker in the famously overworked country of Japan.
That's a radical reversal of the circumstance that existed in the 1950s and early '60s, when the Japanese and the Europeans worked more hours than Americans--and when Americans enjoyed greater prosperity and, if polls are to be believed, a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives.
Is it any wonder that Americans now complain that they have less time to spend with their families, less time for volunteering in their communities and less time for recreation and physical fitness than at any point in history? How appropriate then that, when reflecting on Bush's time-off record, economist Phineas Baxandall, of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, observed that "George Bush is one of the few Americans who has time for family values."
George W. Bush sure knows a lot more than the experts. He believes intelligent design is a scientific theory on par with evolution--even though his science adviser has said that I.D. has no merit as a scientific theory. He also seems to be more wise in the ways of Iraqi society and politics than leading Iraqis. On Tuesday Bush praised the draft constitution hammered out by Shiites and Kurds without Sunni involvement. He called it an "amazing event." But as the New York Times and other papers have reported, Iraqi secular leaders have warned that this constitution could lead to domination of Iraq by Shiite Islamic clerics.
Most notably, on the same day that Bush was hyping the draft constitution, Ghassan Atiyyah, the director of the Baghdad-based Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, was on NPR explaining why the constitution could be dangerous for secularists, women and others in Iraq. Before sharing some quotes, let me note that Atiyyah has been supported by Bush's closest, pro-war allies. The neoconnish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has hosted him in Washington. The International Republican Institute, the global arm of the GOP, has provided Atiyyah's outfit assistance. Its website notes:
Headed by Ghassan Atiyyah, a respected Iraqi dissident and publisher of the oppositionist periodical The Iraqi File, the IFDD is a regionally based non-governmental organization committed to supporting democracy and development in Iraq by fostering dialogue between decision-makers and citizens on important social, economic, and political issues. A primary goal of the Foundation is to bring together people of diverse ethnic, religious, political and tribal backgrounds to build consensus on finding solutions to the issues most important to the Iraqi people and for assisting in the promotion of freedom and democracy. With the material and advisory assistance provided by IRI's Baghdad staff, the IFDD has convened several conferences of substantial importance.
With that endorsement in mind, let's see what Atiyyah had to say about the draft constitution when he was interviewed by NPR:
ATIYYAH: [The Sunnis] are faced with a constitution on the basis, 'Take it or leave it.' It's very difficult for them to accept that because there are so many items in it which are very difficult for them to stomach, and they will lose credibility even among the moderate Sunnis. So they have the option now to vote against it in a referendum. Could the Arab Sunni muster two-thirds majority in three provinces, the Sunni provinces, veto the constitution and dissolve the parliament and bring a new election? I doubt that. Most of the Sunni boycotted the election. They didn't just throw their names in the electoral list. So it is for them only one week left to register their names. Then you have to mobilize them and to get them to the polling boxes. At the time when al-Zarqawi and the extremists and the jihadists threatened them by killing them if they go to the vote or the referendum, and so they will find themselves between the fire and the blue sea, and this will play into the hands of the extremists.
MELISSA BLOCK: It sounds like what you're saying here is almost two parallel tracks, that a constitution will go through without Sunni approval, that it will pass a referendum in October, that will pave the way for elections in December. But the Sunnis will be out of the process, and extremism will rise as a result.
ATIYYAH: This is the nightmare scenario. I feel the secular and liberal are the victim of what happened during the last two years. Now the ascendancy of religion and even the constitution--there's so many references to Islam, to the extent that it is clearly stipulated that any law that contradicts Islam will be rejected. And who is the judge as whether it is--contradicts Islam or not? It will be a higher court. So in a sense, you are creating another body like the Iranian body, a special body, the Iranian--which is not elected; it's appointed--which has authority to decide this law is Islamic or not. So are we going into the path of Islamic state in Iraq thanks to the American administration? Is that what the American public expected would happen in Iraq, getting rid of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to be replaced by a theocracy?
BLOCK: Is your fear, Mr. Atiyyah, that your country would be devolving toward a theocratic state?
ATIYYAH: This is one of the possibilities, one of the scenarios. Now we are at the crossroad. The fact is the main forces who are drafting the constitution are the Shia Islamists, who have the backing of Iran as well as the Kurds. The deal between the Kurds and the Shia is very simple. It's to have a federal state by allowing the Kurds have their own way in Kurdistan, and in return, the Shia Muslims will have their way in the south.
BLOCK: Is it your sense that ordinary Iraqis are following this process, debating the fine points of the constitution much as we are now? Is this, say, the talk of the town right now?
ATIYYAH: Ma'am, believe me, the man on the street, he has no electricity. He is worrying about how to get gas, he is worrying how to get the water, he is worrying how to bring food to the table to his family. He is worrying about security, when to leave. He has no time to think of this [unintelligible] of the constitution. The constitution only today was published in the press, today. Who will read it? Who will care about it? This doesn't mean that the case is hopeless. Our fate is intertwined with American administration; their failure is our failure. But the United States can survive a failure in Iraq, but we Iraqis, a failure means a catastrophe and mean an end of a country.
Failure in Iraq? That's sure not what Bush has been talking about these past few days, as he tries once more to rally popular support for the war. But Bush must be closer to the real facts than Atiyyah, right? The IRI ought to ask Atiyyah for its money back.
And during his speech on Wednesday to a stacked audience of National Reservists in Idaho, Bush went on and on about the enemy in Iraq, describing the opposition as only a collection of foreign fighters who have amassed in Iraq to fight the United States because they "fear the march of freedom" and "despise our freedom and way of life." Sure, there are jihadists in Iraq. But part--if not most--of the problem comes from Sunni insurgents who did not have to cross any borders to take up arms against US troops (and who don't give a fig about freedoms and ways of living in the United States). Once more, Bush is peddling a comic-book depiction of the conflict in Iraq: us versus the evil terrorists. Many analysts are already describing the war there as a civil war, as militia attacks increase. Bush, though, is immune to reality. I know that's no news flash. But as the gap continues to grow between Bush's "reality" and what's really occurring in Iraq, his warmed-over sales pitch is likely not to have much impact.
Today, Ret. Col. Pat Lang, who once was a top intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (and who remains one of the sharper analysts of events in Iraq), posted an item on his blog in which he pointed to a sparkle of hope in a recent statement by the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad, who acknowledged the issue at hand is indeed dealing with the Sunni-based insurgency (not foreign fighters). Lang writes:
"What they are doing is to go for broader level of support because of political considerations, because of the need to build consensus, because of the need to isolate the insurgency from the Sunni population." -- [Zalmay] Khalilzad
Congratulations, Mr. Ambassador!!
It has been clear from the very beginning of the armed uprising in Iraq that the largely (but not altogether) Sunni Arab revolt could not exist, grow and continue to operate without some level of popular support.
A very simple and basic principle of insurgent warfare is that guerrillas have to have food, shelter, money, weapons, intelligence and a population which accepts their presence and does not report them to the security forces. That support or cooperation can be freely given, coerced, or some combination of the two.
The Bush Administration and the senior leadership of the US Armed forces has maintained throughout the war that the insurgents are:
-Baathist holdouts and "deadenders" who are not more than a handful and who are without popular support.
-Foreign and domestic mercenaries (often criminal) who are also without popular support.
-Iraqi Islamists (a handful) who have no popular support.
-Foreign Islamists smuggled in primarily from Syria (no support).
Right up until yesterday the egregious (but handsome) Dan Bartlett, White House Communications Director, was saying on the tube that those who are fighting the "progress of Democracy" in Iraq are a "tiny, indeed miniscule" percentage of the "Iraqi people."
In this context, the clear headed realism of Ambassador Khalilzad in telling Gwen Ifill of the Newshour that the new constitution must receive a lot of Sunni Arab support in order to "isolate the insurgency from the Sunni population" is highly significant.
What this tells us is that Khalilzad, and therefor probably the Bush Administration, has a much clearer understanding of the structure and numbers of the insurgencies than we had been led to believe.
Well, if that's the case, Bush is keeping it a secret. He's dishing out the usual rhetoric, linking the invasion of Iraq to 9/11 and refusing to acknowledge the full basis of the bloody conflict in Iraq. Perhaps he also knows better than his own ambassador.
There is something profoundly disturbing about the fact that the Commander in Chief is in better shape than his Army, that he has time to ride his bike around his ranch for hours while the wheels are coming off the war in Iraq, that he had time to attend fundraisers but not to meet Cindy Sheehan.
Bush's disengagement from reality is reaching the freakish level. In America, Republicans are abandoning his war as they face re-election in '06. Chuck Hagel compared Iraq to Vietnam. More than 60 percent of Americans think the invasion was a mistake, and we are not winning. And now the first Democratic senator, Russell Feingold, has broken ranks and called for a timeline for withdrawal.
In Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are seriously debating if they really want to be a unified country, whether women will be treated as equal citizens and how much Islamic theocracy to put into the constitution. Outside the Green Zone, the Shiite militias are arming themselves for civil war, while American soldiers are dying at a faster and faster clip.
And yet in Texas, Bush has taken five weeks to cut brush. He mouths the same platitudes about freedom and democracy he was using three years ago. And he cross-trains. The President doesn't just need a plan to get us out of Iraq; he needs an intervention to get him back to planet Earth.
Los Angeles -- US Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, will turn up the volume on his challenge to the Bush White House's failed approach to national security when he delivers a high-profile address Tuesday in this West Coast city.
The speech on national security, which will be delivered at LA's prestigious Town Hall forum, comes on the heels of Feingold's announcement that he will press for an Iraq "exit strategy" that would see US troops withdrawn from that country by December 2006. With his willingness to discuss a specific timelime for withdrawal, Feingold says, he is "breaking the taboo" that has stymied honest debate about the US mission in the Middle East and the point at which it can be declared complete.
The maverick senator is also drawing attention to a potential--if still decidely uphill--run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as a progressive alternative to prowar Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh.
Predictably, Feingold's decision to endorse a timeline has drawn criticism from those who believe that the only way to "support the troops" and "keep America safe" is to maintain an open-ended occupation of Iraq--no matter how deadly it is for Americans and Iraqis, no matter how unstable it makes Iraq, no matter how much it does to stir resentment toward the United States.
The Bush White House dismissed Feingold's plan with a predictable claim that it "would also send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
Vice President Dick Cheney chimed in as well, declaring that "Iraq is a critical front in the war on terror, and victory there is critical to the future security of the US and other free nations."
Of course, Cheney was the visionary who announced on the eve of the invasion of Iraq that US troops would be "greeted as liberators." And the Bush White House is the operation that decked the President out in flight-suit drag for a "Mission Accomplished" photo opportunity at precisely the point when the occupation of Iraq was starting to go awry. So their credibility is shot.
But that does not mean that Americans will casually endorse Feingold's timeline.
While polls suggest that the citzenry is exceptionally ill-at-ease with Bush's handling of the war--almost two-thirds of those polled now disagree with his approach--they need to hear more about how critics of the war would:
A) Get US troops out of Iraq, leaving a complete disaster behind, and
B) Offer a sounder approach to the national-security concerns that White House political czar Karl Rove has so ably exploited since September 11, 2001.
That will be Feingold's challenge in Los Angeles.
So far, no Democrat who is seriously pondering a 2008 presidential run has offered a coherent statement of opposition to the Bush Administration's misguided strategies. Senators Clinton of New York, Bayh of Indiana and Joe Biden of Delaware are all strong supporters of the war and of the Bush Administration's general approach, while former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has sought to straddle the issues in much the same way that his running-mate on the 2004 Democratic ticket, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, has.
If Feingold can strike the proper balance between sanity and security--grounding his push for a withdrawal timeline and a more thoughtful foreign policy in a clear commitment to do a better job of funding homeland security and developing the nation's intelligence-gathering and international-policing capacities--he could emerge as a serious contender for the 2008 presidential nomination. At the least, he ought to be able to force the debate that must occur prior to the 2008 election onto the higher ground that Clinton, Kerry and other prominent Democrats have so far been unable or unwilling to occupy.
President Bush and US Senator Russ Feingold have taken dramatically different approaches to the traditional August break from Washington intrigues.
Bush has gone into hiding, while Feingold has gone to talk with Americans.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the man who has gotten in touch with the country's grassroots--Feingold--has recognized the need to set a timeline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Nor should it be shocking that aides to the man who has cut himself off from the national discourse--Bush--have trotted out tired old excuses for rejecting Feingold's proposal to set a December 2006 deadline for extracting US troops from the Middle East quagmire.
As he has in the past, Bush is spending August in seclusion, holed up behind the security fences that surround his ranch in rural Texas. According to official accounts, he is attempting to read a book about salt and to learn how to ride a bike without falling off. Unofficially, but quite obviously, he has spent most of his time dodging requests for face time with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in the President's ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Feingold has gone a completely different route from Bush. He has traveled extensively, and made himself available to anyone who wants to talk with him about the Iraq imbroglio at more than fifteen town-hall meetings in his home state. What Feingold has heard during listening sessions with constituents across the heartland state of Wisconsin has emboldened him to become the first senator to call for setting a date to end the occupation and bring the troops home.
"I call what I am doing breaking the taboo," the Democrat who is being boomed as a potential 2008 presidential candidate said. "[Most] senators have been intimidated and are not talking about a time frame. We have to make it safe to go in the water and discuss this. A person shouldn't be accused of not supporting troops just because we want some clarity on our mission in Iraq."
Of course, the Bush Administration--which has resisted all efforts to provide clarity as regards the Iraq mission--dismissed Feingold's call by claiming that "It would...send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. As Feingold noted, the former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, has been arguing that the foreign troop presence has fueled terrorist activity in Iraq. Noting that Cosgrove has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006, Feingold said, "Those remarks were constructive, and we need to be having this discussion here at home. I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority, and that is keeping America and the American people safe."
While the White House bumbles deeper into the quagmire, it is Feingold who says he wants to take steps to establish an exit strategy that will "undermine the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents, encourage Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, reassure the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless and, most importantly, create space for a broader discussion of our real national security priorities."
The differences between the Bush and Feingold approaches are easily explained: Bush refuses to listen even to the concerns of the grieving mothers of America's war dead. Feingold, on the other hand, has listened closely enough to recognize that the American people want a way out of the Iraq mess. And while the Wisconsin senator's way may not be the perfect route--as he readily admits--it provides the impetus for a real debate that honest observers of the crisis have been longing for.
August may be a slow news month, but not for stories about what's wrong with the drug industry. In just one recent week, the New York Times published three articles that exposed what we're up against with Big Pharma--and the weakness of the agency that's supposed to regulate it.
On August 6, "At Midpoint of Vioxx Trial, Merck Looks Battered" explained how the drug company Merck "appears to be in a deep hole" in its court case in Texas, where it was being sued by the family of a Wal-Mart employee, Robert Ernst. The family charged that Ernst died from an arrhythmia caused by the painkiller Vioxx after taking the medicine for eight months. The coroner who did the autopsy on Ernst told the jury that "Vioxx was probably responsible for Mr. Ernst's death," the Times reported. And the jury agreed this afternoon as it found Merck liable in Ernst's death and awarded his widow a settlement of $253 million.
And this is just the first of more than 4,000 other lawsuits in which the company is being sued over Vioxx in state courts in California, Texas and New Jersey and in US federal court, with liabilities for the company potentially running as high as $30 billion.
The second article ran three days later. "Today's Insider Trading Suspect May Wear a Lab Coat" exposes another problem that has led to our unsafe market for prescription drugs. Doctors and scientists are now joining forces with the big drug companies to promote their products and are increasingly "working as consultants to investors, especially hedge funds," the Times reported.
Most important, though, the SEC is "taking a closer look at whether doctors, participating in criminal trials with drug companies, are accepting money to talk to analysts and investors about the confidential results of a trial." (Another piece in the Times from August 16 reported that "nearly 10 percent of the nation's 700,000 doctors have signed up as consultants" on investment deals. And, according to a Times editorial, doctors make anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour on consulting.)
The Seattle Times reported, after completing its own investigation, that it found "at least 26 cases in which doctors have leaked confidential and critical details of their ongoing drug research to Wall Street firms." Doctors who did the leaking were affiliated with top universities like UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania as well as companies like Citigroup, Smith Barney and Wachovia.
That's shameful, but it's not shocking. After all, doctors have gotten dinners, vacations and even thousands of dollars in fees from drug companies to attend "conferences" and "summits," where they are informed of the benefits of the wonder drug du jour. In 2002, one cardiologist told the Washington Post that Merck sent a limo to pick him up, take him to dinner and included a bottle of champagne for kicks.
The third article that I found really disturbing, "FDA Will Not Release Some Data on Heart Devices" (August 6), illustrates why these abuses have become so rampant: The FDA has abandoned its responsibility to oversee and regulate the drug industry.
As the story puts it: "The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it would not release information that it receives annually from the makers of heart devices detailing how often and why products fail." Protecting such data by calling it a corporate "trade secret," the FDA was pulling the plug on the public's right to information.
The Director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, argued in a recent interview that the FDA has become a "formal partner" to drug manufacturers for at least two reasons. First, in 1992, Congress decided that drug companies, not taxpayers, should have to fund the drug review and approval process at the FDA. And so the industry is spending an estimated $350 million this year alone to get its drugs approved, Dr. Wolfe says. Consequently, "Approve now, test later" is the FDA's attitude, Wolfe explained.
The second factor is that Congress has almost totally failed in its responsibility to police the Food and Drug Administration. Committees in Congress used to hold many hearings looking at the FDA's performance, but those days are over. Now, it is up to lone Senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa to hold the agency's feet to the fire. In a recent floor debate, Grassley said that the agency "is plagued by structural, personnel, cultural and scientific problems." But a lone Senator's voice isn't enough.
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, investigative journalist Trudy Lieberman argued that the FDA views the companies it regulates "as clients." That's a fair description. After all, The New England Journal of Medicine reported as early as 2000 that Cox 2 drugs like Vioxx could cause patients to suffer heart attacks, but the FDA refused to force the industry to warn consumers at that time. Similarly, when one safety officer told the FDA's higher-ups that reports had shown that Viagra could lead to the onset of blindness in men, the FDA remained silent. (Thirteen months later, a scientific journal published an article that revealed the problem.)
The FDA also recently rejected the advice of its own advisory panel--which has happened only twice in five decades--that the emergency contraception known as Plan B should be made available to women over the counter. Moreover, the agency failed to warn parents in a timely manner that antidepressants could make kids more likely to commit suicide.
So, what should be done? Dr. Wolfe says that at least four reforms would amount to a good start.
First, he argues that Congress should repeal the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act that "demolished" much of the vigilance that the FDA exerted over the drug industry in previous years. Second, Congress should pass legislation that is being sponsored by senators Dodd and Grassley that will free the Office of Drug Safety from the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (The FDA has been reluctant to admit problems with medicines once drugs have reached the market. By liberating the Office of Drug Safety from the office that handles the review process, Drug Safety would gain independence, and the FDA might finally begin to warn consumers about drugs that turn out to be unsafe after they've gone on the market.)
Third, more generally, the FDA needs to do a better job of enforcing the law, says Wolfe. In 1998 the FDA stopped 157 illegal prescription drug ads, while in 2004 it stopped only twenty-four illegal ads--an 85 percent decrease in the number of FDA enforcement actions.
Finally, Wolfe believes that if Congress increased the number of hearings it held looking into how the FDA is performing, the FDA would face greater scrutiny and be more likely to protect consumers' health, not the drug industry's profits. Here's hoping Wolfe's sensible ideas take hold.
Candlelight vigils calling for an end to the war in Iraq got underway Wednesday night in a national effort spurred by one mother's antiwar demonstration in Crawford, Texas, outside President Bush's ranch.
The vigils were urged by Cindy Sheehan, who has become the icon of the antiwar movement since she started a protest on August 6 in memory of her son Casey, who died in Iraq last year. Sheehan says she will remain outside the president's ranch until he meets with her and other grieving families, or until his monthlong vacation there ends.
More than 1,600 vigils took place nationwide, according to the organizers, MoveOn.org Political Action, TrueMajority and Democracy for America. A large vigil at Paris' Peace Wall, a glass monument near the Eiffel Tower, also drew thousands of people. And in Crawford itself, an estimated 200 protesters lit candles and gathered around a wooden, flag-draped coffin at Sheehan's growing camp, about a mile from the Bush compound.
One woman has touched the hearts of people coast to coast, moving many to take action themselves, and in the process has reinvigorated the antiwar movement virtually singlehandedly. There are numerous ways you can support Sheehan's protest.
Flood the White House with phone calls. Let them know that you support Sheehan and want Bush to take the time out of his vacation to meet with her. The number for the White House comment line is 202-456-1111.
Send Sheehan a Pink Rose. For five dollars, you can send a pink rose to beautify her arid camp, and a message of support to bolster her spirit. Pink roses traditionally symbolize grace and gratitude.
Add your name to the People's Petition for a Way Out of Iraq. The petition lays out a way to get out of Iraq and will be presented to Congress in September.
Heed the the call from United for Peace and Justice and other activist groups to come to Washington, DC from September 24 to 26 to join what they expect will be a massive weekend of protests against the war in Iraq. Click here for info.
Check out a new website--MeetWithCindy.Org--which makes it easy to help support Sheehan's efforts. The Crawford Peace House is also mobilizing support for Sheehan and assisting visiting activists with logistics support.
We could be close to a tipping-point moment with new polls showing a majority of Americans opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq. So anything you can do at this potentially momentous time could make a real difference.