Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Staying the Course

Faced with mounting violence and casualties in Iraq and increasing voter dissatisfaction with the entire mess, the Bush Administration has taken the logical first step from it's George Orwell playbook: Change the rhetoric and rewrite history.

"Stay the course" is an expression that has long been popular with Republicans. According to William Safire ("Safire's New Political Dictionary"), the phrase was popularized by Ronald Reagan during the 1980 Presidential campaign. It was also a favorite of Bush41, and Bush43 has used it repeatedly to try to drum up support for his ineffectively policies in Iraq.

Well, all that is going to change now. Not the war, of course, just the use of the phrase.

During an interview on "This Week with George Stephanopolous," in response to questions about Iraq, President Bush declared that "Well, listen, we've never been stay the course, George." (http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/story?id=2594541&page=2) Yes, it's time for Bush to ignore what he's said and done in the past and rewrite history.

The new history of the Iraq war, which is somewhat different from the one you might remember, was more formally announced during a White House press conference on Monday, October 23, in which White House Press Secretary Tony Snow explained that the policy in Iraq was never "stay the course" but "a dynamic policy that is aimed at moving forward at all times on a number of fronts." (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/10/20061023-2.html)

Snow was later asked "Has anybody told the President he should stop calling it 'stay the course' then?" He replied that the President has "stopped using it."

And then the question of responsibility. "Is the President responsible for the fact people think it's stay the course since he's, in fact, described it that way himself?" to which Snow responded "No."

So, there you have it. The policy of the United States in Iraq is not "stay the course," has never been "stay the course," and the President is not responsible for any misunderstandings that might have arisen from his repeated use of the phrase "stay the course."

And so the Bush Administration attempts to change course by staying on the same course it has always taken: Manage perceptions, deny any responsibility for the past, and ignore the reality of the present.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Terrorism: Things to Do and Not Do

Most of the commentaries to date on the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, portions of which have been released by the President (http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/politics/nie20060926.pdf) have focussed on questions such as whether we are "winning" or "losing" the war on terrorism, and whether the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists than it is killing, but there is a more important point made by the NIE that seems to have escaped notice.

The NIE concludes that the "jihadist movement" is spreading among muslims, and will continue to spread "for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate" for the following reasons:

Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq “jihad;” (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims—all of which jihadists exploit.

The current policies of the Bush administration actually add to those factors:

1. The U.S. currently supports some of the most corrupt and unjust muslim governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and continues to try to exert more and more military power in the mid-east, leading to greater fears of Western domination.

2. The U.S. allows the Iraq jihad to continue by maintaining troops and military operations there.

3. See #1. The U.S. does nothing to help reforms in Muslim nations, and actually hinders reforms through its support of oppressive governments and its attacks on progressive countries. For example, there is real economic and social progress in Iran, which the U.S. is threatening with military action over its nuclear program, and there was real progress in Lebanon until the U.S. allowed (if not supported) the Israeli bombing of southern Lebanon.

4. And why is there anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims? See #s 1, 2, and 3 above.

The NIE then goes one to present the "vulnerabilites" of the jihadist movement that the U.S. could exploit:

Concomitant vulnerabilities in the jihadist movement have emerged that, if fully exposed and exploited, could begin to slow the spread of the movement. They include dependence on the continuation of Muslim-related conflicts, the limited appeal of the jihadists’ radical ideology, the emergence of respected voices of moderation, and criticism of the violent tactics employed against mostly Muslim citizens.

• The jihadists’ greatest vulnerability is that their ultimate political solution—--an ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a-based governance spanning the Muslim world--—is unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims. Exposing the religious and political straitjacket that is implied by the jihadists’ propaganda would help to divide them from the audiences they seek to persuade.

• Recent condemnations of violence and extremist religious interpretations by a few notable Muslim clerics signal a trend that could facilitate the growth of a constructive alternative to jihadist ideology: peaceful political activism. This also could lead to the consistent and dynamic participation of broader Muslim communities in rejecting violence, reducing the ability of radicals to capitalize on passive community support. In this way, the Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror.

Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.

(Emphasis added.)

All of the above "vulnerabilies" are political, not military, but the Bush administration's solution to every problem is more military force. And the reason that military action is the only solution is because its the only solution that they believe in, understand, and can unilaterally control.

And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Which means that the chances of the Bush administration being able to exploit these vulnerabilities range between slim and none, while the chances of the Bush administration continuing the war in Iraq and the other policies in the mid-east that fuel the growth of the jihadist movement are a near certainty.

As noted above, the NIE concludes that the "jihadist movement" is spreading among muslims, and will continue to spread "for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate." Cynic that I am, I immediately wondered if the authors of the NIE were making the subtle (and snide) suggestion that the jihadist movement would continue as long as Bush is President.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


The President's proposal for trying the detainees previously held in secret CIA prisons contains several instances of unintentional (we hope) humor (if you like your humor on the dark and cynical side).

One of the most controversial parts of the proposal would "clarify" the meaning of what is known as "Common Article III" of the Geneva Conventions, which applies not only to prisoners of war but also to civilians detained by foreign governments in times of war, and prohibits "[o]utrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." The concern of the Bush Administration is that this quoted phrase is "susceptible to uncertain and unpredictable application." See "Fact Sheet: The Administration's Legislation to Create Military Commissions," http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/09/20060906-6.html (9/6/2006).

The irony (and humor) here is that under the Bush Administration the Constitution of the United States, and most of the laws enacted by Congress, are of "uncertain and unpredictable application." Maybe the President will comply with them, and maybe he won't.

To clarify the meaning of the phrase "[o]utrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment," the administration wants Congress to declare that the standards for detainees should be the standards of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibits "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." So a provision in the Geneva Conventions that prohibits "degrading treatment" would be clarified through a statute that prohibits "degrading treatment"?

And the Bush administration also claims that other practices prohibited by Common Article III, such as "violence to life," "murder," "mutilation," and "torture," are "universally condemned," and yet one of the practices that has been employed by CIA interrogators in the past (and which will presumably be employed in the future) is "waterboarding," which is generally considered a form of torture. (Television reporters frequently describe waterboarding as a technique which makes the detaineed think he is drowning. The reason the detainee "thinks" he is drowning is that (a) his face is covered by water and (b) he can't breathe. It's gentler than strangling the detainee, but the end result is the same.) If the Bush administration thinks that they can suffocate people to make them talk, why the concern with "degrading treatment"?

The answer might lie in the history of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which is Title X of Public Law 109-148, 119 Stat. 2740, H.R. 2863 (12/30/2005). In the "signing statement" issued by the President for H.R. 2863, he stated:

"The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power...."

"President's Statement on Signing of H.R. 2863, the 'Department of Defense, Emergency Supplemental Appropriations to Address Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and Pandemic Influenza Act, 2006'," http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/12/20051230-8.html (12/30/2005)

In other words, President Bush might not comply with the Detainee Treatment Act if he believes that he has the constitutional authority not to comply.

So the President wants Congress to define the rules for the treatment of detainees by reference to a statute that the President has announced that he doesn't necessarily need to comply with. Isn't that amusing?

Of course, the Supreme Court pretty much rejected the President's claims that he could ignore the Constitution, Congress, and the Geneva Conventions when it held that the President was bound by the Common Article III in its treatment detainees. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. ___, 126 S.Ct. 2749 (2006). But that could be part of the plan. By getting Congress to define the application of Common Article III by reference to the Detainee Treatment Act, which the President publicly announced did not necessarily limit his authority, the President can then claim that Congress has agreed with him that he has the constitutional authority to ignore Common Article III.

If that sounds far-fetched and paranoid to you, it's only because you haven't been paying attention to the practices of the Bush administration.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Fall of Castro

Ronald Reagan will go down in history as the President who happened to be serving as the Soviet Union collapsed and claimed credit for the coincidence (much as a rooster claims credit for the sun rising).

Now that Castro is reported to be ill, is there any doubt that Bush43 will claim credit for the "spread of democracy" in Cuba?

Remember, you read it here first.

Monday, July 31, 2006

What is Terrorism?

The question "what is terrorism" might seem to be an exercise in semantics or philosophy, except that we are supposedly engaged in a "global war on terrorism" and it might be appropriate to decide what or who we are fighting, and why.

And it seems particularly appropriate to ask this question now that Israel and Hezbollah are trading munitions. Hezbollah is firing rockets into Israel and so they are "terrorists" according to Israel and the Bush Administration, while the Iraeli bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon, destroying homes, roads, infrastructure, and private industry, and killing civilians, is described as Israel's "right to defend itself."

This is a clear dichotomy. Hezbollah is practicing terrorism, while Israel is exercising its right to exist, while both are killing civilians and destroying homes and other private property of people having nothing to do with the conflict. How to explain the difference?

1. Cynically: "Terrorism" is the tactic of people we don't like. (I.e, we don't like Hezbollah and we like Israel.)

a. More gently: "War" is for something we support, while "terrorism" is for something we oppose.

b. More specifically: Israel has a right to exist and defend itself by killing people outside of its borders, while Hezbollah has no right to exist and is not allowed to kill any people at any time or any place.

2. Objectively: "Terrorism" is poorly-funded, while "war" is well-financed and better equipped (i.e., with uniforms).

3. Democratically: "Terrorism" is violence by a minority against a majority. There are more Israelis than members of Hezbollah, so Hezbollah is terrorist while Israel is not.

4. Some combination of the above.

How to differentiate "terrorism" from what would otherwise be described as war, civil war, revolution, or simple criminality?

At present, the very vagueness of "terrorism" works to the advantage of the Bush administration because it is a one-size-fits-all kind of label that can be applied to any real or perceived opponent that the Bush administration wishes to vilify.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Commander-in-Chief

The Department of Justice has released a new (longer) rationalization for the President's decision to ignore the warrant requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and it's simply more of the same old "inherent power of the President" song. But what about the explicit powers of Congress?

The Constitution makes the President the "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States." (Article II, Section 2) The Constitution also says that the President "shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties..." (Also Article II, Section 2) From those two provisions come the general idea that the President is responsible for foreign relations, and the defense of the country, and has the inherent power to carry out those duties. Which, as a general proposition, makes sense.

But what about the powers of Congress? Even the power to make treaties requires the "Advice and Consent of the Senate," so Congress has a role in foreign affairs. More importantly, Article I, Section 8, clause 14, states that Congress shall have power "To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces."

In FISA, Congress expressed it's power by declaring that officers of the United States government shall not eavesdrop on the people of the United States except when certain procedures are followed. And FISA expressly recognizes the changed conditions that would apply in time of war, providing that the normal rules for search warrants would be suspended following a declaration of war, but only for 15 days. (See 50 USC section 1811) The President does not even seem to pretend that FISA does not apply, or that he is not in violation of FISA, but is arguing that he does not need to comply.

If the President were taking extraordinary actions in response to an extraordinary crisis, such as the 9/11 attacks themselves, or Hurricane Katrina, or an outbreak of avian flu, then a great deal of latitude would be allowed, because one of the roles of the executive is to be able to act quickly, without the need for legislative deliberation. But it's been more than four years since the 9/11 attacks, and the President has had more than four years to consider the procedures required by FISA and, if they were no longer appropriate, he could have asked Congress to change them. In fact, Congress did amend FISA after 9/11 to improve surveillance procedures against suspected terrorists. But the President chose to ignore FISA rather than ask Congress to change the law.

This issue might be resolved by the courts, but it's not likely, for the simple reason that it will be difficult for any particular person to show that they were harmed by the President's failure to comply with FISA. Which may mean that it is up to Congress.

If the President is willfully disobeying a Congressional directive, Congress has a remedy, and that remedy is impeachment. If the President's illegal surveillance were a single instance of willful disobedience of the law, that would be a rather extreme step. But the President has shown a repeated inclination to ignore laws that he doesn't like. He has allowed the physical abuse, if not torture, of prisoners in US custody, contrary to the laws and treaties of the U.S. He has held American citizens in custody without trial, contrary to the Constitution. He has held foreign citizens in custody without allowing them any hearing to determine their status, contrary to the Geneva Conventions ratified by the U.S. Senate. And he has allowed the seizure and transportion of persons for interrogation (and possible torture) in foreign countries (the so-called "extraordinary renditions"), contrary to U.S. and international law.

Impeaching the President does not yet seem to be the "politically correct" thing to do. But eventually Congress will need to decide which is more important, the rule of law or politics.