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The New Cold War

Doesn't it feel like a new cold war out there?

Condi Rice has taken off those dominatrix black boots and slipped into dark cold war terminology: "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous, and everybody knows it," she said speaking in Oslo last week at a gathering of diplomats from NATO countries.

The Russians don't see it quite the same way. And last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended his nation's compliance with a treaty on conventional weapons in Europe that was created at the end of the cold war. The decision, fueled by the Kremlin's anger at the US's proposal to build this new missile defense system in Europe, is just another sign of how much has been squandered since the Cold War was officially declared "kaput" in Malta in 1989 at the summit between George Bush I and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But don't pay too much attention to the news stories--few give you a sense of the history of where we're at...and how we got there. For an understanding of what you're reading in the headlines--for the clearest, earliest history of how this new Cold War erupted--read Stephen F. Cohen's cover story in The Nation last summer.

And for a sense of how, once again, the US is ignoring the popular will of smaller nations--in this case, the two countries at the center of this new insanity--Poland and the Czech Republic--read my blog of earlier this month

The mind boggles at the layers of nuttiness involved in this deployment, starting with the fact that Iran--supposed source of missiles--has no nuclear bombs--and that interceptors couldn't stop them if it did.

How Not to Withdraw from Iraq: The Democrats' Plan

Before you imagine that the Democrats' plan, just passed by Congress, would actually get U.S. troops out of Iraq, read the fine print.

Let's be clear about what it is -- when it comes to "withdrawal" from Iraq -- that the President will veto this Wednesday. Section 1904(b) of the supplemental appropriations bill for the Pentagon, H.R. 1591, passed by the House and Senate, mandates that the Secretary of Defense "commence the redeployment of the Armed Forces from Iraq not later than October 1, 2007, with a goal of completing such redeployment within 180 days." If you've been listening to network TV news shows or reading your local newspaper with less than an eagle eye, you might well be under the impression that -- just as the phrasing above seems to indicate -- a Democratic-controlled Congress has just passed a bill that mandates a full-scale American withdrawal from Iraq. (Reporters and commentators regularly speak of the Democrats' insistence that "American troops be withdrawn from Iraq.") But that's only until you start reading the exceptions embedded in the bill.

Here are the main ones. According to H.R. 1591, the Secretary of Defense is allowed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for the following purposes:

1. "Protecting American diplomatic facilities and American citizens, including members of the United States Armed Forces": This doesn't sound like much, but don't be fooled. As a start, of course, there would have to be forces guarding the new American embassy in Baghdad (known to Iraqis as "George W's Palace"). When completed, it will be the largest embassy in the known universe with untold thousands of employees; then there would need to be forces to protect the heavily fortified citadel of the Green Zone (aka "the International Zone") which protects the embassy and other key U.S. facilities. Add to these troops to guard the network of gigantic, multibillion dollar U.S. bases in Iraq like Balad Air Base (with air traffic volume that rivals Chicago's O'Hare) and whatever smaller outposts might be maintained. We're talking about a sizable force here.

2. "Training and equipping members of the Iraqi Security Forces": By later this year, U.S. advisors and trainers for the Iraqi military, part of a program the Pentagon is now ramping up, should reach the 10,000-20,000 range (many of whom -- see above -- would undoubtedly need "guarding").

3. "Engaging in targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with global reach": This is a loophole of loopholes that could add up to almost anything as, in a pinch, all sorts of Sunni oppositional forces could be labeled "al-Qaeda."

An Institute for Policy Studies analysis suggests that the "protection forces" and advisors alone could add up to 40,000-60,000 troops. None of this, of course, includes U.S. Navy or Air Force units stationed outside Iraq but engaged in actions in, or support for actions in, that country.

Another way of thinking about the Democratic withdrawal proposals (to be vetoed this week by the President) is that they represent a program to remove only U.S. "combat brigades," adding up to perhaps half of all U.S. forces, with a giant al-Qaeda loophole for their return. None of this would deal with the heavily armed and fortified U.S. permanent bases in Iraq or the air war that would almost certainly escalate if only part of the American expeditionary forces were withdrawn (and the rest potentially left more vulnerable).

No less strikingly, in an era in which the "privatizing" of state functions is the rage, the enormous mercenary forces of private "security" companies like Blackwater USA, now fighting a shadow war alongside U.S. troops in Iraq, would be untouched. On this point, Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, has much to say in a recent post at Tomdispatch.com. He writes: "Even if the President didn't veto their legislation, the Democrats' plan does almost nothing to address the second largest force in Iraq -- and it's not the British military. It's the estimated 126,000 private military ‘contractors' who will stay put there as long as Congress continues funding the war."

Spell It Out: "I-M-P-E-A-C-H!"

In January, Brooklyn's Jacob Park made an audacious proposal to the loose coalition of groups that has been campaigning to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

They should pick a date, say April 28, and encourage activists across the country to spell out the word "I-M-P-E-A-C-H" on beaches, highway overpasses, the sides of buildings, downtown street corners and anywhere else where Americans might get the message they can and should be about business of applying the Constitutional remedy to a lawless administration.

"George Bush and Dick Cheney have lied the nation into a war of aggression, are spying in open violation of the law, and have sanctioned the use of torture," declares Park's ambitious A28.org website. "These are high crimes and misdemeanors that demand accountability. Since Congress doesn't seem to get it, on April 28 Americans from Miami, Florida to North Pole, Alaska, are going to spell it out for them: IMPEACH!"

Park's vision is coming to fruition this weekend, with the "A28" movement flexing its muscles at a moment when impeachment is suddenly very much "on the table" from which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to remove it. Vermont's state Senate and dozens of local city councils and commissions across the country have endorsed impeachment. Democratic and Green party groups across the country have added their voices. The peace movement, including the umbrella group United for Peace and Justice, has declared impeachment a priority. Polls by Newsweek and other media outlets show that a majority of Americans see impeachment as a legitimate response to accusations that Bush and Co. faked up a "case" for war with Iraq. And Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has introduced articles of impeachment against Cheney that focus on the manipulation of intelligence before the war and attempts to maintain the lie since its beginning.

Kucinich said in announcing those articles that, "I do not stand alone. Millions of Americans are standing up for the Constitution and the rule of law."

The A28 movement is confirming the truth of that statement.

From the Caribbean to the Arctic Circle, activists will spread the word by banner, boat, automobile and plane.

Two thousand people are expected to form a "human mural" on Ocean Beach in San Francisco to spell out "I-M-P-E-A-C-H!" with their bodies. Then they'll march to Pelosi's home for an impeachment rally.

Down the coast in San Diego, where the state Democratic convention is being held, another human mural will be formed on a local beach as activists from across California rally in favor of a party resolution calling for articles of impeachment to be advanced in Congress.

There will be more human murals in New York, Washington and dozens of cities nationwide.

Planes pulling pro-impeachment banners will fly over the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans – a city that nurtures a particular gripe against the president -- and public events in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities.

An impeachment caravan will cross the state of Iowa.

And when George Bush arrives in Miami to deliver the commencement address at Miami Dade College, he will be greeted by a crowd of Floridians calling for his impeachment and removal from office.

The A28 movement is pegged to one day. But it started before April 28, with an April 26 banner drop from the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington. Code Pink and Hip Hop Caucus activists unfurled a two-story long banner that called the Congress back to the roots of the Republic.

It quoted the Constitution: "The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Fourteen of the impeachment activists were arrested for daring to so quote the founding document in George Bush's Washington. But in the America that lies beyond the beltway, the Constitution is making a comeback – especially the six separate sections in which it spells out the word "I-M-P-E-A-C-H!"

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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.'"

Twelve Steps to Cutting Poverty in Half

Last Wednesday, at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, the CAP Task Force on Poverty released the results of fourteen months of work in its report, From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half.

The report offers twelve concrete recommendations to reduce over the next ten years, creating a stronger middle class and setting our country on a course to end American poverty in a generation.

Sen. Edward Kennedy and Ways and Rep. Charles Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, were both on hand to pledge their leadership on what Task Force co-chair Peter B. Edelman, professor of Law at Georgetown University, called "a national shame…. There should be no one [in this country] who's poor."

This is one of the great scandals of our times. In the richest industrialized nation in the world, 37 million Americans--one in eight citizens--live below the official poverty line (just $19,971 income for a family of four); in 2005, more than 90 million Americans had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold (less than $40,000 for a family of four); the United States ranks 24th out of 25 developed nations in the share of the population with an income below 50 percent of the national median income--and the US is dead last among 24 rich nations when the same measurement is used to assess child poverty. Nearly 20 percent of American children are poor, and it's estimated that allowing children to grow up in persistent poverty costs our economy $500 billion per year. Lastly, income inequality has reached record highs and is getting worse.

"From 1947 to 1973, we saw every economic quintile growing together, and those at the lowest level were growing the fastest," Kennedy said. "In 1980, with President Reagan, you see the beginning of growing apart...And now, those at the lowest end of the ladder are not even keeping up while there is an explosion at the highest level."

In fact, the post-tax income of the top 1 percent rose $145,500 between 2003 and 2004; it rose just $200 for the bottom fifth during that same period.

"The goal to cut poverty in half over the next [ten] years is not an overly ambitious task when you look at what other industrialized countries are doing," Kennedy said. He noted that Great Britain has raised its minimum wage to $9.78 an hour and brought 900,000 children and 2.5 million workers out of poverty in the last three years. Ireland has reduced childhood poverty by 40 percent with a minimum wage of $9.60.

"No single measure is going to answer the problem," Kennedy said. "But nonetheless we can see how important it is that we put [actions] together... [The Task Force] summary of what we can do to move a whole group of our fellow citizens forward makes enormous sense."

"With the exception of getting the hell out of the Middle East," Rangel said, "I can't think of anything more patriotic that we can do than eliminate poverty."

Edelman said that the Task Force worked hard to pull out some key points from the extensive list of what needs to be done to address poverty. It was not a top-down process, he said, but rather a response to what people in diverse communities feel is needed.

"The focus here is not just what we technically call ‘poverty' in this country," said Edelman. "That's a concept that's deeply flawed. Thirty-seven million people is bad enough. But when you take the idea that an income of a little bit over $15,000 gets a family of three out of poverty, an income of $20,000 gets a family of four out of poverty, it's a really bad joke. It's not true. In vast, vast, vast parts of this country, when you get a dollar over those numbers, you're not out of poverty. And so this report is really about everybody in this country who's having a difficult time... who has trouble making ends meet, who has trouble paying the bills at the end of the month...Who has to make a decision whether or not to go see a physician for something quite important because they're not sure that they're going to [be able to] pay for it. And so really this report is about roughly 90 million people whose incomes are up to twice the poverty line… all the way down to the bottom--those nearly 16 million people who have incomes below half the poverty line--below $7,500 for a family of three--astonishing! And that's gone up by over 3 million people under the current administration. Our focus is on full inclusion in this country for everybody who has a tough time."

The twelve recommendations revolve around four core principles: promote decent work that pays enough to avoid poverty, meet basic needs, and save for the future; provide opportunity for all--maximizing people's opportunities for success from childhood through adulthood; ensure economic security so that no American falls into poverty when work is unavailable, unstable, or doesn't pay enough to make ends meet; and help people build wealth so that they can weather periods of flux and have the resources that may be essential to upward mobility.

Here are key excerpts from the twelve recommendations:

1. Over a 10-year period, raise and index the minimum wage to half the average hourly wage--that would presently be $8.40 an hour. The report notes that for most of the 1960's and 1970's a worker with a full-time minimum wage job could lift a family of three above the poverty line. Now it's at its lowest level in real terms since 1959.

2. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. The EITC is an earnings supplement that raises incomes and helps low-income working families build assets. The Task Force recommends tripling the EITC for childless workers and expanding help to larger working families. The Child Tax Credit provides a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child but provides no help to the poorest families. It should be made fully refundable so that it's available to all low- and moderate-income families. (Currently people with incomes below $10,000 do not receive this credit. "Totally absurd," Edelman said. "This is a powerful anti-poverty step…. It will get over 3 million people out of poverty just from that one, single public policy step alone.") Doing all of the above would move as many as 5 million people out of poverty.

3. Promote unionization by enacting the Employee Free Choice Act. This would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers signs cards authorizing union representation. "It's very important that we get this legislation enacted this year," Edelman said. "Unions are absolutely a backbone of getting fair labor standards and fair wages in our country."

4. Guarantee child care assistance to low-income families and promote early education for all. Federal and state governments should guarantee child care help to families with incomes below about $40,000 a year. "We're not going to achieve this unless communities take the initiative with civic leadership to pull that together," Edelman said. "We would have an Innovation Fund as part of that effort." The funding would be about twice the level of current federal funding for quality state initiatives. This childcare expansion would raise employment among low-income parents and help nearly 3 million parents and children escape poverty.

5. Create 2 million new "opportunity" housing vouchers, and promote equitable development in and around central cities. Nearly 8 million Americans live in neighborhoods where at least 40 percent of residents are poor. We should seek to end such concentrated poverty. Over the next ten years, the federal government should fund 2 million new "opportunity vouchers" designed to help people live in opportunity-rich areas. "The housing vouchers that we currently have reach only a quarter of the people who are eligible," Edelman said. "People should also be able to choose where they live, they should be able to live near the jobs and get to the jobs." Any new affordable housing should be in communities with employment opportunities and high-quality public services, or in gentrifying communities.

6. Connect disadvantaged and disconnected youth with school and work.About 1.7 million poor youth ages 16 to 24 were out of school and out of work in 2005. The federal government should restore Youth Opportunity Grants to help the most disadvantaged communities and expand funding for effective and promising youth programs--with the goal of reaching 600,000 disadvantaged youth through these efforts. A new Upward Pathway program would offer low-income young people opportunities to train in fields that are in high-demand and provide needed public services.

7. Simplify and expand Pell Grants and make higher education accessible to residents of each state. Low-income youth are much less likely to attend college than their higher income peers, even among those of comparable abilities. Pell Grants play a crucial role for lower-income students. The Pell grant application process should be simplified, and the grants gradually raised to reach 70 percent of the average costs of a four-year public institution. States should develop strategies to make post-secondary education affordable for all residents, following promising models already underway in a number of states.

8) Help former prisoners find stable employment and reintegrate into their communities. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world--600,000 prisoners are released to their communities each year. Most are low-income, minority men returning to high-poverty communities. Two-thirds are rearrested within three years and about half return to prison. States should not bar former prisoners from receiving public benefits like food stamps or deny them the right to vote. All states should develop comprehensive reentry services aimed at reintegrating former prisoners with full-time, consistent employment.

9. Ensure equity for low-wage workers in the Unemployment Insurance system.Approximately 35 percent of the unemployed, and a smaller share of unemployed low-wage workers, receive unemployment insurance benefits. States should reform eligibility rules that screen out low-wage workers, broaden eligibility for part-time workers and workers who have lost employment as a result of compelling family circumstances, and allow benefits to continue when workers are in programs that upgrade their skills and qualifications.

10. Modernize means-tested benefits programs to develop a coordinated system that helps workers and families.A functional safety net should help people get into or return to work and ensure a decent level of living for those who cannot work or are temporarily between jobs. Our current system fails to do so. The government should simplify and improve benefits access for working families and improve services to individuals with disabilities. The Food Stamp Program should be strengthened to improve benefits, eligibility, and access. And the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program should be reformed to shift its focus from cutting caseloads to helping needy families find sustainable employment.

11. Reduce the high costs of being poor and increase access to financial services.Lower-income families often pay more than middle and high-income families for the same consumer products. Federal and state governments should address the foreclosure crisis through expanded mortgage assistance programs and by new federal legislation to curb unscrupulous practices. The federal government should also establish a $50 million Financial Fairness Innovation Fund to support state efforts to broaden access to mainstream goods and financial services in predominantly low-income communities.

12. Expand and simplify the Saver's Credit to encourage saving for education, homeownership and retirement. For many families, saving for purposes such as education, a home, or a small business is key to making economic progress. The federal "Saver's Credit" (a relatively new tax provision which matches voluntary contributions to retirement savings accounts with a tax credit) should be reformed to make it fully refundable. This Credit should also be broadened to apply to other savings vehicles such as individual development accounts, children's saving accounts, and college savings plans.

The Urban Institute studied the impact of just four of the Task Force recommendations--the minimum wage, EITC, child tax credit, and child care assistance expansion--and found that together they would reduce poverty by 26 percent, more than halfway toward the ten year goal.

The combined cost of the twelve recommendations is approximately $90 billion a year. The current annual costs of the Bush tax cuts (skewed for the wealthy) enacted in 2001 and 2003 are approximately $400 billion. In 2008, the value of tax cuts solely for households exceeding an annual income of $200,000 is projected to be $100 billion.

"Making a commitment to cut poverty in half in a ten year period is a bold goal," said Angela Glover Blackwell, Task Force co-chair and Founder and CEO of PolicyLink. "This isn't just about lamenting the fact that we have so much poverty, this is about doing something about it, and doing something in a time period that people can measure and hold us to…. Also, this report comes at a time when the mayors, when the faith institutions, the civic organizations, are all looking at what we're going to do about poverty… [So it] comes into an atmosphere in which Americans are saying ‘we can do something about this'."

"What we need here is a massive effort to reach out both through every communications method and the grassroots," Edelman said. "Maude Hurd, National President of ACORN is a member of the Task Force--they work with millions of people around the country who are struggling for economic justice. [We are] working with the unions--Linda Chavez-Thompson [(Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO)], was on the Task Force...with faith-based groups...This has got to reach all around the country and people need to own it, and bring it back, and say this is what we have to do...We know what to do, we know what it will accomplish. The question is the political will. Are we as a nation going to do what we should be doing?"

In New Book, Tenet Bashes Cheney Belatedly

This was first posted at www.davidcorn.com...

Should Americans have to pay to get the truth about how their government failed them?

Former CIA director George Tenet's new book has hit the bookstores. For $30 a reader can find out what really happened in that December 2002 meeting at the White House when Tenet used the phrase "slam dunk." Or what really happened with the prewar WMD intelligence and how it was used--or abused--by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others.

The usual promotional theatrics are underway. Tenet appeared on 60 Minutes on Sunday, and CBS had already released some choice tidbits of that interview. Meanwhile, The New York Times last week obtained a copy of the under-wraps book and reported some of its disclosures. (News flash: Cheney pushed the nation to war without ever seriously examining the threat posed by Iraq.)

All of this is making Tenet, the man who was in charge of an intelligence establishment that failed the country before 9/11 and that then produced an intelligence estimate that vastly overstated the WMD threat posed by Iraq, a rich fellow. He reportedly bagged millions of dollars for writing this book.

But here's an out-of-the-box question: Don't the citizens of the United States deserve to know what happened in the run-up to the war (and to 9/11) for free? Tenet may feel--as he claims--damn lousy about the screwed-up National Intelligence Estimate that helped pave the way to war in Iraq. But he did not feel bad enough to resign--or to disclose earlier what had gone wrong. He sat on the story and now is peddling it for personal profit.

Tenet should have long ago been questioned openly by a congressional committee about all this--though no Republican committee chair would have dared--or he should have spilled all to 60 Minutes and other media, as a public service, not as an advertisement for his book. On Friday, Representative Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, sent Tenet a letter asking him to testify before his committee on May 10 regarding "one of the claims used to justify the war in Iraq--the assertion that Iraq sought to import uranium from Niger--and related issues." Let's hope Tenet can take time from the book tour to appear.

Tenet's a smart guy who saw much. And he was screwed by the White House, even though he did fail to make sure the intelligence on Iraq was properly vetted and responsibly used. But if Tenet indeed believed before the invasion of Iraq that Bush and Cheney were pushing the nation to war without adequately assessing the threat or assessing options other than full-scale war, he had an obligation at the time to make that known--at least to members of Congress, if not the public at large. He did not do so. Consequently, he owes the public a full accounting and an apology--not a sales campaign.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Reality Check

Want a reality check on the implications of the Supreme Court verdict in Gonzales v. Carhart? Throwing out thirty years of legal precedent, the court declared that Congress has an interest in preserving fetal life over and above any implications for women's health. (No wonder Katha Pollitt's "upset." Her latest column Regrets Only is dead-right.) Which women will feel the impact? All women who ever become pregnant and want to make decisions for themselves. As Lynn Paltrow, of National Pregnant Women's Advocates told RadioNation 4/21/07, this is a decision that has potential to affect every woman who chooses to give birth at home, employ a midwife, have -- or not have -- a c-section. The implications for women's rights are devastating, not only for women who choose to abort but also for those who want to have choices as they carry their pregnancies to term.

Then there is the doctor's perspective. During the radio program, one ob-gyn called in from Seattle. She dared not use her name. Here's the transcript of that call:

RadioNation: How will this decision affect you?
Ob-gyn: The decision to perform 2nd term abortions was not easy for me. It's not an easy procedure to do, but I do it out of compassion for fellow human beings. How this will affect me is I will have to watch women who are in dire need of this procedure go without or go with much riskier procedures which include inducing labor in someone their 2nd trimester, or actual abdominal surgery.

RN: Who is your typical patient for this kind of procedure?
Ob-gyn: Many of the women I've treated in the past with this sort of surgery are women who are of limited means, or limited understanding and that most often causes delays. Those are most of the kind of women who need these kind of procedures and they are the very same [kind of] women who cannot afford to raise a child or to carry a fetus to term. [In addition,] many are women who have very severe disabilities...

RN: Is there one client who sticks in your mind tonight, who, if she came to tonight you'd have to turn away or would you take the risk of prosecution?

Ob-gyn: I would not. Unfortunately, I'm not that brave. As to who stands out in my mind, there was a 14 year-old girl who was born with a severe physical handicap. She was born with very brittle bones and had suffered many fractures (in utero and throughout her life.) She was in a wheel chair. Her body was very malformed and the pregnancy itself was a risk for her having fractures. Also, hers was a disease that was very easily inherited by her child -- the fetus was already diagnosed with it. It makes for a very difficult life with many, many, many medical complications. Being a 14 year old girl who was very, very physically handicapped. It makes you wonder how she got pregnant in the first place – whether it was in fact consensual.

RN: That's the kind of person Justice Kennedy claims to be protecting from self-harm, by banning access to a legal abortion?

Ob-gyn: When I heard the decision, my head almost exploded.

LF: Thanks for calling.

Ob-gyn: Thanks for talking about it. No body else seems to be talking about it.

LF: The decision is huge and we'll keep talking about it.

For more on Paltrow's work and analysis of activism in the states to defend abortion rights, check out Laura Flanders's new book, Blue Grit:True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (The Penguin Press, April, 2007.)

Yeltsin--Father of Democracy?

Boris Yeltsin, who died on April 23, was a towering figure in Russian political history. But was he, as so many US obituaries and editorials have described him, the "Father of Russian Democracy"?

As though a wave of historical amnesia had swept over the media, few commentators seemed to remember that it was Mikhail Gorbachev, upon becoming Soviet leader in 1985, who launched the democratic reforms of "perestroika" and "glasnost"--ending censorship, permitting, even encouraging, opposition rallies and demonstrations, beginning market reforms and holding the first free, multi-candidate elections. (Indeed, Yeltsin was the chief beneficiary of those reforms.)

Those reforms provided Yeltsin with an opportunity unique in Russian history. In June 1991--when he was elected President of Soviet Russia in what remains perhaps the freest and fairest Presidential election the country has ever had--and again in August 1991 when he stood, iconically, on a tank to face down an attempted coup by Communist hardliners, Yeltsin could have seized the chance to become the co-founder of Russian democracy.

But if Yeltsin was any kind of reformer, it was in the undemocratic tradition of Peter the Great, with whom he often compared himself, and he quickly squandered--even betrayed--that chance. After August 1991, Yeltsin's anti-democratic policies polarized, embittered and impoverished his country laying the ground for what is now unfolding in Russia--though it is being blamed solely on today's Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

What follows is a quick tour of nearly ten years of Yeltsin's shock politics and policies:

** In December 1991, Yeltsin and a small band of associates suddenly, without any legal or practical preparation, or consultation with the Parliaments or peoples involved, abolished the Soviet Union. Even if the Soviet Union needed to be disbanded, Yeltsin did it--as even his supporters later acknowledged--in a way that was "neither legitimate nor democratic." As Stephen Cohen wrote last year in The Nation, the breakup was " a profound departure from Gorbachev's commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism," and represented a return to the country's Tsarist and Bolshevik tradition of imposed change from above. It also bred mass resentments that jeopardized the democratic reforms achieved during the previous six years of perestroika.

** Beginning in early 1992, Yeltsin launched the disastrous "shock therapy" policies which sent the country reeling with pain. Urged upon Russia by a group of US (primarily Harvard) economists, and supported by the Clinton Administration and energetically implemented by Yeltsin's young "reformers," these policies--almost universally touted as "reforms" in the Western media-- involved the swift elimination of most price controls and a privatization program that resulted in hyperinflation wiping out, in installments, the savings of average Russians. Roughly half of Russia's people thus found themselves living below the poverty level.

** In October 1993, Yeltsin used tank cannons to destroy not only the Parliament that had brought him to power and defended him during the attempted coup of 1991 but the entire political, constitutional order of Russia's post-Communist republic. The US government and media, with few exceptions, acted as Yeltsin's cheerleaders as the Russian President's tanks pounded Russia's first ever popularly elected and fully independent legislature. A senior US official told the New York Times that "if Yeltsin suspends an anti-democratic parliament, it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act"; and an unnamed US official was quoted by Newsweek as saying the Clinton Administration "would have supported Yeltsin even if his response had been more violent than it was." (187 people died and almost 500 were wounded in the attack.) The Nation, almost alone among US media outlets, deplored Yeltsin's act, which led to Russia's super-presidency and obedient Parliament today.

** In December 1994, Yeltsin launched by decree a war against the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya. By the time it ended in a temporary truce in 1996, the war had killed tens of thousands of civilians, many of them ethnic Russians ; eviscerated and alienated the army; made a mockery of constitutional federalism; and, barely noted, earned the horrifying distinction of being the first civil war to take place in a nuclearized country. While Russian planes, tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, President Clinton saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.

** In 1996, Yeltsin's reelection campaign---financed by a handful of oligarchs including now-exiled Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky and aided by pro-Kremlin media bias and censorship--was marked by spectacular legal violations. No less enduring in its consequences was the most aggressive giveaway on Yeltsin's watch --the notorious "loans-for-shares" agreement--which allowed a small group of men, in exchange for financing Yeltsin's campaign, to take control of and Russia's most valuable economic assets.(It was a colossal piece of criminality glossed over at the time by almost all US media outlets as "market reform".) Thus was birthed the rapacious oligarchy--leading one Russian journalist to remark the other day that Yeltsin was not "the father of democracy" but "the father of the oligarchy."

**In August 1998, following a number of financial dealings that victimized or failed to benefit most Russians, the government after pledging not to do so,suddenly devalued the ruble, defaulted on its debts and froze bank accounts. In effect, people's savings were once again expropriated, this time decimating the post-1991 middle class.

Such events help explains why for millions of Russians, Yeltsin's rule was an age of blight not democracy. This magazine never lost sight of the social and economic disaster he presided over. But almost no one in the US media wanted to tell that story. Preferring Panglossian narratives, few cared to report that since 1991 Russia's reality included the worst peacetime industrial depression of the 20th century. In 1999, when the UN Development program reported that " a human crisis of monumental proportions is emerging in the former Soviet Union," the report was virtually ignored. And while, as Professor Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski wrote, "for the first time in recent world history one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development," American press coverage preferred to run glowing stories about Yeltsin's crusading "young reformers" --sometimes called "democratic giants" -- showing a cold indifference to the terrible human consequences of the crusade. (A Reuters journalist later made the observation: "The pain is edited out." ) As Stephen Cohen wrote, "sustaining such a Manichaean narrative in the face of so many conflicting realities turned American journalists into boosters for US policy and cheerleaders for Yeltsin's Kremlin."

Neither these cold realities nor the political and economic consequences today have chastened the the booster-journalists. Indeed, while many of the obituaries in newspapers that were Yeltsin's most uncritical supporters at the time now give a more balanced account than they did at the time --there is no acknowledgement that they helped promote the acts they now criticize or regret.

Embedded in those obituaries is another argument, perhaps stated most clearly by Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert and Clinton's primary adviser on Yeltsin's Russia, that while there are valid criticisms of Yeltsin there was no alternative route to what he imposed. Yet the majority of Russian pro-market economists warned against "shock therapy" --abetted by US-sponsored policies--foreseeing its tragic outcome. The alternative road they offered was more evolutionary, a gradualist approach, a "third way" that would have averted catastrophic impoverishment, plundering and lawlessness. Time has proved them right.

Certainly, the anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are clear. (Last year, a respected Russian survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler.) Yeltsin's legacy to his anointed successor, Putin, was an impoverished, polarized and dangerously unstable nation. And his succession had much to do with Yeltsin's fear of being held responsible for Russia's collapse and looting. (Indeed, one of Putin's first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption.) As a result, as The Nation argued at the time, Putin's rise to power and his semi-authoritarian rule today are best understood as the outgrowth of Yeltsin and Yeltsinism --which Washington so assiduously championed during the 1990s.

Enough Mommy Wars and Manifestos

I'm not going to hold forth on Leslie Bennetts' new book, The Feminine Mistake, because I haven't read it (that hasn't stopped plenty of others in the blogosphere from weighing in), and I don't disagree with Bennetts' premise that dropping out of the workforce to raise kids can be financially risky for women, especially if they get divorced. But cyberkerfuffles over this book are raging, as they are over Linda Hirshman's op-ed in yesterday's Times, "Back to Work She Should Go," ordering stay-at-home moms back on the job (yet again: Hirshman is also the author of Get To Work: A Manifesto for the Women of the World). Hirshman has her panties in a twist about a study showing that slightly fewer married mothers of infants under a year old are working now than in 1997. She's particularly cheezed that -- surprise! -- rich, well-educated women are the most likely not to work when their children are babies. (The actual study, by Sharon R. Cohany and Emy Sok, economists with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is interesting but hardly alarming: the percentage of married moms of infants who were working fell six points, to 53.3 percent in 2000 -- the beginning of a recession! -- and since then, according to the authors "has shown no clear trend." The labor force participation rate for married mothers of school-aged children has fallen only 2 percentage points since 1997: 75 % of them were on the job as of 2005.)

In any case, isn't it time for writers and academics to stop telling other women how to live their lives? Our workdays are much more flexible than most people's, and although we do face some difficulties -- huge expenses of health insurance, if you're a freelancer, and of child care -- we're lucky: we get to do work we enjoy and spend lots of time with our kids. Many people (men and women) don't get to do either of those things. It is obnoxious when Caitlin Flanagan waxes judgmental of other working mothers, from her fortunate position as a writer for the New Yorker and Atlantic magazines, working from a comfortably large home in Connecticut with several nannies. But it is also obnoxious when pundits like Hirshman wax condescending about mothers who choose not to work; she wonders who will be the "role models" for future generations of girls, as if women who take a little time off when their babies are under a year can't be role models. There's something elitist -- and a little disturbing -- about the clear subtext here: the labor of childcare is all very well for impoverished immigrants but a waste of time for women with Ivy League degrees. Hirshman -- who retired as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University -- doesn't care much, either, about the value or content of other people's work, indeed, in past writings she has criticized women for taking pay cuts to teach or work for social justice, when to truly advance the cause of gender equality, they should be sharking it out in the corporate world. I'm guessing that neither Flanagan's, nor Hirshman's, nor Leslie Bennetts' work life looks very much like that of a Starbucks barista -- or a hedge fund manager. Or that of your average suburban office park commuter.

Much more helpful than the exhortations of pundits are strategies to improve life for regular working women who are not among the super-rich, nanny-hiring, private-school-volunteering set -- and aren't writers or retired professors, either. Moms Rising, the Internet organizing group, along with many other activists and policy organizations, have been fighting to get a Paid Family Leave bill passed in Washington State -- and this week, they won! Now that bill is headed to the governor's desk, where it is expected to be signed in early May.

Give 'Em Hell, Harry

The Senate majority leader is being portrayed as an awkward duck who doesn't look the part and can't talk it either. Harry Reid, it's true, is given to saying the most inappropriate stuff, opinions that disturb Washington pundits and the third-string political consultants who appear of TV talker shows. They tut-tut and scold. The kinder ones think he must have misspoken. Others insist Democrats should give him the hook and replace Reid with a more responsible leader.

What did the man say? "This war is lost." "The President is in a state of denial." A few years back, Reid shockingly called Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan "one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington."

What do these and other outrageous remarks have in common? They are all true.A political leader who speaks the truth in unambiguous ways is naturally suspect in the capital city. But he ought to become a hero in the hinterland where citizens dwell. People who care need to rally around Harry Reid now and express their feelings because the political establishment is coming after him. White House slime agents are leading the campaign

Reid is being caricatured in ways designed to destroy his legitimacy and influence. If it really tries, the press can accomplish this. Remember how leading newspapers depicted Albert Gore as an egotistical goof back in the 2000 campaign?

Honk if you like Harry Reid. Bloggers, unite and bite back in his behalf.Washington Post columnist David Broder (a friend and former colleague of mine) is the chief tut-tutterer among media influentials. Broder took a truly ugly swipe at Reid in today's Post by comparing him to Alberto Gonzales, the "dead man walking" attorney general.

But wait a minute. Gonzales is ruined goods because he lied and disremembered and ran away from obvious facts. Harry Reid is guilty of the opposite behavior – saying aloud what most everyone in Washington knows to be true. Shame on you, David.

The cynical presumption among Washington "wise guys" is that Reid's remarks are bad politics. Some things can't be said, even if they are true. The insiders are wrong, wrong, wrong about that too.

Reid has an old-fashioned quality that sounds unhip to media junkies, but he is a savvy, tough politician known among insiders for an old-fashioned loyalty and willingness to stand up in a fight (ask labor leaders if you doubt this). A week ago when Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Bush, the majority leader told the president to his face that Democrats knew the White House was coming after them with slurs. Reid said he intended to fight back sound bite for sound bite.

That's essentially what the Senate leader is doing now. It can pay big dividends with the American public, never mind Beltway pundits. The disgust with this president and his war is general throughout the land. People do not want David Broder's version of "bipartisan" compromise" on war-making. They want out. And they want Democrats to stand their ground.

If you want to understand Harry Reid, think back to another Harry who was also feisty and blunt – President Harry Truman. Running in 1948, Truman was ridiculed by major newspapers as a hopeless loser. But voters picked up the beat and they gave him a surprise victory.

On the campaign trail, Truman would encounter voices from the crowd shouting, "Give ‘em hell, Harry." The president would respond, "I don't give them hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's hell."

This is Harry Reid's old-fashioned politics. The country desperately needs it.