When Oscar Torres saw a Venezuelan band perform the song "Casas de carton" ("cardboard houses") in 2001, he knew that he wanted to "write something about the song" that he remembered so well from his childhood days growing up in war-torn and impoverished El Salvador. Soon after, Torres started working on a screenplay that ultimately served as the basis for the film Innocent Voices which will begin playing in 11 US cities on October 14.
The film has received critical acclaim after being released in Latin America and shown at this year's Amnesty International Film Festival. It deserves a wide audience in the United States. Directed by the talented Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki, Innocent Voices tells the story of Torres' embattled youth. The narrative is exquisitely told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Chava whose character is based on Torres' boyhood. (Chava, appropriately, is a nickname for "Salvador.") Innocent Voices depicts the horror of war and its impact on children caught in the middle of El Salvador's civil strife in the 1980s.
There are no "good guys" in this conflict (though it's fair to say that the government paramilitary militias are definitely the "worse guys.") The film shows the government's soldiers hunting down and conscripting all 12-year-old boys in the village to serve in the military. But the bullets of the rebel-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) kill children just as effectively as the guns of the right-wing government's forces. And then there are the US soldiers who train and arm the government's military and who come across as depraved and without remorse.
Innocent Voices is Mandoki and Torres' reminder that "No child should ever bear arms." As Mandoki recently said in an interview, "Children were born to play." One question that Chava poses to himself at the beginning of the film--as he is being held prisoner by government soldiers--haunts the rest of the film: "Why do they want to kill us if we haven't done anything?"
Much of the film's tension stems from the government's policy of conscripting 12-year-old boys. We see the soldiers arriving at Chava's middle school, shouting out the names of the school's 12-year-olds and rousting them out of their classes. Chava, 11, understands that his turn is next, and that If he is lucky, he has just one year of innocence left, one year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government's battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN.
The soldiers patrol the streets, invade the village's church and menace the children in the village center. As the children stroll along in neatly pressed white school shirts, the soldiers hover in the background with rifles slung over their shoulders. The children could fall prey to the combatants at any moment, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic.
Other scenes reveal the painful ways in which war shortens the lives of every child unlucky enough to be caught up in it. Chava and his friends must climb onto the roofs of their homes to evade detection by soldiers who ransack the village in search of recruits. When Chava and his friends encounter an old classmate by the banks of a river who is now a soldier, they see him transformed into a trained killer who has been instructed in warfare by "gringos" who had served in Vietnam.
Torres and Mandoki have made a film that is both gripping and highly entertaining, interspersing moments of laughter and light and scenes of beauty with the inhumanity of war itself. They pit Chava's childhood, his relationship with his family and his falling in love for the first time against a backdrop of horrific violence. And we see him struggling amid the bloodshed to hold onto his innocence.
Chava flies paper fireflies at night with his friends. He pretends to be a bus driver rumbling through the streets of his village. He smears lipstick on his face to make his screaming younger brother burst into laughter as bullets fly through the family's cardboard home. And Chava sings and dances in the street while serenading his first love. These episodes of what should be a normal childhood make the plight of children in war all the more poignant. It's clear that Chava, like all children, shouldn't be caught in the middle of this or any other armed conflict.
Innocent Voices, however, is more than just the story of how Oscar Torres survived El Salvador's civil war. The movie reminds us that more than 300,000 children are serving in armies in some 40 nations and that hundreds of thousands of children have their childhoods destroyed by wars.
Torres recalled in a recent interview that prior to beginning work on his screenplay, the story of his boyhood was a "story that he always wanted to forget." But, as Torres, Mandoki, and the film's politically astute producer Lawrence Bender understand, Innocent Voices was a story that had to be told. Bender said in an interview that the film combines his passion for film with his political activism. Above all, it shows pictures that we never see on TV or in the movies--"pictures of children" and parents struggling to survive amid war.
Torres' story could be happening "anywhere in the world," Bender said. He hopes that the United Nations and UNICEF will put a spotlight on the issue of recruitment of children as soldiers and that we will be able to "shame countries" that allow children to be conscripted to fight in wars into ending this horrible practice.
Ultimately, Innocent Voices makes us understand that war exacts its most awful toll on the most vulnerable people in any society. It is an antiwar classic.
P.S. Innocent Voices could not only draw attention to the issue of child soldiers, but the film also could help force compliance with the United Nations Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. (It's a mouthful, but it's a crucial document.)
The Protocol entered into force in 2002. It outlaws the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, and it requires its signatories to raise the age of compulsory recruitment and fighting in conflicts to 18, along with other common-sense provisions. While the United States ratified the UN's principal treaty on child soldiers in December 2002, it is, incredibly, one of only two countries, along with Somalia, that has still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Right-wing opponents in the US are afraid that the Convention will cause the US to promote abortion and sex education.) If you want to get active in the campaign to stop the use of child soldiers in war, click here to check out The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, make a donation to its work, and learn more about what steps the world can take to put an end to one of the horrors of our times.
I'm a Tom Frank fan. I think he's a wonderful and passionate writer. But, now a respected political scientist is arguing that the "Great Backlash" Frank chronicled in his last book, in which "conservatives won the heart of America" and created a "dominant political coalition" by convincing Kansans and blue-collar, working-class people to vote against their own economic interests in order to defend traditional cultural values against bicoastal elites "isn't actually happening--at least, not in anything like the way Frank portrays." (Thanks to Doug Henwood--editor of the invaluable Left Business Observer and longtime Nation contributing editor--for turning me on to this new study.)
In a fascinating paper called "What's the Matter With What's the Matter with Kansas?", Princeton professor Larry Bartels uses data from National Election Study (NES) surveys to test Frank's thesis. He examines class-related patterns of issue preferences, partisanship, and voting over the past half-century. Bartels concludes that the white working class hasn't moved right and that "moral values" are not pushing them to vote Republican.
Moreover, for the most part, voters' economic and cultural attitudes are either both liberal or both conservative rather than the bifurcated split Frank sees. Bartels also disproves the argument that there's been a long-term decline in turnout.
Here's a summary of the report's findings if you don't have time to read the full 43 page paper, first presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this September. You can also click here to listen to Henwood's interview with Bartels.
* Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites--and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era--itself a holdover from the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
* Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The typical views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and '80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters--generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues--have also remained virtually unchanged.
* Do working class "moral values" trump economics in determining voting patterns? No. Social issues (including abortion) are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle- and high-income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low-income whites.
* Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? No. For church-goers as for non-church-goers, partisanship and voting behavior are primarily shaped by economic issues, not cultural issues.
Click here to read the full study and let's hope that Democratic Party strategists are doing the same.
The Plame/CIA leak case is getting what all good scandals need: props.
We now have the "missing notebook" and the "missing email." The "missing notebook," as several news reports noted at the end of last week, belongs to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and reportedly contains notes of a conversation regarding former Ambassador Joseph Wilson that she had with Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, on June 25, 2003. The date is intriguing, for this is weeks before Wilson published his now famous New York Times op-ed piece (in which he revealed that after traveling to Niger for the CIA he had concluded that the allegation that Iraq had been uranium shopping there was dubious). And, of course, this was weeks before Robert Novak wrote a column outing Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA officer. So why were the two discussing Wilson at that point? Why did this notebook go missing within the paper's Washington bureau? Who found it? Miller or someone else? Why won't the Times explain to its readers how it came to be discovered? What do the notes in this notebook say?
The Case of the Missing Notebook does prompt much pondering. As Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher listed a set of questions raised by the missing notebook in his own column:
-- Did Libby lie to the grand jury about not talking to Miller about Wilson earlier than July 8? Did Miller lie about that? If so, why?
-- How did Fitzgerald find out about these notes? Did he know about the June conversation for quite some time but just recently found out about the notes? Or did Miller come forward herself? If she did, was it after someone tipped off Fitzgerald about the June interview?
-- Does the existence of a Miller chat with Libby two weeks before the Wilson Op-Ed, and well before Robert Novak outed Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent, indicate that Libby, indeed, was the original source of the Plame leak? And/or does it suggest that Miller herself was a "carrier" of that leak to others in the media and the administration, well before Novak's bombshell?
What is frustrating is that the Times could have quickly cleared up a number of these matters. But it chose not to. So the final question on this front is, why?
On to the other new prop. This past weekend, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reported that Karl Rove's return to the grand jury (for visit No. 4) was caused by the "White House's handling of a potentially crucial e-mail sent by senior aide Karl Rove two years ago." Apparently, when Rove was first interviewed by FBI agents and when he first appeared before Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury, he neglected to mention his July 11, 2003, conversation with Time's Matt Cooper, in which he told Cooper that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. But after that first grand jury appearance, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, according to Isikoff's report, found an email Rove had sent on July 11 that referred to his conversation with Cooper. Rove then went back to the grand jury to discuss his July 11 chat with Cooper. I suppose Rove merely needed to have his memory refreshed.
The Newsweek report doesn't make clear what this missing email has to do with Rove's latest trip to the grand jury room. But it does seem that this visit may be connected to possible discrepancies between Rove's and Cooper's account of their conversation.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Louis Freeh's disingenuous attack on Bill Clinton, the latest on the troubled Harriet Miers nomination, what's gone wrong at The New York Times, and other in-the-news matters.
The Newsweek piece, though, does unveil Rove's latest defense--and perhaps that of the White House. According to Luskin, Rove also did not initially tell Bush about his conversation with Cooper. In the fall of 2003, Rove only assured Bush that he was not part of a "scheme" to discredit Wilson by blowing the cover of his wife. So even though Rove did share classified information with at least two reporters (he also told Novak that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA), he now claims this was not done with any intent to undermine Wilson, a prominent critic of Bush's policy in Iraq.
But when it comes to various laws under which Rove's actions might be prosecutable, intent is not the issue. Moreover, note that in this telling Rove failed at first to tell his boss that he had discussed Wilson's wife with reporters. Bush had said publicly that he wanted to find out what had happened and that aides who had leaked classified information would be punished. His White House also declared that neither Rove nor Libby had been involved in the Wilson leak (though now it's clear they both were). So did Rove disobey the commander in chief by keeping the details from Bush and by only giving Bush a general assurance that he had not plotted against Wilson?
Who knows if the latest Luskin-Rove account is true? Luskin has peddled misleading information for Rove previously. But Rove's aim appears to be to keep Bush out of the loop--even if that means Rove has to depict himself as a subordinate who did not fully come clean with the president. An account in which Rove does not share the full truth with his boss is better for the White House than one that implicates the president with knowledge. If Bush knew about Rove's conversations with Cooper and Novak, then he would also have known that his White House's assertion that Rove had been uninvolved in the leak was false. With this latest account, is Luskin building a firewall, rather than a stonewall?
Meanwhile, the Times reported on Friday that Fitzgerald might be using espionage-related laws to bring indictments in the CIA leak case. Regular readers of this column might recall that I noted this possibility two months ago. I pointed out then that the indictments in the AIPAC case were "bad news for the Bush White House and Karl Rove" because they show that "Rove and any other White House aide involved in the Plame/CIA leak might be vulnerable to prosecution under the Espionage Act." For more on this legal twist, click here. In the meantime, keep your eye on the missing notebook and email. They don't have the dramatic punch of that eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap on a Watergate tape. But they may have some legal resonance in a case that does seem, finally, to be giving the White House the jitters.
Sally Baron is not alone in the afterlife.
The Wisconsin woman whose August, 2003, obituary created a nation sensation with Americans who had come to resent George W. Bush's disreputable presidency -- it included the line "Memorials in her honor can be made to any organization working for the removal of President Bush," inspiring t-shirts, badges and, as of this week, more than 980,000 unique references on the Internet -- will be pleased to make the acquaintance of one Theodore Roosevelt Heller.
Heller, who died last week in his native Chicago was recalled in yesterday's editions of the Chicago Tribune with an obituary that read:
Theodore Roosevelt Heller, 88, loving father of Charles (Joann) Heller; dear brother of the late Sonya (the late Jack) Steinberg. Ted was discharged from the U.S. Army during WWII due to service related injuries, and then forced his way back into the Illinois National Guard insisting no one tells him when to serve his country. Graveside services Tuesday 11 a.m. at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery (Ziditshover section), 1700 S. Harlem Ave., Chicago. In lieu of flowers, please send acerbic letters to Republicans.
Heller lived to see two more years of lies, corruption and cronyism. He also lived to see Bush's approval rating fall to the lowest level of his presidency -- just 37 percent, according to the latest CBS News poll.
So, while Baron referred to Bush as a liar and a "whistleass," it is possible that the ascerbic letters sent in the late Chicagoan's honor might direct even fiestier langauge toward Bush's Republican supporters.
The President has lost the support of Democrats (84 percent of whom disapprove of his presidency) and independents (64 percent of whom disapprove ), but he still runs strong among true believers in the Grand Old Party. Seventy-nine percent of self-described Republicans interviewed for the CBS poll expressed approval of Bush, while just 13 percent disapproved.
But perhaps even blind partisanship has its limits.
According to the new AP-Ipsos poll, Bush's support is softening among Republicans.
In the weeks after the 2004 election, an AP-Ipsos survey found that almost two-thirds of Republicans expressed strong approved of the president's work. In the new AP-Ipsos survey, only half expressed "strong" approval." And, according to AP, "Those most likely to have lost confidence about the nation's direction over the past year include white evangelicals, down 30 percentage points, Republican women, 28 points, Southerners, 26 points, and suburban men, 20 points."
So how best to honor Theodore Roosevelt Heller -- a man who was, after all, named for a great Republican?
Perhaps with a friendly reminder to Republicans that it is not merely appropriate, but necessary, to criticize a president who has lost his way. That may be best done with a quote from the TR, himself. To wit:
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants," Roosevelt explained in 1918. "He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."
Of course, if it really is most important to tell the truth about the president, it might be necessary add the following:"P.S. Bush is still a whistleass."
In 1999 Cintas Corp, the largest uniformrental provider in the country, signed a contract with Hayward,California to become the officiallaunderer of the city's uniforms. As a condition in the contract,Cintas agreed to comply with Hayward's living wage ordinance. Problemwas, Cintas didn't comply--in fact, for the next four years it paidworkers far less than Hayward's requirement.
It was a long time coming, but Cintas employees have finally gottentheir fair share. On September 23, an Alameda County judge orderedthe uniform giant to pay 219 workers more than $1 million of backwages in what is being hailed as a landmark decision. Paul Sonn ofNYU's Brennan Center for Justice, called it "the first large scaleenforcement effort involving a large group of workers in a classaction suit."
When workers filed suit against Cintas in 2003, the company backed outof its contract with Hayward and refused to pay the back wages.Cintas, whose headquarters lie in Cincinnati, Ohio, argued thatHawyard's living wage ordinance carried no weight beyond city lines.But judge Steven Brick upheld the living wage law and allowed the caseto proceed, stating "Just as cities have permissibly enactedrequirements that city contractors have an affirmative action plan orprovide equal benefits to employees' domestic partners, the city ofHayward can require that its service contractors pay their employeeswho perform work on a contract with the city to be paid at the ratesset forth in the living wage ordinance."
The verdict not only provides an immediate boost to the plaintiffsbut will also strengthen the resolve of communities in Marin County,Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Dayton, Ohio--all cities who arechallenging Cintas for flouting living wage ordinances. "There are 130living wage laws under the books, but much less enforcement thanthat," says Jason Oringer of UNITEHERE! "Contractors were not paying a hell of a lot of attention theseordinances before this. It's a huge victory for low-wage workers."
Email is flying, cell phones are humming, Blackberries are bursting. All with the news--broken by Associated Press--that Rove asked to testify one mo' time before Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury in the Plame/CIA leak case. On HuffingtonPost.com, blogger Lawrence O'Donnell, who has demonstrated he has some decent sources on this story, made this prediction: "at least three high level Bush Administration personnel indicted and possibly one or more very high level unindicted coconspirator."
While more news about Rove's pending testimony to the grand jury may leak out--Michael Isikoff, where are you?--today's revelation does give speculators and analysts much to chew on. The key question is whether there is any way to spin this news in a positive direction for Rove. So far, the lawyers and others I have spoken and corresponded with concur: no.
No lawyer would send a client in front of a grand jury unless he or she had to. This is an "extreme and desperate act," said one attorney I consulted. It's important to note that the AP story says that Rove requested the chance to talk to the grand jury in July. It does not say when in July this occurred. But it was on July 13 that Matt Cooper testified to the grand jury and said that Rove had told him that former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. (A Cooper email to his editors confirmed this.) Did Cooper's testimony contradict Rove's? (Perhaps Rove had previously told Fitzgerald he had not spoken to Cooper about Valerie Wilson.) If so, Rove would have a pressing need to engage in testimony rehabilitation.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Bush's latest Big Speech on the war on terrorism, the troubled (?) Harriet Miers nomination, and other in-the-news matters.
As one lawyer pointed out to me, Rove's attempted rush to the grand jury room could be explained by three scenarios. Rove wanted to try to spin away the contradiction and explain what the meaning of "is" is. ("In my previous testimony, I said I never mentioned Valerie Wilson's name to any reporter. That is true. I never said I didn't talk about 'Wilson's wife.'") Or he's looking to cut a deal: agree that--due to faulty memory--he accidentally misstated his previous testimony and he's willing to accept a minor infraction in exchange for more accurate testimony. Prosecutors do occasionally run "blue plate" specials: come in now, tell all, and it won't be so bad. Has Rove's number been called in that fashion. Or there's this possibility: some other Bush official--the Vice President?--has given testimony that poses problems for Rove. My hunch is that the fact that Rove's request happened in the same month Cooper testified is telling.
In the meantime, the signs are that Rove is indeed a target of the investigation, since Fitzgerald would not declare he is not. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, who has made false statements previously, yesterday issued a no-comment when asked if Rove was a target. But today he subtly shifted his position and claimed that Rove had not received a letter from Fitzgerald informing him he is a target. One lawyer I chatted with says that the absence of such a letter at this point in the investigation does not mean much. Rove could be a target without having received a letter.
A Democrat I spoke with said that other Democrats in Washington have noticed that in the past few days Rove has not been spotted at White House events that he customarily would attend. Perhaps he has a cold.
But the big point--at the moment--is that Rove would not have asked to appear once more before the grand jury unless he had to. And note that Fitzgerald did not take him up on this offer for nearly three months. That suggests Fitzgerald wanted to collect more material before hearing from Rove yet again.
Unlike O'Donnell, I'm not issuing a prediction. I'm just speculating. Perhaps there's an innocent explanation that no smart lawyer can yet explain. But for some reason Rove felt compelled to return to the grand jury room. That must be some reason.
It is fair to say that a good many Americans perceive George W. Bush to be a doltish incompetent who does not know the first thing about fighting terrorism.
But, whatever the president's actual level of competence may be, it is now clear that he has even less respect for the intelligence of the American people than his critics have for his cognitive capabilities.
As the president struggles this week to make a case for the staying the course that leads deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq, he is, remarkably, selling a warmed over version of the misguided take on terrorism that he peddled before this disasterous mission was launched.
Apparently working under the assumption that no one has been paying attention over the past two and a half years, Bush delivered a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy Thursday in which he dismissed calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. "Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now," the president argued, before concluding that, "It's a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?"That's a scary scenario. Unfortunately, it is one that the president created. And it is one that the president still fails to fully comprehend.
To hear the president tell it, the U.S. went to Iraq to combat bin Laden's al Qaida network.
The problem, of course, is that going to Iraq to confront al Qaida in 2003 was like going to the Vatican to confront Protestants.
Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party cadres were a lot of things, but they were never comrades, colleagues or hosts to the adherents of what Bush referred to in his speech as "Islamic radicalism," "militant jihadism" or "Islamo-fascism."
If any individuals on the planet feared and hated al Qaida, it was Hussein and his allies. The Iraqi Baathists were thugs, to be sure, but they were secularist thugs. Indeed, many of the most brutal acts of oppression carried out by the Iraqi regime targeted Islamic militants and governments aligned with the fundamentalists. The eight-year war between Iraq and Iran pitted the soldiers of Hussein's secular nationalism against the armies of the Ayatollah Khomeini's radical vision of Islam. That is why, while the United States remained officially neutral in the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, it became an aggressive behind-the-scenes backer of Hussein. As part of that support, the U.S. State Department in 1982 removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. That step helped to ease the way for loans and other forms of aid -- such as the U.S. Agriculture Department's guaranteed loans to Iraq for purchases of American commodities. It also signaled to other countries and international agencies that the U.S. wanted them to provide aid to Hussein -- and if the signal was missed, the Reagan White House and State Department would make their sentiments clear, as happened when the administration lobbied the Export-Import Bank to improve Iraq's credit rating and provide it with needed financial assistance. If any lingering doubts about U.S. attitude remained, they were eased by the December 20, 1983, visit of Donald Rumsfeld, who was touring the Middle East as President Reagan's special envoy, for visits with Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
As it happened, the U.S. was reading Hussein right. In a region where the common catchphrase is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Hussein was not merely someone who was fighting a neighboring country. He was fighting the spread of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that the U.S. so feared because he was a committed secularist. Hussein promoted the education of women and put them in positions of power. Under Hussein, Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims enjoyed a greater measure of religious freedom than they have in most Middle Eastern countries in recent decades. Hussein included non-Muslims among his closest advisors, most notably Aziz, a Christian adherent of the Chaldean Catholic faith that remains rooted in Iraq.There was a paranoid passion to Hussein's secularism. He and his vast secret police network remained ever on the watch for evidence of Islamic militancy, and when it was found the response was swift and brutal. It was an awareness of the fact that Hussein was a bulwark against militant Islam that led key aides to President George H.W. Bush to argue against displacing him after the liberation of Kuwait by a U.S.-led force in 1991.
Nothing about Hussein's Baathist ideology changed during the 1990s. So it came to no surprise to anyone who knew the region that the 9/11 Commission, after aggressively investigating the matter, found no operational relationships existed between al Qaida and Iraq before the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.
Now, after having removed the bulwark against militant Islam, Bush describes an Iraq that is rapidly filling up with followers of al Qaida, and warns that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would allow the militants to "use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against nonradical Muslim governments."
What Bush did not say in his speech Thursday was that his own actions had created the dire circumstance he described.
If George Washington's mantra was that he could not tell a lie, George Bush's is that he cannot admit a mistake.
But the president's refusal to face reality has isolated him from those who are serious about fighting the spread of terrorism.
General Peter Cosgrove, the former head of Australia's Defense Forces, rejects the notion that staying the course is the smart response. In fact, the well-regarded former commander of the military of a key U.S. ally, says that withdrawal makes sense because it will "take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops."
It is Cosgrove who suggested the late 2006 withdrawal date that has been taken up by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the first member of the Senate to urge the development of an exit-strategy timeline.
For those who do not trusts the assessment of an Australian, consider that Porter Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who says, "The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists."
The president who argued that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to fight terrorism has instead opened up a new country to al Qaida's machinations.
The president who argued that the U.S. must continue to occupy Iraq in order to prevent the spread of terrorism has instead created a quagmire in which even the head of his own CIA says that the U.S. presence is being exploited by terrorists to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.
Now, George Bush argues for staying the course.
Perhaps Osama bin Laden would agree with that strategy.
But the American people are wising up.
The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll tells us that only 32 percent of those approve of Bush's handling of the war. A remarkable 59 percent now say that the invasion a mistake. And an even more remarkable 63 percent say they want to see some or all U.S. troops withdrawn.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has frequently reported from the Middle East over the past two decades. For more of his analysis of the administration's misguided approach, check out his book The Rise and Rise of Dick Cheney, out in paperback November 2 from The New Press.
Folks outside the Beltway often wonder why reporters--even those of a liberal bent--have a fondness for John McCain. Yeah, he's a warmonger in that he's been an enthusiastic cheerleader for George Bush's misadventure in Iraq. Yeah, he essentially pimped for Bush in 2004--after the Bush campaign ran a scandalous and dirty-as-can-be campaign against him in the 2000 Republican primaries. Yeah, he sucks up to social conservatives, as he ponders another presidential bid. For instance, he recently said intelligent design should be taught in schools. (McCain is probably hoping that he can take the edge off social conservatives' suspicion of him.) But this week, he poked Bush right in the snout. Despite a veto threat from the White House, McCain led--yes, led--the Senate to a 90-to-9 vote in favor of setting humane limits on the interrogation of detainees in Iraq and elsewhere. Given the damage done by the Abu Ghraib scandal, it's shocking that Bush would not support such a measure. But he didn't. And McCain shoved it down his throat.
McCain attached to the $440 billion military spending bill a provision that both defines the permissible actions that can be taken by US interrogators--whether they are dealing with uniiformed members of an enemy army or stateless terrorists--and prohibits the use of inhumane and degrading tactics. For months, McCain and a few other senators (including Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia) have pushed this measure, but they have been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In July, Frist pulled the defense appropriations bill off the floor rather than permit McCain a vote on this provision. Instead, he scheduled a vote on legislation that would protect gun sellers from lawsuits. (Click here for more on that.)
But when McCain on Wednesday introduced this provision as an amendment to the military spending bill--which is considered as a must-pass bill--he and his comrades won over most of their fellow Republicans. Only one Republican--Ted Stevens of Alaska--spoke against the provision. Even at a time when Bush's supposed political capital is draining faster than the waters of Lake Pontchartrain pouring through a busted levee, this was quite an accomplishment for McCain. It was a major rejection of Bush's claim that he knows best how to be commander in chief. During the Senate debate--such as it was--Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee spoke eloquently of how the US Constitution assigns the task of creating rules for the capture of enemies to Congress, not the president. Finally, Congress--that is, the Senate (who knows if the House GOPers will follow its lead?)--has reasserted (for the moment) its standing as a coequal branch of government when it comes to fighting a war. This was McCain's doing.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Bush's latest Big Speech on the war on terrorism, the troubled (?) Harriet Miers nomination, and other in-the-news matters.
And this is why McCain tugs on the heartstrings of reporters stuck in Washington. He does occasionally go off the reservation for a principle. Not often enough, but more so than most of his fellow Republicans. After getting ensnared in the Keating Five money-and-politics scandal years ago, he took up the cause of campaign finance reform. (His McCain-Feingold bill was a mixed bag at best, but it was a try.) He tried to shout down Bush's call for tax cuts that would benefit the rich and increase the deficit (but failed). He went after Big Tobacco, one of the main sources of campaign dollars for his party. In recent years, he has worked with Senator Joe Lieberman on global warming legislation.
McCain's anti-Abu Ghraib measure could still be stripped out of the spending bill. Consequently, he has called for public pressure that might persuade House GOP leaders not to undermine this provision and that might make it tough for Bush to veto the measure. So his campaign to bring a dollop of honor to the United States' treatment of its enemies has not yet triumphed. But even if McCain's effort is undone by other Republicans and/or the White House, at least he has shown that when it comes to this issue of decency, Bush is far outside the mainstream.
You would hardly know it from watching the news or reading the papers, but there's a two-month-old hunger strike going on at Guantánamo Bay. After more than three years of internment without charges or trials, approximately forty detainees are striking for the right to a fair hearing before a judge.
The Pentagon is in denial about its violations of the Geneva Accords; the mainstream media are oblivious. As Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) staff attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez says, "It is astounding that men in US custody are willing to engage in a hunger strike until they are afforded a fair hearing or they die of starvation." But it's happening with no one paying all that much attention--except in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, where, as Clive Stafford Smith explaines in the Nation magazine, any US claim to be the standard-bearer of the rule of law has dissolved.
It's so bad even Thomas Friedman has called for closing the prisoners' camp. But Friedman's column last summer aside, this hunger strike really does seem to be the story America doesn't care about. And the Gitmo authorities, mindful of the bad publicity a detainee death by starvation would cause, are apparently force-feeding the hunger strikers to make sure we don't see a Muslim Bobby Sands.
CCR has been out in front in opposing the Bush Administration's extra-Constitutional detentions at Guantánamo, having released fact-finding reports and argued before federal courts on behalf of judicial rights for the detainees. The venerable lefty legal outfit has also put up an outstanding Guantánamo Action Center--a terrific site featuring resources and organizing tools that can help break the silence.
Amnesty International has also been a strong and vocal opponent of the Bush Administration's detainee policy, which has put hundreds of people of at least 35 different nationalities "in a legal black hole, many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits," according to an AI report released last May which also famously called Guantánamo "America's gulag."
"As evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts," the report rightly insisted, "it is more urgent than ever that the US Government bring the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the USA into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down," which is precisely what many grassroots groups along with people like John McCain have demanded. AI also offers an easy way to write the White House. Click here to demand that Guantánamo detainees receive their legal rights and let them know people are watching.
Before the current round of prisoners, 300 Haitians were detained at Guantánamo Bay. "Their story should have taught the US that Guantánamo is both bad policy and bad law." Read Yale University law professor and human-rights expert Harold Koh's new essay, originally published on openDemocracy.net.
In a scathing report issued on September 30, the Government Accountability Office's investigators said the Bush Administration had broken the law by using taxpayer dollars to disseminate "covert propaganda" in the United States.
The case in question involves the buying of favorable news coverage of the White House's education policies in the form of payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and the hiring of a PR firm to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party. (The GAO's ruling should lead the mainstream media to broaden its investigation: What other reporters and media outlets are on the government's payroll?)
But this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's now clear that the Bush Administration represents a broad threat to a free and fair media. The bribing of journalists to report "friendly" news has to be put in the context of a decades-long effort by the right and its corporate allies to undermine journalists' ability to report fairly on power and its abuse--whether through consolidation, cutbacks in news budgets or by attaching the label "liberal bias" to even the most routine forms of news-gathering and reportage.
Up next in the scandals of Bush crony journalism: In early November, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Inspector General is scheduled to release his report on former CPB chair Kenneth Tomlinson's payments to a conservative consultant to rate the political leanings (and loyalties) of PBS guests. IG Kenneth Konz said last month that Tomlinson may have violated internal rules, and that his final report could recommend that Tomlinson be barred from serving as director. (Tomlinson recently stepped down as CPB's Chair, to be replaced by Cheryl Halpern, a former GOP fundraiser and donor.)
At a charged Senate hearing last July, Tomlinson rebuffed questions about the $5 million in taxpayer and viewer-donated resources he'd devoted to a show starring the far-right ideologues of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman wrote in September 2004, "Short of turning the broadcast day over to Rush Limbaugh or Richard Mellon Scaife, it's difficult to imagine a more calculated effort to undermine PBS's intended mission of providing alternative programming than this subsidy to a wealthy, conservative corporation to produce yet another right-wing cable chat show." (Kudos to groups like Free Press, Common Cause, FAIR, Media Matters and the Center for Digital Democracy for exposing CPB's pressure on PBS to conform to right-wing editorial perspectives and calling for broad reform and transparency.)
At the same hearing, Democratic Senators Daniel Inouye and Richard Durbin pointedly questioned Tomlinson about using public money to monitor the Moyers program and promote The Journal Editorial Report. At one point, Durbin pointedly asked Tomlinson: "Are you going to provide $5 million for The Nation magazine?"
That question--at a time when Moyers has left NOW, and when the right continues to dominate not only commercial TV but also our public broadcasting outlets--leads me to send an open letter to CPB's board.
While the core issue remains restructuring CPB's role, we know that will take many years--and a Democratic majority in at least one house of Congress. Right now, I urge all who believe in the importance of a vigilant, independent press to click here to e-mail the CPB's Board (or call 202-879-9600 or mail to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 401 Ninth Street, NW Washington, DC 20004-2129) and urge it to live up to the CPB's stated mandate of restoring real balance to PBS's airwaves by taking Durbin up on his suggestion and providing funding to develop a real roster of balanced and hard-hitting programming--spearheaded by a weekly Nation program.
Dear CPB Board,
As you may recall from the testimony in the Senate on July 11, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois inquired as to whether CPB had any immediate plans "to provide $5 million for The Nation magazine." We are writing in the hopes of taking you up on what we think was a fine idea on Senator Durbin's part.
We're serious. With the departure of Bill Moyers from NOW, PBS has no outspoken liberals at all offering commentary. And yet the Wall Street Journal editorial page, owned by the billion-dollar Dow Jones Corporation, receives a $5 million taxpayer subsidy from CPB to offer its editors' opinions on a weekly basis with absolutely no input from the other side. While Now continues to operate, it does so exclusively as a news and interview show, with only half the weekly air-time it previously received.
Because we have frequently heard former CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson and others speak of the need to offer "balance" to PBS viewers, we think a show featuring Nation editors, columnists, writers and invited guests would provide just the balance a far-right institution like the Wall Street Journal editorial board invites. Unlike most voices in the mainstream media, The Nation has been consistently skeptical of George W. Bush's foreign policy, his tax cuts, his social agenda, indeed, even his alleged "victory" in the 2000 election. Surely PBS viewers cannot be said to benefit when they hear only one side of the story. And yet since CPB began subsidizing the Wall Street Journal's show, that is all they get.
Many people associated with The Nation are seasoned television performers. We would be happy to work with you and your staff in creating a show that underserved viewers will find interesting, enlightening and entertaining, and will help CPB meet its stated mandate of restoring a much desired sense of "balance" to PBS, so that not only conservative opinions are the ones to which viewers are treated on a weekly basis.
We eagerly await your response.
Katrina vanden Heuvel,
Editor, The Nation