The Nation

Iran/contra: 20 Years Later and What It Means

It's the 20th anniversary of the Iran-contra scandal. Two decades ago, the public learned about the bizarre, Byzantine and (arguably) unconstitutional actions of high officials in the post-Watergate years. But many Americans did not absorb the key lesson: the Iran/contra vets were not to be trusted. Consequently, most of those officials went on to prosperous careers, with some even becoming part of the squad that has landed the United States in the current hellish mess in Iraq.

Before tying the then to the now, let's revisit the basic narrative. When Congress, by fair vote, decided in the 1980s that the United States should not assist the contras fighting the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, the Reagan White House concocted several imaginative ways to pull an end-run around democracy. This mainly entailed outsourcing the job to a small band of private sector covert operators and to foreign governments, which were privately requested or pressured by the Reaganites to support the secret contra support operation. The "Iran" side of the scandal came from President Ronald Reagan's covert efforts to sell weapons to Iran to obtain the release of American hostages held by terrorist groups supposedly under the control of Tehran--at a time when the White House was publicly declaring it would not negotiate with terrorists. The two clandestine projects merged when cash generated from the weapons transactions with Iran was diverted to the contra operation.

Conservatives for years--make that decades--have argued there was nothing really criminal about the Iran/contra affair and that it was merely a political dispute between the pro-contras Republicans in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress. Yet at the time the architects of these schemes worried they were breaking laws and placing Reagan in jeopardy of being impeached. Look at how the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit that gathers national security records, summarizes a memo documenting a key White House meeting on the clandestine contras program:

At a pivotal meeting of the highest officials in the Reagan Administration [on June 25, 1984], the President and Vice President [George H.W. Bush] and their top aides discuss how to sustain the Contra war in the face of mounting Congressional opposition. The discussion focuses on asking third countries to fund and maintain the effort, circumventing Congressional power to curtail the CIA's paramilitary operations. In a remarkable passage, Secretary of State George P. Shultz warns the president that White House adviser James Baker has said that "if we go out and try to get money from third countries, it is an impeachable offense." But Vice President George Bush argues the contrary: "How can anyone object to the US encouraging third parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas…? The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange." Later, Bush participated in arranging a quid pro quo deal with Honduras in which the U.S. did provide substantial overt and covert aid to the Honduran military in return for Honduran support of the Contra war effort.

The Iran arms-for-hostage-deal was also illegal--or so Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger thought. At a December 7, 1985 White House meeting, Weinberger argued the Iran missile deal was wrong and criminal, according to his notes of the session. Weinberger pointed out to Reagan that selling missiles to Iran would violate a U.S. embargo on arms sales to Iran and that even the president of the United States could not break this law. Nor, Weinberger added, would it be legal to use Israel as a cutout, as was under consideration. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and White House chief of staff Donald Regan, who were each present, agreed that a secret weapons deal with Iran would be against the law. Reagan, though, insisted on proceeding, noting he could answer a charge of illegality but not the charge that he had "passed up a chance to free hostages." Weinberger then quipped, "Visiting hours are Thursdays"--meaning the deal could land someone in jail. After the meeting, Regan told Weinberger he would try to talk Reagan out of the deal. He failed to do so.

Soon both the clandestine contras program and the secret Iran deal were underway, with the relevant agencies--most notably, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department--providing back-up and National Security Council officers Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter and Oliver North overseeing operations. In supporting the contras project, the CIA worked with individuals it suspected of being involved in drug-dealing, according to a subsequent CIA inspector general's investigation.

The skullduggery began to unravel in the fall of 1986. On October 5, 1986, a C-123 aircraft ferrying supplies to the contras was shot down by the Sandinistas, and an American named Eugene Hasenfus was captured. He told the Nicaraguans that his flight was part of a CIA-approved operation. Days later, Reagan said of the Hasenfus operation, "There was no government connection with that at all." He was not telling the truth. Shortly after that, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified in Congress that the administration had arranged for no foreign donations--"not a dime"--to the contras--even though he had arranged for a $10 million contribution to the rebels from the Sultan of Brunei.

On November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly revealed that the previous May National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had secretly flown to Tehran. McFarlane's covert mission had been part of the arms-for-hostages deal--which now stood exposed. On November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese held a press conference and disclosed that funds from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the contras support program. (I happened to be watching that press conference with Abbie Hoffman, the former Yippie, who exclaimed, "I couldn't make this stuff up.")

A full-scale scandal was born. Investigations were convened. The Reagan presidency was hobbled. But impeachment never became an issue--in part because Democratic congressional investigators removed it from the table at the start of their inquiries. White House partisans threw up a defense of spin and obfuscation that turned the affair into a political muddle. (That is, mission accomplished.) Oliver North became a hero to conservatives. Bush the Elder, who lied about his involvement in Iran/contra (saying he had been "out of the loop," though noting in a private diary that he had been one of the few officials in-the-know), was elected president in 1988.

The investigations continued. Abrams, McFarlane (who botched a suicide attempt), and a CIA officer named Alan Fiers pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. Two other CIA officers--Clair George and Duane Clarridge--were indicted on perjury-related charges. Former General Richard Secord and Albert Hakim, who managed the secret contra supply operation, pleaded guilty to minor charges. North and Poindexter were convicted of various counts, but their convictions were overturned on legal technicalities. Weinberger was indicted for illegally withholding his notes from special counsel Lawrence Walsh.

The affair came to an ignominious finale on Christmas Eve, 1992. George H.W. Bush, who had been defeated by Bill Clinton seven weeks earlier, issued pardons for Weinberger, Abrams, McFarlane, Clarridge, George and Fiers. Only Thomas Cline, a former CIA officer and partner of Secord and Hakim, who was found guilty of tax charges, ended up going to jail due to the Iran/contra scandal.

But history never ends. Twenty years later, Abrams is deputy national security adviser for global democracy in the George W. Bush administration. A fellow who admitted that he had not told Congress the truth and who had abetted a secret war mounted by a rebel force with an atrocious human rights record now is supposed to promote democracy abroad. Other Iran/contra figures are leading players today. Here's a partial list from the National Security Archive:

* Richard Cheney - now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees' Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

* David Addington - now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and by numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power, Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney.

* John Bolton - the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time.

* Robert M. Gates - President Bush's nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987 because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when he was re-nominated in 1991.

* Manuchehr Ghorbanifar - the quintessential middleman, who helped broker the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all sides' goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections.

* Michael Ledeen - a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11, introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring contacts inside Iran.

* Edwin Meese - currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan's controversial attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry by the nation's top law enforcement officer.

* John Negroponte - the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S. military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Negroponte's profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005.

Another Iran/contra veteran has dramatically returned to the scene recently: Daniel Ortega. On November 7, as the Bush White House prepared itself for congressional elections that would be widely seen as a repudiation of its war in Iraq, the morning newspapers carried the news that Ortega, the Sandinista leader whom the Reagan administration had targeted, had won a presidential election in Nicaragua. The old contras backers now running the Bush administration had to watch their old nemesis (not that Ortega was ever much of a threat) regain power, as their hold on power was slipping. The arc of history is indeed long.

As for the current relevance of Iran/contra, one could argue that the affair taught Reaganites and neocons a lesson, the wrong lesson: you can get away with it. Though the operations ended up being exposed and the Iran deal crashed and burned, the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration did create enough pressure on Nicaragua and forced the expulsion of the Sandinista government in a 1990 election. Perhaps more important for this crowd, no one involved in the shady activity was held accountable. Bush the First was elected. Abrams and other scandal vets were rewarded with prominent posts in the next Republican administration--that of Bush the Younger. The Reaganites had lied to Congress and the public about Iran/contra and ultimately escaped retribution.

This sordid episode hardly served as a warning--either for the Iran/contra alumni who would lead the United States into the debacle in Iraq or for voters who would support an administration staffed with people who twenty years earlier had made their bones in a scandal involving war and truth. One can hope, though, that the disingenuous, reality-defying engineers of the current disaster will be too old or too discredited to return to power two decades from now.


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

What If the Iraqi Insurgency Ran for Another 5,000 Years?

On Sunday, in a front page New York Times piece ("U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself"), John Burns and Kirk Semple reported that a federal "interagency working group," looking into the finances of the various branches of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, had come to the conclusion that it was now financially self-sustaining. No need for old Baathist funds, no need to look outside the country. Some combination of oil thievery, ransom funds from kidnappings, counterfeiting, and money from "corrupt Islamic charities" has, according the secret government document slipped to the Times reporters, left it with, if anything, a surplus of funds.

The working group estimated--though other experts claim that it's pure speculation in the darkness of remarkable ignorance about the insurgency and its financial resources -- that the various rebellious factions were raising between $70 million and $200 million a year.

Let's forget for a moment the speculative, not to say unreliable nature of these figures, and instead consider the larger context. The Times reporters, in fact, took a striking stab at this--though deep inside the paper--in the following paragraph:

"The group's estimate of the financing for the insurgency, even taking the higher figure of $200 million, underscores the David and Goliath nature of the war… If the $200 million a year estimate is close to the mark, it amounts to less than what it costs the Pentagon, with an $8 billion monthly budget for Iraq, to sustain the American war effort here for a single day."

Philip Morrison, the nuclear scientist, once wrote a whole text on size and context: Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. Let's see if, in his spirit, we can add a few zeroes to the Times figures.

A while back Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda Bilmes tried to tote up the long-term costs of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, based on an American troop withdrawal somewhere between 2010 and 2015. Their most conservative estimate of total costs to the United States: $1 trillion. Their "moderate" estimate: $2.2 trillion.

So let's be conservative. At those levels of funding, assuming that Iraq's Sunni fighters continue to motor their movement at the financial upper levels of the secret interagency estimate -- $200 million -- their insurgency could run for another 5,000 years.

Or perhaps we should subtract some zeroes and enter the micro-world of the US military. If you gave the US Army that $200 million dollars raised by the insurgents by hook or crook and told them to spend it as they wished… actually, they've recently done just that. This October, the Army signed onto a $200 million (yep, that's $200,000,000) a year contract with the McCann Worldgroup ad agency to launch an "Army Strong" ad campaign aimed at bringing into the fold those ever more resistant recruits needed to fight the Iraqi insurgency.

Imagine how strong "Insurgent Strong" must be then, since Iraq's ragtag, minority insurgency continues to fight the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines (all of whom have their own ad contracts) to a standstill for a mere $200 million.

Talk about "standing up" some Iraqi fighters.

Civil War in Iraq

Major media outlets are beginning to recognize the obvious: Iraq is now in a state of civil war. The widely used term "sectarian violence" no longer describes the horrific bloodshed between Shiites and Sunnis that is tearing the country apart--with US soldiers stuck in the middle, unable to quell the violence.

"For months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into a civil war," NBC's Matt Lauer said yesterday, announcing his network's new policy. "And, for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such. But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted--that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas--can now be characterized as a civil war."

Added Time magazine's Michael Ware, one of the best reporters on the ground: "By any academic's definition, this is civil war, organized conflict by two elements within a country to pursue the political center, with elements of ethnic cleansing, militia combat, family against family, neighbor against neighbor, with a degree of organization and coordination...So, whether the White House calls it civil war or not, the fact on the ground is, if this is not civil war, we don't want to see one when it comes."

The nature of the civil war undercuts many of the Bush Administration's most basic assumptions and reasons for staying in Iraq.

1. This is not a war primarily between an Al-Qaeda led insurgency and Coalition forces. We're not fighting 'em over there so we don't have to fight 'em here.

2. It doesn't make sense to train a Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army that will then slaughter Sunnis.

3. Even the solution reportedly peddled by the much-hyped Iraq Study Group--talking to Iran and Syria, while crucial and long overdue, won't radically alter Iraq's internal dynamics.

4. Quite frankly, this is not even a war strictly between Shiites and Sunnis.

"It's worse than a civil war," a senior member of Iraq's government told the Washington Post. "In a civil war, you at least know which factions are fighting each other. We don't even know that anymore. It's so bloody confused."

A Wall Street Journal poll before the election found that "a plurality of voters now see the situation in Iraq as a civil war among Iraqis, rather than a war between American troops and foreign terrorists." It was virtually the only point on which Republicans and Democrats agreed. That was in mid-October, before the latest round of bloodshed. If the situation continued, predicted GOP pollster Bill McInturff, "that will ratchet up the pressure to terminate our deployment in Iraq."

Delta Airlines Joins 21st Century

I'm happy to report some insta-progress on the Delta Air Lines breast-feeding scandal, which I've been chronicling hereat the Notion. For those who've been out of the loop: a mother (in crunchy Vermont!) was thrown off a plane for the dire national security breach of nursing her baby. A remarkable number of people -- over 20,000 -- signed a petition by MomsRising, an online mothers' political group (an excerpt from the founders' new book, by the way, recently appeared in the Nation). Countless numbers of people were inspired to call Delta about the incident, and many also participated in protests and "nurse-ins" at Delta terminals across the land. Last week Delta issued an apology, as well as chiding its subsidiary, Freedom Airlines, which operated the plane from which the lady was so rudely escorted. Here's Delta's morsel of holiday crow: "Delta Air Lines supports a mother's right to breastfeed her baby onboard our aircraft. We regret the decision to remove the passenger from Flight 6160 as it was not in keeping with Delta's high service standards, and we are coordinating with Freedom Airlines to ensure that they deliver the level of service we expect for all of our customers."

MomsRising also reports that thanks to all the pressure, Delta is considering officially supporting the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, currently before Congress, to stop discrimination against nursing mothers. To that end, it can't hurt to get more names on MomsRising's petition.

Speaking of small but sweet victories, Wal-Mart's high-priced PR firm is humiliated and mired in scandal over fake blogs and "grass-roots" organizations it created to, um, improve the company's terrible image. Wal-Mart Watch deserves credit for exposing this bit of fraud. Today, Online Media Daily reports that the PR firm, Edelman, may be kicked out of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (sounds like a joke, but there really is such a thing, and even corporate bloggers have standards!).

Debating Rangel's Draft

Congressman Charles Rangel announced earlier this month that he willpush to renew the military draft. Rangel argues, forcefully, that thedraft will spread the burden of war more equitably and force politicalleaders to think twice about starting wars. "There's no question in mymind that this president and this administration would never haveinvaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented tothe Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and theadministration thought that their kids from their communities would beplaced in harm's way."

The 18-term Representative, and incoming Chair of the powerful Ways andMeans Committee has already introduced a bill. Lawrence O'Donnell overat the Huffington Post has a strong piece supporting Rangel's move. Let hisbill come to a vote, O'Donnell insists. House Majority Leader NancyPelosi "should let the House debate the draft. Let the Republicans givespeeches listing all the good reasons why we should have a volunteerArmy. But let's hear Rangel's speech about how the burden of war is notfairly shared in this country. Let's get America thinking about exactlywho is being left in the line of fire in the war Americans have turnedagainst and know we can't win. Let's get America thinking about JohnKerry's line about Vietnam--who is going to be the last soldier to diefor a mistake? A real debate on the draft will do that. Don't worry, thebill has no chance of passing."

It all makes a lot of sense. But if you want to read a powerful counterto O'Donnell's take, check out Nation columnist Katha Pollitt'slucid column, "Do You Feel aDraft" from June 7, 2004.) " For many," Pollitt writes, "the draftsummons up ideals of valor, adulthood, public service andself-sacrifice--SHARED self-sacrifice. Those are all good things, butthe draft is still a bad idea."

Pollitt goes on to ask, "Given our ever more stratified and atomizedsociety, why expect the draft to be equal or fair?" And she deflates theargument that the draft will produce opposition to war.

It's Pollitt's larger point that progressive supporters of the draftshould think hard about. "Supporters of the draft are using it topromote indirectly politics we should champion openly and up front. It'sterrible that working class teenagers join the Army to get college fundsor job training or work--what kind of nation is this where Jessica Lynchhad to invade Iraq in order to fulfill her modest dream of becoming anelementary school teacher and Shoshanna Johnson has to be a cook on thebattlefield to qualify for a culinary job back home?"

We need to fight, at home, for a a society that is more just andfair--and not rely on the draft to level our obscenely unequal playingfield. (One place to start: fight for a real GI Bill--which made for amore equal America--not a renewal of the draft.)

A Republican Takes the Lead on Iraq

In radio and television interviews since the election, I have argued repeatedly that the November 7 vote did not just empower Democrats to do the right thing with regard to the Iraq debacle. It also freed up Republicans -- particularly Senate Republicans who have long been ill at ease with the neoconservative nonsense peddled by the Bush administration.

Now that the votes have been counted, the American people are ready for swift steps to extract U.S. forces from a no-win situation.

Yet, while Democratic leaders talk of "going slow," smart Republicans are recognizing the political opening and seizing it.

Case in point: Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post.

Hagel has long been blunter than his Democratic colleagues about the disaster that the Iraq occupation has become for the U.S. The Nebraska Republican was making comparisons between the Vietnam War, in which he served, and the Iraq imbroglio months ago -- at a point when most Senate Democrats were holding their tongues.

Hagel has now taken the mightly leap of declaring that it is time to "form a bipartisan consensus to get out of Iraq."

"We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam," Hagel writes in the Post. "Honorable intentions are not policies and plans. Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. They will decide their fate and form of government.

While I might disagree with Hagel about the "honorable intentions" of the invasion and occupation, he gets no challenge from this quarter on his observations that the war has been "misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged" and that the Bush administration's approach has been characterized by "arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam."

Hagel is making precisely the case for withdrawal that Congressional Democrats should be offering at this point:

"The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq. The cost of combat in Iraq in terms of American lives, dollars and world standing has been devastating. We've already spent more than $300 billion there to prosecute an almost four-year-old war and are still spending $8 billion per month. The United States has spent more than $500 billion on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And our effort in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, partly because we took our focus off the real terrorist threat, which was there, and not in Iraq," the Nebraskan argues. "We are destroying our force structure, which took 30 years to build. We've been funding this war dishonestly, mainly through supplemental appropriations, which minimizes responsible congressional oversight and allows the administration to duck tough questions in defending its policies. Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibility in the past four years."

Now, with a new Congress about to charge, Hagel writes, "It is not too late. The United States can still extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq."

Democrats should be asking themselves: Why is a Republican taking the lead on the issue that played such a pivotal role in putting Democrats in charge of the House and Senate?

The honest answer is an unsettling one.

Right now, Hagel is sounding more realistic and responsible than most if not all of the Democrats who are positioning themselves for 2OO8 presidential runs. Indeed, with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, the first senator to call for an withdrawal timeline, out of the running, Democrats could use a candidate who speaks as directly as does Hagel about the need to get out of Iraq. While it is true that Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who may or may not be running, is a Democrat who has started to make some of the right noises, Obama has not begun to equal the directness of Hagel's declaration that: "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose."

This is not to say that Hagel, who entertains presidential ambitions of his own, should switch parties. He's still a domestic-policy conservative, and something of a hawk on foreign policy. Yet, he is the one saying that: "If the president fails to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder -- one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead."

If they are outflanked by Republicans like Hagel on the central issue of our time, Democrats will also pay a high price. They will lose the popular support and the moral authority that their November 7 successes gave them. And Americans, who polls show are ready for rapid withdrawal, will give their support to the leaders who are willing to say not just that it is time to bring the troops home but also, as Hagel does, that it is time for the U.S. to radically alter its approach to the Middle East.

Would that the Democratic leadership would say, as Hagel admit, that, "America finds itself in a dangerous and isolated position in the world. We are perceived as a nation at war with Muslims. Unfortunately, that perception is gaining credibility in the Muslim world and for many years will complicate America's global credibility, purpose and leadership. This debilitating and dangerous perception must be reversed as the world seeks a new geopolitical, trade and economic center that will accommodate the interests of billions of people over the next 25 years. The world will continue to require realistic, clear-headed American leadership -- not an American divine mission."


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

A Progressive Beat

After progressive victories across the nation on Election Day – with winning candidates at the federal, state, and local levels, and on issues ranging from the minimum wage to tax policy – two things are clear: the American public is much more receptive to progressive ideas than suggested by the media, and the conservative movement is in disarray.

So it was disappointing on November 17th to read the New York Times recycling of an old story written time and again about the power of rightwing think tanks: "Policy institutes have been central to a national organizing strategy that has long won the right a reputation for savvy, and state-level versions are growing in number and clout."

Yes, it's true, rightwing think tanks have been effective through their ideological discipline and ample resources. But the progressive community recognizes the importance of defining issues and advancing a policy agenda, too. There is now a network of savvy progressive think tanks working at the state level – and they are winning. So here's a modest proposal: perhaps it's time for the paper of record to create a beat on the progressive movement.

"The other side gets way too much credit," says Michael Ettlinger, Director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN). "Basically they have one idea: lower taxes and eliminate government. People act like they've been able to take command of the American consciousness and that's just not true."

EARN has 47 groups in 36 states. The organization links local, state, and national groups that conduct research, develop and advocate for policy, mobilize public opinion and win state policy victories. EARN works on a range of issues, including minimum and living wages, workforce and economic development, Social Security, education, tax and budget, and health care. This year EARN is developing broad state-level economic agendas that will offer a well-crafted, well-framed, counterbalance to the "tax cuts are the answer to everything" policy of the right. (It has already generated such agendas in conjunction with the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York and the Bell Policy Center in Colorado.)

"I'll stack our groups up against the rightwing think tanks in terms of effective communication and influence any day," Ettlinger says. "We have to prove not only that government can work, but how it can work. And we do it well. You will hear legislators say they disagree with us, but our numbers are right. You won't hear them say that about the right's work--because the right is much more concerned about its mission than the truth."

Tim McFeeley, Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), is optimistic about the progressive movement's growing infrastructure as well. "People recognize the need for players at the state level – including funders," McFeeley says. "We're way behind – conservatives have a 20 year head start – but we've made progress in the last two years. We have the resources and talent to do it even better [than the right], we just need the focus and ongoing commitment."

CPA works with legislators in all 50 states to advocate for progressive policymaking through leadership development (several of its fellows have gone onto Congress, including Senator-elect Jon Tester); policy tools that help legislators introduce and promote progressive initiatives; and networking between like-minded legislators to share information and develop strategies for success (nearly one in every four legislators in the nation has taken part in the CPA State Action Network).

McFeeley says there is a "seamless hand-off" between conservative think tanks and business lobbyists in state capitols who are advocating for little government and less taxes. In contrast, the progressive community faces the challenge of uniting its diverse forces.

"We have unions, gay rights advocates, civil rights lobbyists, environmentalists, etc.," McFeeley says. "But we're not working enough yet in a strategic, connected way. There is a sense that we have to get together still. So we're working on strategic partnerships with organizations that are on the ground locally – to get everyone in the same room."

McFeeley points to recent progressive victories in defeating Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) legislation – a gimmick designed to provide more tax breaks to wealthy corporations while forcing states to slash spending that benefits average residents. "We won, but there was a sense that we were playing defense," he says. "Now we are figuring out how to play offense."

Matt Singer, Communications Director for the Progressive States Network, also sees progressives addressing the need to transition to offense. "A lot of what we are doing, conservatives have been doing for 30 years with more resources," he says. "But we are on the ball now and things are happening quickly."

The Progressive States Network works with legislators, organizations, and think tanks across the country to craft new initiatives, develop coordination between legislators and advocates, and make sure "we're not reinventing the wheel in all fifty states."

In terms of strategy, Singer says progressives are much more savvy about choosing headline issues such as the minimum wage to lead campaigns for change. They strive to focus on policies that will change the way coalitions work in the United States (like same day voter registration and union card check legislation). And progressives don't shy away from wedge issues that fragment the opposition.

"There are a lot of good ideas out there," Singer says. "We just have to get them into the hands of the policymakers and help them win."

Ettlinger believes that as a result of the Democratic wave "kitchen-table" issues will start getting a lot of attention – from paid leave to the broken health care system to universal childcare to access to higher education. And new regional think tanks spearheaded by the Center for American Progress are emerging to help fight these battles as well.

Over the past decade, Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers has probably been the single most important advocate and architect of a progressive state policy presence [see, among other pieces, Nation, "Devolve This!"/"Cities: The Vital Core"/"Build the High Road Here"]. Director of the Wisconsin-based COWS, one of the earliest "think-and-do" tanks on progressive state policy, Rogers has been a moving force behind EARN, the Apollo Alliance, New Cities and other efforts to build national infrastructure for state work. His latest effort is the Commons Project, named after JR Commons, the Wisconsin progressive reformer of the early 20th century. This project will complement grassroots and legislative-focused efforts, while concentrating on providing policy support to progressive Governors and other state executives (Attorney Generals, Secretaries of State, Treasures, and others.)

"Absolutely there's a great opening for progressives in the states, and we're much better organized now to make something of it. Unlike many national leaders, Governors and other state executives can't afford ideology-driven policy," Rogers points out. "They need things that actually work. They've shown their willingness to try new ideas. It falls to progressives to supply more of them. That's a great invitation to offer practical alternatives that advance our values, and cohere as a majority agenda. The Right reinvented national government from the states. We can do the same."

If the New York Times, other mainstream media outlets, and more of the blogosphere started reporting on what's really going on in the progressive movement, especially at the state level, people might more readily envision a different and better world. After all, no one will cross Jordan until they see what is on the other side.

Media, Democracy and the FCC

In 2003, an unprecedented groundswell of popular opposition killed then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell's efforts to eliminate rules that limit the ability of one corporation to monopolize all the media outlets in a given place.

But, once again, media-industry lobbyists and their allies on the FCC are working to revise the rules on media ownership to allow a single corporation to own most, if not all, of the newspapers, radio and TV stations and Internet news and entertainment sites in your town. Last June, new FCC chairman Kevin Martin issued a draft policy proposal -- called a Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making -- that kick-started Big Media's latest attempt to weaken the rules protecting local voices, vibrant competition and diverse viewpoints.

Now the battle is on. Martin, a far more savvy politician than his predecessor, is keenly aware that Powell was roundly criticized in 2003 for trying to ram through radical regulatory changes with virtually no public input. So he has opened up the decision-making process somewhat and permitted hearings on the proposed policies nationwide. But Martin and the two Republican members of the commission have restricted their involvement to six public meetings, while pro-regulation commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have hit the road to chair additional sessions. (The next official hearing with all five commissioners takes place on December 11 in Nashville, TN.)

On November 30, the Seattle Public Library will host a 6:00pm public hearing on media ownership with FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein. The hearing will help the FCC gather public comment as it considers revising its media-ownership rules. This is Seattle's opportunity to weigh in on an issue critical to our culture and our democracy.

And everyone can weigh in by clicking here to file a public comment with the FCC registering your opposition to the lifting of the current media-ownership rules. (The final deadline for comment is December 21.) Also, check out the ReclaimTheMedia site for background on the FCC, for ways you can get involved in the fight for local and non-corporate media and for directions to the Seattle library.

Backdoor Diplomacy in Iraq

On Thanksgiving eve, writer and activist Tom Hayden posted an explosive article at Huffington Post about what may be elements of the US's secret diplomatic exit strategy from Iraq. Hayden details a possible endgame strategy--including reports of US officials having contacted Sunni nationalist insurgents to explore a cease-fire and replacement of the Iraqi Al-Maliki government with an interim one. He also alleges that in October Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appealed to the Gulf Cooperation Council to serve as intermediaries between the US and armed Sunni resistance groups [not Al Qaeda].

Such contacts, Hayden also makes clear, "may be nothing more than 'probes'--in the historic spirit of divide-and-conquer, before escalating the Iraq war in a Baghdad offensive....Yet Americans who voted in the November election because of a deep belief that a change of government in Washington might end the war have a right to know their votes counted." Confronted with an escalating humanitarian disaster in Iraq and increasingly horrific sectarian violence, it appears the US may be offering significant concessions without its citizens knowing.

"It is wild," Hayden wrote in an email Friday afternoon. "Bush-Rice-Maliki to Amman, Cheney to Saudi Arabia. The Iraq Study Group preparing its conclusions, the Pentagon preparing proposals of its own. Is it all just a reshuffling after the November elections, and in response to the devastating casualty levels in Iraq? Can the Democrats cohere around a proposal of their own? Or should we expect it all to go on, behind masks of diplomacy and management of our perceptions?"

As his latest article reveals, there is a quickening interest in US dialogue with the insurgents and the Iranians, a course opposed fiercely by some in Washington and Baghdad. The American public deserves to know what's going on, but if history is any guide, we'll likely be the last to know.

Click here to read Hayden's article detailing the secret story of a possible US retreat from Iraq and check out Hayden's follow-up on documents showing there have been secret talks between the US and the armed Iraqi insurgency.