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The New Rumsfeld

Alberto Gonzales is the new Donald Rumsfeld.

Up until President Bush replaced his defense secretary a day after the midterm elections, Rummy was synonymous with the arrogance, secrecy and detachment from reality that botched the war in Iraq and abandoned Afghanistan.

Now Gonzales is the figure most identified with the second casualty in the war on terror--the erosion of the rule of law at home. He's at the center of two metastasizing Justice Department scandals: the political purge of eight top US prosecutors and the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act to compile thousands of personal, business and financial records without judicial approval.

He's also the man who helped formulate the Bush Administration's "torture memos," championed the warrantless wiretapping program and undermined minority rights enforcement at DOJ. Civil liberties advocates now believe that if John Ashcroft was bad, Gonzales is worse.

In recent days, the New York Times (their editorial is a must-read) and leading politicians, such as Chuck Schumer, have called on Gonzales to resign. "One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Senator Arlen Specter said last week.

Democrats and a growing number of Republicans are hoping for the former.

How Our Soldiers Became Hostages

You would have to start any brief "support our troops" history with the dismal end of the Vietnam War and a consensus that the antiwar movement had been particularly self-destructive in not supporting the soldiers in Vietnam. (In fact, this is a far more complex subject, but we'll save that for another day.) In any war to come, it was clear that the charge of not supporting the troops was going to be met by an antiwar opposition determined to proclaim their support for the soldiers, no matter what. In fact, nowhere on the political spectrum was anyone going to be caught dead not supporting-the-troops-more-than-thou. This was one simplified lesson everyone seemed to carry away from defeat in Vietnam (despite the fact that in the latter years of the war, the heart of the antiwar movement was antiwar Vietnam veterans and that the Army in Vietnam itself was, until withdrawn, in a state of near revolt and collapse).

Add into this the history of the yellow ribbon. The yellow ribbon had long been a symbol of military men gone to war (and the women they left behind them), while captivity narratives had been among the earliest thrillers, you might say, of American history (though the captives were usually women). In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn released "Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree," a song about a convict returning from prison and wondering whether his wife or lover would welcome him home. It was a massive success as were a postwar spate of films about MIAs and imprisoned American soldiers in Vietnam. In the wake of defeat, the theme of the heroic soldier as mistreated captive and victim came front and center in the culture.

Now jump to 1979 and the Khomeini Revolution against the Shah of Iran. On November 4 of that year, Iranian students broke into the US embassy in Tehran and took the Americans inside hostage, holding them in captivity for 444 days. "In December 1979, Penelope Laingen, wife of the most senior foreign service officer being held hostage, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree on the lawn of her Maryland home. The ribbon primarily symbolized the resolve of the American people to win the hostages' safe release, and it featured prominently in the celebrations of their return home in January 1981."

Throughout the 1980s, the yellow ribbon remained a symbol of support for unarmed Americans kidnapped in the Middle East. In 1990, however, at the time of the First Gulf War, something truly strange, if largely forgotten, happened. The yellow ribbon as a symbol migrated from captive American civilians to American volunteer troops simply sent into action. This was quite new. From the beginning of the First Gulf War, the administration of George H. W. Bush dealt with its troops in the Persian Gulf as if they were potential MIAs. Their situation was framed in a language previously reserved for hostagedom: They were an army of "kids" (as the President called them), essentially awaiting rescue (in victory, of course) and a quick return to American shores.

During that brief war--which was largely a slaughter of Iraqi conscripts from the army Saddam Hussein had sent into Kuwait--the most omnipresent patriotic symbol, along with the flag, was the yellow ribbon, tied to everything in sight and now a visible pledge to support our troops re-imagined as potential hostages. The yellow ribbon certainly emphasized the role of those troops as victims. (Because they were already imagined as captives, there was confusion about how to portray the small number of American military personnel actually captured by the Iraqis during hostilities, a few of whom were shown, battered-looking on Iraqi TV.)

The yellow ribbon reappeared for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, largely miniaturized as removable car magnets. It was by now the norm not just to imagine supporting our troops without regard to their mission, but to think of them, however unconsciously, as mass victims, captives of whatever situation they happened to be in once things went bad.

A Policy Built on the Backs of the Dead

With our soldiers transformed into warrior-victims and the objects of all sympathy, the stage was set for the President's latest explanation for his ongoing policy in Iraq. For some time now, he has implied, or simply stated, that his war must go on, if for no other reason than to make sure those Americans who already died in Iraq have not died in vain. This bizarre, self-sustaining formula has by now come to replace just about every other explanation of the administration's stake in Iraq. We are there and must remain there because we must support our soldiers, not just the living ones but the dead ones as well -- and this is the single emotional valence upon which everyone now seems to agree (or at least fears to disagree).

In January of last year, for instance, Bush said typically, "And, I, as the Commander-in-Chief, I am resolved to make sure that those who have died in combats' sacrifice are not in vain.…"; in October 2006, he commented that "[r]etreating from Iraq would dishonor the men and women who have given their lives in that country, and mean their sacrifice has been in vain."

In a strange way, this is but another version of the "waste" explanation set on its head. Now that "supporting the troops" has become not only the gold standard, but essentially the only standard, by which this administration can rally support for Bush's war, such presidential statements have become commonplace. No longer is Congress to fund the war in Iraq; it is to fund the troops, whatever any particular representative might think of administration policy.

Here, for instance, is how a White House response to the House of Representatives resolution criticizing the President's Iraq surge plan put it on February 16th: "Soon, Congress will have the opportunity to show its support for the troops in Iraq by funding the supplemental appropriations request the President has submitted, and which our men and women in combat are counting on." Or as the President stated the previous day: "Our troops are risking their lives. As they carry out the new strategy, they need our patience, and they need our support… Our men and women in uniform are counting on their elected leaders to provide them with the support they need to accomplish their mission. We have a responsibility, Republicans and Democrats have a responsibility to give our troops the resources they need to do their job and the flexibility they need to prevail." Or in a press conference the day before that: "Soon Congress is going to be able to vote on a piece of legislation that is binding, a bill providing emergency funding for our troops. Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C. to provide them with the support they need to do their mission."

Put another way, American troops in Iraq, or heading for Iraq, and the American dead from the Iraq War are now hostage to, and the only effective excuse for, Bush administration policy; and American politicians and the public are being held hostage by the idea that the troops must be supported (and funded) above all else, no matter how wasteful or repugnant or counterproductive or destructive or dangerous you may consider the war in Iraq.

The President expressed this particularly vividly in response to the following question at his recent news conference:

"[i]f you're one of those Americans that thinks you've made a terrible mistake [in Iraq], that it's destined to end badly, what do you do? If they speak out, are they by definition undermining the troops?"

Bush replied, in part:

"I said early in my comment… somebody who doesn't agree with my policy is just as patriotic a person as I am. Your question is valid. Can somebody say, we disagree with your tactics or strategy, but we support the military -- absolutely, sure. But what's going to be interesting is if they don't provide the flexibility and support for our troops that are there to enforce the strategy that David Petraeus, the general on the ground, thinks is necessary to accomplish the mission."

This is hot-button blackmail. Little could be more painful than a parent, any parent, outliving a child, or believing that a child had his or her life cut off at a young age and in vain. To use such natural parental emotions, as well as those that come from having your children (or siblings or wife or husband) away at war and in constant danger of injury or death, is the last refuge of a political scoundrel. It amounts to mobilizing the prestige of anxious or grieving parents in a program of national emotional blackmail. It effectively musters support for the President's ongoing Iraq policy by separating the military from the war it is fighting and by declaring non-support for the war taboo, if you act on it.

It indeed does turn the troops in a wasteful and wasted invasion and war, ordered by a wasteful, thoughtless administration of gamblers and schemers who had no hesitation about spilling other people's blood, into hostages. Realistically, for an administration that was, until now, unfazed by the crisis at Walter Reed, this is nothing but building your politics on the backs of the dead, the maimed, and the psychologically distraught or destroyed.

As the Iranians in 1979 took American diplomats hostage, so in 2007 the top officials of the Bush administration, including the President and Vice President, have taken our troops hostage and made them stand-ins and convenient excuses for failed policies for which they must continue to die. Someone should break out those yellow ribbons. Our troops need to be released, without a further cent of ransom being paid, and brought home as soon as possible.

[Note: This is the third part of a series. Part 1: A Wasted War; Part 2: Wasting Our Soldiers' Lives.]

Not Silent Anymore

In 2000, the Surgeon General released a report describing "the silent epidemic of oral diseases" affecting mainly the poor due to lack of access to dental care. Two weeks ago, that silence was broken in Maryland when a 12 year old homeless boy, Deamonte Driver, died tragically due to an untreated molar infection which spread to his brain.

Driver's death has again drawn attention to how very few dentists are available to the poor and working class. In Maryland, for example, only 900 out of 5,500 dentists even accept Medicaid. As a consequence, there is a struggle to get an appointment, and travel time can take as much as three hours for a single dental visit. Moreover, in the case of Driver's mother, according to The Post, "…bakery, construction and home health-care jobs she has held have not provided insurance."

In response to this child's horrific death, Maryland's junior Senator, Ben Cardin, introduced the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act of 2007 last week that would authorize $40 million (less than 4 hours of Iraq funding) to help community health centers hire dentists to serve poor children. It would also help states in increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for dentists.

As Cardin said on the Senate floor: "It is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because his family can't find a dentist to remove an infected tooth. It is not enough simply to mourn Deamonte's death. We must learn from this failure of our health-care system and take action to make sure it never happens again. Congress must act to make sure every child in America has access to quality dental care."

A Maryland State Senate bill had already been introduced to provide $2 million annually over the next three years to expand dental clinics for the poor. But after the initial Washington Post stories about Deamonte "added urgency" to the bill, it has subsequently been revealed that the $6 million in state funding will not necessarily be available. According to The Post, Thomas M. Middleton, the bill's sponsor, said that "in the event that there is some money, that money will be targeted where there is the greatest need." Middleton is optimistic he can work with the Health Secretary to move around previously budgeted resources but there are no guarantees.

The outrage is, as recently elected Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin said, "We always have enough money for things we don't need – like funding the war in Iraq, or boondoggle projects that will make developers a lot of money. But when it comes to things we do need – like dental care for kids – suddenly there's no money. The fact is states are scrambling to patch together a fundamentally broken health care system, but until we move to a universal, single-payer type of approach, that's how it's going to be."

Raskin also pointed out that poor dental care – such as rotting teeth, abscesses and gum disease – results in adverse social outcomes as kids grow up and enter the workforce. "If we are consigning our kids to poor dental health," Raskin said, "we are limiting their opportunities for a lifetime."

If ever there were a case of skewed priorities this is one – and the costs couldn't be clearer or more heartbreaking. A child has lost his life due to a toothache, and our government's callousness to easily remedied suffering has been revealed.

Now that this epidemic is no longer silent who will lead a humane and sane response?

Honoring Our Rock and Roll Tom Paine

"O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!"

-- Tom Paine

"I can relate to Thomas Paine. When he wrote Common Sense, he was trying to stir people up, get them thinking. And he did. Paine's words -- 'These are the times that try men's souls' -- became the battle cry of the American Revolution. I can relate to a person like that, who has this calling and does the work."

-- Patti Smith

Patti Smith will be recognized tonight as a member of rock-and-roll royalty.

But Smith is no royalist. She remains as rebellious as ever – and as politically charged.

Few of the dozens of individual artists and bands that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have accepted the honor at a point when their careers are so vibrant, and necessary.

Because of the Hall of Fame's quarter-century rule – artists can't get in until 25 years after they begin recording -- inductees tend to be honored at the point when they are either retired or, at the very least, retiring in their approach to demands of the day.

But Patti Smith continues to push the envelope, releasing adventurous albums, touring passionately and speaking up as an American who sees herself in the tradition of Tom Paine.

"I guess I'm essentially a late-18th-century, early-19th-century kind of person. There is a part of me that likes to serve the people," she says. "In a different era, I'd have liked to have worked with Thomas Paine."

While she may not work with Paine, Smith's career has been marked by a determination to work like Paine -- as a poet-pamphleteer with a good beat

Smith is an artist, not a politician. But she has never shied away from the power of the pen – or the guitar – to rouse the masses against tyranny and injustice. Her faith in the force of an informed citizenry, expressed in the 1988 song, "People Have the Power," remains unaltered:

I believe everything we dream

can come to pass through our union

we can turn the world around

we can turn the earth's revolution

we have the power

People have the power ...

"That song came out in an election year, in 1988, and I saw Jesse Jackson delivering speeches and I felt like, if I knew his phone number, I'd call him and say, ‘I have a song for you,'" Smith once told me. "His speeches, the concepts he was addressing, were very similar to the lyrics in the song."

Eventually, "People Have the Power" would become the theme song of a presidential campaign, that of Ralph Nader in 2000. Smith even got the consumer advocate to sing along on the chorus at some of his super rallies that year.

Smith's political passions run deeper than mere calls to arms – although this fan of Paul Revere would never dismiss the noble work of rallying Americans to embrace and act upon their citizenship. "The country belongs to us," she once explained to me in a conversation about her political ethic. "The government works for us. But we don't think of it that way. We've gotten all twisted around to a point where we think that we work for the government."

Over the course of three decades as a recording artist, Smith has been both activist and educator. She has constantly explored issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and militarism. She has written of the conditions of Native Americans ("Ghost Dance"), immigrants ("Citizen Ship") and Africans ("Radio Ethiopia/ Abyssinia"), of the Chinese occupation of Tibet ("1959") and the Vietnam War ("Gung Ho"). She has celebrated the inspiration of the Mahatma ("Gandhi") and of the and the WTO protests in Seattle ("Glitter in Their Eyes").

Militantly opposed to the war in Iraq, Smith penned what remains the most powerful anti-war song of the moment, "Radio Baghdad," which ends with chilling indictment of the bombing of that city and the cry: "They're robbing the cradle of civilization." Fiercely critical of the Bush administration, Smith's most recent songs have condemned the detention without trial of foreign nationals at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay facility ("Without Chains") and U.S. support for Israel's 2006 assault on Lebanon ("Qana").

Smith is an artist, first and foremost. She is a rock-and-roller wholly worthy of her hall of fame induction.

But she is also a Tom Paine for our time, calling out as the great pamphleteer did to a nation in need of redemption. She places no faith in the current "King George" – a ruler she judges worthy of impeachment – or in rulers generally. In her manifesto for a "New Party," Smith sings to the commander-in-chief:

You say hey

The state of the union

Is fine fine fine

I got the feeling that you're lying…"

Like Paine, Smith keeps the faith in the people, and in the potential of the American experiment to be redeemed by a politics worthy of a nation founded on the Jeffersonian principle "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…"

"When in the course of human events," Patti Smith sings in "New Party":

It becomes necessary

To take things into your own hands

To take the water from the well

And declare it tainted by greed

We got to surely clean it up…

Or, as Paine suggested a few centuries earlier: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

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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.'"

George McGovern to Cheney: Resign

George McGovern has a word for Vice President Dick Cheney: "Resign."

Responding to Tuesday's conviction of Cheney's former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI -- after a trial that revealed Cheney's intimate involvement with a scheme to discredit a critic of the administration's war policies -- the former congressman, senator and presidential candidate said it was time for the vice president to go.

"What we have learned about how he has conducted himself leaves no doubt that he should be out of office," McGovern says of Cheney. "If he had any respect for the Constitution or the country, he would resign."

And if Cheney does not take the liberal Democrat's counsel?

"There is no question in my mind that Cheney has committed impeachable offenses. So has George Bush," argues McGovern. "Bush is much more impeachable than Richard Nixon was. That's been clear for some time. There does not seem to be much sentiment for impeachment in Congress now, but around the country people are fed up with this administration."

At age 84, McGovern has attained the elder statesman status that is afforded politicians who have held or sought the presidency. He enjoys the respect of fellow Democrats and more than a few Republicans for being, like former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a straight-talking man of deep commitment who may have lost one presidential election but won the battle for a place of honor in the nation's history texts.

McGovern testifies before congressional caucuses about how to end the war in Iraq, delivers distinguished lectures, travels widely to discuss his well-received books, contributes articles to magazines such as The Nation and Harper's and regularly defends anti-hunger programs with a former Republican colleague in the Senate, Bob Dole.

What distinguishes McGovern from most other political elders, however, is his refusal to mince words about the current occupants of the White House.

"I think this is the most lawless administration we've ever had," he says of the Bush-Cheney team. That's a strong statement coming from a man who tangled in 1972 with Nixon, and then saw Nixon's presidency destroyed by the Watergate scandals. But McGovern says there is no comparison.

"I'd far rather have Nixon in the White House than these two fellows that we've got now," said the former three-term senator from South Dakota. "Nixon did some horrible things, which led to the effort to impeach him. But he simply was not as bad as Bush. On just about every level I can think of, Bush's actions are more impeachable than were those of Nixon."

Of particular concern to McGovern is the war in Iraq, which he has steadfastly opposed.

"The war was begun in clear violation of the Constitution," McGovern says. "There was no declaration of war by the Congress. Secondly, it's a flagrant violation of international law: Iraq was not threatening the United States in any way. Yet, the United States went after Iraq. The president and vice president got away with it, at least initially, because they were willing to exploit the emotional power of the 9/11 attack to achieve their goal of getting us into a war in the Middle East."

McGovern, a decorated World War II veteran, approves of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's suggestion that Congress should look into employing the power of the purse to force the administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. "Frankly," the former senator says, "I would support anything that would get our troops out of there."

During his tenure in the Senate, McGovern worked with a Republican, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, to try and pass legislation to force the end of the Vietnam War. He also supported efforts to "chain the dogs of war," which were spearheaded by his liberal Democratic colleague, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a leading proponent of the 1973 War Powers Act.

Eagleton, who died this week at age 77, was briefly McGovern's running mate in the 1972 race. But the revelation that Eagleton had checked himself into the hospital three times for physical and nervous exhaustion led, after some internal turmoil, to a decision by McGovern to drop the Missouri senator from the ticket.

That decision, McGovern now says, was "absolutely a mistake." He now believes that the controversy would have quickly blown over. He also says that dropping Eagleton from the ticket did more harm than good.

McGovern is not afraid to delve into the historical record, even when it involves incidents related to his own career in public life. "We ought to learn from history," says the former senator, who notes that he earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University "thanks to the G.I. Bill."

"I think that the greatest deficiency in our politics these days is the fact that our leaders fail, by and large, to remember our history," says McGovern.

A close second is the caution of the current political class. McGovern calls the Congress "lily-livered" for failing to check and balance Bush and Cheney on the war.

McGovern does not suffer from the condition. He's as bold now as ever, and there is a sense of urgency about the man who could easily relax and accept the honors accorded an senior statesman of his own party and the country.

"I feel an obligation to speak up when I see these flagrant things happen," says McGovern. "I can't be silent when President Bush and Vice President Cheney choose to disregard the Constitution. Maybe if there were other people in the White House, I could slow down a little. But I can't do that as long as this administration is in charge."

Speaking of which: Is there a Democratic contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that McGovern likes? He's making no endorsements at this stage. But, like a lot of Democrats, McGovern says, "Right now, (Illinois Sen.) Barack Obama looks awfully good."

Then again, a typically frank McGovern admits, "I've gotten to the point where I think just about anyone would be better than Bush."

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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.'"

Alt Spring Break

If you're a high school or college student, you can use your spring break to become a part of the next generation of human rights leaders.

Taking place in Austin, Texas from March 12 to 16, the 2007 Anti-Death Penalty Spring Break, organized by Texas Students Against the Death Penalty and co-sponsored by Campus Progress, Amnesty International and Texas Moratorium Network, among numerous other good groups, will draw national attention to the continued use of capital punishment in the US.

Why Texas? Texas leads the nation by far in number of executions. The Lone Star State performed 45 percent of all the executions in the United States in 2006. Since the US Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that allowed executions to resume after a four-year period during which they were considered unconstitutional, there have been 1058 executions in the United States. Texas has performed 380 of those executions, which amounts to about 35 percent of the national total. Texas is ground zero for the implementation of what most of the rest of the world considers cruel and unusual punishment so it needs to also be the focus of any effective movement to repeal the practice.

There's noting wrong with partying at the beach but Alternative Spring Breaks are designed to give students something more meaningful to do during their week off than hanging out or catching up on school work. As the organizers are saying, "go to the beach to change your state of mind for a week, come to Austin to change the world forever."

The specific purpose of this year's Break is to bring students to the Texas state capital for five days of anti-death penalty activism, education and entertainment. And don't think this activist version of spring break is without any glitz--the events from Austin will be featured on The Amazing Break, an MTV show featuring alternatives to beer and beaches.

Click here for info on the activities, subsidized housing and transportation. If you're not a student you can help make it possible for more activists to participate by sponsoring a student.

Giving DC a Vote

Imagine you lived in the most powerful city in the world. Imagine elected officials from all across the country came there to debate the nation's future. Imagine you paid taxes and fought in wars. Now imagine that only you didn't have an elected representative, or a say in how the country chooses its president.

By now, you obviously know I'm talking about Washington, DC, which since its inception has been disenfranchised. That could be changing, finally, and not a minute too soon. "The House of Representatives will vote on a bill to give the people of Washington, DC full representation in the People's House by the end of the month," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced this week. "The people of the District have waited too long to have a voice in the House."

This is an important first step. But, as Sam Schramski reported last summer, the real goal for DC residents is statehood, which the House bill does not address. The motto should be: "No Taxation without full Representation."

UPDATE: Posters in the comments section are already saying that this is a ploy to get Dems an extra seat in the House. Not so. The bill would add another seat in the red state of Utah, enlarging the House to 437 members and offsetting a likely Dem in DC with a likely Republican in Utah.

Wasting Our Soldiers' Lives

We know that, since the moment President Bush stood under the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln in early May 2003 and declared "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," American deaths have risen from relatively few into the range of nearly 100 a month or more. We know that these deaths have also grown steadier on a day-to-day basis like a dripping faucet that can't be fixed. This February, for instance, there were only five days on which, according to the definitive Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, the Pentagon did not report at least one (and often multiple) American deaths.

It's finally national news that Americans wounded in Iraq come home "on the cheap" (as Tomdispatch's Judith Coburn reported back in April 2006). The crisis at the country's premier military hospital, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is already proving to be another "Brownie-heck-of-a-job" privatization scandal (with the contract to run the place having gone to a company headed by two former Halliburton execs), and the nightly network news as well as major newspapers assure us that this is just "the tip of the iceberg."

According to a Congressional staffer quoted in human-rights lawyer Scott Horton's "No Comment" newsletter, "This is Hurricane Katrina all over again. Grossly incompetent management and sweetheart contracts given to contractors with tight GOP connections. There will be enough blame to go around, but the core of the problem is increasingly clear: it's political appointees near the center of power in the Pentagon who have spun the system for partisan and personal benefit. But they'll make a brigade of soldiers and officers walk the plank to try to throw us off the scent."

As Juan Cole pointed out recently,

"The privatization of patient care services is responsible for a lot of the problem here… The Bush-Cheney regime rewarded civilian firms with billions while they paid US GIs a pittance to risk their lives for their country. And then when they were wounded they were sent someplace with black mold on the walls. A full investigation into the full meaning of 'privatization' at the Pentagon for our troops would uncover epochal scandals."

What a needless waste!

We know that the U.S. military has been ground down; that the National Guard has been run ragged by its multiple Iraq call-ups and tour-of-duty extensions -- according to the Washington Post, "Nearly 90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States are rated ‘not ready'"--and can no longer be counted on to "surge" effectively in crises like Hurricane Katrina here at home; that the Reserves are in equally shaky shape; that troops are being shipped into Iraq without proper training or equipment; that the Army is offering increasing numbers of "moral waivers" for criminal activities just to fill its ranks; that the soldiers joining our all-volunteer military, however they come home, are increasingly from communities more likely to be in economic trouble -- rural and immigrant -- either forgotten or overlooked by most Americans; that these traditionally patriotic areas are now strikingly less supportive of administration policy; and that the death rate in Iraq and Afghanistan is 60% higher for soldiers from rural than suburban or urban areas. If all of this doesn't add up to a programmatic policy of waste and evasion of responsibility, what does?

We know that, on February 11th, the day Sen. Barack Obama, in his first speech as an avowed presidential candidate, said, "We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged, and to which we now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted," Sgt. Robert B. Thrasher, 23, of Folsom, California died in Baghdad of "small-arms fire," Sgt. Russell A. Kurtz, 22, of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania in Fallujah from an IED, and Spc. Dennis L. Sellen Jr., 20, of Newhall, California in Umm Qsar of "non-combat related injuries." We know that on February 28th, the day that Senator John McCain announced his candidacy for the presidency on the Late Show with David Letterman, saying, "Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be. We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives, over there," Sgt. Chad M. Allen, 25, of Maple Lake, Minnesota and Pfc. Bufford K. Van Slyke, 22, of Bay City, Michigan died while "conducting combat operations in Al Anbar province."

We know that, while in the remote backlands along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan--an area our President recently called "wilder than the Wild West"--and in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaeda has reorganized, Americans die in Iraq. We know that every Bush administration public explanation for the invasion and occupation of Iraq--Saddam's links to the 9/11 attacks, his weapons of mass destruction and burgeoning nuclear program, the "liberation" of Iraqis, the bringing of "democracy" to Iraq--has sunk beneath the same waves that took down the President's "victory" (a word, as late as November 2005, he used 15 times in a speech promoting his "strategy for victory in Iraq"). We know that the President's policies, from New Orleans to Afghanistan, have been characterized by massive waste, programmatic incompetence, misrepresentation, and outright lies.

We know that the real explanations for the invasion of Iraq, involving the urge to nail down the energy heartlands of the planet and establish an eternal American dominance in the Middle East (and beyond)--in part through a series of elaborate permanent bases in Iraq--still can't be seriously discussed in the mainstream in this country. We know that the Bush administration has never hesitated to press hot-button emotional issues to get its way with the public and that, until perhaps 2005, the hot-button issue of choice was the President's Global War on Terror, which translated into the heightening of a post-9/11 American sense of insecurity and fear in the face of the world. We know as well that this worked with remarkable efficiency, even after the color-coded version of that insecurity and those fears was left in the dust. We know that in this al-Qaeda played a striking role -- from the attacks of September 11, 2001, in which a small number of fanatics were able to create the look of the apocalypse, to the release of an Osama bin Laden video just before the election of 2004. What a waste that such a tiny group of extremists was blown up to the size of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia in the public imagination.

We know that there is only one hot-button issue left for this administration (short of a massive new terrorist attack on "the homeland") -- the American troops already in or going to Iraq or those who have already died there. We know that Senators Obama and McCain had to immediately backtrack and express "regrets" for in any way indicating that American deaths in Iraq might represent a "waste" of young lives; that, for their statements, Obama was promptly attacked by Fox News and right-wing bloggers, while McCain was set upon by the Democratic National Committee. So we also know that there is some kind of agreement across the board politically when it comes to those troops, which goes under the rubric of "supporting" them.

We know that both Senators' statements about a profligate invasion, a disastrous occupation, and a catastrophic pacification campaign, all based on a web of lies and false (or cleverly cherry-picked) intelligence, turning Iraq into a charnel house -- far more Iraqis have now died than were ever killed by Saddam Hussein -- and a center for extremist activity, were promptly pegged in the media as "slips" or "gaffes" that hurt each of the politicians involved. We also know that the American people in poll after poll now say that the Iraq War was not worth fighting and the invasion not worth launching; that similar majorities want the war to end quickly, preferably within a six-month to one-year time-frame for the withdrawal of all troops with no garrisons left in Iraq.

We know that congressional representatives are generally terrified of not seeming to "support the troops"; that somehow those troops themselves have been separated from the actual fighting in Iraq, even though, for better or worse, you can't separate the military from the mission; that, to some extent, you are (and are affected by) what you do; and that when the mission is a "waste" -- or, in this case, even worse than that because it has created conditions more dangerous than those it wiped away--then any life lost in the process is, by definition, a waste of some sort as well. No matter what your brand of politics might be, this should be an obvious, if painful, fact--that the loss of young people, who might have accomplished and experienced so much, in the pursuit of such waste is the definition of wasting a life. That this can hardly be said today is one of the stranger aspects of our moment and it has a strange little history to go with it.

[Note: That history will be in part 3 of this series, "How Our Soldiers Became Hostages," which will appear Monday. Part 1 was "A Wasted War."]

Paradoxes of the US-Iranian Dance

One week ago today we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Amman,Jordan, talking with the very smart and well-informed Middle Eastanalyst Joost Hiltermann about the interactions that US power now hasin and over Iraq with Iraq's much weightier eastern neighbor,Iran. (Hiltermann has worked onIraq-related issues for manyyears, including for several years now as the senior Iraq analyst forthe International Crisis Group.)

He said,

Well, the US and Iran agree on twothings inside today's Iraq-- but they disagree on one key thing.

What they agree on, at least until now, is the unity of Iraq, and needfor democracy or at least some form of majority rule there.

What they disagree on is the continued US troop presence there. Because the US basically now wantsto be able to withdraw those troops, and Iran wants them to stay!

He conjectured that the main reason Iran wants the US troops to stay inIraq is because they are deployed there, basically, as sitting duckswho would be extremely vulnerable to Iranian military retaliation inthe event of any US (or Israeli) military attack on Iran. Theyare, in effect, Iran's best form of insurance against the launching ofany such attack.

I have entertained that conjecture myself, too, on numerous occasionsin the past. So I was interested that Hiltermann not only voicedit, but also framed it in such an elegant way. (For my part, I amslightly less convinced than he is that the decisionmakers in the Bushadministration at this pointare clear that they want the US troops out of Iraq... But I think theyare headed toward that conclusion, and that the developments in theregion will certainly continue to push them that way.)

From this point of view, we might conclude that the decisionmakers inTeheran-- some of whom are strategic thinkers with much greaterexperience and even technical expertise than anyone in the current Bushadministration-- would be seeing the possibility of "allowing" the USto withdraw its troops from Iraq only within the context of the kind of"grand bargain" that Teheran seeks. The first and overwhelminglymost important item in that "grand bargain" would be that Washingtoncredibly and irrevocably back off from any thought of pursuing astrategy of regime change inside Iran or from any threats of militaryforce against it.

Under this bargain, Washington would need to agree, fundamentally, thatdespite serious continuing disagreements in many areas of policy, itwould deal with the regime that exists in Teheran-- as in earlierdecades it dealt with the regime that existed in the Soviet Union--rather than seeking to overthrow it. Teheran might well also askfor more than that-- including some easing of the US campaign againstit over the nuclear issue, etc. But I believe there is no way themullahs in Teheran could settle for any less than a basic normalizationof working relations with Washington-- such as would most likely beexemplified by the restoration of normal diplomatic relations betweenthe two governments-- in return for "allowing" the US troops towithdraw from Iraq.

There are numerous paradoxes here. Not only has Washington's widedistribution of its troops throughout the Iraq has become a strategicliability, rather than an asset, but now the heirs of the same Iranianregime that stormed the US Embassy in the 1970s and violated all thenorms of diplomatic protocol by holding scores of diplomats as hostagesthere are the ones who are, essentially, clamoring for the restorationof diplomatic relations with Washington.

... Meantime, a great part of the steely, pre-negotiationdance of these two wilful powers is being played out within the bordersof poor, long-suffering Iraq. For the sake of the Iraqis, I hopeWashington and Teheran resolve their issues and move to the normalworking relationship of two fully adult powers as soon as possible.

One last footnote here. I do see some intriguing possibilitieswithin the Bushites' repeated use of the mantra that "All options arestill on the table" regarding Iran. Generally, that has beenunderstood by most listeners (and most likely intended by its utterers)to meanthat what is "on the table of possibilities" is all military options-- up toand perhaps even including nuclear military options, which the Bushiteshave never explicitly taken off the table with regard to Iran.

But why should we not also interpret "all options" to include also all diplomatic options? Thatwould be an option worth pursuing!

(This post has been cross-posted tomy home blog, Just World News.)