Ralph Nader’s new book, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001–15, is a twofer: a spiritual exercise in citizen participation and a counterfactual history lesson in what might have been if only our government had hewn to democratic first principles and priorities over the last fifteen years. In the two letters that follow we see both sides. Imagine what the Middle East would be like today if we hadn’t invaded Iraq. Imagine if President Obama were to spend time highlighting the importance of the civil service, the contributions of low-wage workers and the importance of the Centers for Disease Control. If only our last two presidents had listened to Nader and others like him who speak not only truth but good sense to power, we might not be in the state we’re in.
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January 2, 2014
Dear President Bush,
A few days ago I received a personalized letter from your Presidential Center that included a solicitation card for donations that actually provided words for my reply. They included “I’m honored to help tell the story of the Bush Presidency” and “I’m thrilled that the Bush Institute is advancing timeless principles and practical solutions to the challenges facing our world.” (Below were categories of “tax deductible contributions” starting with $25 and going upward.)
Did you mean the “timeless principles” that drove you and Mr. Cheney to invade the country of Iraq, which, contrary to your fabrications, deceptions and cover-ups, never threatened the United States? Nor could Iraq, under its dictator and his dilapidated military, threaten its far more powerful neighbors, even if the Iraqi regime wanted to do so.
Today, Iraq remains a country (roughly the size and population of Texas) you destroyed, a country where over a million Iraqis, including many children and infants (remember Fallujah?) lost their lives, millions more were sickened or injured, and millions more were forced to become refugees, including most of the Iraqi Christians. Iraq is a country rife with sectarian strife that your prolonged invasion provoked into what is now open warfare. Iraq is a country where Al Qaeda is spreading with explosions taking twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or sixty lives per day. Just this week, it was reported that the US has sent Hellfire air-to-ground missiles to Iraq’s air force to be used against encampments of “the country’s branch of al-Qaeda.” There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before your invasion. Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were mortal enemies.
The Bush/Cheney sociocide of Iraq, together with the loss of tens of thousands of US soldiers’ lives, injuries and illnesses, registers, with the passage of time, no recognition by you that you did anything wrong, nor have you accepted responsibility for the illegality of your military actions without a congressional declaration of war. You even turned your back on Iraqis who worked with US military occupation forces as drivers, translators, etc. at great risk to themselves and their families and were desperately requesting visas to the US, often with the backing of US military personnel. Your administration allowed fewer Iraqis into the US than did Sweden in that same period and far, far fewer than Vietnamese refugees coming to the US during the 1970s.
When you were a candidate, I called you a corporation running for the presidency masquerading as a human being. In time you turned a metaphor into a reality. As a corporation, you express no remorse, no shame, no compassion and resistance admitting anything other than that you have done nothing wrong.
Day after day, Iraqis, including children, continue to die or suffer terribly. When the paraplegic US army veteran Tomas Young wrote you last year seeking some kind of recognition of the many things that went horribly criminal for many American soldiers and Iraqis, you did not deign to reply, as you did not deign to reply to Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son, Casey, in Iraq. As you said, “The interesting thing about being the president” is that you “don’t feel like [you] owe anybody an explanation.” As a former president, nothing has changed as you make very lucrative speeches before business groups and, remarkably, ask Americans for money to support your “continued work in public service.”
Pollsters have said that they believe a majority of Iraqis would say that life today is worse for them than under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. They also say George W. Bush left Iraq worse off than when he entered it, despite the US-led sanctions prior to 2003 that took so many lives of Iraqi children and damaged the health of so many civilian families.
Your national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said publicly in 2012 that while “the arc of history” may well turn out better for postinvasion Iraq than the present-day violent chaos, she did “take personal responsibility” for the casualties and the wreckage. Do you?
Can you, at the very least, publicly urge the federal government to admit more civilian Iraqis, who served in the US military occupation, to this country to escape the retaliation that has been visited on their similarly situated colleagues? Isn’t that the minimum you can do to very slightly lessen the multiple, massive blowbacks that your reckless military policies have caused? It was your own antiterrorism White House advisor, Richard Clarke, who wrote in his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, soon after leaving his post, that the US played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands by invading Iraq.
Are you privately pondering what your invasion of Iraq did to the Iraqis and American military families, the economy and to the spread of Al Qaeda attacks in numerous countries?
P.S. I am enclosing as a contribution in kind to your Presidential Center Library the book Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions by Clyde Prestowitz (2003), whom I’m sure you know. Note the positive remark on the back cover by Gen. Wesley Clark.
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September 8, 2014
Dear President Obama,
With the Democratic Party having trouble defeating the worst congressional Republican Party in modern times, you have been searching for ways that you, as the president, can make change by executive action. I have three suggestions that you can initiate right after the November elections.
First, schedule well-published and public half-day visits to each of twenty major departments and agencies to give visibility to what civil servants are doing for the American people. A portion of the department’s or agency’s time would be devoted to reviewing the areas where improvements are long overdue or could be accelerated. These working sessions would bring your management function of the executive branch to a level of detail almost always ignored by past presidents.
Such sessions would bring higher levels of urgency to such matters as the administration of the public lands, the enormous corporate frauds on Medicare by contractors and service vendors, and the seemingly intractable drain by contractors of the Pentagon budget both in what weapon systems are procured and how defense projects are mishandled. Summaries of the substance of these sessions can then be made public.
There is another compelling reason for your visits highlighting the charters of these departments and agencies. It is reflected in a recent Ipsos Public Affairs poll, commissioned by the National Treasury Employees Union, long preceded by alarms issued from groups studying the federal civil service. The Washington Post reports that a civil service retirement wave is building, “with more than a third of career federal employees projected to be eligible for collecting their end-of-career benefits by September 2017.” As president, you can highlight the unrivaled significance of civilian careers in the areas of scientific research, consumer, environmental, labor and many other serious domestic purposes for our country. Young Americans who wish to make a difference and eschew the more lucrative but trivial occupations that attract such media coverage need to learn about the opportunities for government service. If there was ever an important but noncontroversial use of the bully pulpit, this has to be one of the top contenders.
Second, just as you have attended fundraisers throughout the country for Democratic Party candidates, imagine the impact of barnstorming for a few days highlighting the human faces of the 30 million American workers who make less today than workers made in 1968, inflation-adjusted. With Congress shockingly limiting its workdays post–July 2014 to about two weeks before the November elections, you can focus during the lame-duck session on getting support for the House Discharge Petition, with 195 members already on board and needing twenty-three more to bypass House Speaker John Boehner’s obstruction, to get a vote on the House floor. Representative George Miller says that HR 1010, the bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over three years, will pass if brought to a vote. Such passage will get the Senate to the sixty votes needed to overcome the threatened filibuster by the Republicans. The Republican leadership somehow thinks that blocking this overwhelmingly popular overdue measure for economic justice—one even backed by Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty and millions of conservative workers—is their political mission on Capitol Hill.
Your barnstorming can rally workers from the many occupations that produce and serve our food, take care of our ailing grandparents, do the cleaning and cleaning up of America—to name a few job categories. There are few better uses of your time before the end of the year!
Third, in previous letters I have requested your greater attention to the immense perils of viral and bacterial epidemics. You have supported a modestly larger budget for the Centers for Disease Control (which is presently funded annually at about half the cost of one aircraft carrier). But the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the MERS virus in the Middle East illustrate the inadequate public health systems in those countries. Here is where the United States can become a humanitarian superpower and bolster its own defense as well. By both pushing to increase the budget of our government health agencies and the paltry budget of the World Health Organization (the WHO’s budget, at about $2 billion a year, is less than any one of several big city hospital revenues in the US), you can advance an important humanitarian goal and strengthen our own national defense preparedness against the spread of epidemics and other health threats that so often start in East Asia and recently Africa.
Global epidemics that can spread quickly in these mobile times are a “clear and present danger” to our country. You must seriously embrace the precautionary principle through the heightened engagement of ready, able and willing public health and scientific specialists and scholars. Bring some of them together for a serious summit at the White House. If presidential leadership can put forces into motion anywhere, it is in this area of life-saving preventative action.
The use of presidential time invites many special interest pleaders. Reserve more of it to serve the vast majority of Americans who are not well organized for such pleading. They silently rely on your conscience, your awareness and your power to do the right things.