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Feingold Rejects Compromise, Pushes Exit Strategy

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say that Congress should not compromise with President Bush in the Iraq War funding fight. That's the number that, according to a new CNN poll, wants Congress to give Bush another bill with a withdrawal timetable.

Unfortunately, not all the Democrats on the Hill want to push back quite that hard. There is serious talk of giving Bush a substantial portion of the money with no strings attached and then returning to the issue later this year.

Such a move would highlight the failure of all the major players to step up to the challenge the Iraq imbroglio poses.

For far too long, neither the Bush White House nor the Congress has seemed to be fully prepared to take responsibility for the war in Iraq. Bush won't admit his misdeeds and change course. But Congress, which gave Bush the power to launch the attack, has been far too slow in acknowledging its error in trusting the president's claims about weapons of mass destruction and other threats -- and even slower in taking responsibility for that error by using the power of the purse to constrain Bush's continued war making.

But U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, is doing his best to get Congress to take the bold step that is necessary.

"With brave Americans fighting and dying for a failed policy in Iraq, members of Congress shouldn't delay action to end this misguided war for weeks or even months just for the sake of political comfort," says Feingold, who more than a year ago started talking about the need for a well-defined exit strategy.

The senator has been turning up the heat by pressing for consideration of his Feingold-Reid plan to bring the troops home. Feingold's proposal, which is cosponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is written with the specific intent of forcing the president to safely redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. Further funding of the war would be cut off on that date.

It takes courage to set deadlines and to try and impose them.

Feingold has shown this sort of courage since before the war began, as a constant critic of Bush's misguided strategies. Perhaps best known for his solo vote against the Patriot Act, Feingold also voted against authorizing Bush to take the country to war and was the first senator to propose a date for ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.

He's got more company now that the war has so clearly degenerated into the disaster he predicted almost five years ago.

But Feingold isn't resting on his laurels and "I-told-you-sos." His work to attach the Feingold-Reid measure to the Iraq supplemental spending bill represents the most direct and potentially meaningful challenge to a Republican president and a Democratic Congress that have yet to take responsibility for a war that kills an Iraqi every ten minutes, kills an American every ten hours and empties another two billion dollars from the U.S. Treasury every ten days.

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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.'"

What Good Reporting Has Meant in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn has been hailed by Sidney Blumenthal in Salon as "one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq." And that's hardly praise enough, given what the man has done. The Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, he's been on the spot from the moment when, in February 2003, he secretly crossed the Tigris River into Iraq just before the Bush administration launched its invasion.

Here, for instance, is a typical striking passage of his, written in May 2003, just weeks after Baghdad fell. If you read it then, you hardly needed the massive retrospective volumes like Thomas Rick's Fiasco that took years to come out:

 

"[T]he civilian leadership of the Pentagon… are uniquely reckless, arrogant and ill informed about Iraq. At the end of last year [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was happily saying that he thought the Iraqi reaction to the capture of Baghdad would be much like the entry of the U.S. Army into Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmed Chalabi…, then as now one of the most unpopular men in Iraq, would be the Iraqi Charles de Gaulle.

 

"These past mistakes matter because the situation in Iraq could easily become much worse. Iraqis realize that Saddam may have gone but that the United States does not have real control of the country. Last week, just as a[n] emissary [from head of the U.S. occupation Paul Bremer] was telling academics at Mustansiriyah, the ancient university in the heart of Baghdad, who should be purged from their staff, several gunmen, never identified, drove up and calmly shot dead the deputy dean."

 

How much worse it's become can be measured by the two suicide bombs that went off at the same university a month apart early in 2007, killing not a single deputy dean but more than 100 (mostly female) students.

Or it can be measured by this telling little tidbit written in October 2003: "The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: ‘With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.' Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?"

Or by this description, written in the same month, which offers a vivid sense of why an insurgency really took off in that country:

 

"US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops… Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: 'It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth.'"

 

Or by this singular detail from June 2004 that caught the essence of the lawlessness the U.S. occupation let loose: "Kidnap is now so common [that] new words have been added to Iraqi thieves' slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep."

Or this summary of the situation in May 2004, one year after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech: "Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead, they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it. It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history."

Last September, typically, Cockburn travelled on his own to dangerous Diyala Province just as the fighting there was heating to a boil. He summed up the situation parenthetically, as well as symbolically, when he commented that Diyala was not a place "to make a mistake in map reading."

Cockburn should gather in awards for guts, nerve, understanding, and just plain great war reporting. Before heading back to Iraq yet again, he put his years of reporting and observation together in an already classic book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, which no political library should be without. In a recent overview of the American occupation of, and war in, Iraq, "A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower," he offered the following summary judgment:

"The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance on a foreign power. Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone wrong has more to do with the U.S. than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars -- as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s -- that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers."

 

Men of Aahction?

Today I had lunch with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, SEIU president Andy Stern, and the disembodied head of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let me explain.

The event was a conference on the "crisis" in our nation's health care, sponsored by the Better Health Care Together Coalition, a group of unions, businesses and politicians who want some sort of health care reform (no, it's not much more specific than that). I'll address, in a longer upcoming article, this coalition, the involvement of Wal-Mart and major labor unions in it, and the folks who were protesting outside. I'm keeping an open mind about all that. For today, I simply want to note the curiously compulsive way that some speakers -- particularly Governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Terminator Arnie (who attended by satellite, so the live attendees were overshadowed by his enormous grinning visage on either side of the podium) -- kept evoking the specter of a "single payer" (Canadian-style) plan, and then dismissing it without giving any real reasons.

Governor Rendell repeatedly said reform should be "comprehensive, not piecemeal" and that "now is the time to get it all done." He pointed out how favorably other countries' health care systems compared to that of the United States, noting that Scandanavian countries have few hospital-acquired infections, and that Canadians have a longer life expectancy. (Those countries have single-payer health care systems.) Yet more than once, he said "you don't go to single payer." At one point, Rendell dismissed the single payer plan by saying that none of the major presidential candidates were calling for it (as if businesses and major constituency organizations like unions have no role to play in shaping candidates' agendas). When someone from the podium mentioned Dennis Kucinich -- who does favor single-payer -- Rendell joked that no "taller" candidates were talking about it. Arnie, luridly weird as usual, with his off the cuff ruminations (E.g., "No dictatorship, no feudal system, has ever been as powerful as the United States," "I like to be where the aahction is," and "it is fun to bring everyone together!"), randomly offered that single payer was impossible because in California the government provides health care to prisoners and "it doesn't work even with everybody locked up." 

There was an intriguing sense of optimism in the room -- much like the momentum among many different players right now to address the climate change problem. But come on, the edgiest, most outside-the-box thing these titans can do is get labor and business leaders together on the same podium (an achievement for which they kept congratulating themselves)? That's hardly novel throughout much of the rest of the world. It was as if many in the room knew single-payer might in some ways be a better system -- cheaper for business, less economic hardship on the average person, a healthier population, lower overall costs -- but had tacitly agreed not to take it seriously. Massive pressure from the public might help change their minds, or at least provoke some genuine debate on the issue, but failing that, we're probably going to just see more of the very "piecemeal" solutions that the Pennsylvania governor decried.

'No Shame, No Blame'

In an elegant "Talk of the Town" piece on the subject of George Tenet's new book in the current issue of The New Yorker, George Packer levels a strong indictment against the Bush Administration for coming "close to perfecting the art of unaccountability."

Packer's comment, titled "No Shame, No Blame," is smart and on point. Yet, after reading it, I sat bolt upright in bed astonished that Packer could describe what he calls "styles of unaccountability" without including a critical (and self-critical) inventory of pro-war writers and pundits' role in the Iraq debacle. We know about the responsibility Bush officials bear for taking us into the most colossal foreign policy disaster in US history. But what about the wordsmiths who, like Thomas Friedman and Packer himself, came out in favor of this blood-soaked war. Remember Friedman's line -- "something in Mr. Bush's audacious shake of the dice appeals to me"? Or what about the New Yorker's own Jeffrey Goldberg who floated now discredited theories that Saddam was working closely with Al Qaeda?

For a scathing article about how these and other pro-war (but "now I've seen the light") pundits have escaped real accountability, check out Radar's "The Iraq Gamble: At the Pundits' Table, The Losing Bet Still Takes the Pot," by Jebediah Reed. It's a disturbing tale of journalistic "no blame, no shame". Eight pundits are profiled. Four of them, as "Radar" puts it, " were 'the most influentially and disturbingly misguided in their pro-war arguments" and played "a central role in our national decision-making process; The other four writer/pundits were the "most prescient and forceful in their opposition."

In it's cheeky "where are they now" survey, Radar "found that something is rotten in the fourth estate." After all, "surely, those who warned us not to invade Iraq have been recognized and rewarded, and those who pushed for this disaster face tattered credibility and waning career prospects Could it be any other way in America?"

Yes. It turns out that these (and other) pundits who made the case for war are doing just fine. Regular appearances on influential TV chat shows, columns in major US newspapers and magazines, lucrative speaking engagements, Council on Foreign Relations' fellowships and various journalistic awards. While those who opposed the war, often fending off ferocious attacks on their patriotism and arguments, are, as Radar puts it, "Right but Poor." (Full disclosure: Jonathan Schell, a valued Nation contributor, is profiled here as one of the leading writers who argued against the war. "There doesn't seem to be a rush to find people who were right about Iraq and install them in the mainstream media," Schell tells "Radar".)

Like their brethren in Bush officialdom, these journalists appear to have escaped real accountability for their role in this catastrophe. "No shame, no blame."

2007 Progressive Victories

The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) new report – 2007 Progressive Victories in the States – shows that state legislatures aren't waiting around on Congress to address some of our nation's most pressing challenges. They are taking matters in their own hands and finding progressive solutions.

"Today, state legislators are leading the fight for progressive solutions," said Tim McFeeley, executive director of the CPA. "While the federal government is stuck in partisan gridlock, state governments are enacting far-reaching new legislation."

From the minimum wage and living wage, to prescription drug prices and election reform, to civil unions and reproductive health – it is clear that a network of savvy progressive think tanks and legislators are working at the state level – and they are winning.

Check out the report here.

Voting About Issues That Matter

EDINBURGH -- The Scottish rock group The Proclaimers sang a quarter century ago: "I cannot understand why we let someone else rule our land."

Last week's elections for the Scottish parliament suggest that a good many Scots are struggling with the same concern.

For the first time in history, the Scottish Nationalist Party [SNP], which has campaigned for the better part of a century on an independence platform, is the largest party and its leader, Alex Salmond, is expected to head the new government.

That does not mean that Scotland will in the very near future be taking up a seat at the United Nations.

But it does raise the prospect that, as Salmond says, "Scotland has changed for good and forever."

The change for the good is certain.

By voting in great numbers for a party that proposes independence, the Scots made real the promise of democracy.

It has always been true that democracy is of consequence when it allows citizens to peacefully initiate radical change.

To merely maintain the status quo by voting on a regular basis is not, in and of itself, evil or damaging. Indeed, in a perfect circumstance, it is the appropriate, perhaps even moral, choice.

But in an imperfect circumstance, the questions that arise are always the same: Do the people have the authority to vote for meaningful change? Do they understand their authority? Will they exercise it? And are the voting systems set up to accurately reflect their sentiments?

To my mind, the most meaningful votes that can be cast are those that change one's economic or political circumstance.

If the poor can vote themselves out of poverty, then democracy gets exciting.

The same is true if the residents of a geographical region that maintains a unique social, economic or political identity can vote themselves out of the country that governs them from afar.

In Edinburgh, Glasgow and other Scottish cities in recent days, I have talked with students and seniors, professionals and day laborers, socialists and conservatives, and the remarkable thing about the discussions is that they are all highly engaged with the question of whether their nation should continue as part of the United Kingdom. That does not mean that they all want to exit the empire.

The split in support for the SNP and the main party that supports continued union with Great Britain, Tony Blair's Labour, was very close. The SNP has 47 seats in the new parliament, while Labour will have 46. Smaller parties that stand on both sides of the independence debate control the remainder of the seats in the 129-seat chamber -- holding out the prospect of any of a number of governing coalitions.

The closeness of this particular election result guarantees that any movement toward actual separation from the United Kingdom will be slow.

Yet, the voting has created the prospect of such movement, and that is to be celebrated -- even by those who may not favor independence.

A democracy that provides the space for the consideration even of radical change may not be perfect. But it is real, and vibrant -- in a way that America's cannot be said to be.

Scotland uses a voting system in parliamentary elections that is designed to assure that the results are reflective of citizen sentiments. It is far from perfect; indeed, there were enough ballot-design and absentee-voting problems in the latest election to draw comparisons with the troubled processes of the U.S.

But the system errs toward democracy.

In addition to voting for a local representative in parliament -- much like Americans vote for their member of the U.S. House -- Scots also cast a vote for their preferred party in a regional election. Regional seats are assigned proportionally based on those party votes. Thus, Scotland's parliament is far more reflective of Scottish sentiments than the U.S. Congress. And in that reflection it becomes possible to recognize a yearning for independence.

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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.'"

Our Dysfunctional Democracy

Isn't it time that the US stop all the talk of democracypromotion abroad and start walking the walk here at home? As I suggested last November,let's bringdemocracy home. And while we're facing a crazyprimary schedule and a $2 billion election which will shatter allcampaign fundraising records… here are three recent and ongoingpro-democracy efforts that all good small "d" democrats should knowabout and fully support.

1. DC House Voting Rights Act. The House recently approvedlegislation to grant nearly 600,000 disenfranchisedDistrict citizens a voting representative in Congress as well as afourth seat for largely Republican Utah. (Utah was less than 1000people short of meriting an added seat, according to the 2000 Censuswhich failed to account for thousands of missionaries abroad at thetime.) The Senate will now take up a similarbillintroduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Orrin Hatch.

On Sunday, Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher suggestedone of the reasons the District now stands its best chance since the1970's to gain voting representation: "In the shadow of an unpopularwar and a gloomy cloud of anti-American sentiment around the world, anincreasing number of Republicans are looking for ways to countercriticism that the United States is less than a paragon of democraticvirtue at home."

"We don't need Republicans to vote for the bill," RepublicanRepresentative Tom Davis--who cosponsored the House bill--toldFisher. "We just need nine to stop a filibuster, and we think we havethem."

And former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp said, "Young men and womenare being sent from DC to Baghdad. The hypocrisy is painful. It'sjust unbelievable how Republicans could turn away from Americancitizens who want to vote. I don't see how they can sleep at night."

A lot of goodgroups have kept up the pressure for this legislation, includingDC Vote, FairVote, Common Cause, and others. Tellyour Senator to bring democracy home by supporting the DC HouseVoting Rights Act (S. 1257) today.

2. National Popular Vote. Last month I wroteabout Maryland becoming the first state to sign a National PopularVote Bill into law. The legislation calls for the state's electoralvotes to go to the popular vote winner instead of the winner of thestate vote. (It would take effect when states representing a majorityof votes in the Electoral College agree to join a binding NationalPopular Vote compact.)

Illinois is now poised to join Maryland in the compact. Last weekthe state House approved its National Popular Vote bill 65-50. Itwill be taken up in the Senate as early as mid-May and, if passed,Governor Rod Blagojevich is expected to sign it into law.

In Hawaii, both the House and Senate approved the measure beforeGovernor Linda Lingle vetoed it. But last week the Senate voted 20-5to override the veto. The House has delayed its vote while proponentswork to gain the two-thirds majority needed to complete the overridewhich they hope to do this summer.

There is a lot of good momentum supporting the National PopularVote bill--in fact, there are 320 sponsoring legislators in 47states. Aside from Al Gore winning the popular vote but losing thepresidency--and George Bush coming tantalizingly close to suffering asimilar (though not Scalia-ordered) defeat in 2004--the fact thatthere are so few battleground states "in play" nowadays makes theElectoral College all the more problematic.

"Candidates for our one national office should have incentives tospeak to everyone, and all Americans should have the power to holdtheir president accountable," Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell ofFairVote recently wrote.

As Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin described,"In practice, this patchwork regime quickly reduces the competitiveelection to a small minority of states. Most Americans live in the 34states where our Electoral College votes are safely taken for grantedby one major party or the other."

3. Florida Voting Machines. In November, touch-screen voting machinesin Sarasota County apparently failed tocount over 18,000 votes in a U.S. Congressional race decided by amargin of just 369 votes. Last week, The Florida House passedlegislation in a 118-0 voteto replace touch-screen voting machines with an optical scanner thatreads paper ballots (and also leaves a paper trail!). The measure hadalready been approved by the Senate and Governor Charlie Crist "hadsought [this] almost from the moment he took office in January."

"The fiasco in Sarasota County last November… was a death knell fortouch-screen technology," said Miles Rapoport of Demos. "A vote is tooprecious a right to risk on untrustworthy voting systems."

This commonsense reform has been a long time coming, and Demos andother organizations like Common Cause are advocatingfor similar federal remediescurrently under consideration in the House and Senate.

In these times, when we've become accustomed to a White House whichtalks the talk (about democracy) but fails to walk the walk--it's goodto see so many people fighting for democracy in DC; spreadingdemocracy with the National Popular Vote movement; and taking steps tofix the instruments of our democracy in Florida and other states.

What’s Your Plan?

As the almost twenty presidential hopefuls from both major parties careen around the country looking for cash and votes, a disclipined group of students has been politely bird-dogging them from Iowa to South Carolina asking the candidates to detail their plans to combat global warming. This is part of a new national campaign ("What's Your Plan?") to convince Presidential candidates to pay attention to young people and to address key issues such as climate change and college affordability.

So far the young activists have directly engaged several candidates, including Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, Chris Dodd, Mike Huckabee and Joe Biden. (See the photo gallery.)

What's Your Plan? is a project of the Student PIRGs' New Voters Project, the largest national nonpartisan youth voter mobilization effort. Since 2003, the project has registered more than 600,000 young voters and made more than 650,000 personalized Get Out the Vote contacts leading up to Election Day to turn out young voters.

Click here for more info and if you want to help. What's Your Plan? is also looking for students (both high-school and college) for summer internships.

The Mother of All Benchmarks in Iraq: Oil

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, oil was seldom mentioned. Yes, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did describe the country as afloat "on a sea of oil" (which might fund any American war and reconstruction program there); and, yes, on rare occasions, the President did speak reverentially of preserving "the patrimony of the people of Iraq" -- by which he meant not cuneiform tablets or ancient statues in the National Museum in Baghdad, but the country's vast oil reserves, known and suspected. And yes, oil did make it prominently onto the signs of war protestors at home and abroad.

Everybody who was anybody in Washington and the media, not to speak of the punditocracy and think-tank-ocracy of our nation knew, however, that those bobbing signs among the millions of antiwar demonstrators that said "No Blood for Oil" were just so simplistic, if not utterly simpleminded. Oil news, as was only proper, was generally relegated to the business pages of our papers, or even more properly -- since it was at best but one modest factor among so very many in Bush administration calculations -- roundly ignored. Admittedly, the first "reconstruction" contract the administration issued was to Halliburton to rescue that country's "patrimony," its oil fields, from potential self-destruction during the invasion, and the key instructions -- possibly just about the only instructions -- issued to U.S. troops after taking Baghdad were to guard the Oil Ministry. Then again, everyone knew this crew had their idiosyncrasies.

Ever since, oil has played a remarkably small part in the consideration of, coverage of, or retrospective assessments of the invasion, occupation, and war in Iraq (unless you lived on the Internet). To give but a single example, the index to Thomas E. Ricks' almost 500-page bestseller, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, has but a single relevant entry: "oil exports and postwar reconstruction, Wolfowitz on, 98." Yet today, every leading politician of either party is strangely convinced that the key "benchmark" the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must pass to prove its mettle is the onerous oil law, now stalled in Parliament, that has been forced upon it by the Bush administration.

Recently, Tomdispatch.com regular Michael Schwartz followed the oil slicks deep into the Gulf of Catastrophe in Iraq. Offering a sweeping view of the role oil, the prize of prizes in Iraq, has played in Bush administration considerations since 2001, he concludes on the Mother of All Benchmarks: "Like so many American initiatives in Iraq, the oil law, even if passed, might never be worth more than the paper it will be printed on. The likelihood that any future Iraqi government which takes on a nationalist mantel will consider such an agreement in any way binding is nil. One day in perhaps the not so distant future, that ‘law,' even if briefly the law of the land, is likely to find itself in the dustbin of history, along with Saddam's various oil deals. As a result, the Bush administration's ‘capture of new and existing oil and gas fields' is likely to end as a predictable fiasco."