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Mac Deford '64 on the Middle East and Terrorism

Mac Deford has been asked by The Free Press, of Rockland ME, from time to time, to write on the Middle East, in light of the September 11 events and the Iraq war. His credentials are relevant (see below), and he has written over 70 articles since 9/11. To read them, click on the titles, or just scroll down. The articles are in reverse chronological order.

The Palestinians and the President: Reaping the Whirlwind (July 20, 2006)

So now what, Mr. President? "What [the UN] needs to do is to get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's all over." (Pres Bush as quoted in Tuesday's NY Times).

Well, it's good to know that three years into the disastrous war he instigated in Iraq, failure hasn't gone to the President's head: he still has the same simplistic grasp of the Middle East that assures, while he remains in office, the mess there will only get worse.

We can sit around and debate who's most at fault in this current set-to ― Hamas for its initial foray into Israel, Hizbollah for considerably upping the ante, Israel for over-responding, or more indirectly, the Palestinians for voting in Hamas or the Iranians for arming Hizbollah.

But the real culprit is George W. Bush and the almost criminally ignorant foreign policy advisors from whom he has learned what he knows about the Middle East. Early in his presidency, even before 9/11 could have been blamed for clouding his judgment, goaded by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, Bush made the catastrophic decision to isolate the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and side explicitly with Ariel Sharon, thus removing the US from its historic, if difficult and frustrating, role of trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli question.

Good-bye to the US as honest broker which all sides in the conflict, albeit sometimes grudgingly, had accepted since the '67 war. And hello to a new American regime, unencumbered by any realistic understanding of the situation, or, apparently, of its own strategic interests. So, here we are, the bi-partisan work of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Jim Baker, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton a fading memory as we, the US, face an increasingly unstable Middle East compounded by the lurking threat of al-Qaeda and its wannabes.

Who cares, in the immediate crisis, who did what to whom. In the good old days, when the US was the key player in resolving problems, the Secretary of State would have been welcomed in the area a week ago, visiting in turn Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut, and Ramallah. Now, in an ironic and damning turn of events, the UN ― much maligned by the current unilateralists running our government ― is pushed front and center, while Bush takes potshots at Kofi Annan from his self-imposed perch on the sidelines.

Who are the players in this continuing tragedy; how are they interacting with each other and why; and what does it portend for the future?

First, there are the direct combatants: on the Arab side, Hamas is both the majority bloc in the democratically elected Palestinian government and a fundamentalist Islamic organization. In appreciating how much the Bush administration is responsible for exacerbating the problem, it's necessary to understand that the Fatah political organization founded by Yasir Arafat ― which Bush purposely undermined ― was a totally secular, nationalist group. As a direct result of Bush's allying himself with Israel and his concomitant marginalizing of Arafat and his successor, Abu Mazen, the radical Islamists now reign in Palestine. This can't be blamed on the law of unintended consequences but is rather a logical result of Bush's policy.

Hizbollah, founded more than 20 years ago in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, has from the beginning been an extremist Islamic group, but the key to understanding their real threat today is that Hizbollah, like Iran, is Shiite. Without grasping this, it might be encouraging to hear that the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have been strongly critical of Hizbollah for "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts."

What this really underlines is the deepening rift between Sunni Muslims on the one hand and the Shia on the other. And while superficially this split in the Arab World may appear to benefit Israel, what is really happening is the growing ascendancy of the more militant Shiites.

More than three years ago, trying to ward off Bush from his Iraqi adventurism, one of the US's staunchest and most astute allies, Jordan's King Abdullah, specifically warned against the danger of a "Shia crescent stretching from Iran to Lebanon" that the overthrow of Saddam would encourage. Good advice; totally ignored.

And the final Arab player: poor Lebanon, caught between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah on the other, with the threat of renewed civil war always lingering in the background.

And, in the opposing corner, of course, Israel which like any sovereign nation has the right to defend itself. But one wonders if the satisfaction they take in inflicting such indiscriminate damage on Lebanon is in their long-term interest. Certainly, it is not in ours.

Meanwhile, the neo-con idiots running our foreign policy ― perhaps 'idiots' is too vague, but then what exactly is the technical term for someone who has so little understanding of his own strategic interests that he strengthens his enemies at the expense of his friends? ― continue to repeat the mantra of democracy and regime-change as the solution to whatever ails the Middle East. Unfortunately, democracy has brought us Hamas in Palestine, democracy has strengthened Egypt's extremist Muslim Brotherhood, while regime-change has brought us a civil war in Iraq that Iran's Shiite allies are winning. If there's regime-change in Syria, the Muslim fundamentalists who take over will make Bashar al-Assad look like a democrat.

So how will it end? Israel probably doesn't want the conflagration to spread to Syria and Iran, though there's always that risk. Hizbollah will be hurt but not destroyed. Eventually they'll run out of missiles and/or the UN will broker a ceasefire. But long-term, Muslim radicals will grow stronger politically despite any temporary military weakening. Lebanon, one hopes, will narrowly avoid a return to civil war, but key parts of its civilian infrastructure will be destroyed, and with hundreds of civilians killed, a more fragile, more radicalized state will emerge on Israel's border.

Despite being largely Sunni, except for Assad's minority Alawite clan, Syria will continue to draw ever closer to Iran. Moderate Palestinians, a declining minority in any case, will continue to immigrate if they can, leaving the field more than ever to the extremists.

The military winner: Israel, if winning means the one who takes the fewer casualties while inflicting the most.

But the overall winner: Iran, whose proxies will have inflicted more damage inside the borders of Israel than in any previous conflict since 1948. And who will in so doing have boosted Iran's prestige throughout the Muslim Middle East.

The losers: moderate Arabs and Israel, as the chance for the kind of shuttle diplomacy, or its equivalent, that stabilized the area after the '73 war, and laid the foundation for Camp David, is negligible. The role that earlier, savvier, realistic republicans played is out of the question under the incompetent ideologues that control our destiny today.

And the overall loser: the US, of course, our prestige, like our ability to influence events in the Middle East, further eroded, while radical, anti-American Islamists strengthen their hold over the future of the Middle East at our expense.

But what can you expect from a president who extols Iraq, in a parody of the advantages of democracy, to President Putin as a model for Russia to emulate; and whose pandering 'pro-life' extremism leads him to veto stem-cell research that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of real lives.

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North Korea: And the Six-Shooter's Almost Empty (July 12, 2006)

With all the hand-wringing ― and deservedly so ― about North Korea this past week, there was one bright spot: Pres. Bush's public reaction, which emphasized diplomacy for a change, showed that while he's clearly a slow learner, he can learn.

Urging patience at a press conference earlier this week, he noted, "It takes a while to solve things diplomatically." Too bad he hadn't been aware of that elemental aspect of Diplomacy 101 a few years back when he disdained diplomacy and multilateralism to plunge headlong into the hellhole that Iraq has become under US occupation.

And, more to the point, too bad he wasn't supportive of the diplomatic efforts of South Korea and the Clinton administration when, within the first few months of becoming president, he publicly embarrassed the South Korean president on a state visit to Washington by denouncing their rapprochement with the north.

North Korea is a vexing problem. Like some international colleague of Tony Soprano, Kim Jung Il earns his keep by selling drugs, weapons, and counterfeit dollars. Over 25 years ago, I visited the DMZ and was struck by two things: the clear, automaton-like hostility of the North Korean soldiers a few paces away and the proximity of Seoul to the border, where hundreds of thousands of North Korean soldiers were on alert. In those days, they said North Korean missiles could reach the center of Seoul within three minutes. These days, the sprawling capital of some 10 million is an even juicier target, and large portions of its northern suburbs could be overrun by troops even as the missiles destroyed its heart.

So if the US views North Korea as a down-the-road problem, for South Korea, it's an immediate, life-and-death one: a pretty good reason to trust their judgment.

In addition to the military threat, there's an economic one. Mao's China was not viable long-term, but while it existed, it, like the Soviet Union, posed a real threat to the US. More than 30 years ago, Nixon ― who, despite his obvious faults, was perhaps the most gifted strategic-thinking president of the last half century ― up-ended a generation-long isolationist approach to China at a time when, it should be noted, China was growing more powerful militarily and, in Vietnam, was continuing to poke its finger in our eye. By thus normalizing our relations, he switched our confrontation with China from a dangerous military one to a competitive economic one.

Today's economic reality is that North Korea is constantly on the verge of starvation. Our policy ― regime-change brought about by regime-collapse ― is not just unnecessarily provocative to Kim Jung Il, from a South Korean point of view (and a Chinese one as well), regime-collapse would, under virtually any scenario, be followed by millions of refugees flooding their borders, a destabilizing and economically disastrous occurrence. Both of North Korea's neighbors want the regime to change, a subtle but key distinction between regime-change. No wonder our policies, even in the context of the 6-nation talks, are out of sync with what the two contiguous, most directly-affected countries want.

Japan, with the 4th of July missile firings, has, somewhat surprisingly, become even more publicly antagonistic towards North Korea than the US. Japanese politicians are in a bind: the North Korean long-range missile that can reputedly hit our west coast is years away from being operational, but their medium-range ones can hit Japan now. Once they put their capability to develop nuclear weapons together with these missiles, Japan can be subject to a form of blackmail that a nuclear-armed China is not; nor, of course, with its tripwire of some 30,000 US troops, is South Korea.

Japan is suddenly out in front in urging a strong Security Council resolution, with sanctions, while the US, from the president on down, is talking diplomacy. If one were cynical, which in foreign policy matters is usually the safer bet, one might think that the Japanese government is grand-standing for its right-wing supporters (good to know we're still exporting something to Japan). As well, they are probably jockeying to move closer to the US at the expense of our relations with Russia and China.

An extraordinarily complex stew. And that's before we toss Iran and Iraq into the pot. The North Koreans were clearly influenced in the timing of their missile petulance by our half-step opening toward Iran. And, of course, we were prompted to do that by the snake pit we've built in Iraq over which the Iranians have no small influence.

Koreans are blunt people; and North Koreans are perhaps the bluntest people on the face of the earth. If the US has finally blinked in our stand-off with Iran, a little North Korean saber-rattling (they hope) will get another blink from Uncle Sam.

The Bush administration is clearly on to the game the North Koreans are playing. In the short run, they don't want to be seen as tossing even a little bone for such boorish behavior. And that's a legitimate quandary. But, over the long haul, Bush is going to have to deal one-on-one with Pyongyang (and Tehran as well). In theory, multi-lateral talks are useful: better to have 4 or 5 countries, or the whole EU and UN, to pressure Iran and North Korea. But in practice, that means first, and continually, negotiating with Russia and China, and for that matter, South Korea and Japan. Our earlier unilateral approach to life ― not just in Iraq, but in the UN and elsewhere ― unnecessarily alienated both the Chinese and the Russians. And while there are times when our interests coincide, there are other times when they consider a little damage to US interests might be more advantageous than reining in North Korea.

At the end of the day, both Iran and North Korea are going to want security guarantees from the US for any serious nuclear concessions. For five years, Bush has tried threatening North Korea, during which time their nuclear capacity has become viable, and without any deal, will grow rapidly. Bush has two and a half years left: he's begun, somewhat grudgingly perhaps, to see the advantages of diplomacy in a very complex and interdependent world. The best thing he can do now is to plot a course which leads to bilateral negotiations between us and North Korea.

Sure, a little more bobbing and weaving to camouflage our about-face, but the time is nigh for our gunslinger-in-chief to accept that he has fired five bullets from his six-shooter. And they can count too.

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The Politics of War (June 29, 2006)

So it turns out it's not just the Democrats who want to cut and run, but Gen. Casey as well. But then, who can blame him?

Rumsfeld may be obtuse, but they can read polls at the Pentagon as well as at the White House. And the polls show the war in Iraq ― even with Maliki in and Zarqawi out ― is a major drag on Republican congressional hopes this fall. And if it's still there two years hence, Bush's War will be an even greater burden on Republican White House dreams.

The leaks over the weekend about planned troop withdrawals should hardly come as a surprise. Last year this time, the White House and the Pentagon were talking about "significant" drawdowns before the end of this year (quite coincidentally, of course, in time for the Congressional elections). This year's half over, and so far the only significant troop exits have been from the now less than willing members of the 'coalition of the willing.'

So the leaked plans are hardly a surprise What's more interesting is to speculate on who leaked them. Was it some disgruntled Senate democrats who had only a few days earlier been accused of 'surrender' and other patriotic deeds by their Republican colleagues for publicly putting forward the Reid-Levin proposal that bears a more than passing resemblance to the Casey plan? Or was it the White House, or maybe Hill Republicans, concerned that their ability to shoot down the Democratic proposal was a short-lived propaganda coup that was already turning into a pyrrhic victory as the newly-formed Iraqi government was proving no better at controlling violence than its predecessors?

The war remains a mess and, with the Republicans running all branches of the government these days, it's clearly their mess. And worse still, it's not their only mess.

On virtually every major issue, the five and a half years under George Bush has left the US five and a half years worse off. What can they run on? Federal deficit reduction? That's what our children and grandchildren are for. Energy crisis? Let the marketplace deal with it. Global warming worries? There's no evidence; and anyway, it's exaggerated. Stem-cell research to cure a number of now fatal diseases? No, remember the sanctity of life. AIDS relief worldwide? Yes indeed, but no sex and no condoms. It's not just those be-turbaned mullahs who are stuck in their pre-Enlightenment theology.

So while grandstanding in those hallowed halls of democracy can be diverting for those in power, the wolf's at the door these days for Republicans, and more of the same is a worse vote-getter than cut and run.

But, just as in Vietnam, where progress reports and denying the evidence on the ground eventually caught up with LBJ, so Bush's hype, stubbornness, and self-serving conflation of Iraq with 9/11 and terrorism has put the Republicans in a mighty bind.

Bush clings to his old one-liner, assuring us that we'll only step down as they step up. The self-imposed measure of victory under this White House rhetorical petard ― a unified, peaceful, democratic Iraq ― is likely to be a bar too high: if the promised withdrawals don't start soon, the albatross of a war we can't win and we no longer support will still be hanging around the neck of the Republican congress this fall. And if they do withdraw combat troops, and the situation deteriorates, Bush will be hard put to claim victory

The Democrats, on the other hand, be it Rep. Murtha or Sen. Feingold, or the less radical stance of Sens. Levin and Reid, are basically saying the following: with the number of troops we now have, we can't defeat an insurgency that is part sectarian violence, part anti-occupation nationalism, and part Islamic extremism. And, looking around at our worldwide military and geopolitical commitments (not to mention political realities at home), there aren't going to be any more troops. There's a new government in Baghdad; it may not be the perfect government of national unity, but it's the best we can hope for under the circumstances. Our continued military occupation is not the solution ― in fact, increasingly, it's the problem. If there's a way out of this quagmire, it's got to be an Iraqi way. And the sooner we announce a phased withdrawal and let them plan accordingly, the greater likelihood that something positive can be salvaged from this.

Interestingly, this is essentially an old-fashioned, hard-headed, realist approach. Six years ago, Bush was the hard-headed realist: nation-building, he said, was not an enterprise the US military should be taking on. Under a different, non-ideological administration, that would have been an ideal role for the Bush-bashed UN.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, not to worry, partisan life goes on. Emboldened by their cries of cut and run, the Republicans came up with another red-blooded, red-stated American way of solving what ails us: the anti-flag-burning amendment. It lost by one vote ― as the lyric strands of one of Nero's compositions played softly in the background?

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UN-Bashing, the Death Penalty, and the American Theocracy (June 14, 2006)

Two apparently unrelated articles appeared on separate days in the NY Times last week: one was about our ambassador to the UN denouncing a speech by the UN's deputy secretary general as the "worst mistake by a senior UN official" in several decades; the other was about Oklahoma becoming the fifth US state to enact the death penalty for sex crimes against children.

"Apparently" unrelated: what could be less related than the Bush administration knocking the UN and a bunch of Bible Belt states finding another way to add a few more notches to the executioner's belt? The connection: the Christian right.

John Bolton, the ambassador, widely known, and proud of it, for UN-bashing when he was at the State Dept., was Bush's pick to represent our country at the UN. At the time, the analogy most used was the fox in the henhouse. It isn't that. It's more like appointing an outspoken atheist to represent us at the Vatican. It was an out-and-out insult.

And it was specifically designed to appeal to, and appease, the ultra-conservatives and Christian right extremists that seem to be the only ones left that still support Bush.

But that appointment, a recess one (Bush couldn't have gotten the votes for Bolton even with his Republican-controlled Congress) is par for the course for what Rolling Stone magazine has accurately described as the country's 'worst president' in our history.

If you disagree, let's look at the state of the union in the summer of '06. The dollar weaker than it has been in years, the deficit continuing to break records, gold at new highs, not to mention oil, and FEMA still such a mess that Maine's Republican senator Susan Collins has suggested it be removed from Homeland Security. As for Homeland Security, if it hasn't turned into just another political pork barrel ― when New York and Washington funding is drastically cut to give Middle America a bigger share ― then it's just plain incompetent.

That's the domestic front. Internationally, the Iraq quagmire seethes, Palestinians and Israelis remain at each other's throats, the Taliban regains strength in Afghanistan. And a Pew Research Center study released yesterday showed the US's global image continues to worsen and that, worldwide, most people find the US war in Iraq a bigger threat to world peace than Iran's nuclear ambitions. How do you lead a global war on terrorism when most of the globe thinks you're more problem than solution?

So what does Pres Bush focus on: permanently eliminating the estate tax. Yes, toss his richest supporters a bone (nay, a whole steer) ― that'll show the terrorists we mean business. Or how about revisiting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. With National Guard units on their third tour in Iraq, you certainly don't want gays getting married in Boston. Or better yet, a quick trip to Baghdad — if keeping the elected president of the country Bush is visiting in the dark about the visit (how's that for a little bit of colonialism) until after he arrives is any indication of the level of security there, things are even worse than the daily death squad tolls indicate.

This isn't leadership. This is pandering. It's cynical. And while politics is usually cynical, in the midst of a disastrous war that Bush lied to get us into, hasn't a clue how to get us out of, and will add another $1,000,000,000,000-$2,000,000,000,000 to our debt ― while he mouths on about a government of national unity in Iraq ― one would hope that he would be promoting the kind of centrist policies that might unify us here.

In the five years of the Bush presidency, the US has come to be symbolized around the world by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, rendition, torture. There was a time when our focus on international human rights seemed a natural extension of who we were. Bush has turned his mention of human rights or democracy into hypocrisy. UN-bashing is just another example of how Bush undermines the US internationally to promote a cheap domestic agenda.

In the recent controversy, the UN official Mark Malloch Brown gave a speech in which he urged Washington to become more positively involved in the UN. He amplified the problem afterwards, "You're going to need us more than ever, therefore you have to engage...with your own public opinion to explain better why the UN matters to American interests."

The UN is indeed important to US interests. Flipping randomly through the NY Times the day it published the Bolton-Malloch Brown flare-up, there were four different references to major world crises in which the UN is playing a key role, and a supportive one for us: the IAEA and Iran's uranium enrichment activities; Darfur and a Security Council delegation; Serb war criminals and the UN war criminals tribunal; Somalia and a US call for UN involvement; and as well a lengthy article on the World Health Organization and the resurgence of polio in Namibia.

Is the UN bureaucratic? Yes. Corrupt? Yes. Inefficient? Yes. But, of course, if you want bureaucracy, look to the US government; or corruption, look at what Republican lobbyists just did to Homeland Security's budget for New York and Washington so they could shove funds to the red heartland. Or for the trifecta ― bureaucratic, corrupt, and inefficient ― how about Congress.

The US needs this imperfect UN these days in a way it never did during the Cold War. The global war on terrorism may be an overused cliché, but terrorism is all too real; extremism which breeds terrorism is growing ― and it is surely global. In this global struggle, how others view the US is very important. And we're sure not winning that contest. When we undermine the UN, we weaken a tool that, used effectively, can help the world adjust more easily to the shocks of globalization and can substantially promote our standing in that world. 9/11 taught us the dangers inherent in the modern technologically globalized world. Iraq has shown us that being the only superpower isn't enough.

Our Christian right believes the US is the modern version of God's chosen people. Unfortunately, we're not. There's an underlying intolerance in a view that sees us and our way of life as superior to any other, mirrored by how extremist Islamists see their position vis-à-vis the rest of mankind. There are today two versions of Christianity struggling against each other in the US: the one is tolerant, forgiving, inclusive; the other, extremist, intolerant and exclusive. Unlike every civilized ― and many that we would consider less than civilized ― country, the US still supports capital punishment. Right wing Christians certainly have the 'eye for an eye' part of Scripture down pat; they're not quite so quick on the uptake when it comes to turning the other cheek.

When you look around at where Bush has led us these past five years, the good news may be that his brand of un-compassionate conservatism has been so discredited that it's heading the way of the dodo. After all, the estate tax repeal was turned down; the same-sex ban didn't make it. But I'm sure Bush and his Christian extremists remain heartened by one thing: we're still the leader in the Western World ―with no contenders ― when it comes to capital punishment.

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Abbas (Finally) Makes a Move (June 5, 2006)

In a subtle, but important, bit of maneuvering, the moderate Palestinian leadership is trying to counter newly-elected Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's inexorable march towards a unilateral land grab that, not surprisingly, has garnered overwhelming support from the Congress and the administration ― despite the negative impact the plan would have on US foreign policy.

If Mahmoud Abbas, the luckless, charisma-challenged president of what is optimistically called the Palestinian Authority, succeeds, he may finally be doing something that puts the Israelis ― and their sponsor, advocate, and protector ― on the spot. Abbas has called for a referendum if Hamas doesn't accept a proposal that would, by recognizing Israel, eliminate the barrier for the resumption of negotiations, a barrier that Israel would be highly disappointed to see disappear.

And, of course, George W. Bush, optimistically referred to as the leader of the Free World, would be equally disappointed. In the role reversal that the controversial Walt-Mearsheimer paper alluded to, our client state calls the shots, while we sign the checks and run interference. When the Israelis were in Washington last week, Bush must have gotten a sense of how lap-dog Tony feels when Bush is around.

What with Iraq and Iran and these days Afghanistan ― and the energy crisis, the deficit, and all the other mishaps that have collapsed this presidency and its foreign policy ― it's hard to keep up with what's been going on between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers, so to bring you up to date:

Last fall, in what was hyped as an opportunity for peace, the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. Of course, Sharon never conceived of it as fostering peace (though he must have been delighted when the duped, or just plain stupid, American press, and American president, so acclaimed it). Sharon's maneuver was in Israel's interest (as well it should be ― the US could take a few lessons in this regard), but without a strong US hand helping direct matters, anyone familiar with the Middle East knew it would only make matters worse. And so it has.

Abbas was decisively undermined by the unilateral withdrawal, and not to Sharon's surprise; Gaza was turned into the world's second largest outdoor prison (North Korea, a nuclear power now under Bush, maintaining its lengthy lead in this regard); and, ultimately, the Palestinians revolted against Abbas, his PLO, and their Israeli overlords in the only way they could, by voting in Hamas.

Even Sharon hadn't counted on this boost, though he had certainly created the conditions for it. After refusing to deal with Arafat (and getting the compliant Bush to buy into it), then treating Abbas with "indifference and contempt" (to quote the New York Times), Sharon's successor finds himself today exactly where he wants to be. With "no partner for peace," the Israelis are planning their next ― and last ― unilateral pull-out, this one from the West Bank. It should be hard even for Israel, and its American apologists, to term this an opportunity for peace, when the rest of the world sees it as just a plain and illegal takeover of Palestinian land. But Congress bent over backwards last week in applauding the move, and Bush hailed Olmert's "bold ideas" as an approach that "could be an important step toward the peace we both support."

The Palestinians, under Arafat's leadership, were famously, and accurately, described as "never losing an opportunity to lose an opportunity." If, for example, Arafat had gone ahead and accepted Israel's final offering at Taba in the fading days of the Clinton administration, it would undoubtedly have opened fissures as deep in Israel then as exist now in Palestine between Hamas and Fatah supporters.

Now, if Abbas can maneuver Hamas into accepting the Fatah framework for recognizing Israel, the onus for rejecting peace talks can be shifted from Hamas to Israel. And with the idea originating from Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ― significantly, Hamas as well as Fatah members ― Hamas's leadership may will be forced to buy into the formula.

Though Bush continues to pay lip service to his long-dead 'road map' ― only because he knows it's long dead ― the last thing his administration wants is the resumption of peace talks. They would only highlight the widening differences between the two sides. In the end, with presidential elections looming, Bush and his born-again backers would back the Israelis ― even in the face of Britain's opposition, not to mention that of our other European allies, and Russia, and China, and the entire Islamic World.

This would not just undermine what little hope is left in Iraq, but would as well significantly complicate nuclear negotiations with Iran. Most importantly, it would seriously weaken us in the overall war against Islamic extremists.

Why, one asks, would the US support Israel against our own national security interests? Pro-Israeli forces went ballistic when Professors Walt and Mearsheimer detailed the influence of AIPAC and, what they termed, the "Israel Lobby" on US foreign policy. Even moderates felt compelled to denounce the paper for "faulty reasoning," but if it isn't the generic Israeli lobby that has turned Congress into knee-jerk supporters of Israel, who is it? Perhaps, like the anonymous wag remarked about the inane argument over who wrote Shakespeare's plays ("It wasn't William Shakespeare, after all, but someone else with exactly the same name."), there is no Israeli lobby in Washington ― there are just a coordinated bunch of people who support Israel and have a lot of financial and political clout.

The bottom line is that letting the Palestinian situation remain an open sore helps our enemies and hurts our friends. Israel's solution ― an unnegotiated, illegal retention of some 10% of the West Bank ― would turn an intractable situation into an impossible one. Although short-term, it's a political plus for whoever runs Israel, it's hard to see how giving aid and comfort to Arab militants strengthens Israel's long-term viability. But that's their problem.

Our problem is that in supporting Israel in this endeavor, we would compound the self-inflicted wound of Iraq. How long can we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot in the Middle East before we end up on our knees.

So let's hope, for once, the Palestinians seize their opportunity, and then, Bush seizes his ― and finally does something positive in the Middle East by taking the lead in crafting, and exerting every effort for, a fair peace. Sure, it will infuriate the Israelis. Even worse, it will put Bush on the line against the Israel Lobby. But the good news is, it will suck the venom from what is the prime instigator of anti-American hatred and terrorism throughout the Muslim World. And, not insignificantly, for a president who suggests he's got a personal relationship with God, it's the right thing to do. Let's just hope that God's not a Muslim fundamentalist.

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Cut and Run? or Cut and Stay? (May 29, 2006)

The generals who are clamoring for Rumsfeld's firing only have it half right. Rumsfeld, Rice, Hadley (that non-entity running the NSC): get rid of the whole bunch of them. And if Cheney had any decency, he'd apologize and step down. (I know, if pigs had wings...)

It's not simply because Rumsfeld is arrogant ― though he is that (and about exactly what, one wonders). It's not even that he and his neo-con buddies were completely wrong about everything to do with Iraq. Everyone makes mistakes.

The real reason is that, three years on, they're still clueless. It's one thing to make a mistake, but exacerbating and perpetuating it when so much is at stake is truly unforgivable. If Bush and his henchmen sound more and more like Westmoreland and LBJ pre-Tet ― progress, improvement, freedom fighting ― it's because like them in the late '60s, the only real policy today's failed leadership has is more of the same. (But credit where credit's due: at least we don't hear about body counts, except of course our own.)

It reminds me of the old stereotype of the ugly American ― an apt analogy, for have there ever been uglier Americans than Bush & Co.? ― traveling around Europe circa 1960 and trying to communicate with the locals: "Just speak louder, Herbert, and they'll understand you."

Just do more of the same, Donald, and maybe it'll all work out. Pundits question whether it's proper for retired generals to speak out against their former boss. What I question is how come there are only six or seven retired generals speaking out? If the American public is reluctant to have Gen Hayden run the CIA, do you blame them? With Rumsfeld's Pentagon controlling 80% of our intelligence budget ― for which we've gotten even less bang for the buck than for the half trillion dollars he's dumped in Iraq ― do we need a general at CIA as well?

For three years, we've been told there are enough troops to win the war. Actually, I misspeak: three years ago, we were told we had already won the war. Then we were told there was no insurgency. Then we were told, there's an insurgency, but there's no civil war. Now we are told, once the new government's in place, the insurgency or the civil war, or whatever it isn't, will disappear.

Waiting for that new government to be formed gives you an idea of what Penelope's suitors must have felt like. And, unfortunately, we are likely to be as disappointed at the end as they were.

Does anyone have any confidence that a new government will perform any better than any of the earlier ones? Certainly the situation on the ground is worse than ever. One Iraqi leader recently noted that some 3000 people have been killed by insurgents or sectarian violence since the Samarra mosque was blown up. That's the equivalent in the US of some 200,000 people a year. How many Americans died in Vietnam over nearly a decade of fighting?

Tens of thousands of Shiites and Sunni are moving out of mixed neighborhoods to ethnic enclaves to be safe.

Newspaper features appear about upbeat young colonels who are ''pacifying'' a few remote villages. But who's pacifying Baghdad where nearly a quarter of the population live? Rumsfeld was complaining that American reporters should get out of their sand-bagged offices in Baghdad and see all the progress on the ground. Interesting that when he and Condi were there a few weeks back, they sure as hell weren't driving around town and dropping in on those six completed health clinics ― for which his Pentagon had paid nearly $200 million.

For months, the administration has been floating stories about the anticipated drawdown of American troops this year. The plan is to pull back to bases we have constructed around the country and the let the Iraqis take on more of the heavy lifting. "As they step up, we step down," has become Bush's mantra.

But what if they don't step up? What do we do then?

Estimates coming out of the Pentagon say that the Iraqis will be ready to take over in ''two to five years.'' A spread like that isn't an estimate; it isn't even a guess. It's just more of what the whole adventure has been from the beginning: wishful thinking.

Sure, we can extrapolate from numbers: if we recruit x numbers of soldiers each month, and train y numbers of battalions each quarter, and provide z amounts of equipment each year, and then do a little straight-line projections, why by 2010, the Iraqi army will be ready to take on the world.

But what happens if the Iraqi soldier is more interested in taking on his Sunni neighbor? What happens if the Iraqi general is more interested in building up his, and his tribe's, nest egg than in equipping a bunch of unreliable and underpaid recruits?

Pulling US troops back to bases can work if there's a real Iraqi government out there that's been recognized and welcomed by its Arab and Muslim neighbors and wants us there. But otherwise, it's a recipe for further disaster: Iraq, as one-note George continually reminds us, is the frontline of the war on terrorism. And Islamic terrorism is a real threat. Part of winning it will be a subtle battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim World. But occupying Iraq indefinitely only gives more ammunition to the anti-American hordes. Well, just bring 'em on, hey George?

Is there a serious plan out there to deal with the fact that it's over ― that we've lost the war in Iraq? Sending home a few troops this fall ― for crude Republican political purposes ― and pulling the rest back to bases isn't a plan. It's just more of the same, while they ― and their duped right-wing Christian allies ― pray for a deus ex machina.

A Hail Mary pass as policy when you're talking about thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars is beneath contempt.

With Iran, we're told, every option is on the table. With Iraq, it seems this group of incompetents has only one option: say it's getting better and do more of the same. We know Bush was AWOL or spaced out, or frequently both, during Vietnam, so we'll give him a bye. But Cheney and Rumsfeld and the generals: don't they remember?

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Try Diplomacy ― and Call His Bluff (May 10, 2006)

I ended last week's column with the observation that there are worse things in the world than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Such as?

Well, for starters, a 'mini-war' initiated by the US, in the form of massive bombing raids, as an attempt to turn Iran's nuclear clock back a decade or more. And while an air attack, with no US boots on the ground, would at least avoid the fiasco of the Iraq occupation, the end result would be even worse: oil prices doubling from here; Islamic and Arab moderates ― the few that are left after Bush's Middle East disasters ― radicalized; the already radical elements creating who knows what chaos in Iraq and beyond; and our NATO allies once again alienated by Bush's reprise in "Bull-in-the-China-Shop II."

So that's one option. An extreme variation on that is the use of tactical nuclear 'bunker-busters,' which Sy Hirsch detailed in a recent New Yorker article, an idea which British foreign secretary Straw labeled as 'nuts.' (In Blair's cabinet re-shuffle last week, the outspoken Straw was demoted away from foreign policy: at the urging of Blair's Big Brother in Washington?) Even with Bush's abysmal track record, I'm more inclined to believe that Hirsch was the victim of a little psy-ops game aimed at Tehran than the recipient of plans that are under active and serious consideration in Washington. Some things, surely, are too nuts even for Bush.

But then, four years ago, anyone who knew anything about the Middle East didn't believe Cheney and Bush were actually dumb enough to invade and occupy Iraq.

Estimates as to when ― unimpeded ― Iran could develop a nuclear weapon are all over the place, from an unlikely three years to at least ten. The point is, it's not imminent. And that's the good news: it means we have time to work things out. But if it's just more of the same, we'll accomplish nothing but wasting whatever time there is. North Korea revisited.

Our ostensible goal is to get the Security Council to impose strict sanctions on Iran, but China and Russia have made it clear they won't go along. And with Cheney mouthing off last week in a Cold War fashion about the evils of the new Russian empire, it's a safe bet Putin won't cave on Iran. Maybe we'll get the Europeans on board for a few mosquito bites against Iran ― travel restrictions for key officials and the like ― but that won't stop it from enriching uranium nor Bush and his minders from moving ever closer to the military option.

It may be that military action against Iran is their end-game of choice in any case, which would make Cheney's provocative outburst against Putin at least explicable: the UN is only a pretence, as it was in the lead-up to Iraq, so let's make sure the Russians keep that avenue closed.

Which ― as Cheney-Bush really want? ― would leave military action the remaining option.

But not so fast. There's a third option: serious bilateral diplomacy between the US and Iran. An old-fashioned, and, no doubt to the Christian crusaders and neo-con ideologues who run Bush's foreign policy, a peculiar notion indeed. Ever since his "Axis of Evil' pronouncement in his second inaugural, Bush has backed himself into a corner by portraying the Iranian government as beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, the freely elected Ahmadinejad has temporarily grabbed the limelight with his revolutionary 18-page letter of ramblings about just about everything including a nod to Bush for his upfront Christianity. Caught off guard ― and why not: it's the first letter from an Iranian leader since the shah was overthrown ― Condoleeza Rice has chosen to dismiss it as a negotiating tactic. Well, of course it is. That's by and large what diplomacy between adversaries consists of. But a negotiating tactic certainly beats a military one.

It's clear from contacts by western correspondents and western embassies in Iran that the Iranian population, however frustrated they are by continued mullah rule, is overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing nuclear development. A US attack against Iran would only strengthen Ahmadinejad and further marginalize moderate voices.

Ahmadinejad may be bad news, but he's not the anti-Christ. Shoring up his conservative credentials as he takes aim on the White House, Senator McCain says talking to Iran is not an option so long as they continue to issue threatening statements against Israel. Straight-shooter McCain, en route to Jerry Falwell's fiefdom, is just plain wrong: throughout the Cold War, we maintained full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union even though Khrushchev memorably threatened to "bury us." Once arch-anti-communist Nixon recognized China, it moved rapidly and successfully (perhaps too successfully) into the capitalist orbit. By contrast, our nearly 50-year-old policy of isolating Castro has hardly had the effect we hoped on his iron-fisted rule in Cuba. Had we many years ago permitted trade and tourism, Cuba might now be a very different place.

In today's world, where Muslim antipathy towards the US continues to grow, our antagonistic approach to Iran actually enhances its government's prestige, both internally and externally. Standing up to the US these days is, in most parts of the world, to be on the side of the angels. If you look at the cat-and-mouse game Iran has played the last six months ― with their aggressive threats towards Israel and their defiance of the West and the UN ― one can't help but think that often they were purposely trying to provoke us. This is a zero-sum game: if Tehran gains points by taunting us, we play into their hands when we overreact. And we play equally into their hands if we ignore a diplomatic overture.

We took a baby step a few months back when we indicated a willingness to talk directly to Iran so long as the conversation was limited to Iraq. But it's time to be serious: Condoleeza Rice can fume publicly that Ahmadinejad's "letter isn't it," but privately we should let Iran know (through the British, or better yet, the Russians) that we want to have direct bilateral talks ― with an open-ended agenda; and that further such talks could eventually lead to an exchange of ambassadors. And then we'd announce it publicly.

And if the Iranian government rejects our overture ― as just a negotiating tactic ― we may actually gain a little sorely-needed credibility around the world, as well as a few points for diplomatic sophistication, surely a new experience in the realm of international relations for George W. Bush. And, who knows, maybe somewhere down the road it could lead to serious discussions.

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Mission Accomplished ― 3 Years On (May 3, 2006)

It was three years and three days ago that our president made a fool of himself ― and less forgivable, a fool of his country ― by playing fly-boy dress-up on that aircraft carrier anchored just off California's coast to proclaim "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. A little early and about a trillion dollars short.

Since then, nearly 2000 more American soldiers have died there, the price of oil has doubled, our deficit has risen to ever more threatening heights, anti-Americanism continues as a worldwide growth industry with Islamic fundamentalism growing even faster, North Korea has its bomb, and another old nemesis, Iran, pumped up by its own nuclear ambitions, is treating us like the paper tiger China used to call us.

Bush's rhetoric has made a mockery of himself and of our country. Do you remember his now infamous "Bring 'em on" when told of the growth of "insurgent activity" in Iraq later that same year. And, of course, with every ‘'milestone'' ― Bremer's departure, the first vote for a constitution, then second, and now the incipient formation of a new government under Prime Minister Maliki ― "we've turned a corner." Yes, indeed. In fact, we've turned so many, we're back where we started ― with a little more blood on our hands and a lot fewer dollars in our treasury.

And then the unlikely dynamic duo ― grumpy old Rumsfeld and upbeat young Condi ― show up in Baghdad to pass out little red stars to their new favorite pupils. Who's running this show anyway. With all the hype about privatization we hear from the neo-con nincompoops in charge, it's too bad they haven't privatized our foreign policy. Oh, I don't mean to Halliburton ― no, why not farm it out to the Chinese. Their diplomats are running circles around ours ― locking up oil contracts around the world, thwarting us at the UN, courting Bush's old two-timing soul mate President Putin. And while maybe they wouldn't give the US government Wal-Mart prices, it's a safe bet the Chinese wouldn't screw up a presidential visit to Beijing by letting Cindy Sheehan loose during the welcoming ceremony. Bush-Cheney, Inc: the original gang that couldn't shoot straight.

And now, fresh from their accomplishments in Iraq, this team is facing down Iran. So far, Ahmadinejad, with his fiery rhetoric, has done a pretty good job of stale-mating our first team. To be fair, it's a mighty complicated problem, as was North Korea. With conventional wisdom now estimating that Pyongyang has a half dozen bombs, we seem to have come out on the backside of that mano-a-mano facedown. So I wonder who the London bookmakers are putting their money on in this confrontation.

There's no doubt an Iranian bomb could have a severely destabilizing effect short-term in the Middle East. It's easy to conceive of a scenario in which the Turks and the Saudis, and even the Egyptians, would be compelled to follow suit. Not exactly what the doctor ordered for what is already the world's most unstable region. But before we despair too much, remember that the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) kept the Cold War cold for over 40 years, not bad when you consider what non-MAD had brought about during the previous 40.

And look at Pakistan and India: they fought three wars before they both got the bomb, and none since. Indeed, the bigger risk is that Pakistan's Musharraf gets assassinated, and his nuclear-armed country is plunged into a civil war with lots of Islamist wild eyes on both sides of the conflagration. A Saudi regime with the bomb poses the same risk: whose finger is on the controls after the deluge? Whoever it is, though, is unlikely to assure the destruction of the ex-kingdom by launching a nuclear attack on Iran or Israel. MAD is still a powerful incentive to avoid war.

Israel, which has plenty of nuclear weapons, has still fought two wars with its Arab neighbors since acquiring them ― and now has to rely on an old-fashioned East Germany-style wall to stop Arabs from killing nuclear-armed Israelis.

A more serious threat, conceivably, is the very real concern that the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more likely they are to fall into the hands of terrorists. Maybe ― but the break-up of the Soviet Union freed up a lot of bargain basement weapons that could have gone to the highest bidder, but don't seem to have.

Bottom line, while a nuclear Iran could huff and puff and threaten Israel and shore up its pro-Palestinian Islamists credentials, all they'd really have is a deterrent: a nuclear attack against Israel would hardly be a favor to the West Bank Palestinians (or nearby Syrians or Lebanese for that matter). And I wouldn't want to be in Teheran an hour after the first bomb hits Israel.

The fact is there are worse things in this crazy world than a nuclear-armed Iran. Next week, I'll explore what they are, and what the US should be doing under the circumstances.

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Iraq: Democracy 201, Advanced Level (Apr. 6, 2006)

"Stuff happens," Rumsfeld famously remarked as Baghdad burned; "democracy's messy." Indeed it is, as Iraqis are now learning ― and as Guatemalans, and Chileans, and countless others have learned before ― it's not just messy, it often doesn't count unless the results are what Uncle Sam wants.

The visit over the weekend to Baghdad of Condileeza Rice with Jack Straw (as punishment for the rude behavior of his constituents when Condi showed up for a friendly visit?) marked the climax of a steady uptick of pressure on the Shiites to repudiate Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister they chose in a democratic procedure organized under the US occupation.

The problem that led to Rice's visit is a real one, and another detail, big and little, that George Bush and his now-repudiated neo-con advisors got wrong. The problem: a mainstay of democracy is protecting the rights of minorities, no mean trick in a country that had been ruthlessly run by one of its minorities.

The solution: require a two-thirds vote of the newly-elected representatives to choose the prime minister. Now, even in functioning democracies, the two-thirds requirement could lead to paralysis: would Israel now, or Mexico this summer, or France in the future be able to form a government with such a requirement? The concept of a government of national unity is, in theory, a fine concept, but where national unity doesn't exist, it's the cart before the horse.

The fundamental error here is not in the idea of developing a system that protects its minorities ― it was in the initial, erroneous belief, pushed by Wolfowitz and the other naive neo-cons, that a democracy can spring full-grown like Venus, after a few elections. Democracy is not a shot-gun process: it's almost always the end result of a generations-long process of civil cooperation and development. Elections don't kick-start it; they conclude it.

To protect the Sunnis and the Kurds from an unpalatable Shi'a choice as prime minister has now brought front and center an even worse problem: the Shi'a themselves are on the verge of splitting apart. While some Sunnis may take delight in the prospect (and the Kurds by and large can take a laissez-faire attitude towards), it could be the event that transfers the current 'cool' civil war into a 'hot' one.

The Shi'a are not monolithic; they are held together, loosely, by Ayatollah Sistani and consist of different religious and secular factions. Jaafari won his re-election bid by only one vote, his principle support coming from the virulently anti-American Moqtada al-Sadr and his well-armed and well-motivated Mahdi militia. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), headed by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, is larger, has a broader following, is under more Iranian influence, has too its own militia (often integrated into Iraqi security forces), and is, on balance, less anti-American. Sciri's candidate, the one who lost by one vote, would be the obvious choice to replace him were Jaafari to step down.

But Sadr, young and fiery, had proven himself a clever tactician, with a much narrower support base, and would undoubtedly see a Jaafari roll-back as such a severe blow to his power and ambition that he would either take to the streets now to fight even more aggressively than he has in the past; or later, fight to undermine Sciri's choice. For the time being, he's manipulated himself into the key role of king-maker, and it's hard to imagine he'll give this role up without a fight.

An open split among the key Shi'a religious factions could accelerate the Lebanonization of the Iraqi scene. One thing that has kept the low-level civil war from exploding has been the relative unity of the Shiites. With less than one-third the population of the Shiites, the Sunnis can fight, as they are, a low-grade insurgency, aimed at driving out Shi'a from the Sunni Triangle and from Sunni-dominated parts of Baghdad ― in order to consolidate their position should the country split apart ― but unless the Shi'a start fighting amongst themselves, the Sunnis would lose in an all-out conflagration.

US Ambassador Khalilzad, certainly with Washington's approval, has been publicly urging the Iraqis to find some compromise formula that can garner the needed two-thirds vote to form a government, as without one, the slide into increased violence is likely to increase. It's been a proper role for Khalilzad, but with the stalemate continuing, the US upped the ante. With Rice visibly putting pressure on Jaafari to step down, the Rubicon has been crossed. At a time when some 80% of Iraqis want an announced plan for US withdrawal, the US government is on thin ice when it plays a heavy-handed role in picking the prime minister.

Whatever happens now, the US may well lose. If we have our way and Jaafari goes, his successor will be immediately and permanently tagged as an American puppet. He might well try to regain legitimacy by taking an even more aggressive stand against the occupation. If Jaafari manages to defy us and hang in there, the stalemate will continue, US influence will be diminished, and the infiltration of the Shi'a militias into Iraqi security forces will probably accelerate. And however you slice it, our role in fracturing Shi'a unity is not going to redound to our benefit.

Rice conceded last week in Britain, clearly speaking figuratively, that the US has made thousands of tactical mistakes in Iraq. Chalk up another one.

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Bush and Immigration: Compassion vs Conservativism (Mar. 30, 2006)

Pres. Bush admitted in his press conference last week that he had "spent" much of the capital he had earned, in his 2nd term re-election victory, on Iraq. "Wasted" would have been a better word. And while there's no denying that it's capital, for the most part, I'm glad to see evaporate, there are some issues for which I wish he retained more of the power of the bully pulpit handed him by 9/11.

The Dubai ports deal was one recent example. Another, and much more emotional one ― can you imagine 500,000 marching in support of port security? ― is immigration. And while Bush, with much of his right wing Republican base demanding harsher treatment for illegal immigrants, is back-pedaling somewhat, his overall concept still comes a lot closer to the "compassionate conservatism" he once promised us than the tax "relief" he promotes for the rich, his hypocritical environmental record, his head-in-the-sand approach to global warming, or his profligate way of dealing with the national deficit.

There are over 11 million illegal immigrants in the US today, four out of five of whom are Hispanic. Sure, many of them are attending our public schools without paying taxes, and some no doubt are on welfare. But every unbiased study shows the economic benefits outweigh the costs. From migrant agricultural workers in California and even potato-pickers in Maine to maids and nannies throughout the country to low-skilled fast-food employees, street cleaners, and garbage men ― our country couldn't run without them.

Of course, one can make a legitimate case that, at a time when we are ''protecting our borders'' by fingerprinting European tourists and requiring Indian scientists to wait three months and more for a visa, to permit a million people to seep into our country yearly without papers makes little rational sense. So indeed, more efficient border controls are a must, but only if they are coupled with a comprehensive package that brings significant benefits as well.

And in any case, the reality is we already have two divisions ― that's about 20,000 soldiers ― stationed along the Mexican frontier. Other countries have proved it's possible to build effective borders: the Berlin Wall was 20 feet high with armed enforcers in guard towers every 750 meters shooting to kill. Robert Frost notwithstanding, is that really the face we want to show the world these days? Mexicans and other central Americans were seeking economic opportunity here long before 9/11 ― they shouldn't be punished for the sins of Islamic extremists.

The bill that the House passed recently ― another fine example of the lowest common denominator type of demagoguery that august body pursues ― would actually make it a crime, punishable by years in jail, not just to be an illegal immigrant, but to hire one or even to provide medical or humanitarian assistance to one. Have we so forgotten our roots? Do our Congressmen really wish to make such a mockery of the Statue of Liberty and her noble sentiments? All of us, with the exception of native Americans, are descended from immigrants. To turn our backs so callously on those who are only seeking to better themselves makes you wonder, for all the self-righteous Christianity we as a nation wear on our sleeves these days, what we are becoming.

One hears as a justification for keeping out Latinos the refusal of most of these first-generation immigrants to learn English and thus to integrate into our world. And while it's true misguided liberals encourage Spanish-track education for Hispanic children, the fact is that northern European immigrants were just as guilty of anti-melting pot behavior 100 years ago. A friend of mine happened to mention to me recently that her grandmother, who had come to the states as a young adult, spoke Finnish for the next 50 years of her life, and never learned English. And this was true of many Scandinavian immigrants, and of Poles, of Germans, and of French as well.

Latino immigrants a threat to our civilization? Does anyone remember the dying Miami of the 1970s before Cuban refugees turned it into the vibrant place it is now?

President Bush is proposing a guest worker program that could, over time, regularize the legal status of those here but would not automatically lead to citizenship. Better than the House bill by a long shot, but it's not enough. Senator McCain has joined with Sen. Kennedy (in another example of why Hillary can't win against McCain in '08) to put forward a more liberal approach which would involve a one-time 'earned' amnesty ― by paying back taxes, learning English, and staying out of trouble ― along with more strictly enforced controls. And in the most recent step, the Senate judiciary committee, with help from four (of ten) Republicans, sent to the floor a moderate version that mimics the McCain/Kennedy effort. But even if it passes the Senate, it's still got to be reconciled with the House bill.

No approach is perfect ― indeed, there is no perfect solution. But some variation of carrots and sticks that regularizes those already here, makes it easier for new immigrants to work legally with the promise of citizenship down the road, and enforces tougher (but not Iron Curtain-style) border security would be a fair compromise. Forget, if you wish, our heritage as a nation of immigrants. The fact is that in today's world ― for mature, western nations, with unsustainable birthrates ― immigrants are a source of strength. Properly designed, a rational immigration bill can provide the US with a constant stream of eager, ambitious younger people able to integrate into our society. They represent our defense against the sclerosis and alienation that Europe faces. We're not going to compete in the middle of the 21st century with China and India if we end up with an aging population "secured" by prisons and walls.

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The God-Gene and Its Identical Twin (Feb. 24, 2006)

As those of you who read either scientific or religious journals know, there's a god-gene (the nexus of Darwin and intelligent design), an evolutionary tendency in most of us to believe in a supernatural being ― God, Allah, Yahweh, the gods, Brahma (forgive me if I've left out your favorite deity).

I was recently reading one of those far-out pinko-fascist journalists, on some weird website that a friend had thoughtfully sent my way, when I had one of those great "Eureka!" moments. The writer was espousing a conspiracy theory about Iraq that even to my conspiratorial mindset seemed a bit of a stretch. I can't do it justice in a few sentences (the writer couldn't do it justice in several pages), but it went something like this: the actual purpose of the US invading Iraq was to split the country into several parts, one of which would be the oil-rich Kurdish-controlled north. The Kurds would then open the pipeline connecting the Kirkuk oil fields to Israel, which goes through Syria which, of course, might present a problem or two. But, the theory goes, having seen what happened to Saddam, Syria's Assad would readily buy into this arrangement. Unfortunately, in the event, the insurgency started, the US got tied down militarily in Iraq, and Assad refused to play.

Now here's where the master conspiracy theorist shows his skill: the US then had Lebanon's pro-western prime minister Hariri assassinated. Why? The blame naturally would fall on Syria, whose government would then fall as a result, and the successor government would quickly buy into the Kurdish-Israeli pipeline.

Ingenious. And my "Eureka!" moment: I suddenly realized that the god-gene and the conspiracy theory gene are one and the same. Things don't just happen. They happen for a reason. Someone's pulling the strings; and if it's not one of the supernatural beings listed above, we're determined to figure out who did it. No wonder Oliver Stone had a field day with JFK's assassination. I can't remember what he concluded ― were those right-wing nuts being bankrolled by LBJ, or was it J. Edgar Hoover, or the Mafia, or the Muslim Brotherhood (no, on second thought, didn't they do in Princess Di)? Whatever, he was right on.

So, herewith, the story behind the story on some recent events (naturally, I won't reveal my sources, but trust me, this is all verifiable).

First of all, let's start with Harry Whittington: he was in on the Cheney shotgun fix from the beginning. Indeed, so was Mrs. Armstrong, George Bush, and the entire Republican establishment ― everyone but the, for once, clueless Cheney. I was tipped off to this by an article last week in the Wall St Journal by Republican stalwart Peggy Noonan. In the article, Noonan openly suggested it was time, for the good of the grand old party, for Cheney to step down. The timing of the article ― right after Whittington was shot ― was obviously not a coincidence.

Here's how it was supposed to work: the plan was that once Whittington had jumped up in front of Cheney's shotgun, the Veep's press office would have to release the news immediately, and in the aftermath, the dump-Cheney movement would be launched. What they didn't count on was that Cheney would attempt a cover-up and not release the news at all. The conspirators, befuddled now, lost their momentum. Mrs. Armstrong, a key player, did her best by calling up the only newspaper she knew, the Corpus Christi whatever. But it was too late ― the White House press became obsessed with how it had been mistreated, and the trigger-happy Cheney dodged his own bullet. And despite the Noonan column appearing on time, the jig was up. Cheney emerged stronger than ever, congratulated by his boss; and the hapless Mr. Whittington, birdshot lodged for life in his patriotic body, had to publicly apologize to cover his tracks.

That's a complicated one, but conspiracies are going on all the time ― when the gods aren't calling the shots ― and most are a lot easier to figure out. For example, were you surprised to see those 'new' Abu Ghraib pictures surface last week? Talk about last year's news: some obscure Australia media outfit, SBS, was suddenly inspired to do its civic duty? And why now? Well, as Cicero said some two millennia ago, "cui bono?" ― or in 21st century parlance, "follow the money." And where does it lead: to the Danes, obviously.

They figured if they could get the Muslim street to re-focus on American soldiers instead of Danish cartoonists, they would once again be able to peddle their cheese products at mosques worldwide. The funds paid to SBS, in unmarked euros, came right out of the Danish prime minister's slush fund and were hand-carried to Sydney in two large attaché cases by an Australian immigrant who had been born in (you guessed it) Denmark. But when it comes to cheese, the best laid plans of mice, etc ... Pakistan's Musharraf, you see, has his own gig, which is to keep his disgruntled countrymen protesting against the Danes and their fellow Europeans lest they focus on Musharraf and his close ties to arch-fiend George Bush. The last thing he wants is for his Pakistanis to let off any more anti-American steam, so the Danes are out a sack of euros, and the Pakistanis still aren't buying Danish curds and whey.

And there's an even more diabolical conspiracy going on right this minute: Who do you think really leaked the NSA spying scandal to the New York Times? The White House, of course. And why? Well, it's been nearly five years since 9/11, so most Americans are feeling too comfortable for their own good. It's a little complex, but bottom-line, the Republicans will end up with a nice boost for taking a hard line on terrorists and the Democrats will continue to shake their heads.

There are loads of other ones out there that are so obvious you probably haven't even thought about them. I'll give you the answers ― you can easily figure out the conspiracy. How did Hamas win the Palestinian elections? The Israelis did it. And Ahmadinejad's election in Iran? Why, the US of course. And Preval in Haiti? Actually, he won legitimately; nobody cares enough these days about Haiti to conspire there.

I think I've also gotten to the bottom of Maine's record-breaking winter warmth. Remember: things don't just happen; they happen for a reason. The question, as always, who benefits? And in this case, it's obviously the Canadian ski resorts. I've not quite connected all the dots on this one, but I'm pretty close ― and I'm beginning to realize this is just the tip of the melting iceberg of the whole global warming conspiracy.

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Hey, Did You Hear This One: Mohammad Walks Into This Bar... (Jan. 12, 2006)

What are we to make of these unsophisticated wild-eyes, rioting and burning and wreaking revenge over a few cartoons in some obscure Danish newspaper?

Don't they understand what freedom of speech is all about?

Are they so ignorant they don't know they are being manipulated by their own corrupt governments?

How can we possibly deal with such ungrateful wretches: first, we let them into Europe so they can keep the streets clean and the next thing you know, they're demanding respect.

Well, before we get too self-righteous about these backward Muslims who take their religion so seriously, let's at least try to figure out what's going on here, because if the immediate provocation may seem slight, the root causes are dead serious ― and indeed underlie the growing clash of civilizations. And while we in the United States of course are too smart to get carried away by a tasteless joke, root causes are something we don't spend enough time on.

On one level, we're talking about two opposing worldviews, a result not simply of religious dogma but of how history molds one's view of one's identity. Since the Enlightenment ― a loaded term in this context ― individuality has come to be prized in the west to the exclusion of almost any conflicting virtue. Capitalism thrives on entrepreneurship ― and me-firstism is something of a prerequisite for the successful entrepreneur. Family honor, as a collective enterprise, has gone the way of the carrier pigeon in the United States. A recent British film about an immigrant Pakistani family finely illustrates this true clash of values: the father, a young teen-aged victim of the 1948 Partition of India, when millions of Indian Muslims fled the new nation, ended up in England where he worked successfully as a small shopkeeper to send his son and two daughters to college. In the end, the son rejects the arranged marriage to a cousin living in Pakistan in order to marry a blond Irish Catholic. It rips the Pakistani family apart, literally: the only son has placed his personal fulfillment before family. The family has no choice but to disown him. Through western eyes, the son's choice was an obvious one; for traditional cultures, it was a betrayal of the father and worse, the family honor.

Of course, inside a traditional culture, the situation would be unlikely to arise. But as Muslim immigrants in western Europe increase, it's a clash of values that is no doubt commonplace these days.

That's the personal clash. At a more fundamental level, perhaps, there's the historic clash which clearly pervades the psyche of most Muslims, even those who have successfully integrated into the west. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire reached the walls of Vienna before being turned back on a road that led to its inexorable decline at the hands of the Europeans. Prior to that, for some seven centuries, the Arabs had occupied an ever-decreasing part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors, with their libraries in the fabled cities of Granada and Cordoba, can rightly lay claim to having rescued much of ancient Greek thought at a time when tolerance meant Jewish philosophers intermingled at the Muslim court with Christian scholars escaping their dark ages to study at the only universities in Europe.

That was nearly a millennium ago, and while Damascus and Baghdad had glory days ahead, the Arabs have been in political decline since the rise of the Ottomans, and the Ottomans since the 1700s. And the Muslim Moghuls, who built the Taj Mahal, have had little to celebrate since Shah Jahan's wife was entombed there nearly 350 years ago.

European colonialism, which directly impacted virtually all Muslim states from Indonesia (the Dutch) to the subcontinent (the British) to the Caucasus (the Russians) to the Middle East and North Africa (the British again with strong support from the French), only enhanced a developing sense of inferiority at the hands of the Christian west. In the 20th century ― recent history even to us ― the Arabs felt doubly betrayed after throwing in their lot with England's T. E. Lawrence during WWI and then seeing the lofty promises of self-determination replaced by British and French colonial governors, and a Western implant, Israel, bestowed upon them as a parting nod to their weakness and impotence.

So yes, there's a real history which underlies the bitterness and exaggerated response to what seems to us but a minor provocation.

And when we hold up freedom of speech as a cardinal virtue ― and democracy for the Iraqis as a gift from a concerned and benevolent nation ― the vast majority of Arabs, and most of the rest of the Muslim World, wallowing in their poverty, afflicted with authoritarian governments, the glories of their Prophet's conquests a distant but vibrant memory, don't see it that way: it's just the all-powerful West, once again, shoving their values down our throats.

As we in the US ponder the over-reaction of Muslims around the world, we pontificate about women's rights and other more abstract values ― freedom, democracy, equality ― all the while forgetting our own recent history: less than 150 years ago, slavery was the law of our land; less than 100 years ago, women couldn't vote; and less than 50 years ago, separate, and decidedly unequal, was how we dealt with our minorities. And we mouth on about the shocking signs the protesters carry: "Behead the Infidels." Have we forgotten how some southern Christians spent their weekends early in the 20th century ― lynching blacks and then sending souvenir postcards of the atrocity ― when they weren't in church singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

Condi Rice was absolutely right to note that Iran and Syria have manipulated their masses for political ends. So what's new? As the CIA official who was responsible for the Middle East during the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq just publicly pointed out, our government manipulated our intelligence agencies (and our citizens) to get us into this lovely war.

In the midst of our self-satisfaction with our progressive approach to history, in contrast to those ignorant extremists who are hung up on an unenlightened belief in the literalness of their revelation ― why I bet they still teach creationism in their schools ― we might reflect a little bit on our recent history before we dismiss these poor devils as beyond the pale. We were there once ― and may yet be again. And after all, a key part of our western heritage still includes "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

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Sharon's Legacy: The Dog-Wagger (Jan. 12, 2006)

The tributes from the White House surrounding the departure from the scene of Israel's Sharon could be something straight out of John Stewart's "The Daily Show." It's one thing for Bush to call him a '"man of peace," which we assumed at the time was typical diplomatic hyperbole designed to soften up the larger than life military hero-cum-rightwing politician-cum-architect of the settlement policy-cum-destroyer of Palestinians. After all, Clinton puffed up Arafat repeatedly with all those White House photo ops. But Bush forgot one of the cardinal rules of diplomatic foreplay: you're not supposed to believe all the over-the-top compliments you heap on the other guy to bring him along. (Maybe Cheney forgot to make that part of the lesson clear.)

Israel has, of course, long been the tail wagging the American dog. But the Sharon tail and the Bush dog should surely be a textbook case of how, in the hands of a master, a weaker country can manipulate its superpower mentor.

Not only did Bush praise Sharon as a 'man of peace', unfortunately, he actually came to believe it ― and judging from the press coverage since Sharon's most recent stroke, so did most Americans. Sharon, no doubt pinching himself at the realization that the president of the US could be so gullible, lost no time in taking advantage of this God-given opportunity. It was this man of peace who provoked the 2nd intifada in the last days of the Clinton administration by ostentatiously parading around the Dome of the Rock with a 1000-strong Israeli police and military unit. While the extent of the Palestinian reaction could not be precisely gauged, that there would be an explosion was clearly anticipated by Israeli intelligence. And the swift and violent reaction of the Israeli military showed they were ready.

Why the provocation then? Sharon had long been dead set against the Oslo peace process. The Camp David talks of a few months earlier had faltered, but Clinton continued to push hard behind the scenes for additional concessions on boundaries, Jerusalem, and a formula to finesse the refugee issue. Even Saudi Arabia, for the first time ever, had proposed at an Arab summit meeting recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for a return to the '67 borders. With Clinton's days numbered, the administration was redoubling its efforts to get the final land-for-peace deal. And Sharon redoubled his behind-the-scene ones to make sure it would come to naught. And, indeed, the final talks at Taba, in the Egyptian Sinai just weeks before Bush took office, came closer than ever to a final agreement. (Of course, as always, Arafat was his own worst enemy, holding out for a little bit more, thinking the Republicans, who never received more than 15 or 20% of the Jewish vote, would push the Israelis just that much harder. Wrong again.)

With agreement close on virtually all the sticky issues, but with the new intifada still raging and threatening to undermine the fragile progress, Bush takes office and immediately torpedoes Clinton's work as effectively as if Sharon had been calling the shots.

Bush next announced he would not permit American negotiators to meet with Arafat, closing the book on the eight years that Clinton and the four that Bush senior had devoted to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Then came 9/11, another God-given opportunity (Pat Robertson notwithstanding) for Sharon. From then on, he found a pliant, unsophisticated American president willing to do Israel's bidding: all he had to do was push the terrorism button and little Bush would fall in lock-step to whatever Sharon had in mind for deep-sixing the Palestinians.

The much ballyhooed 'road map' was the real mano a mano test between Bush junior and Sharon. Sharon embraced it, of course, verbally, but like Bush's recent caveat upon signing the anti-torture law, Sharon chose his own interpretation of the road map rules, not at all the ones outlined by the president of the US. In the end, the game was played, as you might have guessed, by Sharon's rules. And Arafat's replacement, the hapless Abu Mazen, was left at the starting gate.

The hyped-up Gaza pull-out has, of course, led nowhere ― it wasn't supposed to. Sharon knew it made less and less sense to tie down thousands of Israeli troops and millions of dollars (even if Uncle Sam was footing the bill) for the sake of less than 10,000 settlers. He also knew the situation in Gaza better than the White House did: Hamas was gaining strength, the Palestinian Authority was a shambles, security forces were undermanned and under-armed ― and the vacuum of an Israeli withdrawal would lead to further chaos. Bush and the mainline US press, the group that fell in line on Iraq, were full of optimistic pronouncements about the opportunity the Gaza pull-out presented. That's not what was on Sharon's mind: the last thing he wanted was to go back to the negotiating table.

Not negotiations ― which could lead to pressure from the US. Much better, chaos in Gaza: give Abu Mazen nothing; resume the targeted killings of Palestinian extremists; renege on the deal with Condoleeza Rice. And then, you see, Sharon tells Bush in one of recent history's greatest self-fulfilling prophecies, there's no partner for peace among the Palestinians. From now on, it's got to be a unilateral game: I'll finish my wall, take whatever land I want in the West Bank, and I'll even let the Palestinians have their own state ― though of course, it'll be a dysfunctional, non-viable one from the get-go.

Seen from Sharon's perspective, he's been a brilliant master tactician.  The Gaza give-back was easy; and the wall protects Sharon's end-game without posing any political risks. There's a problem here, however: at some point, there will have to be a negotiated agreement. Without one, Palestinians, and their fellow Muslim neighbors, will only get more radical. Iran is toying with nuclear power. Islamic terrorism is heightened by Sharon's policies, and the war against it, which for Bush is rightly front and center, is undermined.

One can hardly fault Sharon for pursuing what he sees as Israel's interests. Our interests and Israel's interests do not always coincide.  Indeed, frequently, they don't. Sharon knew the difference between the two. Unfortunately, George Bush does not.

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Benign Neglect or Gross Negligence? (Jan. 5, 2006)

Pres Bush is said to be concerning himself now with how history will view his administration. A little late. The constitutional peccadilloes that are currently front and center will be but a footnote in history when compared to the irreparable damage his administration will have done by ignoring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Five years of back-burning the Palestinian issue has left the situation there more hopeless, in terms of a peaceful outcome, than it has been at any time since the beginning of the Oslo peace process nearly 15 years ago.

Of course, if you want to be cynical, perhaps the Palestinians should be counting their blessings. Benign neglect as an alternative to US involvement may not be half bad: look at what Bush did to Iraq when he focused his attention there.

One way or the other, 2006 will be the crucial year in Iraq. In many ways, US involvement will be of decreasing importance. We're clearly not going to put in more troops, which had Bush done so early on, would certainly have avoided the mass looting, descent into chaos, and right-out-of-the-box loss of confidence in US competence. Nor apparently will he work out a negotiated timetable for withdrawal, which at least would focus the Iraqis ― the Shi'a, Kurds, and Sunnis ― on the abyss that lies ahead. No, we can just expect more of the optimistic, and unrealistic, pronouncements (a la Vietnam circa 1968), praising the emergence of democracy ― even as sectarian strife and political deterioration emerge much faster. The damage is done there: the best we can hope for is a gradual, peaceful split-up of the country in a way which would permit us to isolate the rest of the neighborhood from the worst of the spill-over effects.

But the Palestinian-Israeli problem is not going to resolve itself, nor in any foreseeable scenario can the fall-out from the conflict be isolated from the rest of the Arab World. Until there is a resolution to this problem, it will continue to poison relations between the Arab World and the US (and indeed the West in general) and worse, to foment the Islamic terrorism that threatens us as Iraq never did. Ironically, considering Bush's rhetorical dedication to a democratic Arab World, the bleeding sore that is occupied, enwalled Palestine makes democracy there not just impossible by definition, but it makes democracy a lot more dangerous enterprise in the neighboring Arab countries. Granted that democracy as a cure-all for the Middle East was an after-thought of the WMD-less Iraq, nonetheless Bush better hope he's no more successful with it in other Arab countries than he has been in Iraq.

Both Jordan and Egypt have long since made peace, and even exchanged ambassadors, with Israel, which, while it has certainly contributed to short-term stability in the region, did not happen as a result of any democratic preference on the part of the local inhabitants. The great irony in the Middle East is that it's only because Jordan and Egypt are decidedly undemocratic that there is a formal peace, albeit a cold one, between them and Israel. Bring real democracy to Egypt and Jordan ― and see what happens to their relations with Israel.

Similarly, one might observe, it is because Israel is a democracy ― at least if you're Jewish ― that without strong, unrelenting pressure from the US, it will never have the political will to make the concessions necessary for permanent peace with the Palestinians. At this point, the peace train has left the station: Arafat, for all his lengthy shortcomings, could have led the Palestinians to compromise. Who can do so now? With elections coming the end of this month, Fatah is splintering while Hamas grows daily stronger. And the US has backed itself neatly into a corner by promoting democratic elections on the one hand, while, on the other, refusing to deal with what is now emerging as the key Palestinian faction as a direct result of the very democracy we have been so actively promoting. If only Bush had had Tom Delay around in the West Bank to gerrymander Hamas into the Texan-style oblivion he dealt the Democrats.

So what lies ahead for Palestinians and Israelis? In the short run, the same prison for the Gazans, though one without Israeli settlers, and a growing one, as the wall continues to inch its way around Palestine, for the West Bankers. How anyone can fail to see the comparison between what white South Africa did with the blacks it ruled then and what the Israelis are doing with their conquered peoples now is one of life's lesser mysteries. For the short run, the wall in place, Israel will feel a false security and will be able to put off any meaningful negotiations even as it continues to expand its settlements, especially those whose primary purpose will be to seal off Palestinian East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

Sharon, and the Likud party he once symbolized, long advocated settlements
as a way of 'creating facts on the ground.' And facts they are. The problem is that the facts so created are ones which offer no long-term solution. Moderate Palestinians are a dying ― or, more factually, an emigrating ― breed. The Arab body politic is growing more radical, more anti-Western, and our little experiment in democracy in Iraq has only served to speed up the process. And Israeli democracy ― with its own powerful constituents, not unlike those in our country who hold the US in thrall to a right-wing Israeli vision ― will not permit the compromise necessary for peace. As the 20th century well illustrates, not all of history is a forward march. At the country's peril, our founding fathers postponed dealing with the issue of slavery. And it's again at our country's peril ― and, of course, Israel's and the Arabs' as well ― that Bush has chosen to mess up the Middle East rather than fix it.

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Protecting the People (Dec. 21, 2005)

It's been an eventful week for Pres Bush politically, managing as he did, in that hackneyed expression, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat ― only to turn around and shove it right back down defeat's gaping maw.

It began with Bush sharing a smiling moment in the Oval Office with Republican arch-nemesis John McCain. Give Bush credit: his forte has always been his political skills, not his policy ones, and here he was celebrating defeat at the hands of McCain's anti-torture amendment as if the two together had just pushed through a revamped Social Security program. All smiles and staunch denouncements of torture, echoing, of course, Condoleezza Rice's equally staunch denials in her less-than-victory lap around Europe a week earlier.

Say then, what had all that fuss been about? All those menacing trips to the Hill by arm-twister-in-chief Cheney? All those threats about the first-ever veto of his administration? Well, if politics is the art of the possible, and even better, of making defeat look like virtuous compromise ― score 1 for Team Bush.

And then, lo and behold, another score: punctuated by the successful vote in Iraq came the climax to the continuing series of Bush's Iraq Speech, his somber Sunday night Address to the Nation. The rhetoric was the same: the war in Iraq is all about the terrorists' "perpetual war against America and our friends" (never mind of course that there were no terrorists in Iraq when we invaded it); "the world is better" for our having removed Saddam from it; and the current flavor du jour: "a democratic Iraq will serve as a model for freedom in the Middle East" (though one wonders if he's checked this out with Iraq's Shi'ite religious parties).

The substance, too, not surprisingly, was unchanged: we will stay the course, we will "not retreat before victory." Nor was there any hint of the looming split up of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Shi'a and Sunni parts; nor of the continued growth of virulent anti-Americanism in the Middle East; nor of the further radicalization of Arab politics: the strengthening of Hamas in Palestine, the resurgence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the surprising electoral support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on top of the recent election of a radical Khomeini-style throwback as president in Iran.

But there was one significant difference: the president's tone. He acknowledged we found no WMD, that "much of the [pre-war] intelligence turned out to be wrong;" four times he used the word "difficult" in describing the war; he even admitted that "mistakes had been made" and that "we have learned from our experience." It was far from the bravado, chest-thumping jingoism that had characterized his previous "you're-either-for-us-or-against-us" approach. And preliminary indications are that this limited leveling with the country was working. From a low of 39%, his approval ratings have edged back to above 45%.

But one step forward and two steps back: just when things were finally looking up, at least superficially, along comes the New York Times with the latest and most bizarre ― indeed, almost inexplicable ― transgression of this administration. It turns out that since shortly after 9/11, Bush has been authorizing the wire-tapping of American citizens in clear violation of American law and in direct challenge to explicit constitutional protections.

This revelation so enraged the Republican-controlled Congress that the extension of the Patriot Act, a foregone conclusion, was jettisoned. Just when the administration had finally gotten the tone right on Iraq, they come out swinging in defense of the strangest, most indefensible behavior of an administration that, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to the central European gulags, has done some pretty self-defeating things, internationally as well as domestically.

The weirdest part of this illegal wire-tapping is that it was clearly so unnecessary. Under attack at his press conference Monday, Bush cited the Constitution as his authority ― for undermining the Constitution. Blathering on about "protecting the people," an Orwellian phrase when you consider that what he's actually doing is unlawfully eavesdropping on them, Bush asserted powers deriving, he claimed, from Congress's 2001 authorization "to use all necessary force" in response to 9/11. All necessary force ― which clearly referred to military action in Afghanistan ― Bush, it turns out, chose to mean he can do whatever he damn well pleases ― laws, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution be damned.

It's not just that there was no justification for such heavy-handed behavior, what's politically worse ― there was no need. As the press has detailed in recent days, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set up a secret court to expedite the use of wiretaps by the president when national security required it. In some 19,000 requests over the last decades, only five times has a president been turned down. Additionally, and this is what's particularly relevant, in extremis the law permits the president to authorize a wiretap in advance and then worry about getting court approval after they've already done the wiretap.

So there was no need, no imaginable situation, that would require the president to thumb his nose at "the people" in this way. Nothing to gain; everything to lose. What were they thinking? Why in the world would the Bush administration behave this way?

Remember one of Aesop's fables, the one about the scorpion who, when hitching a ride across a swollen river on the back of a frog, stings it, whereupon they both begin to drown. Why? the frog asks as he goes under. Just my nature, the scorpion replies, sinking even faster.

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Iraq: The Sideshow (Dec. 9, 2005)

Iraq: Stay or go?

As Bush's speech last week at Annapolis, and his grandiose, and totally irrelevant, propaganda piece, "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," make clear, the president and his White House have forgotten why we're in Iraq. The only legitimate justification for the invasion and occupation was to advance the war against Islamic extremists. Has it done that?

Many who are against the war in Iraq have begun to compare our military situation there now with what we faced in Vietnam nearly two generations ago. The real comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, though, is not the military one: it's the way in which Iraq now, as Vietnam then, has become an end in itself. Whatever strategic sense the Vietnam War originally made correlated almost exactly to the extent that the domino theory was valid. If it weren't, then the fact that a small country with limited natural resources at the edge of the Indo-China peninsula became communist was of little strategic import to the US. In the early '60s, when the US made clear that it would defend South Vietnam, there was sufficient threat of a communist takeover in various SE Asian countries that drawing the line in Vietnam was a rational decision. Indeed, in 1965, communists did attempt a coup in Indonesia, no doubt aware that the US commitment in Vietnam was weakening their position; its failure led to a bloodbath in Indonesia in which not just communists but many leftists and ethnic Chinese were massacred. It was the beginning of the end of the domino threat.

By the late 1960s, in addition to Indonesia, governments in the key countries of Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore were so strongly anti-communist that the domino theory ― assuming its early validity ― was simply no longer relevant, which meant of course that Vietnam was no longer important to us strategically. Nixon and Kissinger, however, even though the war was not theirs, continued it for four more years, the domino consideration now replaced with the claimed need to protect US credibility.

When in April of 1975, US credibility was whacked over the head, the only country that suffered any serious strategic setback was of course South Vietnam. The fact that it might well have held off the North Vietnamese if the US Congress had not reneged on its aid promises ― I know, revisionist history based on a "what if" is the worst kind ― was ultimately irrelevant to the outcome of the Cold War.

So what's all this got to do with Iraq?

A lot. Bush is a proud and stubborn man (must the latter inevitably follow the former?). Iraq was clearly a mistake. What sane man, knowing what we now know, would have invaded Iraq? As a tactic in part of the strategic war against Islamic extremists, it's been an unparalleled disaster. There are now thousands of terrorists operating freely in Iraq, where there were none before; and Iraq is a country that lies not merely in the heart of the Arab World but is one of its two largest oil producers.

Iran, which after North Korea has the most anti-American government of any country on the Eurasian landmass and the wherewithal to translate its anti-Americanism into more than mere name-calling, has, thanks to Bush's War, gained enormous influence over the oil-rich Shi'ite half of Iraq.

Indeed, if we had set out to promote Iran's strategic interests, it's hard to think of what more we could have done. Iraq itself is either teetering on the brink of civil war, or already in the incipient stages of one, between its Sunni and Shi'a populations. Terrorism in the meantime has spread into neighboring Jordan, the "blowback" it and its Arab neighbors feared. By any objective standards, Bush's foray into Iraq is surely the stupidest, least successful, and most expensive strategic mistake since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

But rather than acknowledge his error, and then step back to analyze how we can best extricate ourselves from this quagmire with the least damage to us from the very real threat posed by violent Islamic fundamentalism, the war in Iraq for Bush has instead become an end in itself. And why? Because this egotistical, international lightweight needs to prove he's right.

Thus, the bait-and-switch (reminiscent of Kissinger's credibility rationale replacing the outdated domino theory): it's no longer WMD and any Saddam-al Qa'eda tie-in, but rather the off-the-wall concept that democracy can be forced on Iraq with US guns and planes, and that somehow the example of Iraq will turn the rest of the Arab World into enlightened democracies. And then they'll all make peace with Israel, lions will lie down with lambs, and oil will go back to $30 a barrel. Only in your born-again dreams, Mr. President.

No, George, if this war hadn't become all about you, this is what you'd realize:

  • Our occupation of Iraq has become a rallying cry for Islamic fundamentalists; it has given a vicious anti-American focus to empty lives already turning to religion as westernization and globalization fails them.
  • Democracy's advocates are not gaining ground in the Arab World; on the contrary, they've been degraded by Abu Ghraib, by sectarian strife which we have unwittingly unleashed, by a president who threatens to veto a bill forbidding torture, and now by incompetent Pentagon officials hijacking the free press we offer as one of democracy's benefits.
  • More of the same will not lead to victory; it will simply sink us deeper into this morass, and as we stay focused on Iraq, the terrorists will continue to gain ground in the Arab World, flourishing in the cesspool of anti-Americanism our Iraqi occupation breeds.

Acknowledging that our occupation of Iraq has promoted the very terrorists it was ostensibly designed to destroy, and that that affects negatively both our NATO allies as well as our Arab friends, we should be working now, openly, with all of them to forge a jointly agreed-upon solution. The Arab League resolutions of late November were a good starting point. We didn't go into this Iraq venture all together ― most of them weren't that stupid ― but from Berlin to Cairo to Ankara, and back to Washington, all of us have a vested interest in the outcome. There is a specific need as well, and especially after the elections at the end of next week, for us to coordinate closely, and as equals, with the new Iraqi government. What we're talking about is a 'negotiated' (with our friends) withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

This will necessarily involve a public acknowledgment that the Iraqi government has full sovereignty and can ask us to withdraw whenever they want; and that they have the full authority to negotiate any future base arrangements with us. It should also involve a timetable for winding down active American military involvement over the next year, regardless of the progress in the training of Iraqi troops. Whether Iraq splits apart or stays together ultimately is their choice, and it depends on their will and their willingness to compromise. Our presence is actually a deterrent to this process just as it is a boon to the insurgents. Sen. Joe Lieberman wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal last week suggesting that we should stay as long as necessary in what he called "a war between 27 million Iraqis and 10,000 terrorists." If that's what it is, surely those 27 million can decide without us how they want to deal with the 10,000. If we're needed to tip the balance on those scales, we're in the wrong place.

And, finally, before the Israelis complete their wall and cut off East Jerusalem from the Arab West Bank forever, we should devote a little bit of our manic meddling energy to finding that elusive two-state solution there before one becomes impossible ― and Arab antipathy to the west reaches an irreversible depth. Keep the focus on winning an unwinnable victory in Iraq to the detriment of the real issues ― and we're going to lose the Middle East.

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Who Lied and Who's Lying? (Dec. 2, 2005)

Winter has yet to arrive, but surely this has already been a protracted season of discontent for Pres Bush. Fresh from the failure of his social security initiative, he was bombarded first with the disastrous response of FEMA to Katrina, then the fiasco of poor, unprepared Harriet Miers, the indictment of Tom DeLay and then of Scooter Libby, the guilty plea of a partner of the Republicans' biggest lobbying team, the farce of the Argentine summit where his nemesis Hugo Chavez carried the day, then the failed Asian trip where one day the South Koreans announced to an unsuspecting president major troop withdrawals from Iraq and the next the Chinese blandly ignored his push for democracy and human rights. Their guest, it was clear to his hosts, had lost the Mandate of Heaven. And the climax, the apostasy of John Murtha, Congress's highest-ranking ex-marine: "when sorrows come," as Hamlet's uncle observed when he was going through an even rougher period, "they come not single spies, but in battalions." This accumulating collapse of everything the clueless president touches comes, of course, amidst the backdrop of his endless war in Iraq.

It's no wonder then that, in a presidential Hail Mary play, Bush called out attack dog Cheney, not once but twice, hoping a little vituperation would salve his fatally wounded presidency. "Dishonest and reprehensible," Cheney called those who dared to question how the administration hyped Saddam as a "mortal threat." And then, toning down the decibels the second time around, the critics were merely "shameless and disgusting." Such insults, coming from someone with an even lower approval rating than his boss, merely underline their sense of desperation. If only Nixon were still alive, whoever is advising the hapless Bush would no doubt trot him out to support the war and shore up the faithful few (that there are even a few still faithful must amaze any disinterested observer).

Cheney and Bush have divided the controversy over Iraq into two separate issues. The first, the "reprehensible and disgusting" one: did the administration cherry-pick the intelligence to get the American public on board their war-train? And the second: however we got there, what exit strategy is least likely to damage our national security interests? Interestingly, Bush now says it's perfectly legitimate to openly debate an exit strategy, though not so long ago, such a discussion was denounced by the administration as giving aid and comfort to terrorists.

Today, let's look at the intelligence issue: did Bush and his advisors make the case for war unjustly? We know from several uncontested sources ― ex-cabinet member Paul O'Neill and Colin Powell's ex-chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, among others ― that from the moment Bush was elected, a contingent of neo-cons, led in the White House by VP Cheney and at the Pentagon by Paul Wolfowitz, were vigorously promoting the forceful removal of Saddam. Their predisposition to go to war to overthrow Saddam was a dramatic about-face from the policy of Bush Sr, Brent Scowcroft, and then-Gen Powell in the aftermath of the 1st Gulf War.

But things had changed in 10 years, the Bush team claimed: Saddam now possessed WMD, or at any rate, was on the verge of obtaining them. Though, one wondered at the time ― after nearly a decade of sanctions that had clearly wrecked the Iraqi economy, during most of which time UN inspectors had been there on the ground ― how such weapons, even if they still existed, had overnight become an immediate threat.

And, in any case, while the flames of war were being so fiercely fanned, UN arms inspectors were once again permitted into Iraq. In retrospect, the return of the inspectors was no doubt a blow to Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the cabal, as it removed a looming casus belli. Now, they had to scramble to get us into war before the inspectors could conclusively prove that there was no need to. Time for a little exploitive use of intelligence: the uranium yellow-cake being sought in Niger, the Prague meeting between Iraqi officials and al-Qaeda, the aluminum tubes that Condi Rice asserted could only be used with nuclear weapons, the sources (provided conveniently by the nine-lived Ahmad Chalabi) that claimed first-hand knowledge of germ warfare production. All untrue. And the hysterical rhetoric, designed to strike a chord with an American public still in shock from 9/11: the "collaboration" between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the smoking gun that could be "a mushroom cloud."

And meanwhile, hedging their bets, they were undermining the UN team by claiming that however long they stayed, they would never find any WMD because the perfidious Saddam had them so well hidden. A fine Catch-22: if WMD can't be found, that's no proof they're not there.

One by one, all the key points of the intelligence that led us into war have been shown to be either outright false, or at the very best, unverifiable at the time. And now ― "shameless" is indeed a word that comes to mind ― the repeated claim that Congress had access to the same intelligence the White House did, another knowing misrepresentation. Cheney and his coterie were clearly aware in the lead-up to the war that they were stacking the deck with a public that had no other information but what the administration chose to give us, which as it turned out was unsubstantiated, unreliable, and, in many cases, already discredited intelligence. No wonder, then, they went ballistic when Joe Wilson publicly repudiated part of their trumped-up "evidence." Whether the president knew what they knew ― or was merely fed what they wanted him to hear ― is an interesting question and one that historians may want to delve into. But however you slice it, when Senator Biden says that Cheney "lied" and Bush "misled," that part of this story is convincingly true.

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Lame Duck? How About Dead Duck (Nov. 10, 2005)

"Fuera Bush" the friendlier posters said during his visit to the Latin American trade summit in Argentina last week; and indeed he got out as quickly as he could, leaving his underlings to pick up the broken pieces of the most disastrous foreign trip of any recent president. As the pundits are no longer loathe to point out, there has never been a US president so universally disliked abroad. The television shots, of Bush walking alone between meetings while arch-nemesis Hugo Chavez rallied a crowd of 25,000 to denounce him, said it all.

Six months ago, I was worrying in this column that Bush was becoming, even by recent second-term standards, a premature lame duck. The guy's a lame excuse for a president certainly ― and nothing illustrates this more than his forays beyond our shores ― but, duckwise, W's beyond lame: he's dead.

"Bread and circuses" propped up the Roman Empire during the decadence of its declining years. But, there's no bread left in this emperor's treasury, it having been squandered in Iraq and in tax cuts targeting the rich that have widened the gap between the haves and have-nots to where it hasn't been since the Age of the Robber Barons. And the circuses ― the pomp and circumstance of foreign visitors and foreign visits ― have been reduced to having Prince Charles and Camilla getting both lunch and dinner at the White House: who else these days wants to visit?

When it comes to 'safe' foreign travel, if his handlers (a distracted bunch in any case) are looking for a place where a few locals might actually line the airport road waving American flags, they need a big atlas indeed. A visit to England, so long as he limits it to Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street(and helicopter transfers) might go off without too much unpleasant background noise.

And there's always Israel: he and Sharon can trade tales on how best to adjust the thumbscrews to get those recalcitrant Arabs to spill their guts. And now that Bush's own Republicans (at least according to Trent Lott) have exposed our gulags in eastern Europe, where CIA paid help gets to torture the non-existent non-combatants, maybe we can rent some jail space in the Holy Land. And while he's at it, Bush can get some tips from Sharon, that great "man of peace," on how to occupy Arab land and democratize its recalcitrant citizens.

Meanwhile, on the home front ― well it does explain why a trip to Argentina may well be more fun than staying in Washington ― he's argued his administration into a knot that makes Pat Robertson's call for rubbing out Hugo Chavez seem benign: the Senate has voted 91-9 to bar torture. But Bush has sent Cheney to the Hill (more likely, Cheney volunteered to go) to argue against this motherhood-and-apple pie legislation. And Bush is threatening to use the first veto of his 5-year presidency to protect the right of red-blooded Americans to torture our enemies. If this sounds like a warped leftist take-off, welcome to the reality of W's presidency.

The Democrats have finally emerged from their stupor to challenge the guy ― though it took a poll showing Bush with a rock-bottom 35% approval rating and another that has nearly three out of five Americans saying they don't trust him. Did they find their cojones when Bush was losing his in Argentina? A year later, they're finally demanding that the Senate Intelligence Committee proceed with the long-delayed investigation into intelligence failings surrounding our pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.

And now there are press reports of a growing rift between Cheney and Bush: well, it's about time. Cheney and his office coordinated the Iraq intelligence that hyped the facts, and the non-facts, that led us into Iraq. The impact that all of this is having on Republicans nationwide is obvious: Republican Virginia, which gave Bush a double-digit victory last November, just voted in a new Democratic governor.

And further, there's the sword of Damocles hanging over the White House: will Libby go to trial; will he implicate Cheney? If Cheney knew what Libby was up to ― and it boggles the mind to believe that Libby was doing this without telling his boss ― either Cheney lied to the president once the scandal became public or Bush, judiciously, never confronted him about it. Which option reflects better on our president?

As we watch Iraq continue to disintegrate, taking with it not only the lives of thousands of young Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and, as well, hundreds of billions of dollars that we have to borrow from the Chinese; as we realize that respect for the US worldwide has plummeted to unheard-of lows; as we see the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians recede into a blank horizon; as we see a foreign policy that has attracted ever greater number of terrorists to al Qaeda even as it alienates our traditional friends in moderate Muslim states; and as we begin to understand that our president led us into this trap with half-truths, downright lies, and purposeful omissions, how long can it be before impeachment becomes a serious consideration?

Clinton ― who left the presidency after 8 years with a full treasury and an expanding budget surplus, an active Palestinian peace process, and a multi-lateral world that respected the US and in which the US was actively and warmly engaged ― was impeached for consensual oral sex. What then is an appropriate penalty for wrecking our economy, destroying our reputation, and getting us bogged down in occupying an Arab country the primary beneficiaries of which have been worldwide Islamist terrorists?

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Iraqi Constitution: Thumbs Down Would Have Been Better (October 20, 2005)

 Whereas ― a good word to begin a discussion of constitutions ― conventional wisdom has it that the approval this past weekend of the Iraqi constitution is another key milestone on the path towards a stable democracy in Iraq, in fact, long-term stability would have been better served if the Sunnis had managed to vote it down.

The problem all along has been the assumption, from the first days of the occupation, that the essence of democracy is voting. Voting, to be sure, is the key tool in delivering democracy; democracy, however, involves much more than this climactic act. But when you start on the wrong path, as we did, and the president sees "staying the course" as a way of justifying fatal past mistakes, you only go further and further down a dead end.

Our own history, which involved endless debate and a succession of constitutional assemblies ― and was building in any case on hundreds of years of parliamentary evolution ― is a case in point. Democracy is usually the outgrowth of long struggles between conflicting political systems; it's not denigrating Iraqis to say that shot-gun democracy usually doesn't take. Iraq's truncated transition from dictatorship to a militarily-enforced democracy has not allowed for such a resolution of the conflicting issues. Unfortunately, these unresolved issues are fundamental ones: the role of Islam; the rights of minorities; the authority of the central government vs. regional autonomy.

Had the Sunnis been able to vote it down, another constitutional assembly would have been elected ― with clearly greater Sunni participation than in the January vote ― and the issues that caused a majority of the Sunnis to vote 'no' last weekend would then have had more time to be resolved. Of course, realistically, there seems little appetite for compromise, but, at least, a protracted period of discussion, untethered by US-imposed deadlines, would have given compromise a chance.

As it stands now, the new constitution ― not surprisingly, already tarnished with claims of fraud ― will only serve to deepen the divide between the Shiites and the Kurds, on the one had, and their Sunni cousins on the other. The vast majority of the Sunnis voted no; indeed, in Fallujah, an astonishing 97% reportedly voted against it.

In December, there will be another election, for a new parliament, and while Sunni participation will certainly be greater than it was for the one they boycotted in January, the Sunnis make up only 20% of the population and even with a proportionate number of Sunnis elected this go-round, they will remain a small minority, with the Shiites and the Kurds calling the shots.

It's wishful thinking to believe that participation in elections can resolve issues that have been swept under the rug: our own civil war, fought essentially because neither our founding fathers, nor subsequent generations, could find a compromise on slavery, is a clear case in point.

So the real issue now, in terms of the insurgency, is: what do the Shiites and the Kurds want ― what is their bottom line? ― and how willing are they to compromise with the minority Sunni? And a key corollary: how much influence does the US have with these two groups?

Let's look at the Kurds first. Even though they too, like the Sunni, are only 20% of the population, they are geographically isolated in the homogeneous and oil-abundant north, and for more than a decade, have essentially had independence, masked as autonomy. And too, they were double-crossed more than once by the US during the Cold War (and by the British before that) and will accept no compromise that infringes on their existing autonomy or any future right to full independence. The Shiites would prefer a unified Iraq, since with 60% of the population, they would control it; accordingly, they should be more amenable to the necessary compromises to retain it.

Since the US invasion, the religious fundamentalists among them, including many Iranian-influenced clerics, have clearly gained the upper hand, which limits US influence as it reduces the strength of the secular Shia. And further, the US occupation has driven the Shiite hierarchy into two unfortunate directions: towards a Kurdish-style autonomy and an ever-closer relationship with Iran, both anathema to the Sunni population, not to mention antithetical to US goals in Iraq and the broader Middle East. At the same time, the occupation has managed to exacerbate the more secular Sunnis' distaste for the whole US-sponsored process, and of course, attracts, ironically, Sunni religious extremists from abroad.

Saddam Hussein's trial, which opened with such fanfare yesterday, will simply highlight the Sunni/Shia split, the on-going chaos and violence, and the degradation of foreign occupation. It will not, as the US administration once hoped, illustrate how much better off Iraq is without him.

So, the prognosis: the insurgency will grow; democracy will increasingly be seen, elections notwithstanding, as a paper exercise irrelevant to the facts on the ground; and a tri-partite split-up moves one step closer.

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September is the cruelest month (October 6, 2005)

If April is the cruelest month in T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland," this September was surely the cruelest for G. W. Bush in the wasteland that has become his 2nd term. Kicked off by his bumbling performance over Katrina, September saw the White House buffeted by more than just hurricanes: David Safavian, a White House official in OMB, was arrested as part of the investigation into key Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And then the dam really broke: Tom DeLay is indicted for corruption; Bill Frist reveals that his 'blind trust' had a peephole when it came to millions of dollars of stock in his family health-care corporation; Cheney's chief of staff 'Scooter' Libby is confirmed as the second leaker in the Joe Wilson/Niger/Iraq/CIA scandal, Bush's alter ego Karl Rove being the other co-conspirator; gas prices top $3 on their way to who knows where; and then the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan arm of Congress, issues a damning report that the Bush Administration has been using federal funds for a 'covert propaganda' operation aimed at the American public. Corruption is nothing new along the Potomac, whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge. But surely, buying the press with taxpayers' dollars is a new low.

Meanwhile, speaking of propaganda, poor Karen Hughes has just taken on the most thankless job Washington has to offer: trying to make Muslims like us. Newly appointed to one of the top positions in the State Department, Hughes toured the Middle East last week seeking to make common cause with what she assumed were beleaguered Muslim women. Beleaguered they may be, but not enough to buy into Bush's brand of democracy. Hughes was visibly taken aback when Saudi women told her it was their culture and their religion, and they needed no advice from a regime that had destroyed Iraq and was helping Israel kill Palestinians.

While the Turkish women she met with gave the Palestinian cause a pass, they were even more vocal about Iraq and what they considered Hughes' transparent and condescending attempt to play the female card ― ironically in a country that's had a female prime minister. As the head of Ankara's Women's Platform, a feminist organization, told Under Secretary Hughes at a meeting, "I'm feeling myself insulted here." Another, a Kurdish rights advocate (surely, Ms. Hughes could expect some support from this sector) noted, she was "ashamed" of the war and the US responsibility for it. So much for shoring up our image in the Muslim World.

But to be fair to Karen Hughes, it's mission impossible. Converting Pat Robertson to Islam would probably be easier. The Bush Administration apparently believes we can change our image in the Middle East, and hence, regain the popular support and moral high ground the U.S. once had, even as
we continue with the policies that have so damaged that image. By all accounts, Hughes is an extremely capable individual ― and one who has the ear of the president at least as much as anyone else in his inner circle. So, just maybe, her trip will prove beneficial if she can convey back to Bush the incredibly negative affect his double whammy ― the war in Iraq and his lopsided embrace of Sharon's Israel ― has had in the Muslim World.

"Why do they hate us so?" we often asked ourselves after 9/11. It's a safe bet Bush still doesn't know; maybe, though, he'll be a little bit wiser after Hughes briefs him.

And if so, what then?

Well, for starters, isn't it time we faced the fact that Iraq is a dead-end. More of the same policy only means more of the same result. And the result: is there any American ― be he Republican, Democrat, born-again, Darwinian, or intelligent-designist ― who really believes Iraq can still work? Just last week, somehow the only three functioning Iraqi battalions became one (and Donald Rumsfeld, trying to explain this conundrum, was sounding more and more like Saturday Night Live doing an imitation of Donald Rumsfeld). And the Iraqi constitution, which was to be the climactic great American escape route, is now a true Catch-22: if the Sunnis manage to vote it down, it's back to Square One politically; and if the Shi'a and Kurds force it down Sunni throats ― and it's clear, despite the flip-flopping on how to count the votes, that's their intention ― the insurgency will only intensify.

There are no easy solutions ― indeed, there are no good solutions at all for the U.S. It's too late for our hubristic president to internationalize it; and it's impossible to bring in enough additional U.S. troops. If we stay, we only exacerbate the anti-Americanism that Hughes was exposed to. If we leave, we leave behind a country that will most likely split into three separate states: an Iran-influenced, even dominated, one in the south; a revolutionized dysfunctional Sunni rump in the middle; and an oil-rich Kurdish mini-state on Turkey's southern flank, which Turkey, its EU membership a speck on a distant horizon, will be unlikely to tolerate.

If this Bush administration is to be remembered for anything, it will be for its lack of planning, be it during a self-inflicted war or a God-inflicted storm. Let's hope it's learned that lesson at least. Let's hope that when Rummy is not publicly tying himself in knots explaining how well the fighting is going in Iraq, in private, he and the Pentagon and the State Department and the NSC are hard at work doing some serious planning about how we mitigate the damage when we leave the disaster that this administration has single-handedly created in a country that once, history will remember, was called Iraq.

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Katrina meets Marie Antoinette (September 7, 2005)

What do you think the people of Baghdad thought last week, sitting around their cafes watching ― at least for those few hours a day when the electricity comes on ― the debacle unfold in New Orleans: was there occasionally one of those cliche light-bulb moments when a viewer suddenly realized why the US occupation was such a disaster, "Why they can't even handle serious problems in their own country."

Or, some newly-rich peasants outside of Shanghai, having heard the American government preach incessantly about Chinese human rights' violations. As they saw a quarter of the population one of America's most fabled cities was so poor it couldn't flee to high ground, and that no provision by the government had been made for them to do so: what did they think?

Or, in Cairo, preparing for yesterday's re-election of Mubarak ― and bombarded by the Bush administration about the advantages of democracy: one person, one vote, where the rich get to drive their SUVs and BMWs to their weekend houses while the lucky poor get to sit it out, foodless and waterless, in the Superdome, as the bodies of the unlucky poor float by. What did the Egyptians think?

Or, an African, almost any sub-Saharan African, watching his black cousins as they participated in the American dream 140 years after the Civil War and 50 years after legal integration came to New Orleans. What did he think: was this "the shining city upon a hill," the new Jerusalem?

And, finally, what does an al-Qaeda operative ― hidden away in some dusty west Pakistan village, or, now, hanging out in the new American-designed Iraq ― what does he think? That God is punishing the infidel, that America really is the paper tiger Osama had said it was? Who knows, but it's a safe bet it will boost his morale, it will make recruitment easier, it will hurt our friends, and it will help our enemies.

"Physician, heal thyself."

What's the proper reaction to such a body blow to our psyche? Most of my generation, tempered by Kennedy's assassination, then Martin Luther King's, and later still the endless years of Vietnam, have long since ceased believing in the exceptionalism of the US. That we are a rich successful country, the only superpower, a nation of strivers, of rampant individualism ― this is all true. But post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Iran Contra, post-Enron, post-Iraq (and Guantanimo and Abu Ghraib), there's no longer that moral element that once set us apart, on the one hand justifying our material success, while, on the other, requiring that we strive ever higher to merit it.

Perhaps, when you consider our history, our fortunes built on the opium trade (or worse, on slavery), our land taken from the indigenous population ― no worse a history to be sure than most, but no better either ― it's not surprising that reality has, once again, exposed the myth. And not, of course, for the last time.

The collapse of the levees, the flooding of New Orleans, and the unknowable death toll ― much of this was the result of policies, and lack of policies, over many decades. New Orleans and Louisiana have been synonymous with corruption since the days of Huey Long. You can't blame this just on the current administration. But inadequate planning was the hallmark of Iraq, and inadequate planning is certainly a key element in the extent of this tragedy. Post 9/11, the Office of Homeland Security had famously pinpointed the three biggest threats potentially facing our country: another terrorist attack on New York, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a major hurricane hitting New Orleans. It turns out, however, that identifying the threat ― be it Saddam or hurricanes ― is only the first part of the problem.

Sen. Collins, stepping up to the plate as the increasingly prominent moderate Republican she is, demanded answers on Tuesday. But Bush is a weak leader, a clever but incompetent man whose approach to uncovering what went wrong was his announcement that he will personally lead an investigation into it. No independent commission under his watch: no, judge, jury, and prosecutor. Well, why not ― that's certainly the best way to make sure the buck stops before the Oval Office. From "Mission Accomplished" to "Bring 'em on" to last week's awkward photo ops, as he tried to good-ole-boy his way through the tragedy, he's revealed his true inadequacy as a leader.

He insists National Guard deployment to Iraq had no impact on their lack of deployment to New Orleans. He lets the Republican whip in Congress defend the abolition of the estate tax even as the bill for Katrina, much of which the federal government will end up footing, could top $150 billion. He jokes about his fun-filled days in New Orleans as thousands of refugees struggle to survive in the Superdome. And he comforts the needy Trent Lott, who lost his beach house, with the thought that the president is looking forward to the day when he can have coffee back on Lott's rebuilt deck. Yes, indeed, certainly an inspiring moment for all of us to look forward to.

And maybe Trent will invite some of the thousands of blacks who will still be homeless over for cake.

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Gaza: The End-Game ― Blaming the Victim
(August 25, 2005)

Sharon is "enormously courageous," according to Secretary of State Rice discussing the Israeli pull-out from Gaza (New York Times, Aug. 18).

While it makes both political and diplomatic sense for the Bush Administration to praise Sharon for removing the settlers and his occupying army from Gaza, the facts are much different. Israel's departure from Gaza is not courageous ― it is rather a cold-blooded calculation by Sharon that strategically Israel is much stronger on all fronts without Gaza: militarily, economically, demographically, and diplomatically.

Here are some of the facts Sharon considered:

9000 Jewish settlers were tying down a much larger number of Israeli troops; even with the now well-known greenhouses that the settlers used to export flowers and vegetables to Europe, the cost of the military occupation far outweighed any economic benefits.

By continuing to occupy Gaza, with its nearly 1.4 million Palestinians, the demographics of Israel and of the Arab lands under Israeli control was pointing starkly towards an eventual Arab majority. In recent years, some insightful Palestinians have been moving away from a two-state solution in favor of a variation of the traditional Israeli claim that there was only room for one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; these Palestinians are suggesting a single Jewish/Arab state. Of course, there's great irony in this role reversal ― but what the Palestinians realize is that Jewish emigration into Israel has topped out and that the Palestinian birthrate will, within one generation, lead to an Arab majority in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. A proposal for a single state neatly highlights the hypocrisy of Israel's claim to be a democracy while it maintains a 40-year-old occupation over millions of Arabs who have no rights at all.

Diplomatically, the occupation of Gaza was a disaster. The Israelis had appropriated 30% of the land for the 9000 Jews while allocating the other 70% to the Arabs. Or each Israeli settler ― occupying the land illegally, in any case, under the Geneva Accords as well as under various UN resolutions ― was given some 70 times as much land as each Arab, and with the settlements scattered throughout Gaza, Arab movement to the West Bank, from one village to another, or even to medical facilities, was severely restricted. Unemployment stands at 60%; a majority live under the poverty line (which is set at the almost ridiculously low rate of $2 a day), while their Israeli overlords had a standard of living some 100 times greater. South African apartheid was a benign affair in comparison to the open-air prison the Israelis had made of Gaza.

In statements leading up to their departure, Sharon and some of his close advisors frequently tipped their hand: while claiming that this is part of the peace process, or 'road map' ― thus requiring the Palestinians to take a satisfactory next step ― Sharon made clear to Israeli audiences that what he really has in mind is that Gaza, and the four small outlying West Bank settlements, will be the last substantial Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian land.

Even as plans for the Gaza evacuation were being developed, Israel was unveiling other plans for expanding Jewish settlements, especially ones that would surround Arab East Jerusalem and sever its access to the rest of the West Bank. The Wall, encroaching on additional Arab land ― and often arbitrarily cutting off Palestinian farmers from their fields or nearby market centers for their produce ― continues unabated. The Israelis have never made a secret of their strategic plan of 'creating facts on the ground.' The end result ― and the end purpose ― will be the virtual impossibility of there ever being a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

In a fascinating article in the September Atlantic Monthly by David Samuels entitled "How Arafat Destroyed Palestine," which involved lengthy interviews with Ehud Barak, the author concludes that it is quite likely Camp David was an Israeli set-up in which they "stage(d) a controlled scenario in which they would appear as peacemakers while Arafat would be bound by his own rhetoric to refuse their generous offer of a state."

Gaza not only gets Israel out of an un-holy (indeed, in the Biblical sense ― as Gaza was always controlled by the ancient Philistines and not the Israelites) mess, it also lays the groundwork for another derailment of the peace train, and one for which the Palestinians will again be blamed.

A recent New York Times op ed piece by Israeli author Zev Chefets, subtitled "A guide to Sharon's post-Gaza plans," notes that "if Gaza under Mr. Abbas becomes a neighborly, prosperous Mediterranean Singapore, fine; in that case, following the American plan to an independent Palestinian state will make sense..."

Oh, so that's all it takes, Mr. Chefets: you don't think you've set the bar a tad high? Gaza ― as poor as most of sub-Saharan Africa and infinitely more crowded, with no natural resources and no infrastructure, and with Hamas the most popular, rooted political organization ― will become a Mediterranean Singapore slightly before the Rapture and just after the conversion of the Jews. Even a Mediterranean Calcutta would be a stretch.

And Sharon knows it.

No, the real plan is that Gaza will remain an economic and political basket-case, a source of terrorism from frustrated Palestinians, and a welcome diplomatic tool for Israel to refuse any further serious discussions with Abu Mazen (or the US) aimed at an independent Palestinian state.

Is withdrawing from Gaza then a "courageous" Israeli concession to promote the peace process? It reminds me of the old joke about voting rights being granted in the segregated South. An elderly black gentleman, to pass the literacy test, reads successfully first from a newspaper, next from the King James version of the Bible; then he is given something in Chinese and asked if he can read that too. "Yes, indeed," he replied pointing to the Chinese characters, "it says here no blacks are going to vote in Mississippi this year."

And there'll be no Palestinian state ― and no peace ― so long as Bush and his Christian right-wing backers consider support of Sharon and his secular Likud a holy alliance.

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Saudi Arabia: Different Old King, Same Old Problems (August 4, 2005)

The death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia will certainly result in the most stable and unremarkable of transitions imaginable, for the new king, Abdullah, has been, as crown prince, the de facto ruler since Fahd suffered a serious stroke in the mid-'90s. But if the crowning of Abdullah is a mere formality, it once again brings to the fore the contradictions and underlying weaknesses of the kingdom, on whose survival much of our economic well-being depends.

The only real news that could have come out of Fahd's physical demise was the announcement of who would be appointed as the new crown prince ― and, in the event, that turned out to be no real news either. Fahd's oldest full brother, Prince Sultan, the odds-on favorite, who has been the minister of defense for nearly 40 years, got the nod. And therein lies one rub.

Modern Saudi Arabia is a very young country, ruled by very old men. Its founding can be dated to 1901 when Abdul-Aziz, the father of the current king (and indeed of all the kings since his death over 50 years ago), recaptured Riyadh, his tribal homeland, from a rival emir. Expanding from there over the next few decades, he conquered and united the various Arabian tribal groups to form the modern kingdom.

He was succeeded by his eldest son, and since then, each king in turn has been the next eldest brother; and since Abdul-Aziz had some 40 to 50 sons, one aging king will be succeeded by another ad infinitum. And, indeed, when the third generation's turn finally comes, the eldest among them could well be in his 70s or 80s. So Saudi Arabia has doomed itself to be run by a gerontocracy indefinitely.

Because of the multiple wives the old king, and his successors, have had, it's estimated that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 royal princes; if nepotism is a problem in Mubarak's Egypt or Assad's Syria (or Sharon's Israel for the that matter), at least it's limited to a few sons or brothers. In Saudi Arabia, the amount of the kingdom's GNP that goes to support this very extended family is enormous. That was fine when the revenues were growing faster than even the royal family's ability to spend them, but when oil prices fell in recent decades as the population was exploding, per capita income was cut by an almost unimaginable two-thirds.

The past few years have brought something of a respite, as rising oil prices have once again provided a safety valve to offset the otherwise economic stagnation. Similarly, in the last few years, Saudi intelligence and police services have shown themselves to be surprisingly competent ― once homegrown fanatics attacked within the kingdom ― so the political and economic instability of just two years ago is temporarily, at least, in abeyance.

But Saudi Arabia has more problems that just an unending line of aging kings. A recent book by energy investment banker Matt Simmons, Twilight in the Desert, predicts that Saudi oil production has peaked and that in the years ahead, not only will oil income fall but, additionally, the Saudis will no longer have the key international political heft that comes with being the producer of last resort.

When, over 25 years ago, the Shah was overthrown by the ayatollahs and shortly thereafter, Islamist extremists took over Mecca's holiest shrine, the Saud ruling family in order to protect its fundamentalist base reinforced the power of the religious right ― the proverbial pact with the devil ― thus cutting off nascent political and social reform. While King Abdullah is referred to optimistically as a 'reformer,' for the last quarter of a century, which included nearly a decade of his regency, reform has been frozen.

The birth rate meanwhile remains alarmingly high to the extent that the population has doubled in the last 20 years; oil revenues, and therefore economic growth, are about to go into an irreversible decline; the conflict between modernization and the strict Wahhabi brand of Islam remains unresolved; and in the wings, Osama bin Ladin and his ilk would like nothing better than to overthrow the Sauds and replace their version of puritan Islam with an even stricter one.

So Saudi Arabia would appear to be at an uninviting crossroads. But in the early '70s, conventional wisdom in US intelligence circles was that the Shah could shortly be providing refuge to a Saud royal family in forced exile. And a history of the old king, written more than 40 years ago, concluded starkly that Abdul-Aziz, "for all his rough wisdom, did not bequeath much of it to his sons, and nobody now would dare to predict the future of the kingdom he created."

Still Saudi Arabia, despite the direst predictions, always seems to muddle through. One can't help worrying, however, that muddling may not be good enough for the 21st century.

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The White Man's Burden (July 27, 2005)

The death of Gen. Wm. Westmoreland last week, in reminding us of the war we couldn't win in South East Asia, naturally invites comparison to the war we're fighting in Western Asia, which Pres. Bush once told us we had won. One big difference: that war was a real civil war when we went in; this one is not, though it may be by the time we leave.

NPR did a retrospective on Westmoreland's life which included an interview with Stanley Karnow, an old Asia hand who reported from Vietnam for years in the '60s. Citing Westmoreland's many achievements ― he had served with glory in both WWII and Korea, was highly decorated, a former superintendent of West Point, and even Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1965 ― the interviewer asked Karnow if it was fair that Westmoreland be only remembered for Vietnam. "Yes," said Karnow quite simply. An answer Bush might ponder as he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that the stalemate in Iraq has not just tied us down like a modern-day Gulliver but inspires handfuls of new terrorists for every one we seem to kill or capture. (And Bush doesn't have a whole bunch of other accomplishments to put on the scales against Iraq.)

Credibility is always the soft underbelly of military superiority in asymmetric warfare. In Vietnam, it was the inflated body counts that had ostensibly decimated the Vietcong ― and then along came Tet. More recently, in Baghdad, our military spokesman heralded an operation involving tens of thousands of Iraqi forces supported by the US that would seal off the city and systematically root out the insurgents. It worked for a few days, but now the city is again exploding, daily, with suicide bombings.

Bush's claim that 3/4 of al-Qaeda's hierarchy has been neutralized since 9/11 may well be true ― but if so, as London and now Sharm al-Sheik has shown, it's also irrelevant. Whether international terrorism is still being directed by bin Laden from some cave along the Afghan-Pakistan border no longer matters: clones of al-Qaeda are just as dangerous as the real thing.

Meanwhile, to take our minds off how badly things are going in Iraq, Bush foists a simplistic view of democracy as the solution to all the Middle East's ills. Indeed, with WMD and 9/11 no longer able to support our invasion and occupation of Iraq, he's retroactively grabbed on to democracy as the justification. To bolster this democracy-conquers-all approach to the Middle East, he's explicitly apologized for our past support of friendly Arab dictators. This is not merely disingenuous, it's dishonest. The Cold War was once real, and the need for stability in the Middle East was real then, and it's real now.

Would the Israelis be more willing to restore the West Bank to Palestinians run by a popularly-elected Hamas? Would Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain 'partners in peace' if they were controlled respectively by the Muslim Brotherhood and extreme anti-royalist Wahhabis? Or for that matter, would a Syria torn asunder in the aftermath of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad be a moderating influence in the area?

What Bush seems to forget in his heedless attack on past US policies in the Middle East is that the opposite of stability is not democracy ― but something decidedly less glamorous: instability, and frequently, chaos.

Through its own ignorance and falsehoods, this administration has pro-actively created an even more dangerous mess for us than was Vietnam. And now, to gild its tracks, it's wrapped this boon to Islamic terrorists in the rhetoric of democracy.

Despite the battle cry of steadfastness, recent leaks indicate the administration is looking for an exit strategy. Which is where democracy comes in ― and the increasing pressure (Rumsfeld's in Baghdad to hold their feet to the fire) to meet the Aug 15 deadline for the new constitution, a key milestone in Iraq's forced march to freedom. And then, later this year, elections ― and with the new Shia-dominated, pro-Iranian government in place, an independent Kurdistan in everything but name floating on Turkey's southern flank, and a disgruntled Sunni minority seething with terrorists, Bush can once again raise the all clear ― "Mission Accomplished" ― and leave this hapless democracy to its own devices.

Okay now, raise your hand if you want to be next in line for a democracy lesson from Uncle Sam. No pushing, please. Ah, the white man's burden.

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Terror and Summit Politics (June 23, 2005)

One key question the terrorist attack in London raises is not why it hasn't happened here again ― or will it happen here again― but rather, how will we react if it does? We may not have the famous stiff upper lip the British are renowned for (in one CNN interview, a put-out Englishman was talking about how 'inconvenient' and 'annoying' the bombings had been, as if it were a power failure), but we're tough enough certainly, and we'll get on with our lives as we did after 9/11.

That's not the issue: the real issue is, how would another terrorist attack within the US affect internal American support for Iraq, which was this administration's illogical and poorly executed reaction to 9/11? Bush continues to justify this increasingly unpopular misadventure by tying it to the one area of strength in his fast-fading presidency, the inaccurately named war on terrorism. Would a successful attack ― even on the comparatively minor, at least to 9/11, scale of London ― once again emotionally unite us behind a misdirected policy and once again give the president, appealing to our fears rather than our intellect, carte blanche to lead us into more adventurous undertakings at still greater risk to our international reputation, to international support for our approach to Muslim fanaticism, and ultimately to our own security and well-being?

The timing of the London bombings was clearly designed not just to embarrass the British government as they hosted the G-8 summit, but also to overshadow the summit, and in effect, negate the work of the leaders of the world's pre-eminent economic powers. Arguably, however, looking at the bigger picture, whichever group spearheaded this crime outsmarted itself. For by focusing attention away from what the summit did and did not achieve, the terrorists have let President Bush off a big international hook.

Going into the summit, Prime Minister Blair as the host had made it clear he intended to avoid focusing on terrorism ― and any opportunity for George Bush's bombastic, simplistic self-justification of Iraq ― and instead deal with two significant international issues: African poverty and global warming. Blair had set ambitious goals and ones that would have isolated Bush and his administration's policies more than ever. But faced with having to respond to an attack clearly aimed at the G-8 meeting itself, as well indeed as at Western solidarity in the face of terrorism, the leaders were compelled to close ranks in an artificial show of unity.

Blair, the New York Times reported, 'hailed a series of agreements to alleviate poverty in Africa,' the centerpiece being a doubling of aid to $50 billion a year by 2010. But, lest his right-wing Christian base object to such Christian charity to the world's truly neediest, Bush's spokesman was quick to point out to reporters that the bally-hooed increased aid to Africa in fact involved no new funding by the US. Blair's idealistic hope for a commitment to a specific percentage of the industrialized countries' GNP was similarly shot down, and US aid to Africa, as a percentage of our national income, remains lower than that of any other western nation.

Press reports prior to the summit indicated that Blair and the others, apparently fed up with Bush's resistance to dealing with the global warming crisis, originally intended to issue a communiqué from which the US would be forced to dissent, thus highlighting (as if it were needed) the current administration's Luddite approach to proven scientific conclusions on global warming. But the terrorists forced a namby-pamby wording of the global warming language that papered over the real differences between the Bush administration and the other G-8 nations.

En route to the summit, Bush had made clear in his stopover in Denmark ― to thank the Danes for the 300 soldiers, or is it 500, they have contributed to Iraq as part of the 'coalition of the willing' ― that any cutback of our gas-guzzling would hurt our economy. Presumably, the other industrialized nations have economies that are somehow immune to any negative economic impact from reducing their emissions. Or is it rather, as he's done with our ballooning debt, that Bush's short-term, selfish approach to issues is to take the easy way politically now and leave it to the next generation to clean up the mess ― both literally and figuratively ― that his eight years in office is making for us and the rest of the world.

But to come back to the question posed at the beginning, how would we react today to terrorist bombs in our subways? Would we once again permit ourselves to be manipulated by neo-conservatives who have a narrow, and ultimately self-defeating, unilateralist view of our role in the world? Would we let ourselves get sucked further into a debilitating war ― and perhaps even new ones ― that weakens us throughout the Muslim World while it strengthens our enemies? And would our media continue to lie low as new lies and new deceptions flow from Washington?

Let's hope we'll never have to find out.

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Lost Opportunity: What Bush Should Have Said
(July 1, 2005)

I'd like to speak tonight about the future of Iraq and the role I envision for us as Americans in that future. It is a role that involves a commitment from America and, I think therefore, it's important to talk candidly about the past three years in Iraq, the events that led up to our invasion of that country, and to assess as realistically as possible the situation on the ground now.

Let me start by acknowledging that this administration has made serious mistakes in dealing with Iraq, beginning with intelligence failures. As is now 100% clear, there were no WMD in Iraq ― and that was the primary reason we invaded it. A secondary reason was our belief ― and there was some intelligence, scanty to be sure, that backed this up ― that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda had had contacts in the past and that, more than likely, they would be coordinating strategy in the future. We were well aware that al-Qaeda was led and supported by fanatic Muslim extremists and that Saddam's government was avowedly nationalistic and secular. But they had one overwhelming trait in common that we considered could trump any philosophical differences: an intense hatred of the US, our policies, and our values.

We all know the old maxims that politics makes strange bedfellows and that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the international arena, these maxims  ― these marriages of convenience ― have proven all too frequently to be true.

To understand our actions against Iraq, one must step back and look at the situation in the Middle East as it appeared in October of 2001. The peace talks between Israel and Palestine had long since collapsed and Muslim extremists were once again attacking civilians within Israel. 9/11 had shown us that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations were smarter and better organized than we knew; UN sanctions against Iraq had been seriously weakened; and no arms inspectors had been allowed in for several years.

The Iraqi regime was an outlaw regime in the center of an area of instability that was of significant strategic importance to us and the West. Further, its totalitarian security forces had murdered thousands, even tens of thousands, of its own citizens; the regime had started two wars with its neighbors that had led to over a million deaths. After the United States had rallied world opinion and a large multi-national coalition to roll back its takeover of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein certainly did not wish us well and would have used whatever weapons he had to damage or weaken us and our position in the Middle East. Once we had moved successfully to assure that Afghanistan would no longer be a free harbor for international terrorists, we were concerned that Saddam might actively, if covertly, lend his support to a faltering al-Qaeda; and we believed he had the wherewithal to do so.

As I stated at the beginning, our intelligence was simply wrong when it came to the conclusion that Iraq had WMD. But in such a situation, in the aftermath of 9/11, to err on the side of caution ― what if they in fact did have WMD and we had concluded they didn't? ― is understandable. We did not fix the intelligence to accord with our beliefs; we were instead rightly concerned with the little intelligence we actually had, so we assumed the worst.

We thought time was a critical factor in the equation ―- that the longer we permitted Saddam to go unchecked, the more likely there would be a deadly collaboration between his regime and the fundamentalist Islamists. Many of our traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East cautioned us to delay military action until the revitalized UN inspectors had more time. With hindsight, we should have followed their advice. Our judgment, as I am sure all Americans can appreciate, was clouded by the trauma of 9/11.

But certainly our evaluation of Saddam's military strength, and the US forces needed to deal with it, was correct; our ability to defeat him quickly and with few American and Iraqi civilian casualties was evidence of this. But when it came to the post-war situation in Iraq, we had little or no human intelligence in place in Iraq; most of our sources had long since been compromised, so we relied ― erroneously, it turned out ― on Iraqi exiles who believed an oppressed, broken population would welcome American forces as liberators.

In retrospect, our biggest mistake, after a well-planned and well-executed military victory, was to disband the Iraqi army and security forces, even as we stigmatized former Ba'ath Party officials. Again, many with experience in Iraq and many Iraqis themselves saw Saddam's military as the most prominent symbol of the old regime and of all the horrors that it had inflicted on its own people. But there were of course many who had only reluctantly served and who had, in effect, been forced to join the Ba'athists to support their families. A small containable insurgency grew visibly larger as a result of this mistaken policy.

We are now at a crossroads in Iraq. Undoubtedly, the presence of nearly 140,000 American troops helps fuel anti-Americanism not only within Iraq but throughout the Arab and Muslim World, and thus strengthens the very insurgency our troops ― with the support of the vast majority of Iraqis ― are trying to suppress. If we leave now, the insurgents will likely take over, at least in central Iraq. Who can predict what will then befall Iraq and the rest of the Middle East? Will the country splinter into three parts, followed perhaps by a civil war as those three entities fight over their new borders and the natural resources, especially oil, within those borders? Will the end result be another failed state, along the lines of Afghanistan under the Taliban? Will it become a haven for Islamic extremists bent on the destruction of the Saudi and Jordanian regimes? What impact will such turmoil have on the Middle East, an area of significant strategic value to the West? These are not unimportant considerations.

It's true that only Iraqis ― at the end of the day ― can prevent this from happening. But we have a moral obligation to help them with the training of sufficient Iraqis to deal with the insurgents ― and we have a strategic obligation to ourselves, to our NATO allies, and to our Arab friends to see that the Iraq of the future is sufficiently stable so as to be part of the solution to an overall peace in the Middle East, and not part of the problem. This administration has made mistakes in its policy towards Iraq over the last few years; that is the reality; but an even bigger reality is what we face now and how we deal with it.

The conundrum is, if America continues to occupy Iraq, the insurgency and accompanying instability continues to grow; if we leave before Iraqi troops can replace us, we just bring greater instability sooner. I think the best approach under the current circumstances is to internationalize the conflict, just as the the split-up of Yugoslavia was dealt with through international coalitions.

American troops need to be replaced by soldiers from many countries, operating under a UN mandate and UN leadership. Today, this administration has begun talks with Kofi Annan, our NATO allies, Russia, China, appropriate Arab friends, and of course the Iraqi government, to discuss a plan to begin the withdrawal of American troops on an agreed-upon timetable as UN forces are made available to replace them. Within 12 months, and perhaps sooner, I would anticipate US troops would be in a minority within a UN-led coalition, and as would then be fitting, a non-American would head up this UN force. As Iraqis are trained by this UN-led coalition, they will assume more and more responsibility for their own internal security, until gradually this UN force would be able to leave completely.

As we move ahead into this new phase in the war against the insurgents in Iraq, Secretary Rumsfeld has, once again, asked to be relieved of his strenuous duties as Secretary of Defense. Accordingly, I have asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell to replace him, the first secretary of state, i might add, that has subsequently become a secretary of defense. But with his background in the military and in the world of diplomacy, there is no one who would be more qualified.

To assure rapid movement with our plan to replace American soldiers with a UN-led force, I have today informed Congress that I am withdrawing the name of John Bolton to be the US ambassador to the UN, and in his place, I am proposing ― and I have to admit, this is at the very welcome suggestion of the 41st president of the United States ― that our 42nd president, Bill Clinton, represent us there. I am pleased to say he has accepted. President Clinton will of course have cabinet rank. As I am sure all Americans are aware, Pres. Clinton will be making history in this assignment, for he will be the first former president to become an ambassador to the UN. I think this well illustrates the commitment of this administration to the UN. And I want to thank Pres Clinton for coming out of retirement and taking on this difficult job at this critical moment for our country ― and for the sake of peace in the Middle East.

And now, does anyone have any questions.

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Premature Emasculation (June 23, 2005)

We are in the early stages of the unraveling of the presidency of George W. Bush. Recent poll numbers show a dramatic decline virtually across the board for every important focus of this myopic president. Lame duck-itis has become endemic with modern 2nd-term presidents, but even so this seems a little premature.

In many ways, though, it's just a well-deserved case of chickens coming home to roost ― or, to put it more bluntly, nearly four years after 9/11, that anti-terrorism mantle that he so effectively clothed himself in has become threadbare. Four summers ago ― before our all-American innocence had been once again lost for the first time, as it had at Pearl Harbor and in Vietnam in earlier generations ― George Bush was already in freefall. By 9/11, those moderate Republicans who had voted for him were increasingly concerned about two things: first, his definition of "compassionate" conservatism was morphing into a right-wing Christian variation; and equally disturbing, he seemed to be in over his head.

We collectively held our breath in the aftermath of 9/11 ― having watched him fly aimlessly around the country that day before returning to Washington to resume his role as commander-in-chief ― and responded favorably when he grabbed the megaphone a few days later at Ground Zero and bonded with the true heroes of 9/11. Low expectations gave him a passing grade ― amid another collective sigh of relief ― when he spoke for the nation at the National Cathedral memorial service; and since then, he has milked our anger, and particularly our fear, into four more years. Less than half a year has passed in his second term: we're stuck for another three and a half, and the question that comes to mind is, how will this spoilt, stubborn man, surrounded by sycophants, re-act to a rejection of his key domestic and foreign policy initiatives? Is it a comfort to us that he draws strength from his narrow-minded, self-righteous brand of Christianity? God help us if it is.

And now the White House is advising us that it intends to launch a charm offensive over the next few weeks to help Americans appreciate how well-positioned we actually are in Iraq. Why they would advertise a planned Madison Avenue blitz approach to a war says something about how, now that the going has gotten tough, they're losing their heretofore well-regarded political acumen. Obviously Pres Bush will take the lead in this 'we're-winning-the-war-in-Iraq' dog-and-pony show, though his vice-president has already been testing the waters, with his recent assertion that the uptick in violence over there proves the insurgency is in its 'death throes.' (Advice to W: don't use Dick Cheney's ad agency.)

The problem the White House faces is that good old-boy W just doesn't feel comfortable unless he's preaching to the converted. So his audience is always made up of pre-screened true believers. Bush has spent the last four months traversing the country hyping his social security reform ― and today, only 25%, a bare one-quarter, of the population support it. No doubt the program had more positive support before they turned George loose on it. With this self-imposed Catch 22 ― you've got to agree with the president before you're invited to hear him persuade you to agree with him ― it'll be interesting to see him sell Iraq.

The First Commandment of this White House is "Never admit a mistake." But the problem with Iraq is, if you don't admit you've screwed it up in a major way, the only thing in your arsenal is more of the same.

We're bogged down in Iraq, not in a narrow military sense, but in a much more important strategic one. The formerly (at least one hopes) self-assured neo-cons who pushed Bush into this war forgot to tell him that Iraq was only one part of an overall strategy. Poor George, who, like the fundamentalists he's fighting, sees the world in black-and-white, you're-for-us-or-you're-against-us terms, has conflated the war in Iraq to where if we prevail there, we defeat the terrorists worldwide, and if we lose there, they defeat us. Nonsense.

Iraq is and always was a sideshow. Of course, having irresponsibly and irretrievably messed it up, getting out is bound to leave a nasty after-taste. But staying in solo only makes our position in the Muslim World ― where terrorism is spawned ― infinitely worse.

Yes, Bush will advise us we must stay the course in Vietnam (oops, I mean Iraq). Build more airbases, expand the occupation. And let's expand Guantanimo while we're at it. And a wink and a nod to the Israelis when they expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. We'll show the world we know how to deal with the Middle East and those bloody Islamists.

Yes, indeed, George, advise us to stay the course. But one question (one you won't hear from your canned audiences): If you were advising al-Qaeda and the other anti-American terrorists, can you think of a more helpful recruiting policy than having the U.S. occupy Iraq indefinitely?

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Iraq: Time to Go (June 3, 2005)

"The recent increase in insurgent activity shows they're desperate ― they're losing." ― Anonymous US military spokesman.

So what we really have to worry about is a lull on the part of the insurgents. Heads I win, tails you lose, huh? It's easy of course to mock a statement whose logical conclusion is that the more Americans and pro-government Iraqis who get killed, the better the war is going for us. But behind this twisted logic is the underlying reality of the increasing need, for obvious reasons, to put a favorable spin on an unfavorable, and deteriorating, situation.

The fact is: we can't win in Iraq, and the sooner we face that reality, the better chance we'll have of cutting our losses with minimal long-term damage. For the last two years, despite my opposition to going into Iraq, I've believed that once there, we had no choice but to make it work. I no longer believe, realistically, that under American military occupation, it can be made to work.

Last week, a well-known Harvard history professor, Niall Ferguson (author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire), penned an op-ed piece in the NY Times that was well-researched, pessimistic, and notably inconclusive. On the one hand, he painted a dark picture of what would happen to Iraq and the Middle East if we fail there; on the other, drawing on the British experience and their troop ration to the total population when they occupied Iraq after World War I, he suggested we need 1,000,000 soldiers to prevail. Analyses by others, extrapolating from recent NATO and UN experiences in Bosnia and elsewhere, result in similar orders of magnitude.

If this is the choice ― a million, or even a half million, American troops to win ― then, face it, we can't do it.

Let's review a few givens:

  • The insurgency is not weakening. Elections were not a panacea. By any measure, Iraq is increasingly unstable, and while civil war may not be imminent, sectarian divisiveness is worsening.
  • The whole premise of a surgical overthrow of Saddam ― a small US force in and out quickly, leaving a pro-Western government in charge ― has proven to be disastrously wrong. Would anyone in his right mind have led us into Iraq if he had foreseen what it would look like 24 months later? And that's without even considering the cost.
  • As military experts have said since the beginning, we don't have enough troops. It's bad enough that we can't even secure the airport road; what's militarily much worse is that while we can launch short-term military operations to wipe out a few insurgents, we don't have enough forces to do the follow-up. We sweep through and pick off the low-hanging fruit, but then we're back to our bases and the militants are back in charge.
  • Bush and his civilian Pentagon leadership, including VP Cheney, have bet the farm on being able to do it on the cheap. Bush is notoriously stubborn and, it would seem, incapable of admitting when he's wrong. So we'll spin and toss out more fine rhetoric.
  • But even if Bush were willing to acknowledge the whole venture was a colossal mistake, the corrective action necessary ― a build-up of troop levels to double or triple, or some six times, what we have now ― would require re-instituting the draft. If the famed Republican party unity is splintered by Bush's kowtowing to his Christian extremist base on stem cell research, wait till he proposes a draft. (And our notoriously un-engaged student population would suddenly be just as politically active as their parents were during Vietnam.)
  • The democratically elected government which we have so nicely foisted on the Sunni and Kurdish population of Iraq has hosted the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran three times in as many months. Democracy's fine, but if we end up with pro-Iranian conservative Shiites running Baghdad, how long will the Kurds buy in to Iraq? And how will that calm Sunni fears?
  • Meanwhile, so long as US forces remain there, we are seen by the Arab World ― indeed, by the entire Muslim World ― as occupiers. Couple this with our blind support for Israel, and it becomes obvious that our actions are fueling the very Islamist terrorism that George Bush is supposed to be fighting.
  • And, finally of course, there's the practical reality that the biggest boost for democracy in the Arab World ― and for reduced anti-Americanism and a subsequent weakening of support for home-grown terrorists ― would be to resolve the Palestinian problem. The symmetry of American forces occupying the site of the former mightiest Arab caliphate while Israeli forces occupy Palestine and the Islamic holy sites of Jerusalem is not overcome by Bush touting democracy, or by his tossing a $50 million bone to Abu Mazen. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, with its fenced-in towns, its humiliating checkpoints, and its expanding Jewish settlements grows daily more reminiscent of old South Africa's racist apartheid. We've got to deal with this issue if we want to succeed in fighting Arab terrorism. But tied down as we are in Iraq, we have neither the energy nor the focus to concentrate on Palestine.

Under the circumstances, one hopes ― or to put it in Bush-lingo ― one prays that the White House is already engaged in serious planning for cutting our losses and getting out in a way that minimizes the undeniable risks. Ideally, we would be working now within NATO ― and ultimately, the UN ― for a multi-national force, not under US command, to gradually replace us. Of course, we've burned more than a few bridges with our arrogance and go-it-alone approach (Bolton to the UN being just another example of how tone-deaf this administration remains), but with some frank admission of our mistakes and a serious attempt to engage in a more multi-national approach ― on other issues, not only Iraq ― we might get some help down the road. One thing, perversely, on our side: a debacle in Iraq would have unfavorable consequences for the Europeans as well as for us.

Quality training of Iraqi forces must be accelerated, but even that's a double-edged sword, as with a Shi'a-based government in place, efficient Iraqi police and soldiers are not likely to reassure the Sunni minority. The Iraqi government needs to know where we stand: faced with a US departure in the near, rather than, long term, they might be more willing to compromise with their Sunni cousins. But if they don't, or can't, the split up of Iraq into three parts will likely occur. Our goal would then be to see that happen as peacefully as possible; for this goal, NATO and/or UN involvement would be critical. Of course, in the short term it is likely to be extremely messy. 30 years ago, our long-delayed departure from Vietnam was a nightmare ― but, 15 years later, the dominoes that fell were in eastern Europe, not eastern Asia.

More of the same won't work. We've gotten ourselves into a war we can't win ― and, worse, one that is encouraging the very terrorism it was ostensibly fought to prevent. Mouthing off about the need for democracy and badmouthing Newsweek for getting the details wrong while the big picture ― Abu Ghraib, Guantanimo, occupation of Palestine, occupation of Iraq ― is killing us, is not a strategy. Let's hope ― actually, let's pray ― Bush is working on one.

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Hizbollah Here and Abroad (Apr. 28, 2005)

Hizbollah, which in Arabic means "the Party of God," has apparently found its counterpart on our sacred shores, where conservative Republicans think that GOP stands for God's Own Party. Of course, there's one big difference between the two Parties of God: Hizbollah believes in social welfare and has a real concern for the poor.

Exhibit A in the extremist rush to bring down the wall separating church and state is Senator-Doctor Frist (a mainline Presbyterian now pandering to the fundamentalists), who taped a video this past Sunday for a TV rally which had God coming out in favor of what even the Republicans, despite their mastery of spin-meistery, refer to as the 'nuclear option' ― a parliamentary maneuver that would eliminate filibustering over judicial appointments. The Family Research Council, the event's sponsor, has denounced the activist judges that would "rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."

Every student knows ― or at any rate, they once did (but of course they once studied evolution too) ― that the whole democratic system in the US is built quintessentially on the foundation of checks and balances. As some of the Founding Fathers discussed in the Federalist Papers, they preferred a government that could get little done to one where the majority ran rough-shod over the minority. (It's interesting that the hold-up in forming a government in Iraq is specifically because the interim constitution that we, the American occupiers, created is heavy on minority protection, even at the expense of forward movement; oh well, little benighted Arabs, do as I say not as I do.) More than protecting minority opinion, it helps prevents extremists ― on either side of the ideological spectrum ― from pushing through a radical divisive agenda.

There's an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about Bush's right-wing views: laws that permit more pollution are hailed as the "Clean Air Act;" imperialism is billed as 'freedom-fighting;' the UN is vilified and defied when the US wants to occupy Iraq and then lauded and supported when it deals with Syria's occupation of Lebanon, then vilified and defied once again when it disapproves of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

John Bolton, Bush's choice as ambassador to the UN, is described by Bush as 'the right man at the right time' ― when Bolton has made no secret of his disdain for the UN. Sure the UN has its faults, but until a better approach to dealing with international issues emerges, we better support it; purposely weakening and undermining the UN would not appear to be a useful approach to international crisis-management. To plagiarize Winston Churchill's famous description of democracy, the UN is perhaps the worst form of international governance except for all the others.

The stock market may not be everyone's favorite bellwether, but it's clearly concerned about something: exploding deficits, Asia's growth at our expense, military spending out of sight, a president for whom tax cuts (despite Greenspan's recently restated concerns) are sacrosanct. North Korea continues, unabated, to stockpile nuclear weapons; Israel and the Palestinians are on a collision course; 60 years of peaceful US hegemony in Asia is eroding; and the dollar of course continues to weaken, and to weaken us. And what does our Republican Senate leadership focus on? The confirmation of a few extremist judges. This self-inflicted wound, the nuclear option, if it comes about, will further split our divided country ― and its elected leadership ― at a time when we can least afford it. With 55 Republicans in the Senate, though, it would only take 6 defections to stop these evangelical zealots from having their way.

As I'm sure our conservative Republican leadership would welcome, perhaps it's time to seek an Old Testament sort of dialogue with our pro-American Christian God (a more fruitful approach, anyway, than having the Big Man's desires made known to us through the Vicar of Christ, or Tom DeLay, or Jerry Falwell, or Ayatollah Khomeini, or some other throwback to the Middle Ages). But if God were to re-open a direct dialogue ― naturally it would be with the Republican Party, the local Party of God ― perhaps there'd be a few surprises. For starters, I rather imagine he'd be targeting ― not supporting ― right-wing conservatives.

"So, look," God says, "I've decided the Republican Party must be destroyed. I know there are many good people still in it, but its permitted its leadership to be taken over by those who condemn and discriminate against homosexuals living in committed relationships; who prefer lingering death from AIDS to distributing condoms; who glory in the death penalty (and who cares if it's teen-agers, or retards, or poor uneducated minorities); and who prefer the sanctity of a stem cell to saving victims of diabetes or Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimer's.

"But, " says God's interlocutor, "would you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 25 moderate Republican senators; will you still destroy the party?"

"If I find 25 moderate senators, I will forgive the right-wing extremists for their sake."

"Suppose 5 of the 25 are lacking. Will you destroy the party for lack of 5?"

"No, I will not destroy it if I find 20."

"Suppose there are 10."

"I will not destroy it if I find 10."

"And 6. If there are 6 moderate Republicans who
will not support the nuclear option."

"Yes, for 6 moderates, the Republican Party would be saved from its extremism."

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Democracy Now: Middle East Predictions (Apr. 21, 2005)

With the sap rising and the promise of spring ― nay, summer itself ― in the air, how can one not be optimistic about the future. So lulled by this sweetest of Aprils, let's look ahead a year. Herewith, the first installment in my annual Patriots' Week Middle East predictions. (But a note about ground rules: saving this column for a year ― unlikely, I know ― in order to compare it to actual events is not the way the game is played.)

LEBANON: Hariri's assassination, and the revulsion it prompted in Lebanon and elsewhere, has indeed put the Syrian army and their overt intelligence forces on a one-way trip to Damascus. Hariri has left a real vacuum, and while the anti-Syrian coalition, led by Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, and including Sunnis, a variety of Christian sects, and secular Shiites, represents a nice cross-section of Lebanese nationalists, Hezbollah, with its Iranian funding and solid infrastructure, remains strong; the Syrians will be active in retaining covert influence; the economy will continue to suffer; and, as always, outside events will be the wild card. Democracy quotient: Clearly improved, at least in the short run, with Syria's heavy hand under wraps. Stability index: Deteriorating; iffy; but no resumption of civil war.

SYRIA: The Syrian economy, statist and weak, will be in even worse shape without the benefits it got from its presence in Lebanon. This was an occupation that actually paid for itself, and then some. (Bush Jr. may want to get a few pointers from Assad Jr, while he's still around, as to how the incompetent Syrians turned a buck with their occupation, while ours in Iraq, despite Wolfowitz's calculations to the contrary ― good luck, World Bank ― has been a real money-burner.) The real issue in Syria is that Bashar Assad, plucked by his father from his eye-doctor's office in London, to be heir apparent, has never been able to replace the Ba'athist Old Guard with his own, more forward-looking, generation of (relative) modernizers. And being forced out of Lebanon won't help him. What Syria really needs is to open its economy and let the old souk mentality loose, but it's a Catch-22: an open economy might weaken political control, and without more openness at the top, the economy will remain under wraps. Democracy quotient: Remains decidedly on hold. Stability index: Hold on tight: decidedly less stable over the coming year than at any time since Assad senior took power more than 30 years ago.

IRAQ: On the ground, things are modestly better: Rumsfeld is promising an exodus of some US troops by year end; the insurgents are having a harder time, at least temporarily. The political game, though ― put on hold by our military misjudgments ― has only just begun. The issue is, where it will go: Lebanon had similar religious, if not ethnic, divisions, and managed to have a reasonably functioning democracy for nearly 30 years, run more or less on tribal lines to be sure, but supported by its role as bankers ― and very sophisticated ones ― to the rest of the Middle East. Iraq's oil could be Lebanon's banking system, but only in the best of all worlds. The real issue now is the Kurds, not the Shiites, as they have the veto power over the future. With a de facto functioning state, oil to support it financially, a militia to defend it, and defined geographical boundaries, they could, at any point in the future, pull the independence trigger. The key unknown is, are Kurdish expectations larger than the Shi'a (or the Sunni) will accept? And if they secede ― and keep in mind, over 95% of the Kurds voted for independence in a recent straw vote, so preservation of Iraq is of no interest to them ― will it lead to civil war in Iraq, a further partition of the country, international (read Turkey and Iran) involvement, or all of the above? Democracy quotient: Improving, but essentially irrelevant: the end-game lies long in the future and the returns may well still be out this time next year. Stability index: Ditto

EGYPT: Mubarak tosses a bone to the international community, greedily grabbed and held aloft by George W, in the guise of promised multi-party elections. How exactly he plays out this charade is anyone's guess, but it's a safe bet that when Mubarak finally steps down, it won't be because he lost the popular vote. He's getting on though, the economy continues to stagger and would collapse without US support, the masses of young, reasonably well-educated jobless continue to grow. Lucky for Mubarak, the Egyptians are extremely patient. Democracy quotient: Cosmetic improvements, but don't look too closely. Stability index: Unchanged, though as the focus gradually switches to post-Mubarak, it could become edgy indeed.

SAUDI ARABIA: One man's meat, etc: high oil prices may be our poison, but they're propping up a depressed economy which takes some of the pressure off the Royal Family, who've been doubly blessed this past year. For al-Qaeda, by attacking Saudis and other Muslims living in the kingdom, have actually strengthened support for the government, which seems as well to be having some successes against Osama's militant supporters. Western democracy of course remains a joke (they were voting in a controlled way in municipal elections 30 years ago); meanwhile, the long-term problems of an exploding population, a one-product economy, and a built-in gerontocracy at the top ― whose internal rivalries may become more pronounced when a new crown prince has to be chosen ― won't go away. Democracy quotient: Nil (though petitioners can still air their grievances directly to the crown prince). Stability index: Not worsening now, but there's a lot that's being shoved under the rug, and the rug ultimately ain't big enough.

PALESTINIANS AND ISRAEL: Don't be fooled: it's a mess and it's getting worse. Sharon has made it clear that getting out of Gaza is the big ― indeed, only ― Israeli step for the foreseeable future. But realize, he's doing it to help Israel, not to further the peace process. The road map is not operable, he says, unless all anti-Israeli activity ceases which of course, as he well knows, is impossible. So the Israelis get to continue to build the wall, and Gaza will end up under Hamas and/or radical Fatah control. "See, I told you they can't manage their own state," Sharon or his successor will tell the gullible American president. Abu Mazen meanwhile will have increasingly little to show for his moderation, and the pendulum will swing back towards violence. Democracy quotient: On the rise, but who will benefit? Palestinian elections were free and fair. But, in a democracy, if you can't deliver, you don't last. So long as the Likud runs Israel, no Palestinian leader can deliver, so more democracy will only bring more hard-liners. Stability index: Hardliners on both sides of the border are not a recipe for stability. While the behavior of the religious nuts among the Gazan settlers will hurt Israel's religious right, the trauma Israel experiences clearing Gaza will not encourage it to take on West Bank settlements. The 3rd Intifada is probably in the works.

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So What Now? (Jan. 13, 2005)

It may be cavalier ― now that the Palestinians have elected a replacement to Yasir Arafat in efficient and, according to all observers, overwhelmingly free elections ― to say that that was the easy part.

Replacing someone of Arafat's longevity and popularity (amongst Palestinians, mind you, not the White House) is never easy, but what lies ahead is infinitely more difficult ― taking the steps that will lead to resumed negotiations resulting in an independent Palestinian state, with safe and secure borders, at peace with its neighbors.

Notwithstanding the meaningless rhetoric that passes for policy these days in Washington, the 'opportunity' that Bush has touted with Arafat gone is one that very much depends on his taking a pro-active role with some political risk. Despite his carefully groomed image as the tough guy undeterred by tough situations, Bush has shown himself to be remarkably stubborn, and even paralyzed, in the face of adversity, and basically risk-averse when it comes to the Palestinian situation and is likely to choose to blather on about the threat of terrorism rather than, by taking a few political risks, actually start reducing the terrorist threat.

Opportunity? Perhaps, but what's certain is that it's the moment of truth for Bush in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and on its outcome hangs the possibility of major positive movement in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Bush's track record gives one anything but optimism.

It's ironic, but under similar circumstances with one big difference (Arafat was still alive) nearly two years ago, the US connived to make Mahmoud Abbas/Abu Mazen the Palestinian prime minister despite his rock-bottom popularity in Palestine. The situation then was about the same as it is now ― the right-wing Sharon running Israel, the right-wing Bush running the US, and the Palestinians and Israelis at one another's throats. From Abu Mazen's point of view, the situation was worse than today's, as Arafat, distinctly unhappy with being forced to share power with his old comrade-in-arms, was in no hurry to help him succeed. For him to have succeeded ― for his Palestinian countrymen to have thought they could get more from the moderate but uncharismatic Abu Mazen than from the aging but still popular Arafat ― required minimum support from Israel: the freeing of some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the loosening of some of the travel restrictions, the lifting of some of the curfews and roadblocks that made Palestinian life not just miserable and humiliating but economically unbearable.

Sharon did nothing; Bush asked nothing from him (at least, that's the charitable explanation ― it's perfectly possible, if past performance is any guide, that Sharon simply ignored the President of the United States). In any case, our creation quickly withered on the vine, finally quitting altogether within four months. Abbas has been able to re-invent himself in the wake of Arafat's death by, first, being chosen by his peers to replace Arafat as the head of Fatah and, now, by his fellow citizens as president. And while his 60%-plus of the popular vote represents a remarkable turn-around, his support is only skin-deep based as it is almost entirely on being chosen as Arafat's successor by the Fatah old guard. To the extent that it is a mandate, the good news is that he definitely ran on a moderate slate, attacking the 2nd Intifada and violence in general as a losing tactic in dealing with Israel. The distant runner-up, Mustapha Barghouti, refused to denounce the use of violence as a strategy.

While Hamas supporters in general boycotted the election, some of the more extreme elements in Fatah did support Abbas. His work now is cut out for him: he's got to continue to co-opt Fatah extremists while keeping Hamas and some of the other militants under wraps at least long enough to get real negotiations underway. But the deck is seriously stacked against him. Beginning with the Israeli occupation of Ramallah nearly three years ago, the Israelis systematically destroyed the Palestinian police forces, confiscated their weapons and in effect disbanded them. With his divide-and-control strategy, Arafat oversaw as many as 13 different intelligence and secret police forces. Clearly, for him to enjoy and be able to use real power, Abu Mazen is going to have to consolidate these forces, eliminating perforce some powerful individuals and constituencies. At the same time, he's going to have to rebuild the regular civilian police structure; and all the while, he will face extremists whose real purpose in rocketing Israeli settlements and blowing up buses ― after all, there's nothing the militants can do that remotely threatens Israel militarily ― is to attract further Israeli retaliation, getting more Palestinian civilians killed, and ultimately undermining Abu Mazen's moderate approach.

Sharon meanwhile has made it very clear that he has no interest in the kind of compromise settlement that everyone knows is required and that would involve concessions in East Jerusalem as well as the return of about 95% of the West Bank and a swap of Israeli land for the last 5%. Getting out of Gaza is not a gift to the Palestinians by the wily Sharon ― it's a recognition that tying down thousands of Israeli troops for the sake of 8000 settlers is a no-win deal for Israel long-term. His strategic plan is to cut his losses in Gaza while continuing to build the infamous wall, thus grabbing more Palestinian land even as it further cuts Palestine into the little Bantu-stans that, economically and politically, are non-viable.

Oh, sure, he'll withdraw troops to the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus, and a few of the other larger Palestinian population centers, but with the wall and the continued roadblocks around Israeli settlements, the West Bank will become an even bigger basket case, radicalism will be further encouraged, Abbas discredited, and lo and behold, Sharon will once again be able to say to a compliant Bush ― as he did when Arafat was alive ― that he has no 'partner in peace' to negotiate with. Bush will pontificate about the need for the Palestinians 'to build a practicing democracy,' even as he permits his Israeli role model to do everything possible to assure that democracy ― a fragile flower, after all ― does not take root in this barren land.

Peace is up to us: but understand, Sharon has his own plan, and it does not involve a viable Palestinian state. Either we step in and make it happen ― or you can say good-bye to any 'opportunity' for a long time to come.

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Middle East Opportunity? (Jan. 6, 2005)

Palestinian Elections:
New Wine in Old Skins?

2004 ended badly. Natural disasters, such as we have just seen in South Asia, can trump man-made ones, at least short-term, every time. The overwhelming outpouring of grief and support by the US, and around the world, to this almost inconceivable calamity, provides some small consolation in the midst of such tragedy. It has as well, and rightly so, taken our minds off the permanent tragedy that is the Middle East.

But Palestinian elections, scheduled for this weekend, and Iraqi ones, three weeks hence, assure that once again the Middle East will be front and center. There have been many "moments of truth" ― of apparent opportunities ― in the Middle East in recent years, but the hyping of these two elections is more a reflection of how bleak the underlying facts are than how much promise these events really portend: this may be the Holy Land, but a new Palestinian leader is not to be confused with the Second Coming.

One of the reasons for this onslaught of wishful thinking is that a solution to the Palestinian/Israeli situation has basically been on hold for more than three years since Pres. Bush decided that Arafat was persona non grata. As is the clichéd wisdom ― though no less true for being so ― if there is no forward movement on the Palestinian front, it deteriorates; and it has deteriorated in the past three years at a more rapid rate than at any time since the '73 war.

Optimists see in Arafat's death and the coming election of Mahmoud Abbas (essentially, the shoo-in candidate) an opportunity. But it is an opportunity only in the very relative sense that a 50-to-1 horse is a better risk than a 100-to-1 shot. I wouldn't bet the farm on it, though.

Dennis Ross, President Clinton's special envoy to the area for most of the '90s, recently published his account of the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians during those years. At 800 pages, it's a meticulous (surely a word that every reviewer has called on), detailed history of the enormous efforts that Ross, and Clinton himself, put into finally resolving this 50-year blight. And, as we all know, after an unprecedented amount of US involvement, it failed.

Ross blames Arafat ― somewhat unfairly, I think, as the history of the negotiations, as Ross lays it out, clearly illustrates missed opportunities by both sides as well as actions by each that would, by creating mistrust, serve to undermine the logic behind the extended Oslo format. Because Israel is a democracy (though one would be hard pressed to see how this benefits the Palestinians), there were always restraints on how far their leaders felt they could move. What this in fact meant was that short-term political concerns prevented Israel from taking steps that would have had long-term benefits. Ross is abundantly aware that, however undemocratic Arafat's Palestine was, he too had very real restraints from his extremist flanks and the Palestinian 'Street.'

At the beginning of the book, Ross states, as one of his guiding principles during the negotiations, that "Israel, given its small size and vulnerability, must feel secure if it was to make concessions for peace." This was exactly the argument that was used 30 years ago by Henry Kissinger, post-'73, to re-arm Israel. But in the then 20 years (when Ross first started working on Oslo), and now 30, that the US has been pouring sophisticated weapons and aircraft into Israel, the once-beleaguered Jewish state has grown so strong militarily vis-a-vis any combination of Arab armies as to be invincible. And that, of course, is without considering its hefty nuclear arsenal. Military security, or insecurity, is not Israel's problem ― indeed, arguably, Israel's overwhelming military superiority might now be the very thing that prevents compromise.

In his introduction, Ross talks candidly about concerns that his Jewish background may have made him, at least in Arab eyes, a less than objective peacemaker. But it's clear from the rapport he established with not just the Palestinians, but the Egyptians and Syrians as well, that that was not the problem. The real issue was the United States' generally pro-Israeli bias which had been formalized years earlier in an agreement under which the US would not present any proposals without first running them by the Israelis. At the end, this came to mean the US was often in the position of trying to sell Arafat on what the Israelis had told us was acceptable to them. It was only very late in the game ― bottom of the ninth, with two out, and to pursue the analogy, a midnight curfew looming ― that the US actively proposed "parameters."

It meant further, as Ross points out, that there was a limit (and a pretty low one) as to how much pressure the US could exert on Israel because of what Ross delicately refers to as a "potential political problem" ― from Congress and the Israeli lobby. No such Arab constituency existed. The problem was never whether Ross was an honest broker ― he clearly was; the problem was (and is), in any negotiation between the Palestinians and the Israelis, can the US be an honest broker? And now, with 150,000 troops in Iraq, can we ever be perceived as an honest broker?

If that was a problem then, it's a bigger one now. Ross's conclusion ― that the final deal Arafat was offered a few weeks before the end of Clinton's term was certainly better than anything the Palestinians would be offered soon again ― is no doubt correct, at least for the foreseeable future. (While he doesn't get into it, Arafat had seen 'final offers' sweetened before and may have thought the new Bush administration would be more willing to put pressure on Israel than the Democrats ― certainly, this had been historically the case, most notably with Jim Baker working for George Bush père). But that's not particularly relevant. What is relevant is whether any Palestinian could have accepted such a 'final' deal. Already, while Abbas has made clear his opposition to Palestinian terrorism, he's defended Hamas leaders and advocated various maximalist positions ― with regard to the right of return, for example, a true non-starter for Israel. Of course, as we know all too well, people say many things to get elected; the point is, if Israel is going to have to compromise further, so are the Palestinians, and for Abbas to continue the same rhetoric on such an inflammatory issue works against preparing the Palestinians for what must lie ahead.

While the past three-plus years of the 2nd Intifada have hurt the Israeli economy, they have destroyed the Palestinian one. Palestinian blood, flowing almost daily in Gaza, coupled with the US occupation of Iraq, has made the Arab World an infinitely more radicalized world than it was just four years ago. It's hard to see how this is good news for Israel.

The road to democracy in the Arab World may or may not lead through Jerusalem, but it must certainly lead through Cairo and Damascus and Riyadh; and if history is any guide, it won't be a bumpy road ― it will be an explosive one. It may be that nothing can prevent these corrupt old governments from exploding, with a fallout in the neighborhood that may take years to work through. However democracy comes ― or however whatever comes to replace the unpopular governments now in place ― Israel would be much more secure if, at that time, it had gone the extra mile to make peace with an independent Palestinian state.

NEXT: So, what now?

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Election Blues (Dec. 2, 2004)

Election blues? Surely not still? It's been a month already. Why, this is nearly as unseemly as Hamlet's protracted mourning.

No, relax. I'm not talking about Blue State blues. We've moved on, though it still grates to see him prance about with that self-satisfied grin crowing about unspent "capital" (don't spend it, dammit ― set a good example for once by saving it), his arms stretched out as if (and this was surely a Maureen Dowd observation) he has a dead porcupine lodged under each armpit. No, as you can see, we've moved on: I'm talking about real election blues ― the Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq.

Elections ― choosing who the majority, or at least a plurality, wishes to rule one's country ― are certainly the most effective way to govern a modern state. But, as recent events (and future ones) show, elections are no panacea.

Ukraine comes immediately to mind, where it is generally accepted that fraudulent elections gave the victory to Prime Minister Yanukovich. Despite Ukraine's electoral commission's approval of the results, a week of peaceful demonstrations have persuaded the Parliament to nullify the proceedings and pass a vote of "no confidence" on Yanukovich's government. The outgoing president is suggesting new elections should take place while their supreme court is mulling the whole thing over; at the same time, supporters of the erstwhile victor are making demands for autonomy for the eastern region nearest Russia ― where most of the industry and hence the key part of the economy is based ― if their guy isn't sworn in. Those opposed to autonomy are threatening civil war to prevent a break-up. The industrialized east is linguisticalIy more Russian and primarily Orthodox, while the agricultural west generally speaks Ukrainian and practices Catholicism.

Accordingly, Russia's Putin is supporting Yanukovich while the US and the EU back the opposition leader (and apparently legitimate winner) Yushchenko. In the event of actual fighting, it seems unlikely the Russians would interfere (at least no more than they did during the lead up to the election when Putin campaigned in Ukraine side by side with Yanukovich). But Putin remains extremely popular in Russia, the war in Chechnya has not exactly been a resounding success, and Russia doesn't, after all, have to send in its army to turn a serious local situation into a serious international one.

Then there're the Palestinians, whose elections to choose a successor to Yasir Arafat are scheduled for January 9, elections which Hamas has already said it intends to boycott. The old-guard Fatah leadership seems to have closed ranks, as a form of self-preservation, behind Mahmoud Abbas, a long-time member of the Palestinian top ranks, whose most recent claim to fame was his appointment as Arafat's next-to-last prime minister. While Abbas was acceptable to both the US and Israel ― indeed the US essentially forced him on Arafat ― polls during his brief time in office showed his popular support in the low single digits. To be fair, Sharon's government undermined him from the get-go, with Washington, who had engineered his selection, standing mutely by. Abbas was thus put in the worst possible-position: perceived by his countrymen as a US (and hence Israeli) puppet, he got nothing in return from Bush's administration.

Conventional wisdom talks about the "opportunity" arising from Arafat's death: however low his popularity, at least Abbas is not Arafat. But can he inspire the young Palestinian street (and most of them are not just young but jobless and disaffected) to accept the harsh reality of a compromise? Has he any hope of moving Hamas or the other radicals away from violence, much less towards a peaceful settlement? No indeed, he's not Arafat. There may come a time when we wish he were.

And then, of course, there's the solution to Bush's Iraq war: the January 30 elections. The problem is that the Sunnis and the Kurds have joined together urging a delay until security improves, while the Shi'a and their key leader Ayatollah al-Sistani are demanding they proceed. Like the Ukraine elections, it's a zero-sum game: heads I win, tails you lose. There are several valid reasons why the US is supporting the January 30 date: on the simplest level, it's what the Iraqi interim constitution (which the US god-fathered) calls for; additionally, the interim Iraqi government, another US godchild, is behind it. And, of course, to admit that the insurgents are able to upset the US timetable is to admit that the situation in Iraq is worse than Washington is telling us.

But these are superficial reasons. There's a real reason: the Shi'a are a majority of the population and have, by and large, accepted the US occupation, by at least not militarily opposing it, because of the implicit promise that the next Iraqi government ― after 500 years of rule by the Sunni minority ― will be a Shi'a one. Even radical Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has jumped on this political bandwagon, no doubt aware that his legion of supporters will give him a legitimate power base ― and a large one at that
― in the future.

Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that if elections are held, there's a good chance they will be boycotted by most key Sunni elements, and therefore seen as illegitimate by not just many Iraqis but by the rest of the (Sunni) Arab World as well. And, finally, all one has to do is look at the murderous attacks on Iraqi policemen, on the new national guardsmen, and on those who work for the occupation forces to get a feel for the attraction the polling stations, the poll workers, and even the voters will have for the insurgents. Security may be an excuse, but it's a real one.

But bottom line, whenever elections are held, it's obvious the Shi'a will win and take power. While it is an oversimplification, the Kurds and the Sunni are basically the secularists in Iraq; the Shi'a are the fundamentalists. The Kurds have been open supporters of the US occupation, but now, fearful that elections will threaten their de facto autonomy, are siding with the Sunni ― who were once the backbone of Saddam's power and the Kurds' tormenters. Even in politics-starved Iraq, politics can make strange bedfellows. Though perhaps nothing will prove so strange as the US invading Iraq to end up supporting religious Muslims against secular ones.

We're in a classic no-win situation: postpone the election and inflame the majority, fundamentalist Shi'a; hold the elections and risk pushing Iraq closer to a civil war.

Successful elections are the climax, the culminating sacrament, of a functioning secular democracy. Unfortunately, however, elections can't create that democracy.

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Whose Moral Values? (Nov. 11, 2004)

The results of last week's presidential elections have bothered me ― not so much because Bush won: after all, that's what democracy's all about ― but because we are told he did so because of "moral values," values that he shares with many of his supporters that presumably are lacking in Kerry and his supporters.

There is a real issue here (and it's not just that I don't like being on the short end of a morals charge): it's not values, though, but rather the struggle between moral relativism and moral absolutism. Relativism sounds so wishy-washy, so ambiguous; and absolutism so direct and straightforward. But as Matthew Arnold famously observed in the middle of the 19th century, the modern world lacks "certitude." And the desire for simplicity over ambiguity often ends up as a choice between fundamentalism and extremism or moderation and tolerance. We've seen Bush personify the absolutist approach in his "you're either with us or against us" attitude as well as in his refusal to ever admit he's made a mistake.

Religion is an even less likely topic than politics to win friends and influence people. But let's be frank: 'moral values' is code for doctrinal orthodoxy, for a view of Christianity (and Judaism and Islam for that matter) that focuses on the myth, the packaging, at the expense of the underlying message. Whatever happened to humility, modesty, tolerance, or just plain charity? Monotheism ultimately won out, but the Graeco-Roman concept of "moderation in all things" still has much to recommend it.

So let's look a little closer at some of those moral values that Bush and some of his supporters promote.

Family values: That seems to be the biggest argument against gay marriage. The divorce rate in the US is around 50% ― in red states as well as blue ones (ironically, hyper-blue Massachusetts has a considerably lower divorce rate than the red state average). So what family values are there that are going to be so undermined by a few gay men or women marrying?

Moral values: How about the way the Bush administration has taken away funding from poor countries around the world if they support family planning (not abortion, mind you ― we're just talking about birth control). The world's poor have to rely on abstinence in George Bush's world, so they continue to produce children they don't want and can't afford. That's a fine moral value.

Or how about income inequality: It used to be that our large middle class put the United States in the top ranks of income equality. A recent study among 26 top industrialized nations has found the US now ranks 24th, ahead of those two economic moral beacons Russia and Mexico. And Bush's moral compass wants us to continue giving tax breaks that disproportionately favor the rich.

And then, there's the export of democracy to freedom-loving people everywhere (freedom, according to Bush, being God's gift, not America's ― though of course it's America, through our president, who gets to interpret God's will) ― even if it means we have to kill 'em to free 'em. Johns Hopkins just participated in a study that concluded that 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since we launched our freedom-loving exercise there 18 months ago. Let's assume they're off by a factor of two, that it's actually a mere 50,000. Comparing Iraq's population to ours, that's the equivalent of 600,000 dead Americans, or 10 times the number of Americans that were killed in Vietnam in 1/10th the time.

More moral values: We imprison, proportionately, five times as many of our citizens as England ― and they've got the highest rate in Europe. The Finns, for example, have a prison population that, relative to their overall numbers, is 1/14th of ours. And does anyone want to guess what proportion of our prisoners are minorities? Well, thank God, we're a moral nation ― otherwise, half the blacks would be behind bars.

And how about abortion: Sure, it's a tricky issue, but it's the law of the land. If you want to believe that life begins one second after "productive" sexual intercourse, go ahead, but don't tell the rest of us that that's an issue of morality; don't tell us that focusing on the life of a glob of protoplasm while you ruin the life of a young teenager is a moral position; don't tell us that stem-cell research ― which has the potential to prolong millions of lives and to prevent such debilitating diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's ― is immoral.

And while our moral arbiters are saving all those unborn children for a life of, at the very least, not being wanted, and in many cases, of poverty, dysfunction, and misery, they're out promoting capital punishment (discarded in the rest of the civilized world but still practiced in such other freedom-loving bastions as China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan) ― and if anyone says we can't execute teenagers or the mentally retarded, just trot out that "eye-for-an-eye" stuff.

The Bible, as we all know, can be used to support virtually any position. In the Old Testament God instructed the Israelites to wipe out not just the armies of their enemies but their women and children as well. Saint Paul, whom most Christian theologians consider the founding father of Christianity, acknowledged slavery as an acceptable aspect of the secular world order and instructed women to kowtow to their husbands. Autres temps, autres moeurs. Even today's Christian fundamentalists don't go this far. But why aren't they focusing on the meat of the New Testament: peace, humility, concern for the poor. (Read the Beatitudes again if you want to understand the difference between real Christianity and the "moral values" espoused by today's right-wing born-agains.)

Bin Laden, like fundamentalists here and abroad, rails against our decadence. But I have to admit, give me decadence any time over self-righteousness, over smugness, over holier-than-thou-ness. Oh, the US ― and those of us who voted "blue" ― will survive four more years of George W. Bush and his neo-con philosophy: the US has survived much worse.

The issue is, can we continue over the long haul to remain a moral, modern, enlightened nation when we choose the hocus-pocus of creationism over science; the enrichment of a few at the expense of the poor among us; the imposition of our values by force and call it morality; the deaths of tens of thousands and call it collateral damage on the path to democracy.

There's a word for all this ― and it's not moral values: it's hypocrisy.

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4 More Years: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
(Nov. 4, 2004)

Random observations on an election gone awry ―

The Electoral College Must Go: The Democrats won the popular vote four years ago and lost the election; a switch of fewer than 70,000 votes in Ohio this year, and Republicans would have lost the election even though they would have won by millions in the popular vote. Isn't it time we do away with this anachronistic relic that the founding fathers created at the same time they were limiting who could vote to white male landowners? Indeed, this might be the only thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on in the next four years.

All Taxes Are Not Bad: Even though we are in the top five states tax-wise, Mainers voted nearly 2 to 1 against a tax cap that would have had destructive effects on our schools, our libraries, even our cops and firefighters. At the local level, people realize you get what you pay for; at the local level, collectively, we know there's no free lunch. When will we realize, at the national level, that tax cuts, an aging population, a $100-billion-a-year war (now likely to go on indefinitely), and an exploding deficit is a free lunch ― and can't last.

The Supreme Court and Forward Planning: It's hard to get an abortion when you're not pregnant, but young women may want to start stocking up on the morning-after pill. Or, you might want to start developing a relationship with high-quality doctors in Canada or Mexico ― and while you're at it, check out low-cost flights to Mexico City and Toronto ― unless you're partial to the back alley, hanger approach. Mainers are actually in a preferred position on this: the granddaughters of our senior citizens who are making those drug runs to Canada can hire out the same buses and get advice from the same druggists.

Gays and Lesbians (and this includes you, Ms. Cheney): Hope you're not really serious about getting married.

How-To Authors (Or, If-You-Can't-Beat-'em-Join'em): Anyone know a good book on how to be born again in 10 easy lessons? (I hope giving up drinking is not a prerequisite for everyone.)

Investment Opportunities:

  • Check into companies that make drilling equipment suitable for arctic Alaska;
  • And heavy road-building equipment through inaccessible parts of our national parks;
  • Halliburton;
  • All defense stocks;
  • All oil stocks;
  • All drug stocks;
  • For the time being, buy stocks for a quick bounce, dump bonds long-term, and get ready to start selling the dollar next year until there're no buyers left.

Sell short:

  • Anti-pollution devices;
  • Stem cell research start-ups;
  • The ACLU.

Four More Wars (Or Will Bush Be to the Middle East What Nixon Was to China?): Don't bet your last euro on it. On the contrary, Bush will feel vindicated about Iraq ― God was speaking to him after all, and can you believe it, still is ― and push a harder line against Iran, Syria, even allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And if you're Palestinian, a piece of advice ― brush up on your Hebrew, 'cause if you thought Sharon had a free hand the last four years, just wait.

Iraq (and the Silver Lining): Let's face it: there's a perverse satisfaction in realizing that the man who created this mess is going to be the one who has to clean it up. It's a lose-lose situation, and it may yet destroy the neo-con Republican/right-wing Christian coalition, and just maybe bring the Republicans, and the country, back to the center. (If not, those abortion flights to Canada will have a lot of non-pregnant emigrants on them.)

What Ifs (Or, Who Cares, But …): What if Howard Dean had been the Democratic nominee ― a fiscal conservative, a strong anti-war voice from the beginning, no flip-flopper he, a charismatic, effective personality.

And What Nows: As a start, no more Democratic nominees from Massachusetts. Hillary in 2008? Jeb Bush? Anyone for Ralph Nader?

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Bush, Kerry, and Middle East: Part II (Oct. 28, 2004)

With less than two weeks before November 2, it's worth reviewing what Bush had considered his strong point ― but which in the first debate was revealed as his Achilles' heel ― and that is his approach to Iraq, the Middle East, or more broadly still, the war on terrorism.

The rhetorical question which he loves to raise among the faithful ― Is the world better off without Saddam Hussein? ― is the wrong one. After all, there're a whole bunch of dictators running their failed states that the world would be better off without. Indeed, Bush's concern for the rest of the world's well-being is a rather ironic one, considering his oft-proclaimed jingoistic distaste for what the world thinks. But for once, he should have stuck to his America-first gut. The correct question should be: Is the US better off without Saddam; is the US better off with 140,000 of our troops bogged down in an increasingly chaotic Iraq at the cost of $200 billion and climbing; is the US better off with 1,100 of our soldiers dead over there and more than 8,000 wounded, many blinded or seriously maimed; is the US better off now that this administration has turned Iraq into Osama's largest and most effective terrorist recruiting center; is the US better off with anti-American hatred among even moderate Muslims growing to unprecedented levels, the hope of an Israeli-Palestinian peace lying in the dustbin, NATO fractured ― and no end in sight, no exit strategy. A war we can't win and can't afford to lose ― and a president who says it's unpatriotic to mention the mess he's got us in.

And there's more: is the US better off with a deficit growing out of control and posing a serious threat to our economic well-being down the road; with oil prices going through the roof as a direct result of the instability Bush has created in the center of the world's largest oil-producing area. Pandora's Box, so carelessly opened by this wannabe macho-man, is brimming with other delights: Iranian influence spreading over the Shi'a in southern Iraq, a de facto Kurdish state in the north which could lead to renewed instability in eastern Turkey, the Sunni triangle a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists in a way Saddam never permitted. And looming down the road, the real possibility of a civil war unleashed by the confrontation of ethnic and religious demographics and dashed democratic hopes.

This, of course, is just the scene in Iraq; it neglects what's happening elsewhere. In Iran, for example, the religious hardliners again have the upper hand as Iran speeds up its nuclear development program, aware as they are how the US deals with a much worse tyrant in a much more dangerous part of the world, North Korea's Kim Jong II, when he apparently has a nuclear capability. The Iranians want to make sure they get the Korean kid-glove treatment, not the Saddam one. Additionally, they know, quagmired as we are in Iraq, unable even to field the necessary number of troops for that war, we've given them a nice window of opportunity to focus on their nuclear ambitions.

So, is the US better off without Saddam? Think about it. We've just burned down the house to get rid of a nest of rattlesnakes in the basement. (If you want to pursue the analogy, the fire is spreading; we've run out of firemen; and meanwhile, there're more rattlesnakes in the neighborhood than ever before.) And all our president can do is mumble disingenuously about the world being better off.

I've just returned from 10 days in Lebanon and Turkey. There is no country in the Arab World where the US has enjoyed greater popularity over the years than Lebanon, especially among Lebanese Christians. And yet in talking to old friends and business leaders, the message was clear: the Arab World no longer trusts the US at any level; the war in Iraq has been a major disaster with the worst yet to come; indeed, the future, whether it's one with Bush or Kerry, provides no hope.

Two remarks nicely sum up the attitudes I found. The first from a Western-educated Muslim businesswoman, married to a Christian: when I asked her if the chaos in Iraq was making the US even less popular, she commented dryly, "Less popular? How can you be less popular than zero?" Rhetoric, of course, but recent surveys by the Pew Foundation and others bear this out: in Jordan, essentially our closest friend in the Arab World, favorable opinion of the US stands at 3 percent (with a margin of error no doubt of 3-1/2 percent; in Egypt, it's 5 percent. And these are the two largest Arab recipients of US aid.

A retired doctor and medical professor from the American University Hospital in Beirut, who studied at Harvard and trained at Johns Hopkins ― indeed he earned money for Harvard by working at a camp in Maine some 50 summers ago ― remarked, when I asked him whether Lebanese preferred Kerry to Bush: "For us, that's Pepsi-cola vs. Coca-cola."

No president has ever done less to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli problem than Bush, or been such a blind supporter of Israel. At the beginning of his term, when the Clinton administration had left a legacy of peace talks between the two that had narrowed the gap more than at any time since the creation of Israel, Bush refused to resume negotiations, and indeed, refused to talk to or even recognize Arafat as the Palestinian leader with whom Israel needed to negotiate. As this week's lead article in the Sunday Times magazine noted, Secretary of State Powell was appalled when Bush blandly decided, by in essence backing out of any real role in resolving the problem, to throw 30 years of American foreign policy down the tubes.

Sharon read Bush brilliantly: when the Israelis first went into the West Bank two years ago in massive force, Bush spoke forcefully at a press conference demanding Israeli withdrawal. When questioned a day later about Israeli defiance, Bush reiterated that they must withdraw and do so immediately. Sharon simply refused, Bush backed down, and since then, Sharon has done whatever Israel wanted without any regard for the impact it has on the US in the Muslim World. The wall, taking another 15 percent of Palestinian territory and cutting villagers and villages off from hospitals, schools, and businesses, has been denounced as "unhelpful" by the Bush administration, but the US, which continues to give billions in aid and up-to-date military support to Israel ― in other words, we do have some leverage ― has refused to do anything more than express mild disapproval.

We have created a power in the Middle East that, in a world polarized as never before between Muslim and Christian, repeatedly acts in a fashion that is antithetical to our interests, and yet, rather than confront this fact, Bush permits Israel to pursue policies that make peace with the Palestinians less and less likely and that encourage the growth of fanaticism and anti-American terrorism. And even as his actions (and inactions) actually fuel terrorism, he has the chutzpah to brag about his anti-terrorist credentials.

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Bush, Kerry, and Middle East: Part I (Oct. 21, 2004)

I'm sure there are some ― even though for the life of me I can't imagine why ― who are upset by my Bush-bashing. Simply put, I don't think a president who has proactively got us into a situation worse than Vietnam, and who refuses to even admit the possibility that he has done so, should be re-elected. Nor do I believe that if he were re-elected, he would do anything in his second term other than try to justify the mistakes of the first.

BUT ― and this is why I'm so pessimistic ― I have no particular confidence that Kerry will do anything better when it comes to resolving the Palestinian problem. Kerry has said more than once that there is no daylight between Bush's behavior towards Sharon and Kerry's own policies. Granted, we're in the midst of an election in which Kerry, like Bush, is pandering for every possible vote, but I see no evidence that Kerry will take the necessary steps to force the Likud to moderate its position. The irony is that there are many ― perhaps even a majority ― of Jewish voters in the US whose support for Israel may be unassailable but who do not support Sharon's tactics and policies.

Traditionally, the Democrats have been softer on Israel than the Republicans. Bush 41 and Jim Baker did indeed put real pressure on Israel in setting the stage for the Oslo peace talks. Clinton, as has been famously observed, adopted moderate Republican fiscal and even social policies ― and in dealing with Arafat and the PLO, also pursued a moderate Republican approach. But then, in a major Republican flip-flop, George W seems to have adopted what had been the traditional Democrat approach to the Israeli-Palestinian situation; so who knows, maybe Kerry will re-adopt ― are you following me here? ― the old, pre-George W Republican approach that his Democrat predecessor chose.

The real problem, of course, is that politically, within the House and the Senate, support for an evenhanded approach no longer exists; without a strong opposing hand from the White House, the Israelis over the next few years, as they have over the last, will continue to create facts on the ground that will make peace infinitely harder. Indeed, one of Sharon's closest advisors and former chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, recently let the cat out of the bag when he gloated that the real purpose of the proposed pull-out from Gaza is to end any peace talks and freeze the status quo indefinitely "so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians," thus leaving a walled-in, occupied West Bank ― one that white South Africans would have recognized.

Make no mistake, the Palestinian issue is part and parcel of the war on terrorism: the daily pictures of Palestinians, often women and children, being killed and wounded by American-supplied fighter planes attacking crowded urban centers act as as powerful an anti-Western (and specifically anti-US) tool as any pictures coming out of Iraq. Solve the Palestinian issue and you begin to defuse the potential civilizational clash between the Arab world and the West. Leave it festering, as Bush has chosen to do, and, warned Pakistan's President Musharraf recently, "an iron curtain [will] descend between the West and the Islamic world." Exactly, of course, what bin Laden yearns to see.

Prof. Stanley Hoffmann, the well-respected Harvard political scientist, writing in the October 21st New York Review of Books, suggests the US "should extricate itself soon" from Iraq. His proposal would involve announcing a withdrawal of US and coalition forces six months after Iraq's January elections, turning the country over to UN forces and hastily trained Iraqis. He acknowledges that such a course entails risks, including, preeminently, the breakup of Iraq.

Myself, I'm not prepared yet to abandon Iraq to its fate, though we both see the same downside in the continuing US presence ― that our troops, now seen as occupiers, are contributing to the creation of terrorism, not to its destruction. But the US has acquired no small moral responsibility ― and a rather large strategic one ― and must therefore weigh carefully the risks of leaving Iraq to become a failed state versus the reality that our long-term presence is not in the US's long-term interest.

Speeding up the training of Iraqi forces is, of course, easy to say, but we spent 15 years doing that in Vietnam. Still, one hopes if training becomes the priority in Iraq short-term that we could do it faster. We obviously need, and needed, more troops on the ground, but it takes no special insight to know that Bush's dealings with the UN and key European allies over Iraq have made his ability to enlist their support problematic. Kerry would certainly get the benefit of the doubt, which might just make it possible to get enough serious international support, in conjunction with a newly elected and therefore more legitimate Iraqi government, to make the difference.

Bush pooh-poohs Kerry's call for an international conference, but the fact is that such a conference, if it included NATO, Russia ― and this is key ― important Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan), would not only focus on Iraq but on the Palestinian issue as well. For too long ― and this ultimately, I think, was what led to the failure of Clinton's ever-so-close last-minute efforts ― the US has hogged the peace process, portraying itself as the only country that can find a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But now, no longer remotely perceived as the 'honest broker' between the two sides, the US has no choice but to internationalize the process. And doing so would, at a minimum, help provide a more friendly atmosphere for us to enlist European support in getting out of Iraq. But understand: the Europeans, even Bush's alter ego Tony Blair, are evenhanded; Israel knows it, and doesn't want the European role to be anything more than symbolic, with the result that we'd have to put pressure on the Israelis even before we got to substance.

And clearly, a two-track focus ― getting the Palestinians and Israelis back to serious negotiations while internationalizing Iraq ― would test the diplomatic skills of both a Talleyrand and a Metternich, but the issues are intertwined, and progress on the former could help with the latter.

The Palestinian problem has long been the intractable issue in the Middle East. No longer: George W has seen to that. But even if, in a new Kerry administration, there are positive developments between the Israelis and the Palestinians ― no mean if ― it's hard to be sanguine long-term about Iraq. There's probably not enough time to train Iraqis, and even if we succeed there, once trained, there may not be the political will to keep the disparate parts of the country together. And the last thing we want is to have our troops on the ground if a real civil war develops. So we put our best foot forward, which self-evidently can't be done with Bush and his neo-con advisors, the group that created this mess, still there. We put our best foot forward ― by electing John Kerry ― buy whatever time we can, and then hope for the best. Not a great plan ― a minimalist one, if you will ― but a realistic one, at least.

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Tonight's Debate: The Moment of Truth? (Sep. 30, 2004)

John Kerry's finally taken off his gloves, but like the proverbial farmer who closed the barn door a little late, too many of the undecideds seem to have escaped. So, with just over a month to go, it's come down, for Kerry supporters, to the last, best hope ― that what he hasn't been able to win on the campaign trail, he can secure in the debates.

But, unfortunately, we're not talking Lincoln-Douglas here; instead, we're facing a formalized presentation of opposing views (read, claims or even downright lies) whose only relationship to a debate is that the two candidates appear at the same time and in the same place.

The "town hall meeting" has been negotiated down (by the Republicans) to the point where, according to the New York Times, if "any audience member poses a question that is in any material way different than the question that the audience member submitted to the moderator for review, the moderator will cut off the questioner," and, no doubt, have him forcefully removed, and who knows ― as happened to a recent questioner at a Bush rally ― arrested for disorderly conduct. I mean, what, after all, in this carefully orchestrated presidency, could be more disorderly than a citizen posing a question the president's controllers haven't prepped him on?

Since the press, acting as moderators, have agreed to this format, maybe in the future, Bush can require it for his press conferences; either that, or as is currently the case, just not hold them.

Democrats are left praying for the Gerry Ford "Poland moment" ― when Ford somehow claimed that Soviet-occupied Poland was "free." But with Bush's safety net securely in place, there's no possibility for such a fall. Bush may not be the swiftest dog in the pack, but there's no denying he's remarkably adept at staying on message and giving the same upbeat answer regardless of the facts (or, for that matter, of the question). And since Americans don't seem to know or care what the facts are, we let this president define them for us.

So, a short preview of tonight's foreign policy "debate":

(Moderator, looking stern): "Mr. President, nearly a year and a half ago, you helped pilot a plane to make a dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier, where a banner, sponsored by your White House, proclaimed, 'Mission Accomplished.' Since then, more than 900 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, nearly 7,000 have been wounded in action, and over 10,000 Iraqi civilians, policemen and military trainees have also been killed. Mortar shells rain down daily on the Green Zone, $17 billion in development funds remain unspent because of the security breakdown, every day brings increasing numbers of attacks on US soldiers, and whole areas of central Iraq and even Baghdad itself are under control of the insurgents. It would appear that the mission was certainly not accomplished in May 2004, is even further from being accomplished now ― and indeed may never be accomplished. At the very least, most military experts say you need tens of thousands more troops to turn the tide. Your comments, please."

The president (looking stern also, but with an occasional uncontrolled grin): "I'm glad you asked me that. As you know, our #1 mission was to overthrow and capture that murderous thug Saddam Hussein, who had been ruling Iraq and torturing and killing its inhabitants for 30 years. Saddam is behind bars and will shortly face Iraqi justice in a trial that all freedom-loving people everywhere will applaud. His key Baathist henchmen are dead or jailed. Iraq is now a free country, poised to have the first free elections in its history. I would call that not just 'mission accomplished,' but an accomplishment that all Americans, loving freedom and liberty as we do, can be proud of."

(Let's assume, though it's by no means a safe bet, that a follow-up by the moderator is allowed): "If I can be allowed a follow-up, Mr. President: Yes, no doubt Saddam has been overthrown, but the two principal reasons your administration cited for initiating this pre-emptive war were the threat of WMD and Saddam's ties to terrorism. It has now been shown by our own inspectors and intelligence that Iraq had no WMD, nothing to do with 9/11, and no ties to aI-Qaeda."

The president (slight smile): "I'm glad you've pointed that out. The survey team that spent the last 15 months in Iraq has just issued its very damning report, in which it showed that despite the sanctions and overflights that Saddam had been subjected to for over 10 years, he and his terrorist regime were still intent on reconstituting their massive stores of WMD. It was clearly just a matter of time before he would have done so, and then sold, or even given, these terrible weapons to al-Qaeda and others to use on our own homeland. The world is a safer place. All Americans are safer with that madman in jail and no longer with his hands on WMD. Indeed, I'm sure even my challenger would agree."

And if the rules are really liberal, even the challenger may be permitted to ask an additional follow-up:

"Mr. President, the fact is there was no imminent threat, there were no WMD, and although Saddam was a ruthless, despotic dictator, there is no evidence at all Iraq had any relationship with al-Qaeda or other fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. Indeed, as a secular nationalist, Saddam kept fundamentalists and Islamist terrorists totally controlled. Today, because of your mismanaged war, significant numbers of Iraq's Shi'ite majority are aligning themselves with Iran, the Kurds are threatening to go it alone, and the Sunni Triangle in central Iraq is a hotbed of terrorism which is, as we speak, de-stabilizing the Middle East, creating more terrorists, and making the world a more dangerous place for all Americans."

"Senator Kerry: I have visited Iraq. I have talked to our brave American troops. I have talked to fathers whose daughters were gang-raped in front of their eyes, I've listened to parents who have had their children tortured and killed by Saddam's evildoers. Only two weeks ago, I sat in the Oval Office listening to Prime Minster Allawi tell me, and I quote (he pulls a little card from his pocket): 'The war in Iraq is a war for the civilized world. The terrorists want to undermine us in Iraq and once they do this, they will hit hard at the civilized world and in Washington and in New York....' This is a brave man. Saddam tried to kill him for his belief in freedom. He has fought terrorism all his life. He knows what he's talking about. He also thanked me, and you, and all Americans for the opportunity we have given the new Iraq to live a decent life in freedom, liberty, and religious tolerance. Oh, you can quibble about minor problems in fighting the war, the war which you yourself voted for. As one famous general once said, 'When the fighting starts, the planning ends.' The work ahead is demanding, Senator Kerry. No one, least of all me, ever said democracy comes easy. But America will prevail. The kind of defeatism that you express in your doubts about what our brave American soldiers are dying for (he slows for emphasis) is ... just ... not ... right when we face terrorists worldwide who hate our way of life and want to stop us from bringing hope and democracy to the Middle East. Your negative talk hurts these efforts, it hurts the brave men and women fighting for Iraqi freedom, and no doubt gives comfort to the evildoers who are trying so desperately to destroy our democratic way of life.

"And if I can just take another minute, I'd like to read a short thank you note Prime Minister Allawi brought me from a young Iraqi girl whose whole family was killed by Saddam and who knows firsthand just how hard ..."

And so it'll go. Game, set, match.

And then ― with things bleaker than ever in Iraq ― about a year down the road (if not much sooner), it'll be time to once again trot out that winning mixture of fear and patriotism: "My fellow Americans, the Iranian people have for too long lived under the tyranny of these wicked religious fanatics who support terrorism worldwide. They are now building nuclear weapons which threaten to destabilize the Middle East, to undermine all we have done to foster democracy in Iraq. Indeed, these radical Islamists are coordinating with al-Qaeda in ways that threaten our very survival. Accordingly, after conferring with Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, I have decided we must re-institute the draft as we face the necessity of opening a new front, in the war on terrorism, in Iran …"

If one unwinnable war doesn't wake up the American public, will two?

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Republicans 2008 (Sep. 9, 2004)

Conventions these days are more like high school pep rallies ― they are preaching to the converted, and even the converted probably wouldn't attend if it weren't for all those big-deal receptions and entertainment.

Having said that ― and after confessing too that I only watched either convention by accident (you couldn't avoid them on the evening news or even on Jim Lehrer) ― the Republican convention was much the more interesting of the two because of what it implied for the future: the obvious emergence of the two men who hope to pick up the pieces Bush's neo-cons will have left behind after they've destroyed the Republican Party.

I'm talking about the liberal ex-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, and the hard-to-define (except he sure ain't a neo-con) senator from Arizona, John McCain. And it really doesn't matter (for these two, not for the country, mind you) whether George W. wins or loses this round: if he loses, the blame-game between the neo-cons and Christian right-wing nutcases that between them have hijacked the GOP, on the one hand, and the moderate Republicans and the old-fashioned Buchanan-type conservatives that have ended up in a shot-gun alliance, will just begin four years earlier. Because it's a safe bet that four more years of our born-again, messianic, and intellectually challenged president will leave the country (and hence the Republican Party) in a far bigger mess than it's in now ― so early positioning in the fight over the bones of the yet-to-be carcass, as Giuliani and McCain are doing, is not a bad idea.

One really has to ask, though, if that moderate veneer the Republicans put on at the convention is going to convince a public who was sold "compassionate conservatism" four years ago ― and if it does, then this democracy is in worse shape than George Bush can be held responsible for. Even Little Red Riding Hood smelled a rat with the wolf in grandma's clothing. But, as the poor go off to fight in Iraq, the rich get their taxes cut, and the middle class seem to conspire in their own demise, one stares in amazement at what the American public swallows.

History, of course, only repeats itself in disguise: it's usually the Democrats (viz, post-Jimmy Carter) who end up in disarray after a defeat, but this go-round, they seem ― despite a campaign by Kerry that makes you wonder about the conventional Democratic wisdom that Howard Dean couldn't win ― united and on message. Meanwhile, it's the Republicans ― as the moderate wing frets about W's failed Iraq War and the conservatives worry about his anything-but-conservative financial management ― who are on their way to a splintering re-organization.

The real problem with the conventions ― aside from the fact that there's not much excitement when not even the vice-presidency is up for grabs ― is that they manage to squeeze into four days all the vapid, unrealistic promises that are otherwise spread out over six months: we get a microcosm of the campaign, and it's not at all, unfortunately, about the big issues. It's rather, who can sling more mud on the other guy while throwing out more platitudinous slogans that at best are just meaningless cliches and worst, impossible promises.

The Republicans, one would have thought, have the more difficult road; after all, the Democrats can promise ― but the Republicans have to defend the past four years as well. But since the American electorate is apparently asleep, the Republicans have managed to turn the old 'best defense is a good offense' concept into a winner, proclaiming progress in the war on terror, even as the US is bogged down irreversibly in Iraq; and highlighting the tax cuts that have destroyed budget surpluses and threaten the very underpinnings of our economic strength for years to come.

To see what Bush has really done in the two areas that count the most ― foreign policy and the economy ― let's look at what two Republican establishment (at least they were until these cowboys took over Washington) experts have to say. Brent Scowcroft, George H.W.'s alter ego when it came to foreign policy and an outspoken opponent of his son's Iraq adventurism ― predicting in the Wall St. Journal before the war that it would be the fiasco it has become ― has recently been quoted as pointing out the obvious, that Bush jr.'s Iraq War has made it just that much harder for the US to deal with Iran and its real nuclear weapons threat.

On the economy, Pete Peterson, Nixon's commerce secretary, ex-chairman of the New York Federal Reserve and the current chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, has just come out with a new book entitled, Running on Empty, a scathing attack on the economic policies of the current administration. Peterson is about as Republican mainstream as you can get; this is what he has to say: "This administration and the Republican Congress have presided over the biggest, most reckless deterioration of America's finances in history.... When Bush entered office, the ten-year budget balance was officially projected to be a surplus of $5.6 trillion.., in just three years, US voters witnessed a negative swing of over $10 trillion.... How big is the problem practically speaking? If we wanted to balance the budget by 2014, on our current track we would either have to raise both corporate and individual income taxes by 38 percent or cut both social security and medicare by 55 percent."

This enormous deficit is of course paid for up front by foreigners (primarily the Japanese and Chinese governments buying our treasuries) and down the road by our children and grandchildren, some of whom as Peterson deftly points out are fighting in Iraq while "the president boldly asked the rest of us to 'sacrifice' by agreeing to permanent reductions in our own taxes." Already, though, the Chinese are gradually putting more of their new surpluses into euros; at some point, a collapsing dollar, a Ia Argentina, and sky-high interest rates will wreck our economy and force us to bring our deficit under control.

With the economy and foreign policy ― the two centerpieces of any administration ― in active disarray, it's no wonder McCain and Giuliani are waiting in the wings to reconstruct the once-moderate vision of the Grand Old Party. For all us moderate Republicans, let's hope they get the opportunity come November ― and not four years down the road.

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Bush vs. Kerry: The Wimp Factor (Aug. 19, 2004)

It's mid-August now in a presidential election year ― a time of relative quiet in the campaign before the Republican convention at the end of the month will signal that we're at the top of the stretch.

If you arrived from a far country isolated from events of the past three years ― of course, in these days of the Internet and satellite communications, no such place exists ― and you looked objectively at the record Bush was running on, and Kerry was running against, which would you rather be: the incumbent defending or the challenger attacking?

The two areas that traditionally matter most to the electorate are the economy and war and peace. How has Bush done?

The economy, coming out of a relatively mild recession, has stalled: job creation, never robust, peaked in late spring and is now poking along at a level that guarantees George W. will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to see more jobs lost than created. Oil prices are at all-time highs and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Consumer debt has increased significantly, encouraged by record-low interest rates and the resulting mortgage refinancing, often with floating rates that will squeeze the consumer even more as rates rise.

To get even this mediocre jumpstart to the economy, Bush pushed through massive tax cuts in the face of a war he started that has cost us $200 billion with no end in sight. Budget deficits, which had been converted into growing surpluses after eight years of Clinton, have returned with a vengeance, weakening the dollar and threatening our long-term economic stability. With interest rates only just now moving above their 40-year lows, the tax cuts spent, and deficits rising rapidly, there are no tools left to stimulate this economy ― other than Bush's gift of military spending. It's a precarious economic picture ― and the stock market reflects it.

But the economy is Bush's good news: what he's done with our foreign policy makes his job-loss record seem positively inspired. Let's look first at Afghanistan, once again, under our auspices, the world's leading exporter of opium. Elections will theoretically give Karzai, a decent, well-meaning man, legitimacy, but it won't prevent the continued growth of warlordism, which permits Iranian influence to dominate in the west of the country, and a growing resurgence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban along the porous eastern frontier with Pakistan.

Afghanistan, though, is a haven of stability compared to what Bush has gratuitously created in Iraq. NPR quoted an American soldier earlier this week as bemoaning the fact that just when US forces are poised in Najaf to strike a knock-out blow against the militant Shi'a cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqis launch another round of ceasefire talks which inevitably break down after giving al-Sadr the needed breathing space to re-group and return with even greater support. It would indeed be easy enough to kill aI-Sadr and decimate his followers, but the firestorm that would follow in Iraq, Iran, and even parts of the non-Shi'a Muslim World would redefine the term "pyrrhic victory." As a soldier, he's rightly frustrated, but he misses the point: There is no military solution. What then, one is asked rhetorically, would you do in Iraq? The simple answer ― I wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place ― works for those of us who were against this adventurism all along, but it won't work for Kerry.

The reality is, the first problem he's going to have to deal with as president is Iraq ― and it's likely to offer even fewer options in January than now. Kerry's strength on this issue, however, cannot come from saying, as he did the other day, he would have entered the war even knowing what he knows now. That is to compromise his key advantage. Instead, he's got to come out directly and forcefully against the hype, faulty intelligence, and downright lying that got us into this disaster. He must make it clear that the ignorance, arrogance, and false bravado that have characterized Bush's post-9/11 behavior ― when foreign policy expertise became a prerequisite for national leadership ― has led to a situation in which we are reviled in the Muslim World, among secular Muslims as well as fundamentalists (we get no higher ratings in Turkey for Bush's Iraq War than we do in Iran or Saudi Arabia), and seen as bull-in-the-china-shop dangerous by the West. 140,000 US troops in Iraq are a divine gift to Osama bin Laden: if he had written the script himself, it wouldn't have been better than the one Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld produced. Iraq is a magnet for anti-Western insurgents and terrorists worldwide; it has strengthened immensely the very forces it was ostensibly designed to defeat. Indeed, as a strategic military miscalculation, it ranks right up there with Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Kerry is pulling his punches on the war because of the wimp factor ― he's afraid to take on this phony-macho Texan who sat out Vietnam in the Air National Guard (and even that seems to be debatable). Kerry can legitimately point out that Bush and his coterie have become a lightning rod for dangerous anti-Americanism worldwide. It's a forlorn hope to think that Bush can work with NATO, key European allies, the UN, or the Arab World. It's going to take a long time to repair the bridges he's burned ― and there's no way they can be repaired with him in charge. Dealing with the damage won't be easy for Kerry either ― but at least he is not the perpetrator of the worst foreign policy decisions in our history. Is there anyone out there who would ask Ken Lay to run his company? Why then are there still people who want George Bush ― still defending the boon he has given bin Laden and the radical Islamists ― to run their country?

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The 9/11 Commission: Policy and Structure (July 29, 2004)

The 9/11 Commission's report may or may not be one of the most important documents produced by the US government in recent years, but whatever its value ― and I think it's got a lot ― it's quickly become a political football. Its issuance abounds in irony and underlines how partisan our elected officials are these days: the Bush administration, now praising the commission's work ("Cheney Embraces Report," a front-page NY Times article noted Tuesday), fought, of course, tooth and nail, against its creation.

While the report makes key recommendations, it generally avoids two fundamental areas: was intelligence, as Richard Clarke and other key insiders have charged, hyped by Bush and Cheney to get their war in Iraq? And, further, are there policies the US government is pursuing that have helped create the violent anti-Americanism that lies behind Islamic terrorism? (This second question is a particularly dicey one to ask, lest one be accused of an unpatriotic form of blaming the victim, since in this case, it is we who have been victimized by 9/11.)

But first things first: it's clear that the commission wanted unanimity and that to have delved into the whole area of Iraq and how the White House (mis)used the intelligence it received would, as co-chairman Lee Hamilton pointed out in an unguarded moment on CNN, "have been highly divisive." True enough, but the American people are now left with the unfortunate task of deciding whether or not to re-elect a president when the key element of his presidency ― his decision to use 9/11 to go to war in Iraq ― has not been addressed by the commission. Unanimity is as desirable as divisiveness is not, but the issue here is too important to be sidelined until after the election. VP Cheney still maintains al-Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq were in cahoots, a claim the commission ― not to mention area intelligence experts ― rejects.

If we are going to deal with terrorism, we must not just understand our intelligence failings, but our policy ones as well.

On the intelligence side, the recommendations are reasonable. When, at the onslaught of the Cold War, President Truman created the CIA, its head ― the director of central intelligence ― was, as his name implied, tasked with coordinating all intelligence for the president. These days, as is well-known, the CIA budget is a mere fraction of all funding the US government devotes to intelligence, with the lion's share overwhelmingly going to the Pentagon. A case can (perhaps) be made for the White House, through its National Security Advisor, receiving multiple, and hence contradictory, avenues of intelligence, but then that presupposes the NSC would have the capability to decide between conflicting views, something it clearly cannot do. Someone must evaluate and coordinate the end product before it goes to the White House, though even then ― even were all intelligence funneled through a single designated official ― there's no guarantee it would be more accurate. Interestingly, with regard to Iraq's WMD, only the Intelligence and Research Bureau in the State Department, which has the smallest budget of any intelligence department in the government, was skeptical about Saddam's weapons.

No bureaucratic system can ever be perfect; the fact, however, that a bipartisan commission did agree on this significant structural re-organization should give sufficient momentum for change that those who feel they will be losers when the deck is re-dealt can be neutralized. With bureaucracies, at least when it comes to power reordering, it's almost always a zero-sum game, so you can expect the Pentagon and their supporters in Congress to fight viciously (if behind the scenes) over this. Surprisingly, even some in the CIA have come out against the restructuring recommendations which says something about how conservative the agency has become: it's afraid of change even when it could gain from it.

But if restructuring the bureaucracy was the main news from the commission's report, what about dealing with policies that have given rise to terrorism? The popular rhetoric (at least it's popular in the White House) ― that the Islamist terrorists hate the US because of our values and our democratic way of life ― is nonsense. They hate us primarily because of our blind support of Israel against the Palestinians, our close relationship with both the Sa'ud royal family (which many Islamic fundamentalists consider, not without cause, corrupt and hypocritical) as well as with other autocratic, Western-leaning Arab regimes, and now, of course, our occupation of Iraq.

Our politicians talk, and rightly so, about the threat failed states pose to world peace in general and to the West in particular, but was Iraq a failed state before we occupied it? Will Palestine not forever be one if we permit the Israelis to complete their wall, creating little Arab/Muslim Bantustans under Israeli/Jewish control? And what of Afghanistan, a war we are not winning: indeed, just yesterday Doctors without Borders announced they will be leaving after 25 years in Afghanistan (all during the Soviet occupation and the civil war) because of increased security deterioration. Undeniably, eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and Taliban elements still thrive, are growing more unstable, which implies serious risks down the road for the whole region. With foreign policy "triumphs" like this in the war against terrorism, no wonder "Cheney Embraces" a bureaucratic reorganization.

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Wal-Mart, Gephardt & a Pair of Natural Fives (July 8, 2004)

After reading the column I wrote last week (once again, on Iraq), a perceptive friend of mine said, "You're right. Bush was wrong. Iraq is a disaster. Everyone agrees. Now stop beating that dead horse and write about something that matters. Write about Wal-Mart and how it's destroying our communities."

The anti-Wal-Mart argument is that, sure it provides everyday items at cheap prices, but it pays wages that no one can live on, and its existence has served to put local businesses (that were paying "real" salaries) out of business.

So I did a little field research: I went to Wal-Mart. Granted schools are out, but Friday was not a holiday and at mid-morning (as opposed to late afternoon) I assumed most people would be at work. Maybe so, but it was apparent that anyone in Knox County who wasn't working was at Wal-Mart.

I bought some Titleist golf balls (made in the USA, yet; I didn't know they did that anymore) and a golf glove (made in Indonesia). The prices were half what you'd pay at a golf club and cheaper than any sports goods store. It was clear from the crowd that however many local well-paying jobs have been lost because of Wal-Mart, no one resents them enough to stay away. I know that those who have done some economic scale-weighing of wages lost vs. dollars saved have shown the economic advantages of a Wal-Mart, and certainly, anecdotally, it was obvious to me that the consumer (and that's all of us) was coming out way ahead.

The real issue, though, is not the economic one, it's the socio-environmental one: sprawl. A traditional downtown of small shops you can walk to gives a much greater sense of community, and is much more land-friendly, than sprawling shopping centers surrounded by highways and acres of asphalted parking. But Wal-Mart didn't invent our suburbs or our malls.

Coincidentally, the lead article in this Sunday's New York Times magazine, on the development of China as a major economic power, showed the tie-in between Wal-Mart prices and the bottomless low-wage labor force in China (and the rest of Asia). Wal-Mart's trade with China makes up an astonishing 1% of its GDP; 12% of China's exports to the US end up on Wal-Mart's shelves. As a result of China's low wages and Wal-Mart's buying power, just to give one example, the article noted that Wal-Mart was able to halve the price of "trendy" portable DVD players (with 7-inch LCD screens, whatever they are) in just the past year. And China, and the rest of Asia's labor pool, is going to keep downward pressure on consumer prices indefinitely. Politicians have been making a big deal recently about American jobs migrating overseas, but think about this: "If all the US jobs were moved to China," the Chinese would still have a labor surplus. Wal-Mart is the symptom: it's not the problem.

So where does Gephardt fit in? Luckily, nowhere. Kerry smartly dodged that bullet. The Bush-Kerry race is going to come down to a small percentage of independents ― and perhaps an even smaller percentage of moderate Republicans. Over the past couple of weeks, in just casual conversations I've counted nine Republicans who have told me they won't vote for Bush. (Subliminal message to anti-Bush Republicans: you're not alone.)

What those we used to call Rockefeller Republicans and the independent voters want is moderate politics. Gephardt is an old-fashioned labor pol, who would have highlighted the left side of the party. While Edwards may have some baggage as a trial lawyer (or maybe not, in this litigious society), he's young, smart, and has shown himself to be a brilliant campaigner.

Though Democrats and moderate Republicans (and many conservative ones, for that matter) agree that Bush's foreign policy has been a fiasco and his social policies not much better, what's ironic is, so far, how little Kerry has been able to differentiate himself from Bush. He voted for Bush's War in Iraq and, to date, has not been able to forcefully get across that it was the lies and misrepresentations of the Bush administration that led him and the majority of the Democrats to do so. As for terrorism, he's not yet hitting Bush hard enough about how the administration's policies are actually creating an unending supply of new terrorists.

Domestically, Kerry is pushing health insurance for all ― and that's a distinguishing feature from Bush, but an extremely expensive one, and rolling back tax cuts for the rich is dicey (for a start, who qualifies as rich?) and may eat into some of that anti-Bush moderate Republican vote. Of even more concern, it's hard to see how even additional taxes can support both universal health insurance and reduce the deficit, as he promises, while we "stay the course" in Iraq.

And the really big economic issue ― maybe not now, but soon enough ― is Social Security. Kerry is on record as saying he won't change it, though it defies logic that a system begun when, actuarially, the average American got two or three years of government-financed payments (before he was dead) shouldn't be changed when that average American is now living nearly 20 years longer at government expense. But no politician dares confront the over-65 voter.

Finally, of course, there's the Arab-Israeli problem ― and Kerry has let it be known that he's every bit as interested in the Jewish vote as the incumbent and, therefore, just as lopsidedly pro-Israel.

But, of course, we anti-Bushites say: Kerry's got to steer clear of Social Security reform and putting pressure on Israel ― the third rails, respective1y, of domestic and international policy ― if he wants to win. Once in office, he'll do the right thing because he knows that our long-term economic strength (with China galloping rapidly behind us) and our war on terrorism depend on it. Well, maybe. But then maybe he's going to be looking towards his second term ― and you don't want to deal with a third rail when your focus is on a second term.

Is the only way to get elected, and stay elected, then, to support policies that are inimical to our long-term economic and security interests? Are our voters too stupid to handle the big picture, or ― focusing on a single issue ― too selfish to care?

Oh yeah: that pair of natural fives? That comes from a wild game of 7-card stud ("Sevens and jacks, the man with the ax, and a pair of natural fives") in which a pair of natural fives beats anything else. Would a politician who told us the truth beat anyone else? Don't, as they say, bet the farm on it, even though these days it's likely the farm would be losing money if it weren't for those government subsidies we all pay for ― and no politician dares take away.

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Winners and Losers (July 1, 2004)

As Iraqis this week ― a few days early even ― celebrate their quasi-independence, it's a good time to review who the losers have been in the war that President Bush's neo-con cabal had led him to believe would advance our interests, and who the winners.

Let's start with our close allies in the area:

Saudi Arabia

Since our invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda terrorists focused first on local Saudis, more recently on Americans and other ex-patriots. The Royal Family is definitely weakened in the aftermath, and worse, split amongst itself, and the longer-term implications for the international oil markets of an exodus of highly skilled foreigners are stark. A BIG LOSER.

Turkey

Deadly explosions ripped through Istanbul late last year and again in the lead-up to this week's NATO meeting. The PKK, the local Kurdish terrorist organization (or freedom-fighters, if you happen to be a Kurd) that had been totally neutralized since its leader was captured in the late '90s, has begun to reactivate in response to the growth of virtual autonomy across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan. A pre-existing Islamist revival is strengthened by anti-Americanism, even among westernized Turks, as one of the most unstable neighborhoods in the world has become even more unstable. Tourism, one of the major industries and foreign currency producers, has of course been decimated. Another BIG LOSER.

Israel

Its relationship with Turkey, which prior to our occupation of Iraq had been one of the only bright spots in Israel's relations with the Islamic world, is now in tatters. Indeed, Turkey is mending its fences with Israel's arch-enemy Syria, which can hardly be comforting to Jerusalem (or to Washington). A strengthened Iran, with or without atomic weapons, is a weakened Israel. And Iran comes out ahead no matter what the outcome in Iraq: a Shi'a-dominated Iraq would represent an unholy alliance to Israel; and a split-apart or chaotic Iraq would defang Iran's traditional enemy. A LOSER.

The Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Back-burnered by the pro-Israeli neo-cons calling the shots in Bush's foreign policy, peace between Israel and Palestinians, nearly a done-deal at the end of the Clinton Administration, is less likely than at any time since the '73 war. Preoccupied by Iraq and the need for Jewish votes, Bush has given Israel's extremist Likud government carte blanche to build the wall gobbling up additional key parts of the West Bank, thus guaranteeing that in the future ― when some American government will once more seek to resolve the real issue between the US and the Arab World ― peace will be just that much more difficult to achieve. A BIG LOSER.

And how have our adversaries or enemies fared as a result of Bush's War?

Islamist Terrorists

Be it al-Qaeda, or just homegrown Islamist fundamentalists, our invasion of Iraq has created more Muslim terrorists than anything that Osama bin Laden could have hoped to accomplish after 9/11. Indeed, if, as some claim, Cheney and Wolfowitz were had by Ahmad Chalabi's purposely false intelligence, the trap they fell into was just as beneficial to bin Laden: the occupation, and all its accompanying disasters, has become a better recruiting tool than those 72 virgins the Koran reputedly promises martyrs. BIG WINNERS.

Iran

Mired in Iraq, the US has little ability to face down Iran's nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile (see under Israel above), Iran's hardliners seem poised to win no matter what happens in Iraq, and a Shi'a-dominated Iraq could make Iran the biggest winner of all. Arguably, a Shi'a alliance that had Iran and Iraq acting like France and Germany would be a stabilizing force in a most unstable part of the world, but it would hardly be welcome news to our Saudi friends, or our Turkish friends, or our Israeli friends. No, this kind of stability was not what Bush had in mind when he was talking about remaking the political map of the Middle East. A WINNER, perhaps THE BIGGEST WINNER.

The UN (maybe not a traditional foe of the US, but as Bush has made clear, no friend of his)

From being run over rough-shod, declared irrelevant, and ultimately ignored by the Bush administration, the subsequent wooing and re-emergence of the UN as a key factor in helping Bush staunch the blood flowing from this self-inflicted wound must be sweet revenge indeed for Kofi Annan. Although he's too much of a statesman to crow about it, he and the UN are BIG WINNERS.

Iraq

Yes, Saddam is gone ― and so is the CPA ― but even cheerleader George W. hasn't broken into a chorus of "Happy Days Are Here Again": there are thousands dead, tens of thousands wounded, an economy and infrastructure in shambles, and an insurgency spiraling out of control. What, moreover, does sovereignty finally promise: anarchy, civil war, years of occupation by American forces? There's a remote possibility that Iraq, in the long run, will emerge a winner ― if anyone deserves to win from this, it's poor Iraq ― but in the long run, as we know, we'll all be dead, and Iraqis it seems at a faster pace than most of us. And, anyway, Bush's War was never about what was good for Iraq.

And finally, us, the US

Nearly 1,000 soldiers dead, $200 billion down the drain, anti-Americanism deeply entrenched not just in the Muslim World but among our traditional western European allies, for God's sake. Terrorism up dramatically worldwide as George Bush's neo-con advisors have turned Iraq into the world's most effective recruiting center. The ideal of American democracy and our concern for human rights an international joke after Abu Ghraib and the administration's internal justification for torture. Our friends weakened and our enemies strengthened; NATO fractured; a volunteer army nearing its breaking point; a foreign policy both dominated and tainted by Iraq; isolationism lurking in the wings as the end result? THE BIGGEST LOSER OF ALL: WE, THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.

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Learning from One's Mistakes (June 17, 2004)

Who's winning the war on terrorism? I'll give you one scary anecdote. I ran into a college friend of mine last week at our 40th reunion. He's been in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, first as a junior American banker and now as a senior executive at a Saudi-controlled financial institution. Because of the recent targeted assassinations of Americans, he's virtually made up his mind to leave. This is someone who speaks Arabic, knows many high-level Saudis, and has a sophisticated understanding of what's going on: and he's decided to pack it in.

Multiply this by thousands of expatriates who are involved in the defense industry and financial services, but above all, in the oil sector ― and you have the makings of a serious long-term decline in Saudi oil production. Ever since the first Gulf War, or well over a decade, Saudi Arabia has been the oil producer of last resort, the one country, both because of its pro-Western rulers as well as its excess production capacity, that can control prices. Take away this ability ― and make no mistake, the terrorists know exactly what they are doing― and you're putting the major Western economies at risk.

Fighting terrorism doesn't take ideologues; it takes pragmatists. Indeed, it's much too important a business to let ideology get in the way. Blinded as Bush is by his black-or-white, 'for-us-or-against-us' simplistic rhetoric, he's long since let his focus on the war against terrorism be replaced by extraneous (Iraq) or political (Israel) or sound-bite (democratization) issues that have seriously hurt the West. There's a price to be paid for our invasion of Iraq, our knee-jerk support of Sharon, and our unsubtle demands that the Saudis, and other Arab states, democratize.

The strain on our relations with Saudi Arabia is perhaps the best example of a superficial policy backfiring: a democratic Saudi Arabia would be nice, and so would abstinence until marriage, but betting on long shots is as bankrupt a policy at the track as it is at the White House.

At the G-8 meeting in Sea Island last week, despite advice of 'old' Europeans to the contrary, Rush wanted to make a big deal out of promoting democracy in the Arab world, so he invited a bunch of Arab leaders to come as guests. Big Brother knows best, of course, but little brothers got the last laugh: Saudi Arabia and Egypt refused to show up. (Qatar, which hosts a key American military base, was pointedly excluded because it also hosts our media nemesis, al-Jazeera, a fine way of promoting American-style freedom of the press.)

The future of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia is hanging in the balance ― and with it, any hope for reasonably priced oil. Al-Qaeda made an important tactical mistake, I believe, when they targeted Saudi nationals in their initial bombings in Riyadh. Much of the population is against the Saud family because of its corruption and self-indulgence and (ironically) its Westernized behavior; bin Laden was something of a local folk hero which gave popular support to al-Qaeda and its extreme (even by Saudi standards) brand of Islam. But it lost much of its appeal when it targeted Saudis. In contrast to the current US administration, however, al-Qaeda seems to have learned from its mistakes: in recent months, it's been assassinating Americans and attacking foreign oil workers and their compounds, the soft underbelly of Saudi Arabia.

If there's a mass exodus of foreigners from Saudi Arabia in the coming months, score one big victory for terrorism. Inviting the Saudi Crown Prince to Georgia to be lectured about his democratic failings seems a peculiar way to deal with this threat. And having him publicly rebuff the president of the United States strikes me as a diplomatic fiasco of a rather high level. But then, compared to the rest of our dealings with the Arab world under George W. (no wonder his old man is jumping out of airplanes!), who can be surprised.

I don't know that there is a solution to al-Qaeda targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Saudi military and civilian defense forces have clearly been infiltrated by anti-government groups; and it's not in the cards for foreign civilian security forces, a Ia Iraq, to be hired by Westerners. In the short run, at the very least, we should try to avoid embarrassing or alienating a government on whose survival depends the economic well-being of the West.

In the long run, a serious, objective attempt to resolve the Palestinian problem has got to be the first step. No one can undo the damage of Bush's War in Iraq. But if a nihilistic, narrow-minded bunch of terrorists like al-Qaeda are able to make pragmatic adjustments in their war against the West, why is this administration so unable or unwilling to change direction when its policies have created more terrorists, alienated our friends, and made anti-Americanism a way of life in most of the world.

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Bush, Terrorism, and Anti-Americanism (May 27, 2004)

Iraq is a disaster. But serious though this quagmire is for us, far worse is the worldwide fallout.

For all the new ideas that President Bush offered in his speech Monday night at the Army War College ― or even awareness of the depth of the problem the US has created for itself under his command ― he might as well have stayed home.

Several times he referred to the "full sovereignty" we will be graciously granting Iraq after June 30. The "occupation will end," he assured them, though how this squares with 138,000 American troops under direct American command is a mystery. Words mean what I want them to mean, or something along those lines, the Queen said in Alice in Wonderland. Would that our president were that articulate.

There was, of course, the regular pablum about representative government and direct elections and the telltale tie-in of Iraq and terrorism, all wrapped up in a nice 5-point program "to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom." You wonder if 5 points can do it when you consider it took Bush at least twice that many to give up booze. And what we've got going for us in Iraq is a little bit more serious than a drinking problem.

It may seem mean-spirited to be so dismissive of the president, but his speech was not a recipe for change ― good God! It wasn't even an acknowledgment that we need change. It was simply more of the same, warmed over perhaps in a more can-do spirit, in response, in the midst of a presidential election year, to sagging approval ratings and a 2-to-1 realization by the public that the administration has lost its way in Iraq. The truth is, we lost our way, in a much bigger way, the day we went into Iraq.

Just how lost we are came home very clearly to me this past weekend, when a group of foreign journalists, on Nieman fellowships at Harvard, descended on Camden as participants for the 16th year in a row in an annual foreign policy forum. Nieman fellowships are awarded to a mere dozen foreign journalists each year, and permits them, and their families, to spend a school year at Harvard, with salary, housing and expenses fully paid for. These are the most prestigious US fellowships available to foreign journalists.

This was the sixth such forum I've attended in as many years. What was revealing ― and frankly shocking even to this critic of Bush's disastrous foreign policy ― was to hear how discredited in the space of just a year the US has become in the eyes of the rest of the world. Most Nieman fellows speak English fluently; many received graduate or post-graduate education here. In the past, their respect for the US has been obvious.

This year was strikingly different. A journalist from Indonesia pointed out the vital role the US has played in the past in encouraging Indonesian governments to show greater respect for human rights. But now, he noted, the US has so lost its credibility that the government can safely ignore our appeals. A Chinese journalist made almost the identical point, saying that US pressure on the Chinese government ― even though Chinese want greater freedoms ― is viewed by Chinese as hypocritical; now when we berate their government about human rights, it is seen as merely a gambit by the US to gain political leverage.

The voice of the Finnish journalist seethed with an odd mixture of anger and amazement as he noted that Finns now have their own axis of evil, the countries they consider the most dangerous to world peace: US, Israel, and North Korea. Even Russia, which has repeatedly invaded Finland, comes in fourth.

The Nigerian noted the deplorable state of human rights in his own country but, in referring to the report card the State Dept. issues annually on human rights violations around the world, he summed up what had emerged as a broad consensus: "Who is Bush's America to judge us?"

These journalists are natural allies of what the US has traditionally stood for. The damage that George Bush has done in the Middle East ― the collapse of our role as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, the breeding ground for terrorists he has created in Iraq ― is bad enough. But what is truly unforgivable is the way in which he has squandered the view that others have held of the US as reasonably fair-minded, and, despite our faults, as a legitimate champion of human rights.

Instead, we are now seen, universally, as hypocritical, self-centered, and even dangerous. It takes decades to build up the kind of reputation the US developed during and after W.W.II. Vietnam caused us more damage internally than it did externally, no doubt because our behavior could be viewed through the lens of the Cold War. Now, though, it's just us: the super-power, the unilateral giant ― the problem is, there is a real war out there with real terrorists, "evil-doers" if you will. But in the context of the intelligence and cooperation we need from governments and people around the world ― be they Chinese, Indonesian, Scandinavian, or Nigerian ― if Bush's myopic inept policies continue to foster this incredible outpouring of anti-Americanism, then the extremists and the terrorists will have won a key battle in this war through default.

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Don Rumsfeld and Al Capone (May 13, 2004)

Should Rumsfeld be fired over the prisoner-abuse scandal? Frankly, at this point, we're talking barn doors and escaped cows.

Here's a man who has not just overseen, but was one of the principal architects of, the biggest military and foreign policy fiasco since Vietnam; and Congress, the press, and some of the American people (is the rest of the country asleep?) finally seem energized to get rid of him because of some predictable actions by a bunch of poorly trained soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners.

I'm not downplaying the mental (and no doubt in some cases physical) torture of imprisoned (and no doubt in some cases falsely so) Iraqis, but for Rumsfeld to be forced out over this issue is the political equivalent of getting Al Capone on income tax evasion.

I'm sure we're all genuinely shocked at the pictures of naked Iraqi males being taunted by female American soldiers, but how shocked should we really be with these end results from an administration that sees itself as above the International Criminal Court, beyond the rules of the Geneva Conventions, and even willing to deny habeas corpus to American citizens.

Shocked? I tell you what's really shocking: Bush has reacted to the terrorist attack of 9/11 by pushing a policy that has created vastly more terrorists, has destroyed any possibility of a settlement to the Arab-Israeli problem which underlies much of the radical anti-Americanism in the Arab World, and has undermined our standing not just among Muslims but among our allies as well. And no one is held accountable.

We're now an occupying power of a major Arab country ― however much our leaders try to sugarcoat this with grandiose verbiage about democracy. Realistically, there is no good way to turn this debacle into a result that helps us win, or even stop losing, the war on terrorism. Put another 100,000 troops into Iraq? Sure, that might make a military victory possible. But Iraq was never about a military victory: it was, ostensibly, about the US helping an Arab country set up a democratic form of government that would create a pro-US groundswell in the Middle East, that would moderate the Arab view of Israel, that would foster a general pro-Western moderate Islam — all of which would serve to undercut Islamic extremism and isolate Islamist terrorists. Has any of this remotely happened? Is there anything now we can do in Iraq to bring this about? Is there any option other than a strategy of choosing the least worst course (whatever, at this point, that may be)?

And the effects will ultimately go far beyond the Middle East. For the truth is, the world does indeed need a strong, morally self-confident America. There will be more Kosovos, where we acted, and Rwandas, where we should have, but a US bloodied and confused in the aftermath of this unnecessary preemptive war runs a real risk of slipping towards isolationism, the flip side of unilateralism.

Even George Will ― the self-righteous right-wing pundit and Bush administration mouthpiece ― admits that in an administration where there is no penalty for failure (I would add, a refusal even to recognize when there is failure), failures multiply. As Bush was forced to apologize publicly in front of Jordan's Abdullah for the photographic evidence that symbolizes the Iraqi disaster, he praised Rumsfeld as "a really good secretary of defense." That's reassuring, Mr. President. One wonders what would be going on in Iraq if we had a "really" bad secretary of defense. Well, maybe for starters, we wouldn't be there.

Sure, Rumsfeld should go. But Bush, tough-minded as he likes to portray himself, prefers to take the easy way out: he'll hang on to Rumsfeld. For to get rid of him, and then to go through the process of appointing a successor, would be to open up the whole issue of Bush's War ― the faulty reasoning behind it and its incredibly incompetent aftermath ― to the kind of public exposure, and accountability, that should have taken place before we embarked on this disaster.

No, Bush will hang on to Rumsfeld. And, perhaps, that's appropriate. For, if the buck on Iraq ― not on prisoner abuse ― stops anywhere, it should be at the Oval Office. I've seen a number of bumper stickers recently saying "Support Our Troops," as if those of us who have been against the invasion of Iraq since it was first publicly mooted were somehow not supporting our troops. A friend of mine (from Salt Lake City yet: even there, they're beginning to catch on) recently sent me a bumper sticker which says, "Impeach Bush."

The two are not mutually exclusive. Put them together and you've got the big picture, "Support our Troops: Impeach Bush."

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The Clash of Civilizations: Thinking the Unthinkable (April 22, 2004)

President Bush seems determined to assure that Samuel Huntington's widely discussed theory on the clash of civilizations ― specifically the one between the Muslim and Christian worlds ― be proven true.

The picture of Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon standing by Bush's side as Bush reneged on 35 years of US policy towards the Palestinians ― while American soldiers were taking on a Shi'a cleric in the holy city of Najaf and killing Sunni civilians in Fallujah ― further lends credence in the Muslim World to a coordinated US/Israeli effort to control the Arab Middle East.

The Bush tilt towards Israel, beginning with his refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinians' chosen leader, had already blunted any real sense of US even-handedness in the Arab World; but this total capitulation to Sharon has removed even the fig leaf of impartiality. And in return, Bush got nothing from Sharon, whose intention to return Gaza to the Palestinians is based purely on Israeli self-interest and would have been carried out by Sharon with or without the most significant US negotiating concessions to Israel since the end of the '67 War.

Two years ago, when Israeli forces moved into Jenin and Bush demanded ― publicly and forcefully (at least for two days) ― that they withdraw and then backtracked in the face of Sharon's intransigence, Sharon got Bush's number. This past week, Sharon held Bush hostage to his Washington visit, threatening not to come if Bush didn't agree to the policy change. The New York Times quoted Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissan, as saying Sharon had told Bush that if the language he wanted "wasn't finalized then he wasn't going." (Talk about the houseguest from hell.) "That sort of insinuated threat," noted Gissan, "brought about the conclusion of the final statement." Our president can swagger and talk big when he's impressing middle America, but when our client state Israel calls his bluff, Bush retreats like the closet coward he is. Indeed, as if to rub George's nose in it, within three days of his return and while the Arabs were still reacting to the sell-out of the Palestinians, Sharon's military assassinated the new leader of Hamas in Gaza. The timing was guaranteed to implicate the US in Arab minds.

You begin to wonder if Bush even knows that Palestinians and Iraqis are both Arabs; that pictures of Israeli troops killing Palestinian civilians fuels anti-Americanism; that occupation of Palestinian land and the US occupation of Iraq are increasingly equated in the Arab mind. Of all the times to change our long-standing, bipartisan policy of playing the honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians, this is absolutely the worst one. And when Bush and his foreign policy advisors excuse it (as, to his discredit, Kerry has done) as merely acknowledging reality, they make a mockery of the ambiguities that diplomacy, especially diplomacy in the Middle East, is all about. Bush kowtows to the Christian right, Kerry to the Jewish right ― but it'll be the majority in our middle that pays for this cravenness.

Sharon is the architect of the Israeli settlement policy. He foresaw that, whatever it might say, the US would not prevent creeping annexation. Giving up the Gaza, which has only 7,500 Israeli settlers but ties down many more thousand Israeli troops, is to Israel's strategic advantage. But there's more to it. Over the last few years, Sharon's Israel has systematically destroyed the Palestinian Authority's (PA) police forces, confiscated their weapons, blown up their police stations and destroyed their files, in effect promoting Hamas in Gaza while turning over the West Bank to a mixture of extremist groups under nominal PA control. The assassination of the top two Hamas leaders in Gaza will, of course, radicalize it only further, as he prepares to turn it back to the Palestinians. Sharon can now sit back and watch as Gaza ends up under Hamas control or in chaos, either of which play into Sharon's hands.

The Bush administration has totally supported Sharon ― even as Israel's state-sponsored killings encouraged Palestinian militantism and Israel's roadblocks and checkpoints destroyed the Palestinian economy (in some areas, the unemployment is up to a hardly imaginable 70%), and even last summer as Sharon purposely undermined the moderate Palestinian prime minister the US had labored so hard to put into place. Sharon does not want a moderate Palestinian leadership. He wants a destroyed, defeated, poverty-stricken people that embrace extremism and terrorism ― and that he can self-righteously, and with Bush's acquiescence, refuse to negotiate with. The wall Israel is building in the West Bank will effectively end any chance of a viable Palestinian state, and with it, any hope of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Is there a better "road map" towards radicalizing an occupied population, towards encouraging terrorism?

In Iraq, the democratic dream Bush continues to paint is already dead. The Iraqi government that takes over "sovereignty" July 1st will be a US-controlled puppet state. And, if we want to guarantee a pro-US government is installed after elections the following January, we will have to manipulate the candidates to assure that only those acceptable to us are permitted to run. The resulting government will have neither internal nor external credibility. Look at what even moderate Iraqis are now saying about our military presence: truly free elections would ensure a government that gives our soldiers the boot.

The UN this past week has made it clear that there is no real prospect of turning the place over to UN-supervised troops. That train left the station while our president was still touting his Iraqi-democracy fantasy. So the end result will be a US-controlled Iraq, tying down a hundred thousand or more US troops indefinitely and making us even less popular in the Muslim World and even more desirable a target for terrorism. That's what winning Bush's War has now, realistically, come to.

So I'm beginning to think the unthinkable ― and that's not that we're going to lose this war, but that there's something worse than losing it: winning it. Because then the axis of Israel and a US-controlled Iraq, dominating the Arab World, will indeed help accelerate that clash of civilizations Huntington warned us about.

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Unraveling (Part II) (April 15, 2004)

As I suggested last week, it's time for Senator Kerry to outline some ideas on the Middle East. I propose a speech along the following lines:

I am prompted by recent developments in Iraq as well as by the testimony last week of President Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice before the 9/11 Commission to discuss the situation in the Middle East. 9/11 was a tragedy for the US ― I'll have more to say about the extent of that tragedy in a moment.

There is no way we can undo what happened on Sept. 11th, but at the very least we must come away from the work of the commission with an understanding of what went wrong in order, not to fix blame, but to put in place changes to make it less likely that we will ever have to suffer another similar terrorist action on our soil.

I strongly believe the work of the commission is too important to see it turn, as it has recently, into partisan bickering and defensive posturing. I therefore propose that the life of the commission be specifically extended through November of this year so that the report which it issues comes after the presidential elections and thus assures that the recommendations can be accepted objectively and not considered in a political context.

But if we are to remove the responsibility and blame for action or inaction before 9/11 from partisan political considerations, the policies of President Bush and his administration after 9/11 should be something which the American people are given the clearest opportunity to support or reject.

Events in Iraq since the American invasion over a year ago ― especially in the last few weeks ― demonstrate that, far from making the US and our Western allies safer from terrorism, the Bush administration has created additional ranks of terrorists and, by fostering an overwhelming increase in anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim World, has sown the seeds for hatred of the West and all it stands for long into the future.

President Bush, in his Tuesday-night press conference, made it clear that he is satisfied with what we are doing in Iraq, that no mistakes have been made there or in the war on terror, and that his vision for the future is simply more of the same. More inadequate planning, more wishful thinking, more strategic blundering: in short, more of the same narrowly focused, bankrupt ideology that has created new ranks of terrorism, increased anti-Americanism worldwide, caused the most serious split among our European allies since the Cold War, and, finally, has severely damaged our war on terrorism.

This war was not necessary. Unlike the war in Afghanistan which was thrust upon us by 9/11, this was a war of choice. And we made the wrong choice. President Bush was a foreign policy neophyte who chose as his advisors individuals who had little real experience with the Middle East, who relied on key intelligence information from totally biased Iraqi exiles and who theorized that American forces overthrowing Saddam would be welcomed as saviors. President Bush, and his advisors, believed that within six months of the invasion, most of our troops would be able to withdraw, leaving Iraqi police and a reconstituted military in charge; that democracy would flourish there and, as it did, other authoritarian regimes in the Arab World would one by one follow the Iraqi model; and that as American-sponsored democracy spread throughout the area, standards of living would rise and terrorism would dry up.

Needless to say, few Americans with any knowledge of the Middle East or understanding of the roots of Islamist terrorism would have bought such a Pollyannaish vision, so the president's advisors used misinformation, doctored intelligence and apocalyptic threats to get the American public to support this unnecessary invasion of Iraq. I strongly doubt that even the Republican-controlled Congress would have voted for Bush's War had they known, as we know now and Bush and his advisors should have known then, that there were no WMD, that there was no link between Saddam and 9/11.

We are now paying for this policy of ignorance and mendacity and, if President Bush is to have his way, we will pay for it for years to come as he and his advisors try to justify this ill-advised, $200-billion mistake, this sidebar to the war against terrorism, this unnecessary distraction that creates rather than destroys terrorists and spends our energy, our fortune, and young American lives in the wrong war with the wrong enemy. No, this is not the arena we should have chosen.

As we as Americans suffered when we watched four American civilians slaughtered in Fallujah and their bodies dragged through the streets, and since then, as we've seen pitched battles in civilian areas with growing numbers of deaths of both American soldiers and those we claimed to have liberated from Saddam, it's time to ask, Was anyone in Fallujah, or Najaf, or Baghdad, or elsewhere in Iraq, killing Americans before the occupation? Were any Iraqis involved in 9/11? Has terrorism declined in the West over the last year? How exactly has Bush's War in Iraq helped our fight against terrorism?

Unfortunately, however, the US cannot simply create chaos and then walk away from it. Like a fire started to test a new, but wrong-headed theory of fire control, we can't just leave Iraq burning and go back to the drawing boards. We have to deal with the blunder this administration has created.

Accordingly, I intend to work closely with both our NATO allies ― who also know the impossibility of cutting and running ― and with the UN to gradually replace our forces with a UN-authorized force. To start this process, we must now acknowledge the US-led invasion ― without a UN mandate, with manipulated intelligence, and with a clear miscalculation of the negative impact it would have on our war against terrorism ― was a mistake. All countries make mistakes. Great countries admit mistakes in order to learn from them and then correct them. I fought in Vietnam. I know.

Secondly, I will focus unceasingly on the one area in the Middle East that cries out for a successful outcome if we are to defeat terrorism. I'm talking about the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The outlines of a fair and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians are clear ― indeed, moderates on both sides and throughout the Middle East broadly accept what needs to be done. The real problem lies in having the political will here in the US.

I am aware this is a political minefield, but as 9/11 has shown us, we live in an era when without resolve and commitment, our Western civilization is indeed imperiled. So I pledge to you, if elected president, I will face squarely and deal successfully with the chaos President Bush has created in the Middle East, while presenting both Palestinians and Israelis with a fair resolution to their problem that neither side will be willing to reject.

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Unraveling (April 8, 2004)

Forget the Patriot Act, forget the life-and-death lies to the American public about the justification for invading Iraq: today's the day President Bush is "undermining the constitutional separation of powers" according to his own White House counsel, by allowing Condi Rice to testify under oath to the 9/11 Commission.

There's been nary a peep out of Bush's right-wing conservative base over this base squandering of presidential powers. Even they recognize that political expediency in this administration trumps everything, including executive privilege, every time.

The irony, of course, is that by dragging the issue out for weeks, and then flip-flopping on it, Bush has only focused more attention on Richard Clarke's claims that the Bush administration essentially ignored the threat from al-Qaeda, which Clinton and his advisors had warned the incoming Republicans was the most pressing threat facing the US.

The further irony is that even Bush himself, in the puff-piece book Bob Woodward wrote about him post 9/11, readily admitted he "didn't feel that sense of urgency" about al-Qaeda's potential. So this was old news. What was the real news from Clarke's testimony was his challenge, as counter-terrorism expert for both Republican and Democrat administrations, that Bush's War had seriously damaged our fight against al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism.

I suppose one investigative commission at a time ― especially a time of presidential elections ― is more than enough, but what really needs investigating, in a serious and profound way, is the process that got us into the war. Former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill has clearly stated that the administration was focusing on Iraq from the week Bush was sworn in, so Clarke's claim that Bush wanted 9/11 traced to Saddam Hussein, whatever the real facts were, has been corroborated from within his own cabinet..

Even worse than the thought that the administration was focusing on Iraq for years before the invasion is, even with all this advance planning, how badly they have messed it up. June 30 ― the famous, and no doubt shortly infamous, date for the US "handover," of exactly what? and to exactly whom? ― looms large on the horizon even as the political, and now military, situation seems even less promising than six months ago.

The administration has made one of modern history's fundamental miscalculations and, in creating this fiasco, has saddled the American people with the financial, strategic, and even moral burden of cleaning it up.

Bush and his conservative Republican buddies have gotten us into an arguably worse mess than Vietnam. The Vietnam war was strategically unnecessary because the domino theory, for which it was ostensibly fought, in the event, proved to be wrong. Iraq, while it will never cause the loss of so many American lives, is not just strategically unnecessary, it actively undermines the fight against the real enemy we face, which can be narrowly defined as al-Qaeda but is more broadly militant Islamism, for which our occupation of Iraq only fans the flames.

Maybe Ralph Nader is on to something (not, of course, intentionally): let's get Bush re-elected ― why let him off the hook? Four more years of this bunch, and the conservative right wing of the Republican party will be so discredited it'll self-destruct (and take the Christian fundamentalists with it, God willing). Pleasing though this prospect may be, stewing in their own juice has a down-side ― we're all in the same pot.

While it's early yet for Kerry to come up with his own plan for dealing with the intricacies of the Middle East, now infinitely more complicated because of our occupation of Iraq, sooner or later, he's going to have to do more than just say the war was a mistake. What we need is an effective way to get out, while maintaining US influence within the Arab World and among our allies, and retaining credibility throughout the world. And all the while, taking on Islamic terrorism and defeating it.

Next week, I'll suggest how Kerry might start the debate.

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Iraq One Year On: The Right Question (Mar. 25, 2004)

As we "celebrate" the 1st anniversary of the 2nd Bush's 1st war against Iraq, the question Americans should be asking is not, "Is Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein?" The question Americans must be asking, and the one for which George W. Bush must be held accountable, is, "Are we, Americans, better off because we've invaded and occupied Iraq?"

Bush and his cronies prefer to focus ― and prefer us to focus ― on the wrong question because, irrelevant though it may be to our well-being, it's a lot easier to answer in the affirmative. Of course, Iraqis are better off without Saddam. In the abstract, North Koreans would be better off without Kim Jong II; Zimbabweans without Robert Mugabe; Cubans without Fidel Castro: the problem is, how, and at what cost?

Let's recall (once more, I'm afraid) why Bush told us we had to invade Iraq: to protect the US from WMD and to assist us in the war on terrorism. Has Bush's War done that?

It perhaps seems churlish to hold the WMD fiasco against the current administration. After all, the Clinton administration (and virtually all our NATO allies) also believed Saddam had WMD. But with the exception of Bush's suck-up, Tony Blair, the rest of the civilized (and uncivilized) world saw no imminent threat from a country that had been contained for 11 years. And, of course, there was an obvious option: keep the inspections going. With hundreds of UN inspectors on the ground in Iraq, the lack of credible WMD would have become increasingly apparent in the months ahead.

The administration's cherry picking of intelligence and psy-war tactics against its fellow citizens (the vision of "a mushroom cloud" over the US) got Congress and the American public behind this unnecessary war.

One can speculate as to why Saddam wasn't willing to cooperate more effectively with both us and the UN ― he didn't want to be seen externally and internationally as a paper tiger? ― but, whatever, he was certainly a big loser in his weird game of bluff. But let's be clear: the US was an even bigger loser. For, in manipulating the facts before the UN, we lost something almost irreplaceable: credibility. And the more, ex-post facto, Bush and his discredited neo-con advisors continue to try to justify this mistaken war, the worse grows the credibility gap and the deeper grows the world's mistrust. Trying to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse is one, thing. It's something else altogether to hold up a sow's ear and tell us it's a silk purse. Maybe most Americans still think the emperor is wearing clothes ― the rest of the world sure doesn't.

As the world's only super-power, what difference does it make if the rest of the world no longer respects us? Especially to an administration that early on demonstrated its disdain for world opinion.

The answer of course is that the war on terrorism depends very much on support and intelligence from other countries, at both the government level as well as the popular level. The disappearance of 1,300 Spanish troops from the Iraqi arena, should it occur, will make no practical military difference. But as a symptom of how even close Western allies view our Iraqi adventurism, and how their citizens respond to our approach to the threat from fundamentalist Islam, it's indeed serious. Conservatives would portray this as a victory for al-Qaeda. And to an extent it is. But to that same extent, it's the Bush administration ― with their arrogant, mistaken policies, their refusal to admit error ― that has given al-Qaeda this victory.

So let's ask the right question: is the US better off ―safer ― 12 months after occupying Iraq?

We are clearly bogged down there in a guerrilla war where American soldiers ― and now "soft" targets ― are being picked off daily, frequently by spectacular car bombings. The American command in Iraq refers correctly to many perpetrators as terrorists, hoping to denigrate them; ironically, though, it is our occupation of Iraq that has created these terrorists, and served as a focal point, for both adding to the ranks of terrorism worldwide while it creates ever greater anti-Americanism, the fodder for future terrorist acts, in the Arab World. Meanwhile, as Gaza and the West Bank explode in the face of Israeli brutality and stupidity, condoned by the US, Bush and his one-track advisors, enveloped by Iraq, reject serious engagement in that Middle East clash of civilizations that truly threatens us.

Last week's Pew Research's survey showed not just that in the Muslim world, antagonism and distrust of the US is accelerating, but that a majority of our traditional European allies believe that the Iraqi war has undermined the fight against terrorism.

In Jordan ― moderate Jordan where close ties between the US and the late King Hussein and now his son Abdullah stretch back half a century ― only 5%, one person in 20, have a favorable view of the US; 93% have an unfavorable view of Uncle Sam! How long can Jordan remain moderate, supportive of peace with Israel, and a friend of the US? In Turkey, which itself was devastated by murderous, car bombings in Istanbul in December, less than a third of the population believe the US is on the right track in its handling of terrorism. Further, nearly two-thirds have an unfavorable opinion of the US. We're talking about Turkey, close NATO ally and the country we love to hold up as the shining light of democracy in the Muslim World. If this is where the Bush administration has driven two of our closest, most moderate Muslim friends, how do you think the rest of the Muslim world views us? And what do you think this portends for terrorism in the future?

John Kerry may have set himself up for criticism when he commented that various foreign leaders have told him they hope he's the victor in November. But in truth, based on the past three years, what serious foreign leader, concerned about terrorism, would want this administration to continue leading the western world down this ill-chosen, pock-marked path?

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Liberation Day for Iraq or George W? (Feb. 26, 2004)

Even supporters of Pres. Bush ― and there are fewer this week than last ― must be shaking their heads at the confusion and disarray of US policy in Iraq. The stated purpose of our occupying the place ― that is, once we'd dealt with those WMD ― was to bring democracy to these benighted people. Assuming, of course, it can be done by June 30th.

US pro-consul Jerry Bremer was quoted last week, following the visit of the UN election team ― how's that for an about-face? ― as saying that except for June 30th, everything else about the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis is on the table. It's understandable why Bremer would hang tough on this deadline ― after all, he wants out ― but what is it that's sacrosanct about June 30th for the White House?

Yes, of course, that's a rhetorical question: I know, we all know the answer: the elections.

But this cynicism just highlights the internal contradictions of George W.'s Iraq policy. More than that, it may actually prove to be self-defeating. Not self-defeating in terms of whether our invasion of Iraq actually succeeds. No, I'm talking about self-defeating in the real way it's understood in the White House: it may end up hurting Bush's reelection chances. The great American electorate, bestirred by Howard Dean into seeing the Iraqi war as something besides a rah-rah-us-vs.-the-ragheads sporting event, knows the actual significance of June 30th. And it may be that we're all getting a little fed up with having our chain jerked by the bread-and-circus puppeteers in the West Wing.

We're there, ostensibly, to promote democracy; and indeed, that's a noble purpose and one that, even if it only succeeds to a small degree, will make the Middle East eventually a more stable place. At the same time, to be sure, there is a growing need to turn power back to the Iraqis, as they, like just about every other national, ethnic, religious, cultural, or linguistic entity around, don't much like a bunch of heathen foreigners calling the shots. (I know, Mr. Wolfowitz, that caught you by surprise.)

So a process that has logical next steps ― transparent and comprehensible ― and that's designed to take a limited period of time, but not fixed to a specific date as if it were Holy Writ, would alleviate a lot of the understandable Iraqi angst related to our occupation.

But fixated as we have been on dates and incomprehensible concepts ― the caucus procedure, now apparently history ― we have continued to squander time, one of the key precious assets a modern occupation power possesses before such legitimacy as it has is dissipated.

The obstacles to a democratic Iraq have always been daunting; but now, the obstacles to even the process of moving towards a democratic Iraq are becoming ever larger as our seat-of-the-pants approach to post-war planning
takes its toll. It's been 10 months since Bush's ill-conceived jumpsuit victory speech, surely enough time to have developed a coherent strategy.

Instead, the White House, apparently mystified, watches as the predictable obstacles to a handover of sovereignty confound us:

  • the Kurds (can you believe this!) want more autonomy, more oil, more land, fewer Arabs, and their own militias;
  • the Shi'ites (or this!) want elections, the sooner the better, to guarantee that their 60% of the population will control the Sunnis; they also want an Islamic-based constitution (who would have thought?), which the US has threatened to veto;
  • the Iraqi Governing Council, finding they rather enjoy the few perks associated with even reflected power (another surprise), wants to continue, in resurrected form, as the new Iraqi sovereign authority;
  • and finally, security in Baghdad and the adjacent Sunni Triangle continues to deteriorate as the guerrillas adopt an apparently winning strategy of targeting poorly trained Iraqi police and para-military units.

Well, it's no wonder George W. is suddenly embracing the UN (and it's equally no wonder that Kofi Annan is taking his time and keeping his distance from this sudden, and very transparent, flip).

We've spent over $100 billion on this fiasco (and that won't be the half of it). Part of my frustration with this mess is not just the I-told-you-so reaction of one who's been ranting against this war in these pages for two years; it's the lost-opportunity costs. Three years ago, none of the civilians at DOD who're running this war knew the difference between a Shi'ite and a Sunni, but even they knew the differences between Palestinians and Israelis. $200 billion ― and all that mental capital in the Pentagon, the State Department and the NSC ― could have gone a long way towards settling the real issue in the Middle East.

Instead, a few neo-con ideologues and political hacks set the neophyte president on the wrong course. It was a fool's errand: Candidate Bush was right when he disdained nation-building during the campaign, as Haiti is so poignantly reminding us these days. If we fail in Iraq, it won't, contrary to Tom Friedman's voice of doom, be the end of Western Civilization as we know it. It may already be too late. But, we are there by our own pre-emptive choice ― and if there's any vision, or wisdom, or integrity left in this White House, let's realize that the political process we are engaging in now in Iraq ― with the UN that Bush has tried so to discredit ― is what's important, and not June 30th, an artificial deadline whose only significance is certainly not lost on Iraqis as we teach them about democracy.

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I'm Glad You Asked That, Tim (Feb. 19, 2004)

So, how'd you think George W. did, perched in the Oval Office, against Tim Russert this past Sunday morning?

The New York Times didn't think he "made much sense." No news there.

Peggy Noonan ― as Ronald Reagan's well-known speech-writer, a tried and true Republican ― thought he was "unsure and bumbling ... repetitive." That's a little bit newsier (and says something about the growing rift between Republican fiscal conservatives and Bush).

Noonan notwithstanding, in general though, I would guess most of those who support Bush thought he did fine, and those who don't, didn't. Par for the course.

I'm down the middle on this: he performed about as I expected. But then I was hardly expecting any surprises. ("Well, I'm glad you asked me that, Tim. I've been doing some real soul-searching about this WMD thing ― and, you know, Cohn Powell was on to something. I'm not sure, if we had it to do over again, we'd invade Iraq." Or: "Well, I'm glad ... etc. It's clear the budget deficit is much larger than we expected, so perhaps we went a little overboard with all those tax cuts.")

The real surprise was that he decided to go on at all. While it's a little early in the presidential campaign (and don't think it hasn't begun yet; the truth is, it began about Jan 21, 2001) to be desperate, it's hard not to conclude that recent polls ― showing Kerry ahead of Bush and Bush's approval rating at less than 50% ― have made it a little harder for him to float imperially above the fray.

More interesting than how he did, is why he did: what's the strategy? Indeed, maybe the mistake his handlers made in trotting him out (or, rather, in trotting Russert in) was that it revealed too much of their strategy.

With Kerry all but nominated, this tipping of the White House hand can give the Democrats a little extra insight into how to deal with this particular incumbent president, with his $200 million war (see below) chest.

One thing is clear: he wants to play presidential, Mr. Nice-Guy. When given the opportunity to comment on a negative quote from Kerry, Bush laughed it off as just "politics." (And Kerry reprised Tuesday by refusing to discuss Bush's National Guard record.) Two upper-class (and I don't mean juniors or seniors) Yalies pulling their punches. I wonder if the gloves will still be off come November.

And then there was the vision he gave ― it s not enough he has to finish his father's war, he has to come with a vision thing ― which involved leading this country "as it worked with others" (say what? perhaps this was just a little bit of that goofy humor he's known for). Several times he repeated the fact that intelligence from other countries also concluded Saddam had WMD. True enough. But the difference was that only one of them supported an invasion. Another clear strategy: he wants us to see him as, he called himself, "a war president." Never mind the inconsistency here, the lack of shared commitment. If this is a real war, why are we cutting taxes and deep-sixing the estate tax?

The real problem with the "war president" concept, unfortunately for this particular war president, is that he is up against the reality of his service in the National Guard, or lack thereof. Bush may have outsmarted himself by referring, in somber terms ― he sounded weirdly like Richard Nixon when he used to talk presidential ― to the honorable service of National Guardsmen, now, he noted, getting killed in Iraq. This is all too true. The problem is, in an all-volunteer army, the National Guard is indeed on the front line, be it Afghanistan or Iraq. But in a period when we had an all-draft army ― the period when Bush was in the Texas Air National Guard (and/or the Alabama Air National Guard and/or neither of the above) and his Democrat opponent was in Vietnam ― there was no possibility today's commander-in-chief could have faced combat.

Running as a war president ― when he avoided the war ― against a real warrior, may not be an ideal strategy. Is Karl Rove slipping?

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Bush and the Speech He Never Gave (Feb. 5, 2004)

This time a year ago, the Bush administration had clearly made up its mind, despite strong opposition from the U.N. and most of the rest of the world, to go to war against Iraq. The president backed down from his threat to force a vote in the Security Council (the "let 'em show their cards" comment which shortly became inoperative) and, like LBJ before him, got Congressional approval based on faulty and manipulated intelligence.

Let's suppose, instead of tying our still-active memories of 9/11 to threats of impending doom from WMD in Iraq, he had instead given the following speech:

"The U.N. Security Council has made it clear they are against military action in Iraq, so I have decided to ignore the U.N. With the exception of Britain, no country of any strategic importance supports military action in Iraq. While I welcome England's support, of the 150,000 troops needed in Iraq, I estimate they will supply less than 10 percent. Neither will others help pay for this war ― and you recall the price of the first Gulf war was essentially underwritten by Japan and Saudi Arabia ― so the U.S. will foot virtually the entire bill, which we now estimate at five billion dollars a month. We do not know how long our troops will have to remain. Reconstruction costs could add another $50 billion. Thus, the war will cost the U.S. taxpayer well over $100 billion.

"Politically, Iraq is a hornet's nest. The Kurds in the north will want autonomy, and perhaps an. independent state, which we may find it difficult to prevent. The Shi'a, which make up 60 percent of the country ― and are of the same religious sect as the Iranians ― will want to take political advantage of the overthrow of Saddam to gain power, which of course, as the majority, they may well be able to do. Whether this will lead to democracy, a theocratic state modeled after Iran, a breakup of the country, or a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a, only time will tell.

"The U.N. is against the war because they think that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction have been contained by the sanctions, and now that U.N. inspectors are back in the country, they see no imminent threat. We differ with the U.N.: I have to admit, the intelligence is ambiguous ― the U.N. inspectors destroyed much of Saddam's arsenal after the Gulf war and to date have been unable to locate any weapons or weapon systems that are a near-term threat to us, to Europe or even to their Arab neighbors. We also have no intelligence tying Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, or 9/11.

"Our allies, excepting Britain, are against war because they believe that for the United States to occupy Iraq would have large negative consequences as to how the U.S., and by extension the West, is viewed in the Arab world, and would, if anything, encourage anti-democratic fundamentalist forces. They also believe that putting the Israeli/Palestinian issue on the back burner ― and realistically you cannot ask this administration to fight a war in Iraq and work on the Palestinian problem simultaneously ― will only exacerbate the situation there.

"So why, you might ask, are we about to embark on this enterprise? Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has killed thousands of his citizens, initiated a war against their neighbor Iran ― which, admittedly, at that time, we supported ― and invaded and occupied their neighbor Kuwait. Certainly, The Iraqis deserve better. Building a democratic Iraq, a desirable outcome, will not, however, be easy ― indeed it may be impossible.

"But there are even more important strategic reasons, I have become convinced, for the U.S. to invade Iraq now. By occupying Iraq and eventually setting up a government which we control, we will assure Iraq's oil is available at fair market prices to the West; and we will send a message to the rest of the Arab world that, in a unipolar world, they have no choice but to accept our will. Terrorists will respond to our use of force by backing down, we believe, and our presence in Iraq will facilitate military action against Syria, Iran and other Middle East countries should the need arise. Some might call this neo-imperialism, but we strongly believe that our values ― capitalism and democracy ― can satisfactorily be spread around the world, peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary. Seen in this light, Iraq is just another step, though clearly the most dramatic one, in a Pax Americana for the 21st century. Our Western democratic friends may oppose us now, but we are convinced they, and the rest of the civilized world, will soon enough thank us. The U.N. has shown that it cannot make the world safer for democracy ― the burden has therefore fallen to the United States."

Of course, no president is going to ask Congress and the American people to support a war on such ambiguous grounds and with such uncertain prospects. But surely, these were the facts, as opposed to wishful thinking, that were available to his advisors ― and, one hopes, to him.

But such a frank discussion of the real threat, and the real thinking behind the war, would have given the American people the opportunity for an honest debate. Instead, we are left with a messy, unpopular occupation ― unpopular in Iraq and increasingly so here ― that Bush defends with his tiresome mantra: "I know for sure that Iraq's better off without that murderer." No doubt. "And that with him captured, we've made America safer." Well, not so fast.

Saddam was no threat to the U.S. And now, in his place, we have: increased anti-Americanism throughout not just the Arab world, but the entire world; even bleaker prospects between Israelis and Palestinians, the real threat to stability in the Middle East; growing terrorism in Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere; a serious rift within NATO and the Western alliance; a weakened, discredited U.N.; a $1 billion price tag, so far; and, finally, a morass in Iraq that may yet make Bush remember fondly why he was against nation-building in the first place.

The issue was never about whether the world would be a nicer place without Saddam; the real issue was what were the costs to us and to our long-term security in invading and occupying the heart of the Arab world.

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Saudi Arabia: No Choices (Jan. 15, 2004)

Most of us who were against the US attacking and occupying Iraq would not have expected that 10 months after the fall of Baghdad, insurgents would still be shooting down US helicopters and mortaring, with deadly results, US bases. No, the concern was a broader geopolitical one, in which Iraq would break apart along ethnic and religious lines, and/or, as it did, disintegrate into factional fighting or even civil war. In one of his more fatuous comments ― it's all relative, mind you ― Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld last fall pooh-poohed his critics because, to date, all that had happened was a guerrilla insurgency and not the dissolution of the country.

But, when this summer, the US turns power over to Iraqis, the time for ethnic and religious conflict will arrive. Even now, the Shi'a religious leadership is making a none-too-subtle attempt, which might prove successful, to influence the political landscape, in a way the Sunnis will find unacceptable, once the US transfers power. And the Kurds as well ― and clearly they hold more cards at this point ― are making sure that when the political spoils are divided up, they are big winners. And it will be this division of the spoils by the Iraqis, a process that could take some years, that will make the current military phase seem simplistic.

Bogged down militarily as we are now in Iraq ― with the political fun and games still ahead ― it's a good time to consider our options in Saudi Arabia, the other key Arab country. In Iraq, at least, the US had real options: we could have continued working with the UN on inspections and sanctions, which we now know had essentially been 100% effective (by the way, does this business-school style chief exec ever hold anybody accountable for lousy intelligence or lying?), or we could have unilaterally invaded the country and made its political, and economic, problems our own.

A bunch of aging cowboys, with intellectual firepower to be sure (we're talking about the president's advisors, not the president), but with absolutely no knowledge of the Arab world, fundamentalist Islam, or the real threats to stability in the Middle East, made the wrong choice. And it's a wrong choice we may be paying for in many different ways over many years: economically, in terms of worsening an already serious budget deficit and conceivably putting unsustainable pressure on the dollar; politically, in terms of lost support for other key US objectives worldwide; and militarily, where our preoccupation with Iraq will surely prevent us from deploying forces in the future when it might ― in real terms, not just rhetorical ones ― be in our national interest.

All this is a prelude to a discussion about Saudi Arabia, because if in Iraq we had choices ― and made the wrong one ― in Saudi Arabia, we may be worse off: we may have no real choice at all.

A few points on Saudi Arabia:
  • With approximately 25 million people (it's tripled in population in 30 years), it is one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
  • While its population has been exploding, its per capita GNP has been imploding, from about $27,000 in the early '80's to less than $8,000 now ― and no relief in sight.
  • Its ruling family is literally one generation ― admittedly, a very long one ― away from tribal tent life. (It's actually true that when FDR hosted the father of the present king and founder of the modern state, King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, on a destroyer in the Mediterranean towards the end of WWII, the Saudi king set up a tent in the stem and brought with him live goats for dinner.)
  • The country is overrun with non-Saudis, perhaps 35% of the total population, who not only do all the menial jobs but pervade the government and commercial bureaucracies (indeed, until the early '70's, the head of the Central Bank was a Pakistani).
  • There are over 5,000 royal princes ― and while polygamy is a dying art among the poor and middle class, it is alive and breeding at the top ― drawing millions of dollars each annually from the Kingdom's depleted treasury.
  • While free education remains available, including often college abroad, in the shrinking economy there are few jobs for either high-school or college graduates (and, of course, hardly any for women).
  • Education within the country is narrowly focused, emphasizing Islam and religious studies.
  • Women are as strictly segregated as they were under Taliban Afghanistan (it's the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving or going out in public without a husband or close male relative).
  • The current king, Fahd, in his 80's and ga-ga, will eventually die and be replaced by his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, slightly younger and already the de facto ruler. Abdullah's successor will surely be another aging son of Abdul Aziz as the tradition that the throne moves from eldest son to eldest son of Abdul Aziz (who had more than 50 sons over 50 years) assures a ruling gerontocracy ad infinitum.
  • The state religion, Wahhabism, the most fundamental and intolerant form of Sunni Islam, is tied historically to the very beginnings of the Saud family, and hence, the legitimacy of the throne is intrinsically intertwined with Wahhabism.
  • The royal family is split many ways, but basically between "modernizers" and "traditionalists." What has permitted the royal family to survive, unity at the top, is increasingly problematic.
  • Oil production, which of course has essentially underpinned the entire economy for over 50 years, has peaked, according to a recent study by international oil expert Matt Simmons, and production can be expected to decline rapidly in coming years. As Saudi Arabia has been the provider of last resort in OPEC, this will have dramatic effects on the already crumbling Saudi economy (as well, of course, as on the international economy).
  • While the vast majority of the population is Wahhabi Sunni, about 15% are Shi'a. Unfortunately, they are concentrated in the oil-producing eastern province. A Shi'a-dominated Iraq (where the Shi'a make up 60% of the population) could encourage existing separatist movements.
  • And, finally of course, al-Qaeda has not only substantial support within the country, but, as the recent bombings in Riyadh have made clear, it is actively trying to destabilize the regime (at a time when, it seems superfluous to add, the place is increasingly unstable).

Poor Saudi Arabia. I lived there for three years in the early '70's ― now more than 30 years ago ― when the world ahead, from a Saudi perspective, seemed full of promise. Going in one generation from a tribal desert society to a modern state is something that no country its size had ever successfully done. It was then, through no fault of its own, a schizophrenic society: a Saudi friend of mine, the second son of an important tribal sheikh, had gotten a Ph.D in economics in the US and was, despite his youth, already a key figure in Saudi government circles. I can remember visiting him at his house in Riyadh for a party and dancing with his wife and other young Westernized Saudi wives. Yet this educated 30-year-old had never seen the face of his brother's wife ― as the older brother, groomed to replace his father as the head of the tribe, had not been educated abroad.

Saudi Arabia was changing rapidly then, and while Western values and religious tolerance are always hard to transplant to an isolated traditional culture, modernization, and even Westernization, was the accepted reality; and there seemed a reasonable possibility that Saudi Arabia could pull it off.

Two events, nearly simultaneous, changed that: the takeover of the main mosque in Mecca during the 1979 hajj by a bunch of fundamentalist revolutionaries, opposed to Western influences in the kingdom, and the overthrow by the fundamentalist ayatollahs of the very Westernized shah of Iran. The Saudi royal family got the message and made the proverbial pact with the devil: it shored up its traditional partnership with the Wahhabists and gave increasing influence to these fundamentalists in education and other secular matters.

And now, as a poorer, vastly more corrupt country, tied down by its intolerant brand of Islam (and having wasted the last quarter century and so much of its oil income to boot), it totters into a bleak, uncertain future.

The collapse of the Saudi royal family would decidedly not bring democracy: if it's intolerant now, what will it be then? Meanwhile, anti-Americanism there spreads in response to our support for Israel, our occupation of Iraq. Does the US have any good options as we watch this close Arab friend and enormous oil producer move towards the brink?

Well, of course, things aren't that bleak: we can always invade it.

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Saddam's Capture: Now What? (Dec. 18, 2003)

What does the capture of Saddam Hussein mean for the future? Other than the obvious fact ― that it's very good news indeed ― it will probably be some time before we'll know.

It's apparent that, whatever else his role in the ongoing guerrilla activity has been, he was not leading it. The "spider hole" he was hiding in was barely big enough for himself ― it was certainly not the command center for a coordinated insurgency.

Saddam's matted beard and filthy hair (with the wonderful video of an American medic apparently looking for lice) and the fact that he was taken alive should certainly dispel any lingering myth of Saddam as the quintessential Arab strongman. Instead, he was flushed out like a trapped rat: a myth-busting end, indeed.

So, while we can speculate about the impact his capture will have on the ground in Iraq, the only certain effect will be the psychological one it's bound to have on his diehard supporters as well as on those who, unlikely as it seems, worried about his possibly returning to power. Importantly, as a key piece of unfinished business, his capture means a timetable for gradually relinquishing more and more responsibility ― sooner rather than later ― to the Iraqis remains viable.

It may be that an Iraq turned over to Iraqis will not last; it may be that, when put to the test, the various disparate factions, sects, and ethnicities will find more reasons to hold together than to splinter. But what is clear is that an occupied Iraq ― however well-meaning or benign the occupier ― is a certain lightning rod for anti-Americanism, increasingly within Iraq, and perhaps even more importantly, throughout the Arab world. Indeed, for all the satisfaction Iraqis must feel at Saddam's capture, surely there is also a sense of embarrassment and even humiliation that their liberation from this tyrant came at the hands of Westerners.

The immediate issue is how to deal with him. I would be sorely tempted (after squeezing him for whatever intelligence value he may have) to push him out of the back of a pickup in front of the main Shi'a mosque in Najaf one Friday just as the faithful are coming out from midday prayers ― and let nature take its course.

But, of course, that's not the example we want to set for this budding democracy.

The Bush administration has made clear its distaste for the International Criminal Court. So that route is clearly a non-starter. On the other hand, Yugoslavia's version of Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic, is currently being tried in The Hague by an international tribunal set up by the UN Security Council in 1993 specifically to try war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. The US has been supportive, with both cash and personnel, of his trial, so a tribunal under UN auspices would have a clear precedent.

But, again, while this would not be the ICC, it's unlikely this UN-bashing administration would support such a move. For once, I would agree with such a presumption, though perhaps for different reasons. One of the obvious problems, after all, with Milosevic was that with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there was no logical venue to try him and his thuggish cronies; with the Iraqi Governing Council now firmly established ― and only last week issuing guidelines for trials of war criminals ― it would be both legal and sensible to turn Saddam over to it for an eventual Iraqi trial.

Handled well, a public trial in Baghdad could serve to unite the various Iraqi factions ― Kurds, Shi'a and Sunni ― around their common enemy, the man who, after all, destroyed modern Iraq for all of them. For while the Sunnis, as a group, were the beneficiaries of Saddam's rule, individually many Sunnis suffered as much as any other Iraqis.

Even a trial in Baghdad runs the risk of giving Saddam an opportunity to grandstand in front of the world the way Milosevic has done ― but certainly less so than if it were under UN auspices. In a timely article in the current issue of Harper's on the Milosevic trial, the author points out the disadvantages of providing Saddam with a similar platform: he would be able to "play to the region's anti-American audience, portraying (himself) as both a martyr struggling to defend Islam from the West and something of a pawn, turned upon and betrayed by his former ally, the US."

Internationalize the occupation of Iraq; internationalize its reconstruction. But there's no legal, and certainly no rational, reason for us to internationalize his trial. When our military and intelligence authorities are finished with him, let him be turned over to the IGC; and, at an appropriate time, once the future Iraqi government has been internationally accepted and recognized, let the Iraqis deal with him.

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RIP: Pre-Emptive War and Unilateralism (Dec. 4, 2003)

There's a continuing apocalyptic quality to the administration's pronouncements on Iraq. Even once rational journalists, like the New York Times' Tom Friedman, have bought into it. Friedman's Thanksgiving column is worth quoting in this regard because he's more articulate than Bush and presumably more objective. Putting his ideas in the form of a letter from Saddam to Bush (an increasingly tiresome literary device), Friedman says: "This really is 'The Mother of All Battles.'... you have triggered a huge civilizational war ― the war within Islam ... It's as big as the cold war.'

Actually, it's not. There may not be much military similarity between Iraq and Vietnam but by God it's sure beginning to sound like Vietnam. Remember the domino theory: Vietnam as the linchpin of Western Civilization? How 'bout Iraq as bigger than the cold war? Or as Bush told the troops in Baghdad: "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our country." Ring a bell? Remember when we were "fighting the communists in Vietnam so we don't have to fight them in California"?

As a start, Mr. President, there weren't any terrorists in Iraq until we invaded it. Thanks to our efforts there, terrorists are now trying to destabilize Turkey, a geopolitical anchor to NATO. And while we get sucked into this quicksand, the Taliban and some real terrorists are making a comeback in Afghanistan. Good move, George.

And when we're not getting this reheated pablum about Iraq as the key to terrorism, we're given anodyne theories about democracy, courtesy Uncle Sam, spreading from the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates to the hallowed mosques of Damascus and the brocaded tents of Riyadh. Bush was widely praised a few weeks ago for his condescending speech urging democracy on the Arab World, during which he implicitly blamed the US for keeping democracy from the Middle East these last 50 years. Nonsense ― a silly mea culpa that may briefly unite liberals and neo-conservatives but that is patently ridiculous.

To imply the US has "propped up" (that's the normative word) the autocratic regimes of the Arab World is to beg a few questions: would Egypt ― or the rest of the Middle East, for that matter ― have been better off if Sadat had been replaced by his assassins, the militant Muslim Brotherhood? And the Sa'ud royal family: sure we kept them in power by preventing Saddam from invading Saudi Arabia's oil-laden Eastern Province after he took Kuwait. Does George W., with his newfound expertise on Arabs and democracy clearly giving him a leg up on his old man, wish that George Sr. had let Saddam have his way?

And let's look at some regimes that even Ramsey Clark or Noam Chomsky could not accuse us of "propping up": Qaddafi, for example, a dictator we've been trying to do in for nearly two decades, has managed to survive very nicely ― and in quite a totalitarian fashion ― without our support. And Syria's Hafiz al-Asad, after ruling with the proverbial iron hand for nearly 30 years, died in bed, but it sure wasn't because of our protection. The fact is, you can blame a lot on US foreign policy ― El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala ― but the lack of democracy in the Middle East is one thing you can't put at our feet.

Or to focus on the good guys. If we win in Iraq (and we might as well start adding, "whatever that means," 'cause the final returns will be long in coming and ambiguous at best), do we really expect Egypt's Mubarak or the Saudi or Jordanian kings to relinquish power to a democratically elected successor? (And does Bush really want that?)

It's all a smokescreen to cover the fiasco the President has permitted in Iraq. To applaud the "bravery" of Bush for landing at Baghdad airport, an American air base now, hanging out for two and a half hours before sneaking off again without lights on the runway is to miss the irony: the script from pre-invasion days surely called for a triumphal entry into Saddam's capital to the Iraqi equivalent of a ticker-tape parade ― and a lot sooner than Thanksgiving.

But if a clandestine presidential visit in the dark is what this "war of liberation" has become, the good news is that surely the mess there has destroyed the twin neo-conservative pillars of pre-emptive war and unilateralism. Was there ever a new foreign policy theory so quickly discredited? Just this past week, the US meekly accepted Europe's slap-on-the-wrist approach to Iran's years of hidden nuclear development (that's "old Europe" mind you, and "axis-of-evil" Iran).

When you cut through the overblown rhetoric, the jig is, mercifully, up. The US is, of course, the only superpower. But we've learned ― surely, this is so ― that that does not mean we can ignore the UN and most of our closest allies, that we can will democracies out of tyrannies, that we can remold the Middle East through military might ― and finally, that we can defeat terrorism and fanaticism on the cheap. As Thanksgiving recedes, that's a lot to be thankful for, indeed.

Iraq will somehow muddle through our invasion, but it's not going to be the shining light that leads the Arab World to the new Jerusalem. But our lack of success there need not lead to the doomsday predictions of those who would equate Iraq with Armageddon. Like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, we've smashed up a few things and we'll move on. Big powers make big mistakes. The real question is, do they learn anything by them?

You were an innocent, George W., and you were sold a bill of goods by more sophisticated people who should have known better. Sorry, there's no magic bullet for the Middle East. There's not going to be an overnight surge of democracy that eliminates our terrorist enemies. What would, however, make a substantial difference ― if we were serious about preventing the continued growth of more terrorists and staunching the flow of anti-Americanism in the Arab World ― would be a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. But this is a hard slog; it's politically risky; it would take patience and subtlety and real courage; it's defeated better men than you. But if you could cure this festering sore, it would be worth 10 Iraqs. And by taking away the key external issue that Arab strongmen have always used to retain power, it might ― eventually ― foster a little of the democracy you're so big on.

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Attention: About Face (Nov. 27, 2003)

Two weeks ago, with no small fanfare, the Pentagon announced its intention to reduce our troops in Iraq by about 20 percent to just over 100,000 within 6 months. But, at his press conference with Tony Blair in London last week, Bush indicated that, if need be, he might actually increase US forces. And then no sooner had he returned from London ― still jet-lagged no doubt ― than the New York Times' lead story, quoting a "senior army officer," outlined a "current" plan to leave 100,000 troops in Iraq till the spring of 2006.

So what's going on? What's going on is Iraqification, a tricky process at best ― and one that needs a little ambiguity (and a lot of luck) to succeed.

When, a few weeks ago, Pro-consul Bremer was called to the White House, so abruptly that he had to stand up the visiting Polish prime minister in Baghdad. the administration concluded that its current Iraq policy was not working and that what was needed was a much sped-up turnover, both militarily and politically, of Iraq to the Iraqis.

In the face of a dramatic increase in successful guerrilla attacks as well as an inept, or more charitably, a clearly inactive Iraqi Governing Council, such a step seemed not just counter-intuitive: it was a dramatic admission that Iraq, whatever rhetoric the administration chooses to employ, has been a major failure for the US. Giving Iraqis political power by next summer is a total about face.

Washington has concluded ― correctly I think ― that the mistakes they have made since Saddam was toppled have created a paradox where the apparent solution has itself become the problem. In Iraqi eyes, American forces have changed from liberators to occupiers; and with all the decision-making in the hands of Bremer and his advisors, the IGC does less real governing of its own country than the senior class president does of his or her local high school.

When you look at the disastrous results our invasion has created ― attracted terrorists where there were none; dramatically increased anti-Americanism not just in the Arab World but throughout the rest of the world; vastly overstretched our armed forces, our reservists and the National Guard ― you have to think that if Bush could, he'd love to turn the clock back eight months and let the UN continue its search for those WMD, the existence of which, some may remember, was the ostensible reason for this whole misadventure.

Some things can be undone, but not pre-emptive invasions. And the other key options that I, and others opposed to this war, have long been pushing, are also realistically off the table. In April, after the overwhelming success of our military, that was the moment to invite in the UN on an equal basis with us and thus get widespread commitment to a satisfactory outcome. In May, and indeed throughout the summer, as the insurgency grew, that was the time to dramatically increase troop levels, bring in NATO and share the prize we were so tenaciously hanging onto with others. But neither the UN nor NATO was part of Bush's go-it-alone hubris ― and now the UN, along with other NGOs, have all but evacuated this sinking ship, and NATO (not to mention South Korea, India, or Japan) wouldn't touch it with a 10-meter pole.

Having let the insurgency develop into the well-organized and pro-active force it's become, even substantially increased US troop levels would not now easily do the trick, as more troops would mean a heavier-handed occupation, an even less active IGC, and a greater sense of estrangement by the Sunnis and increasingly by the Shi'a. No, with the cancer permitted to develop to this level, radical treatment is required.

And it's to Bush's credit that, however disguised by rhetoric, he's willing to take this 180-degree turn. I think it was John Adams who said, in the context of a longstanding political foe who changed his mind on an issue, "Wisdom comes so seldom that we shouldn't fault it merely for coming late."

Paradoxically, then, the more our current policy fails, the more important it is to act as if it were succeeding, to hand over political power faster, precipitously so perhaps, even as we reduce the number of US troops to make way for more direct Iraqi involvement. If this reversal represents the closest thing to wisdom Bush has reached in Iraq, the risks are obvious and enormous: if the Iraqis are unprepared militarily and/or politically, the handover can easily be fumbled and the resulting chaos can lead to a Shi'a-dominated theocracy, a civil war, or a split Yugoslav-style into three separate states; or, indeed, in succession, to all three.

The odds are not in our favor. We have backed ourselves into a corner in which there are no good options, only a less bad one. For those of you who play bridge, it's like a hand in which the only way to make the bid is to assume a singleton king on your left. So you lead the ace and hope for the best.

Win, lose, or draw, there are enormous ramifications for US foreign policy ― not necessarily all bad ― which I'll discuss next week.

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Disarray, Dysfunction, and Democracy (Nov. 13, 2003)

There's a rhetorical disconnect going on in the Bush Administration's recent announcements about Iraq.

At the conclusion of the bloodiest week since Bush proclaimed "Mission accomplished" six months ago ― two choppers shot down and over 30 American soldiers killed ―Rumsfeld announced a troop redeployment that will reduce The US military in Iraq from 130,000 now to 105,000 by next May.

Not only are casualties mounting, but in what would seem to be an even more telling gauge, guerilla incidents have more than doubled from around 15 a day in mid-summer to over 30 now. Clearly, opposition forces are more active, more effective, and more widespread. Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, located in the north adjacent to the Kurdish-controlled area and well outside the "Sunni Triangle," is the scene of an increasing number of attacks against American soldiers.

Since it's clear that the Iraqi army won't be ready to replace us by then, and no one else is stepping up to the plate, one wonders ― as Bush proclaims, "we'll stay the course" ― why we intend to start reducing our forces. Could it be that next summer marks the real beginning of the 2004 presidential campaign?

Security must be created so that the infrastructure can be rebuilt before we start decamping. But in direct response to the deteriorating security situation, the Red Cross announces a pull-out not just from Baghdad but from Basra in the south, the Shia stronghold that we thought was "pacified." And our Spanish allies ― and we don't have many ― relocate most of their diplomats from Baghdad to Jordan.

Even the pledge of 10,000 Turkish troops ― which entailed a lot of twisting by Washington of Turkish generals' arms and by the Turkish generals of their Parliament's collective arms — was deep-sixed by the Iraqi Governing Council. Did it occur to our pro-consul in Baghdad or anyone at the Pentagon that with the recent history of Turkey and the Kurds on top of 500 years of Ottoman occupation of Iraq, that maybe Turkish troops wouldn't be welcomed with open arms? But then why should it ― these were the same military planners who thought our troops were going to be welcomed with rose petals strewn at their feet.

10,000 Turkish troops aren't going to make it or break it in Iraq, but the handling of this is symptomatic of the confusion and disarray that has characterized everything about Iraq except our blitzkrieg military victory. We seem to be witnessing policy by fiasco.

And if events on the ground or the diplomatic front weren't bad enough, the other big story emerging from the murk was a tale of Saddam apparently making a one-minute-to-midnight attempt to avoid war through a back-channel offer of virtual unconditional surrender. True enough, not every weird intermediary's claim can be taken seriously, but coming as this was from the head of Saddam's intelligence forces (the "jack .of diamonds" in our card deck) to Richard Perle, a key architect of the war, it was on both sides at a sufficiently high level to be pursued. But by then, Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were not about to be denied their little war.

And finally the week culminated in Bush giving a major address touting democracy for the Middle East. (One wonders why, when he was at it, he didn't urge a little more democracy on his bosom buddy Vladimir in the Kremlin.)

Democracy is a tricky thing ― it's not that it wouldn't be welcomed by the vast majority of the Arab World and Iran. It's the getting from where a particular state is now to the end result that is tricky. Before we push too hard for democracy in the Arab World ― unless, of course, it's just a grandstanding feel-good moment ― we might consider how it can be expected to develop in a structural vacuum. And with the US now openly backing Israel against the Palestinians even as we are seen increasingly by Arabs as occupying, not liberating, Iraq, the message of democracy comes across primarily as a message of hypocrisy.

In Saudi Arabia, which like it or not still has nearly a quarter of all the world's oil reserves, the likelihood of the Sa'ud royal family metamorphosing into a constitutional monarchy ranks right up there with Arafat joining Sharon's cabinet in the future unified Palestinian-Israeli state. The irony is, in calling for democracy in Saudi Arabia, Bush is lining up alongside Osama bin Ladin, as the only way to get there from here is the overthrow of the royal family. Democracy is the endgame of a long process that usually involves not a small amount of instability en route. And what the Middle East needs now, at least in the short run ― as we sort through the mess our Iraq policy has created ― is greater stability, not less.

The Shah of Iran, after all, was no democrat. But was Ayatollah Khomeini a better option?

But then, after the military and diplomatic disasters of the previous week, a call from Washington for the Arabs to take the high road to democracy is a nice way to float on the side of the angels serenely above the deteriorating situation on the ground.

But you might reflect, Mr. President ― though you've made it clear you prefer action ― whether the path you advocate for Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Jordan and Syria) is more stable than the one you have created for Iraq.

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The Blame Game Begins? (Oct. 31, 2003)

Last week was, finally, going to be a good week for the administration: President Bush initially hogged the news with his upbeat assessment of Iraq as he hop-scotched through Asia, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz got a few well-publicized hugs from appreciative well-wishers in Kurdish Iraq, and the Madrid Conference even managed to raise a little money for the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq.

But all the while reality was elbowing its ugly way into the front of the line: Bush couldn't hide his surprise that moderate Islamic clerics in Indonesia doubted the sincerity of his claim to support a Palestinian state or of his positive statements about Islam (surprise? ― after a key American general goes unrebuked for denouncing Islam's "false" god). Next day, in Australia, he was openly berated by several Aussie senators when addressing their Parliament even as China's new leader upstaged him with a much better received address before Parliament the next day.

Meanwhile, Wolfowitz, still glowing from his warm reception in northern Iraq, was blown out of his well-guarded Baghdad hotel by rockets that killed an American colonel and wounded a dozen other Americans. And that was before the Red Cross building and four police stations were attacked by suicide bombers in a simultaneous attack stretching across the Iraqi capital. And, finally, the welcome, or at least well-hyped, news from Madrid ― even if it took some spin to gloss over the fact that Japan gave more than half the grants and most of the rest came as loans from the World Bank and the IMF ― never had a chance with news analysts focusing on Rumsfeld's notorious "leaked" memo on our lack of progress in the war on terrorism.

The memo, in raising questions about what can or should we be doing to deal with terrorism more effectively, made several candid observations:

  • the US, after two wars, has not struck a decisive blow against aI-Qaeda;
  • the Iraqi invasion is not discouraging terrorists;
  • the US seems to have no long-range plan to deal with the strategic asymmetric advantage the terrorists have (we spend "billions to their millions");
  • and, in any case, we don't seem to have "the metrics" in place to measure the results.

He posed equally candid questions:

  • are our military and intelligence forces killing, or at least neutralizing, more terrorists than our policies, and the resulting anti-Americanism worldwide, are creating?
  • should we perhaps be creating a "new institution" to deal with the challenge of 9/11?

Valid observations and stimulating. questions all. But the real question is, why would Rumsfeld, in the midst of a Bush media blitz to promote positive news from Iraq, give so much ammunition to those who have long argued against the war? If the President is right, and things are going better in Iraq than the press is telling us, why is Rumsfeld in effect confirming the press's view and undermining Bush as he does so?

One conclusion, which Rumsfeld supporters as well as detractors mention, is that, tough-minded realist that he considers himself to be, Rumsfeld wants to be seen as not just acknowledging the reality of the situation but asking the "tough" questions that can lead to solutions.

But there's an obvious problem with this: The issues that the memo raises are the very doubts that many raised before our military was sent head-strong into Iraq. And, as everyone recalls, top military brass at the time were shouted down by Rumsfeld for raising these same doubts he is now confirming.

It would have been timely indeed if Rumsfeld had raised some of these questions last October ― before encouraging the President to embark on what Rumsfeld now calls this "long, hard slog" in Iraq. To raise structural questions about our ability to fight terrorism, to raise implicit doubts about the wisdom of launching the war against Saddam in the first place ― this can only give aid and comfort to Bush's Democratic opponents. As Sen. Biden noted the next day, "Reality has collided with ideology."

So what indeed is going on here?

Who can be sure? But one thing is certain: Rumsfeld is a survivor and a master of Washington bureaucratic infighting. He first went to Washington (to work for Pres. Nixon) barely a year or two after George W. had left Yale with his gentleman's C average. So you've got to believe that whatever is behind this memo, it wasn't an accidental leak. It's a realistic assessment of the difficulties Rumsfeld believes we face in Iraq and, more importantly, of the difficulties we face in dealing with Muslim terrorism in general. And this piece of realism comes hard on the heels of Commander-in-chief Bush's taking Iraq off Rumsfeld's plate.

If, in the future, things continue to get worse and the blame game starts, Rumsfeld will already have staked out his position. "It wasn't my fault. I saw the issues clearly. I did what I could ― the military and the CIA and the NSC just couldn't respond."

So whatever else may be going on here, if I were Condoleezza Rice or George Tenet or Dick Chaney or even George W. Bush, for that matter, I would not be reassured.

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The Other Middle East War (Oct. 2, 2003)

Predictably, and this of course was a major concern for those of us who were opposed to going into Iraq ― the White House's preoccupation with the war there, with its escalating costs, the bloodletting, the instability, and the overall political minefield it's become in the US, has pushed the Palestinian issue to the back of beyond.

Iraq was supposed to be part of the solution to the Middle East ― instead, it's now a big part of the problem.

In an enlightening TV interview recently on the 25th anniversary of the Camp David talks that brought about peace between Egypt and Israel, former President Carter made several interesting points: first, that it is indeed important for the US to be, as he made clear it no longer is, even-handed and balanced in approaching our role as honest broker to the Israelis and Palestinians in their search for a lasting peace.

Second, he noted that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Middle East is relatively less important and, therefore, there simply no longer exists the need for a US president to be as engaged as he was ― with Sadat and Begin (and indeed, Clinton was with Arafat, Rabin, and Peres).

It's clear that Bush disagrees with Carter on the first point, as his refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat, elected head of the Palestinian Authority, makes clear. Indeed, in recent US history, there has never been a less even-handed president from a Palestinian perspective. On Carter's second point, unless the Iraq war was an even bigger "fraud" than Sen. Kennedy suggests ― in other words, that it had no national security basis but only a short-term political one ― it would appear that Bush would disagree with Carter on this as well. For, clearly, if going to war over something doesn't emphasize its importance, what does?

Interestingly, in regard to this second point ― is the Middle East, without the Soviet Union's counterweight, still vital? ― I would disagree with Carter and agree with Bush's position. (Even a broken clock, as they say, is right twice a day.)

Carter, not surprisingly, based his views on the overwhelming importance of the US-Soviet confrontation in which the Middle East was a zero-sum game: a country that was not working with us was usually working with the Soviets, and vice versa. Without the Soviet Union, Carter's argument goes, the Arab World loses much of its significance as it can't play us off against the Soviets as, at one time, Egypt, Syria and Iraq all did.

It's true the Soviet Union is not the competition now, but there still is strong competition in the Middle East to the US - Muslim terrorism. And while terrorists, unlike the Soviets, aren't armed with nuclear weapons (at least, not yet), in many ways, long-term, terrorism may be more of a practical threat, as the theory of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD as it was delightfully known), which effectively kept a lock on both our nuclear arsenals, doesn't apply when it comes to terrorists.

But if the Middle East ― because of terrorism ― must remain then a key focus of our national security, what has George Bush done to effectively deal with it? And what should he be doing? Going into Iraq has created terrorists, not eliminated them; and the longer our inept policies prevent the occupation from being at least partly internationalized, then more terrorists, focused on the US, will be created.

Unfortunately, getting out prematurely risks letting Iraq disintegrate into the kind of chaos that could attract, and provide a haven for, Muslim terrorists the same way Taliban-led Afghanistan did. So even though it is indeed galling to be asked to foot the bill, to the tune of $87 billion, to work our way out of the disaster that Rumsfeld's and Wolfowitz's hubristic adventurism created, what's the alternative?

Bush has made enormous mistakes in his foreign policy adventures, but the fundamental one after 9/11 was not focusing on the key grievance of Muslim terrorists: the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Trying to bring peace between Israel (especially when the Likud party is in power) and the Palestinians is not a simple task ― it's a political morass for any president, the more so if you're a know-nothing when it comes to foreign policy, you've surrounded yourself with a bunch of pro-Israeli neo-cons, and a powerful leg of your political base is the fundamentalist Christian right.

So what to do? Pretend you're interested in resolving the problem ― the road map to peace, a handshake in Aqaba, blah, blah, blah ― while putting self-imposed restrictions on the US, by refusing to talk to Arafat, that make progress impossible. Yasir Arafat, in local eyes, is Palestine. Without him, there literally can be no peace ―and while his reign has been and remains corrupt, irresponsible, and autocratic, he is the only individual who has the power and support to bring the Palestinians along with the compromises that are required for peace.

Waiting for a new leadership to replace him ― or trying to create it ourselves as we did over the last year ―can keep the peace track on the back burner indefinitely. And as we've learned in the Middle East, when things aren't improving, they're deteriorating.

It boggles the mind that, over the years, we have negotiated with Stalin and all his Soviet successors, with Mao and the Chinese, and are currently engaged in multi-party talks with Kim Jong Il's North Korea, but refuse to engage the Palestinian leader without whom there can be no possibility of a settlement. And with no salve to that open wound, anti-US terrorism will grow. And terrorism, we are led to believe, is Bush's big focus internationally.

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Donald in Wonderland (Sep. 18, 2003)

What do you think the American people would have thought if, in March, before we started the Iraq War, President Bush had said that six months later we would have 130,000 US troops on the ground there at a cost of $1 billion a week; that our troops would be under constant pressure with an average of 15 attacks against them daily; that terrorists would be flooding the country, killing the chief UN representative and assassinating a key moderate pro-US shi'ite cleric; that other countries would be showing themselves extremely reluctant to help out with either troops or money; and that this situation could go on indefinitely? (Not to mention that no weapons of mass destruction nor any connections to al-Qaeda ― the ostensible reasons for the war ― have come to light.)

Either he didn't tell us this because he was lying and didn't want us to know; or because his advisors were totally incompetent and didn't foresee (as most of the war's critics did) what an invasion of Iraq would lead to.

My guess is he just didn't know ― and they didn't know either. So, it appears we've got a bunch of incompetents leading this country in our war on terrorism. If Bush were serious about fighting terrorists who have, to the administration's surprise, turned Iraq into what he called in his recent presidential address "the central front," why doesn't he get rid of those responsible for this disaster?

Iraq, we were told, was going to be a beacon of democratic light in the Middle East: it turns out it's become the central battleground of terror, and our troops, the central target. Who planned this, and why are they still around to be planning future fiascoes?

It's not that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and their neo-con buddies should be fired as a punishment ― though that they should. It's that from now on, and it's already started, their focus will be on justifying this Iraq mess, not trying to find the best way out of it. And justification of past mistakes is the worst basis for good policy analysis.

Iraq is not Vietnam ― not geographically or politically. But re-reading journalist Ward Just's 1968 book To What End, I was struck by a couple of quotes (just substitute Iraq for Vietnam): "The American Embassy in Saigon always seemed to be dealing with today, never tomorrow and rarely yesterday. American policy in Vietnam was a matter of improvisation." And: "When the guerrillas bombed a billet or assassinated a district chief, the Americans called it terrorism. They had to call it terrorism because guerrilla warfare did not fit the scheme of war as they were fighting it."

There's an Orwellian, Alice-in-Wonderland quality these days coming out of Washington. "Members of the UN now have an opportunity," the President said, "and the responsibility, to assume a broader role" in Iraq. "Opportunity?" It's an opportunity the UN specifically said six months ago was a lousy deal they wanted no part of. Does President Bush actually believe that what we have created in Iraq since then represents an "opportunity"? When key leaders of the Western world warned us against going into Iraq, by what stretch of the imagination ― when we act in defiance of world opinion ― does it now become their "responsibility" to bail out the unilateralist bully that we have become?

But if the rhetoric from the White House is bizarre, from the Pentagon it's straight out of Mad Magazine.

"I don't believe it's our job to reconstruct the country," the Times reported Rumsfeld as saying before Congress last week. We destroy the human and physical infrastructure of Iraq, but reconstructing the country ain't our affair? How exactly this approach will encourage Iraqis, or anyone else in the Middle East for that matter, to emulate our democratic traditions is an interesting speculation.

But Rumsfeld is nothing if not creative: the Iraqis, he further told Congress during that same session, can't rely on oil revenues alone (indeed, if we don't provide better security to protect the pipelines, they won't be able to rely on oil revenues at all, but I digress) ― no, "tourism is going to be important in that country."

Tourism: aha, that's the solution to rebuilding Iraq and making the heart of Arabia safe for democracy. Marie Antoinette and her cake theory has nothing on this guy. Stand aside, Halliburton ― make way for Ritz-Carlton, McDonald's, and Disney World.

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Now What? (Sep. 4, 2003)

Now what? The last few weeks have been disastrous for US policy in the Middle East. First, the same-day bombings against the UN in Baghdad and against Israeli civilians in Jerusalem, followed a week later by the massive car bomb in Najaf that killed over 100 worshippers including the key moderate Shi'a cleric. The Bush administration's Middle East policy, whose centerpiece was to be a democratic Iraq pointing the way towards a Palestinian/Israeli peace, is certainly tottering, despite the generally oblivious reaction from the Pentagon or the White House.

It's hard to write anything new about the shortcomings of our current policy. Certainly, bringing additional instability to one of the world's most unstable ― and geopolitically important ― regions was not what they were aiming for, though it is the direct result of their misguided policies. If there are now terrorists in Baghdad, targeting US troops and even the UN, where none existed before, are we surprised? Did we really believe that the US, Israel's closest ally, would get a free pass invading the Arab heartland?

But what is new ― and frankly shocking ― is the ongoing reluctance of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and their boss the president to do anything to alleviate the situation, lest it appear they might be tacitly admitting their almost criminal negligence in planning for post-Saddam Iraq. Even Richard Perle, one of the architects of this mess, has publicly distanced himself from it. Rats and sinking ships indeed.

We are told there are enough troops there already. In which case, why is the security situation still deteriorating? We are told that, after all, Iraq is the size of California with borders even longer, so we can't expect to prevent terrorist infiltration or protect the oil pipelines or the water supply systems. Well then, don't we need more troops?

We're told we're discussing with various countries ―India, Russia, Turkey and other NATO members ― to get troop contributions from them: but if we need their troops, surely in the interim, shouldn't we be sending more of our own?

Part of the problem, of course, with getting foreign troops from countries that can actually contribute something useful ― like Germany or France, for example, rather than Bulgaria or Romania ― is that without a UN resolution, which would entail a sharing of authority, those countries won't send troops. The US is now talking about a fig leaf that would cover UN participation without giving up US control, but, not surprisingly, after the way we dealt with the UN and our NATO allies in the lead-up to the war, that won't fly. Rumsfe1d it seems will remain adamant that unilateralism is the best policy, not only in going into Iraq but in staying there. If Iraq, as we are told, is now the main battlefield in the worldwide war against terrorists who are fighting to destroy our western civilization, why wouldn't we want help from other threatened western nations? Why wouldn't we want to share the burden, even if it means sharing the control?

One can't help but conclude there is a dangerous self-righteousness at play here that would rather deny the reality of the desperate situation we now find ourselves in, having chosen to defy world opinion, than admit to mistakes. What kind of leaders do we have that would risk the lives of more of our troops than admit that we have too few to do the job? That would prefer not to seek help from traditional allies than to admit to miscalculation? As Sen. Joe Biden so exasperatingly put it, "Is Iraq a prize?" like a gazelle brought down in the Serengeti, that this king of the beasts refuses to share with others? On the contrary, Iraq is a snakepit and we should be accommodating NATO ― with joint commands under UN auspices ― to get more troops in order to reclaim the stability that will permit a more rapid turnover of the country to Iraqis.

The terrible reality is that, stupid as it was for us to seek this war without UN and NATO support, now that we are there, we cannot afford to lose. Skulking away from this self-created quagmire would indeed torpedo any hope we have for a stable Middle East. But fighting it the way we are ― as if everything were going according to Hoyle, will only delay our ability to improve matters; and continued delay could in fact lead to even worse-case scenarios than we face now. If it's a mess today, what'll it be like when Shi'ites and Sunnis go full tilt at each other or when fundamentalist Shi'ites take on their own moderate brethren?

And while we all hope that North Korea is bluffing ― as the Bush administration says ― when it concluded last week's 6-nation talks with a threat to start nuclear testing and a refusal to resume talking, we've gotten enough wishful thinking out of this administration to discount anything it says. If you're sitting in Pyongyang watching 150,000 US troops bog down in Iraq, Afghanistan deteriorate, the Palestinians and the Israelis once again at each others' throats despite President Bush's "commitment" (for what that's worth) to broker a peace ― it may not be the worst time to engage in nuclear brinkmanship.

In hindsight, the much bally-hooed post-Sept. 11th performance of the president has been a bust. Our expectations were so low, any action he took came as a relief. It wasn't, however, resolve we saw, but panic: rather than developing a coherent, long-term approach to deal with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism ― and its root causes ―the administration hit out wildly in an uncoordinated, shoot-from-the-hip manner that responded nicely to our well-deserved need for revenge but has only made success of the war against terrorism that much more problematic.

Texas swagger notwithstanding, Bush has shown himself to be the wrong man at the wrong time. And we're stuck with his arrogant, anti-intellectual populism for another 16 months. A lot can go wrong in 16 months ―look at what's happened in just the last six.

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The Road Map: Going Anywhere? (July 31, 2003)

If, as I discussed last week, Iraq is a hard nut, what hope is there for solving the Israeli/Palestinian problem, which has been percolating for over half a century? While the Bush administration clearly cannot be blamed for the underlying issue, it has, I believe, so misread the situation as to have made an intractable situation, well, even more intractable.

The initial mistake was putting the issue on ice for the early months of his presidency, when a little effort and involvement, building on what Clinton had been working on for almost his entire eight years, would have at least kept the momentum going ― and could conceivably have led to an interim agreement. Sept 11th necessarily postponed any subsequent renewed focus on the problem; and then, frustrated by Yasir Arafat continuing to act like Yasir Arafat, Bush further complicated the issue by publicly cutting off all communication with the Palestinians until a new prime minister was chosen.

Now that we have the new prime minister, the situation is not necessarily any better: accepting that Arafat has myriad faults, still, he has always had the authority to control Hamas and other Palestinian militants when he chose. It's doubtful that the new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, or, as he's known, Abu Mazen, will have such ability for some time to come, if ever. Thus, he is forced to negotiate with Arafat any steps he takes with the Israelis or with the US, which effectively gives Arafat much of the control he's always had. Nor will Arafat, ultimately, give up his behind-the-scenes power without a serious struggle ― which has already started.

So what we're seeing is that, as we move into serious talks between Israel and the Palestinians for the first time in three years, there's a distracting power struggle going on within the central core of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Would we be better off had we invited Arafat into the tent rather than leaving him, sulking outside, trying to remove the tent pegs? It's a judgment call, and I think the choice we made ― pushed it seems by Sharon ― has made peace harder, not easier.

Finally, of course, there was the decision that the overthrow of Saddam would somehow make Palestinians and Israelis more willing to compromise. Faulty Assumption One: Israel was so terrified of Saddam's Iraq that until he was removed they would never risk a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians. A strange argument, when one considers that three years ago, Israel was apparently willing to do so, and Saddam, under UN inspections and US-controlled sanctions, had not grown any stronger.

Faulty Assumption Two: The Palestinians would be more amenable to an unfavorable agreement once they saw how we dealt with Saddam. Unlikely, since Saddam had been able to give them little financial assistance since the Gulf War in 1991. And, in any case, wherever the peace talks lead, the US is certainly never going to invade the West Bank.

So, what happens next? Does the "road map" have a chance?

Some observers have been pleasantly surprised at the apparent willingness of the two sides to resume negotiations and even agree to a three-month cease-fire. What I think is happening is that both sides are, at least in the short run, trying to do just enough to escape the blame if the talks break down. And while this is not all bad ― who cares what the motivation is if steps are made in the right direction? ― it's merely tactical and short term and will only go so far. The visit to Washington last week by Abu Mazen and this week by Sharon produced no earth-shaking results ― though certainly such visits are worth the energy and time involved so long as it helps keep both sides focused. But the current principal bone of contention between the two sides ― the security fence that Israel is building which encroaches on more Palestinian land and which Bush himself denounced last week ― seems to have been left unchallenged in Bush's discussions with Sharon, which will not help boost Abu Mazen's near non-existent popularity at home.

The premise of the "road map" is that the Oslo peace talks broke down because no one knew where it was heading or how long it would take to get there. So the road map has a three-year deadline and a Palestinian state at the end of the rainbow. Well and good.

The real problem, however, with Oslo was the assumption that once the two sides started talking and progress was made, they would grow to trust each other sufficiently so that an agreement could be reached between the two rather than having to be imposed on both by the US. The overwhelming military superiority of Israel made this unlikely. And the US, for obvious political reasons, never quite felt comfortable with proposing a comprehensive settlement.

But without, ultimately, a US proposal, supported by the other members of the road map "quartet" (the EU, the UN, and Russia), the two sides simply will not be able to close the gap. Already we see distractions created by both sides ― the demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners as well as the construction of the wall mentioned above ― that take their focus off the big picture.

There are psychological problems for Israel in being forced to accept a compromise, but there are political advantages as well, to the extent that US pressure can provide welcome "cover" to the Likud to accept what it has said it won't. The security argument that Israel has used for years in justifying its settlement of parts of the West Bank is clearly outdated when one looks at the relative strength of Israel versus the Palestinians ― as well, for that matter, of any Arab state, not just in terms of Israel's nuclear capabilities but of the sophisticated weapons and equipment its air force and army have.

There is a real danger from the Palestinian perspective of having a rump state created three years from now while key Israeli settlements remain and the final borders are "to be determined." For the Palestinian Authority, this would be worse than the status quo, as they know, with the asymmetry of power between the two sides, the Israelis would be unlikely to give back more territory. And furthermore, the one card the Palestinians conceivably hold is to refuse an unfair settlement and let nature, in the form of demographics, take its course ― producing in 25 years a majority of Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. But the continuing instability of a non-settlement, in today's world of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, is an enormous risk for the United States.

What is needed ― and perhaps to be sure not until further down the road when there is clearly no hope of the two sides ever reaching an agreement amongst themselves ― is a settlement that the quartet has agreed is fair; and that is then accepted by the key Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. With Europe, Russia, and the Arab world on board, the US then ― essentially backed by world opinion ―would literally force both sides to accept.

The outlines are obvious: return of virtually all the West Bank and Gaza to Palestine, with the new state to remain demilitarized for up to 20 years, the removal of all Israeli settlements, a Palestinian "presence" in Arab East Jerusalem, and an acknowledgment by Israel of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, but limited to a specific (and small) number, or merely to those who left in 1948 (and not their descendants). This would prevent the demographic time bomb from threatening the Israelis down the road.

And, of course, billions in aid and UN troops, with US involvement, to enforce the peace. In this regard, the war in Iraq is doubly unfortunate: the nearly $50 billion we'll be spending this year to keep our troops there would easily buy a peace between Israel and Palestine. But with the Bush administration ever more focused, understandably considering the situation, on Iraq, will they find the time, the energy and the political will, less than a year and a half before the next presidential election, to bring peace to that part of the Middle East where it's truly needed?

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Iraq ― What Can We Do? (July 24, 2003)

If, as I believe, we can't "do" democracy for Iraq, the question becomes, what can we do? There is no longer any point in complaining about the cards we've been dealt (especially if, as in this case, we dealt them ourselves from a face-up deck). The issue is now — we're there, we're facing an unexpected low-level guerrilla war: how do we play this hand?

The administration was clearly caught off-guard by the fact that our military victory did not translate into a docile, pro-American population lining up to turn in its weapons and register its names on a voting list. The early excuse was that we had prepared for a longer war with the possibility of massive population displacements and food and energy shortages. A strange argument: one wonders how well we were in fact prepared for these worst-case scenarios if we couldn't handle looting and disorder when there was no food or refugee crisis? And if the excuse is, the war was over too soon and our planning called for military police and crowd control units to replace the army down the road? Well, it is down the road, and we still see 19-year-old soldiers being asked to act as policemen, civic affairs officers, and as security for banks and universities. Worse of course is that they are still having to go on patrols and defeat the enemy that disappeared in the woodwork first time around.

It's at least encouraging that the general in charge now, unlike the civilian head Rumsfeld, is no longer pretending that the military phase is over. And that apparently someone knows how to muzzle the President, since at least he's no longer encouraging the Iraqis with sophomoric cries of "bring 'em on" as he did several weeks ago.

No, it's clear, there was a basic misjudgment. The Pentagon apparently believed Rumsfeld's rhetoric that a defeated Iraqi military would lay down its arms, the civilian population would throw flowers at our soldiers' feet, the police and security organizations would change uniforms and continue as before while the Baathist infrastructure would go on providing electricity and water. As General Shinseki had predicted, we did not in the event have enough troops ―indeed, we've been adding them since the May 1 "end of hostilities" rather than removing them. And while earlier estimates were that we would be able to go down to 50,000 three months after the fighting was over ― it's been nearly three months, and the numbers have increased during that time. The cost of the occupation, earlier estimated at $2 billion a month, is already double that and no one — Rumsfeld or the generals ― is predicting an early end. We now have an open-ended conflict, with a potentially growing number of troops and a $50-billion annual price tag indefinitely.

Forgetting for the moment about uranium and nuclear weapons and Niger, of all places, and George Tenet becoming the fall guy ― (one wonders, parenthetically, if Bush recalls Harry Truman's famous motto, "the buck stops here") ― if the public had been told earlier this year that this is where we would be now, how much support would the war have had as we were going in?

Indeed, President Bush has recently felt compelled to trot out the tried and true shibboleth ― those who are killing American troops he referred to as terrorists. Well why not: if the bogeyman of terrorism could get us into Iraq, surely it can keep us there.

Rumsfeld can continue to bob and weave before Congressional committees, but one thing can't be hidden: it's clear we were unprepared for the post-war situation. The civilians at the Pentagon who were pushing this war were over-confident, and poor planning has taken its toll. The price of the resulting chaos has been paid for largely by Iraqis and thus, whatever good will we earned by overthrowing Saddam — and surely, it must have been ample — has been largely frittered away by our inability to control the situation following the regime's collapse. You only get one chance at a good first impression ― that chance, we've blown.

So as our soldiers patrol Baghdad streets ― nervous, threatened, in 120-degree heat and no doubt sleep-deprived ― they are not likely to be winning a lot of hearts and minds.

Certainly, at least in the short run, there's a vicious circle there, which those ambushing our troops are surely aware of: the more we search people's houses, stop their cars, and act like occupiers, the more unpopular we become, and the easier it is to attract recruits for the militants.

My own sense is that this mini-guerrilla war, however unsettling it must be to our military (and to the Republican hierarchy) is only a sideshow. Eventually, whether it takes more troops, the capture of Saddam, the gradual restoration of services or all of the above, we'll move on to the second stage. And while this first stage is disquieting because it was unexpected, the second stage ― which will involve a power struggle amongst the minority (but traditionally ruling class) Sunnis, the majority Shiites (and factions within them), and the Kurds to the north―will be infinitely more complex.

The real quagmire is not the military one we're in now but the political one ahead. If democracy is what we profess, it will be interesting to see how we react to Shiite religious leaders gaining power through elections. But if we reject any Islamist government, the regime we choose will have little credibility from day one. Choosing between a puppet government or an Islamist one may, though, be easier than having to deal with a civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions.

Is there a solution? Well, if we're talking about one that leads to democracy, I'm not your man. But there are some things we can do if the administration wasn't so hopelessly arrogant and inflexible to improve the cards as they lie.

Quickly, we should move to internationalize the situation. And 2,000 Polish troops don't do the job. A mixture of UN and NATO forces would not of course eliminate the internal pressures discussed above. But it would help reduce the damage the Iraq war caused within NATO, it would re-invigorate a UN trashed by the Bush administration (for, of course, not being able to locate those WMD that we can't locate either), and it would help turn a visible and increasingly problematic military occupation into one with a more civilian overtone. And while it will in any case have to remain a military occupation for some years, one in which French. Germans and Russians are involved will substantially reduce the damage in Arab eyes of a US-only occupation.

As for the "democratic" part, since that's a long shot at best, the quicker the US (and eventually, the UN and NATO) arrange for an Iraqi government to take over, the better. We should lower the democracy-tomorrow rhetoric and focus instead on promoting an indigenous leadership today, aware that we won't have the control we might wish over that train once it leaves the station. The 25-man governing council which we've just formed is a most positive step. Even if it proves to be unwieldy, as surely it will, and fractious as well, we should encourage it to develop as rapidly as possible into a relatively independent organization. Elections in the short run are not mandatory ― indeed they could be disruptive ― but a growing Iraqi face, and a real one, is. For our part, we must pour in money on the infrastructure side to give the Iraqi people a sense that "their" council is actually performing.

But if we turn this group into a rubber stamp for the US, it'll be discredited all too soon. It's tricky and sensitive and we're not ― let's face it ― likely to end up with the result we want, but if we don't demand a full-grown democracy, any result that gets us out in a reasonable period of time will be better than overstaying our welcome.

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The Bush Administration and the Middle East (July 17, 2003)

The Bush plan, to remake the Middle East is not merely audacious, as both proponents and opponents agree; it's also naive, arrogant and shows a willful, and woeful, lack of historical perspective. The key to the plan, the easy part of which involved defeating the 3rd World Iraqi army, is the replacement of Saddam's regime with an at least quasi-democratic, pro-American government.

Such a government would, at a minimum, open Iraq for US military bases. Thus situated, in the heart of the Middle East, the US would protect (and in Iraq's case, directly control) the roughly 25% of the world's oil production ― a percentage that is growing ― that comes from the Persian Gulf area.

Additionally, the ambitious game plan assumes that, as Iraq becomes increasingly democratic, it will serve as a model for its Arab neighbors. Finally, of course, such democratic Arab states would then be able to successfully proselytize their Palestinian cousins into accepting a democratic mode of behavior that would forswear terrorism and make peace with their nuclear-armed neighbor Israel.

There are some underlying assumptions here that are, at once, problematic and condescending in a self-centered, particularly unsophisticated way. The basic assumption is that all non-Western countries can, with the proper mix of modern education, open economic systems and Western guidance, become full-fledged democracies.

Maybe this essay is not the place to discuss the development of circumstances in medieval Europe that fostered democracy ― the growing creative tension that resulted from the blossoming of cities and trade supported by powerful merchant guilds and banking groups, amidst the backdrop of a hierarchical land-owning church and a strong hereditary aristocracy. Like the conditions ― climate, geography, bipedalism, and brain-size growth that led to our becoming self-conscious, self-aware humans (in a remarkably brief moment, considering the universe's 14-billion-year history), those conditions that favored democratic development were not pre-ordained to do so. Indeed, in some Western countries, such as Germany and Italy, the same conditions under slightly different recent histories warped democracy into fascism and totalitarianism.

So the obvious question: Why would we expect countries (and in some cases, they are barely countries) that have experienced entirely different geopolitical histories ― and have now a whole bunch of economic, demographic and political problems ― to embrace democracy because of occupation or the threat of occupation by the US?

The optimists cite Japan as an example, though there are so many cultural and historical differences between Japan and the Arab world that it would make more rhetorical sense, outlining these differences, to explain why what was possible in Japan is totally irrelevant to the Middle East.

A more relevant comparison would be with Turkey, which at least is a Muslim country located in the same area. But even this comparison is not particularly apt: Turkey, as a descendant of the Ottoman Empire, has been an independent nation longer than most European countries, some seven centuries or more. While independence and democracy are not synonymous, the great state bureaucracies, education systems, economic and trade arrangements that the Ottoman state developed to handle
its vast empire were readily transferable to its direct descendant, modern Turkey. The Arab world, by contrast, both as a whole and in its individual units, was part of the Ottoman colonial system for nearly half a millennium before the French and the British grabbed the imperial reins. While the Arab world had varying amounts of autonomy, an area that for 450 of the last 500 years has been ruled by outsiders has not, prima facie, experienced the gradual development of independent civic organizations which are needed to underpin a move towards democracy. Even those local organizations that did develop were always controlled at the top from Istanbul; and whatever local autonomy existed, it never of course extended to political power, or even the hint of it.

When the Ottoman empire, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, went through collapse and dismemberment, it emerged from its historical trauma with a bureaucratic know-how and a strong sense of self-identity and nationalism (too strong unfortunately for its Armenian, Greek, Kurdish and other minorities), and a sustaining national mythology in the form of Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish military.

None of these elements remotely exist in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, oddly enough (for all the venomous press it's gotten in the US since 9/11) has more traditional democracy coursing through its veins than most of its neighbors. Although the western provinces (where Mecca and Medina are located) were controlled by the Turks, the central part of the peninsula was independent; and tribal democracy, as opposed to royal prerogative, was long the rule of the land.

Of course, all this has been perverted by great wealth and the subsequent creation of a modern bureaucracy superimposed on a tribal system. What worked for a bunch of desert tribes with a combined population of less than a million cannot easily be transferred to a nation of 20 million. (As recently as the '73 war, when as an embassy official, I had to call on King Faisal, on open court day, to deliver a message from Kissinger, I had to wait my turn behind local petitioners literally protesting to the king the errant behavior of a neighbor's goat. Nor was there any bowing or scraping before the king ― to them, he was merely the tribal leader.)

So the concept of instant democracy is, frankly, a joke. And as for those who have foisted this pipe dream on the President, one asks, as one does about the Niger uranium or the missing WMD, was the President knowingly deceived or was it just faulty intelligence? (Translation: Are Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, et al, so naive as to actually believe in the instant democracy theory? Or was it just an easy sell to an optimistic fellow for whom good fortune is merely an accident of birth, and whose international experience basically began on September 11th?)

Or the third option: The President was in on the game from the beginning. The point has never been democracy in Iraq or anywhere else ― though that sells nicely to mid-America ― but US military bases in a key country in the Arab heartland and, through them, an attempt to control oil, contain terrorism, and strengthen the US position unilaterally.

So, which President do you prefer: The well-meaning but naive dupe, in over his head and co-opted by the neocon cabal surrounding him? Or the Machiavellian one, himself pulling the imperial strings as he sweet talks us in his down-home drawl about Iraq and democracy?

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Bring in the UN (May 1, 2003)

By all accounts, the pilgrimage of Iraqi Shi'ites to Karbala last week was an eye-opener to the Pentagon. But there's no point in exaggerating its message. Yes, there's going to be a lot of noise from demonstrations, but it's unlikely under any circumstances that an Iranian ayatollah-style dictatorship will ever emerge.

But what the demonstrations do show is the problem of not just diverse ethnicity and religion, but of splits within the various ethnic and religious groupings that are likely to intensify with Saddam's dictatorial rule lifted. Initially, it will just be the euphoria of being able to express oneself, but subsequently, there will be real power struggles between and within the Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish factions.

At the same time, as the killings of over a dozen Iraqis in Fallujah on two separate occasions earlier this week show, maintaining an American military presence is not going to be popular; indeed, the longer the occupation, the more such incidents, which of course will create more demonstrations and the possibility of more casualties. As we embark on the most directly imperialist adventure in American foreign policy since the Spanish-American War and its aftermath, we face problems that go far beyond the borders of Iraq. The Middle East, with its issues of oil, Islamic fanaticism and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza ― is unfortunately not only unstable; it is geopolitically very important. Our little intervention in Haiti ― which served only to replace one dictator with another ― ultimately didn't matter because Haiti doesn't matter.

But Iraq matters. The Middle East matters. The problem, however, is that we face two virtually irreconcilable facts: to create the conditions for a democratic Iraq will take years of occupation. But years of occupation will be not only costly, and conceivably dangerous and therefore increasingly unpopular at home, it will be even more unpopular in Iraq and throughout the Arab World, where American soldiers will come to be seen as occupiers, not liberators. That Washington recognizes this conundrum is obvious from recent reports indicating the Pentagon wants to set up an interim government, move towards a Karzaitype selection process, and get out, while the State Department, which ironically was generally opposed to the war in the first place, wants to stay around long enough (i.e., indefinitely) to do what it can to give at least a minimum shot at democracy.

So, who's right? Unfortunately, they're both right. If you want to avoid having to be the heavy-handed occupier holding together by force disparate groups that don't know how to share power and may, in any case, prefer to go their separate ways, do what you can in a limited time-frame (say, by the 2004 elections), then pack up and hope for the best. (And if, as is a virtual certainty, "Operation Bim Barn, thank you Ma'am" goes to hell in a handbasket, the American people won't mind ― polls show that a majority of Americans don't even care if weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible justification for the war, are ever found.)

But if you really are interested in leaving behind a stable, unified Iraq, the rule of law established and democratic institutions developing, you might consider how long the US occupied Germany and Japan, two homogeneous societies that prior to W.W.II had modem, developed economies, educational systems and bureaucracies on which to build. Or for that matter, how long Britain ran Iraq, 12 years ― and another 20-odd after that when Iraq was in essence a client state of the fast-disappearing British Empire. But once their hand-picked client, King Faisal II, was assassinated in 1958, it took less than a generation for what had been painstakingly created to transmogrify into Saddam Hussein.

So, is there an answer? There certainly isn't a good one (which is why I've been against this whole enterprise since the "axis of evil" days). But there may be a way for us to eat their cake and have it too ― as unpalatable as this may be to the Bush Administration. Why not hand it off to the UN? It would have to be done very gradually and only as security increased; to announce now that that is our ultimate intention would buy plenty of time. Of course, the macho types at the Pentagon would be horrified with putting Iraq in the hands of those who were responsible for the unpardonable crime of postponing the war for six months.

For once, though, let's try to look at this from a "What's-best-for-the-US?" point of view rather than from an "I don't care what it is, war or peace, we can go it alone" one.

Gradually replacing the US military with UN peace-keepers has several obvious advantages: it would help defuse anti-Americanism in the Middle East (a useful development as we push the "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace forward); it would put an end to the crude canard that we did it just for the oil (sure, we did it partly for access to oil, but not to steal it); and finally, it would re-invigorate the UN which in recent months we have done so much to undermine.

Would the UN do a better job of "nation-building" than the US? Looking at how well we've done in Afghanistan, looking at how we're viewed in the Arab World, looking just at our own attention span ― they sure won't do any worse. And, finally, if you want to take the realpolitik point of view (why should Rumsfeld be the only Machiavellian around?), in an endeavor that's likely to fail, let's pass the buck.

When you're talking about importing democracy to Iraq, I'm reminded of the analogy that, I think, Isabelle Allende once drew to Latin America trying to import US constitutionalism: it's like ordering a lock from a catalogue that arrives with the wrong instructions and no key.

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How Will We Know If the War Worked? (April 17, 2003)

The King is dead. Long live the King. If only the transition of power in Iraq were so easy.

While the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages proclaim loudly the success of Bush's war, and mock those who were against it, what they seem to be purposely misunderstanding is that very few people (none that I know, certainly) who were against the war were against it because they thought we wouldn't win.

It was always a foregone conclusion that an Iraqi army that was roundly routed 12 years ago, and had sharply deteriorated since, would be even more roundly whipped this go-round. To be sure, many were concerned, wrongly as it turned out, that Saddam Hussein, when he became desperate, might fall back on chemical weapons. But then, the US military had the same concerns.

No ― the war qua war was never the issue. The issue, narrowly, was: Is war the best way to resolve a concern about Iraq's chemical or biological weapons?

But, of course, even that issue is a straw man. The WMD question, like the phony Saddam/Bin Laden connection, was merely the justification the administration grabbed onto, post-Sept. 11, to replace Saddam, which itself is Step One in the Bush Administration's remaking of the Middle East.

Presumably, the administration's analysis of the Middle East is not substantially different from previous administrations' views, be they Democrat or Republican: that this is a dangerous and unstable part of the world that, unfortunately, because of oil and Israel, cannot be ignored. The US has a major interest in, at the very least, preventing it from becoming more unstable. Ideally, we would like to influence it so that ultimately ― though without doubt very gradually ― the area would in fact move towards greater stability.

So the broad issue is: In bringing about regime change through war, have we made the Middle East more or less stable? (And, broader yet: Has the war strengthened US interests worldwide or weakened them? But that's too broad to look into now.)

Whatever one thought about going to war, it's far too early to call the overall policy a success ― or, to be fair, a failure.

So how will we know if the war "worked"?

First of all will be what happens to Iraq itself. If Iraq degenerates into civil war, clearly that will wreak havoc on both oil production and political stability. If, even without civil war, Iraq gradually splits into three separate nations, à la Yugoslavia, that too would be strongly destabilizing for the area. A Kurdish state in the north would likely bring in the Turkish army; a Shi'a state in the south would alarm the Saudis, and more importantly us as well if, as seems likely, it aligned itself with Iran.

And then there's the Israeli-Palestinian equation. So long as it remains unresolved, there's built-in instability in the Middle East. Has the victory in Iraq made it easier to find a solution? As the only country capable of playing the "honest broker" role necessary to get an agreement, is the US now in a better position to be midwife to peace?

The Bush administration would argue yes; I think not. There is more anti-Americanism in the Arab World than at any time in the past and less belief in US "even-handedness?" Certainly, the US is more feared in the Arab World, but do we think that fear will lead to Palestinian submission?

Sharon has already fired his opening salvo at the famous "road map" to Middle East peace, which Tony Blair continues to insist on so inconsiderately. It's had a longer gestation period than an elephant, but I still wouldn't count on its imminent appearance. When one considers the reality of US politics ― that we'll be in the early days of a presidential campaign this time next year ― is President Bush likely to put the needed pressure on Israel? Sharon backed him down last year with only Congressional elections looming; who's got the upper hand with Bush's second term at stake?

And so, as the Arab World watches on al-Jazeera a continuing unrestrained Sharon with the resulting daily quota of dead Palestinians and a large US occupying force pulling the strings in Iraq, will anti-Americanism amongst Arabs decrease? Is the war on terrorism enhanced? Has the victory in Iraq halted the fanatic Islamists?

Yes, the king is dead, the war is won. But that's a sideshow. The main event lies ahead.

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So, How Are We Doing? (Nov. 1, 2001)

So, as we move into our eighth week in the post-terrorist era, how are we doing ― psychologically, not militarily ― in dealing with this profoundly new situation?

Frankly, after a week of "all anthrax, all the time" on CNN and even on some of the more respectable outlets, such as NPR, I'm not sure we are doing all that well.

Or, maybe we are ― in spite of the attempt by the news media to force-feed us information designed to, at the very least, make us wonder if we shouldn't be nervous. The good news is that a report last week noted that up to 92 percent of those interviewed were not overly concerned about the anthrax scare. And no one I know, CNN notwithstanding, is stocking up on Cipro.

On the other hand, there is a whole bunch of anecdotal evidence that makes me nervous that we are all too nervous:

  • More than half of the Jim Lehrer reports on PBS last week focused on anthrax.
  • Last Thursday, National Public Radio of Maine ran an hour-long, noon-time discussion with a local doctor from Brunswick on how to deal with the anthrax threat ― this, when there hasn't been a single anthrax case reported north of New York City.
  • The previous evening, as I was driving home, I tuned into the middle of an NPR interview with a postal worker who was describing, in tragic terms, how terrible it was to come home from his job to be confronted by his 3-year-old child running to kiss him. The father, though, forced himself to hurry past his little daughter, quickly discard his clothes in the washing machine, and jump into the shower for a five-minute scrub-down before dressing and kissing his wife and child. I naturally assumed that this was one of the postal workers who had handled mail from Senator Daschle's office or one of the centers that had delivered anthrax-tainted letters in New York. No, this guy was from a small town in Kentucky.
  • And, of course, the now-famous closing down of the House for four to five days ― the first time in history the House has taken such an action.
  • The local school district announced two weeks ago that it was canceling all its student trips to New York and abroad through the end of the school year, with the possible exception of a trip scheduled for June to Quebec ― and they would decide on that in January. This is hardly business as usual, but what surprised me even more was that a Courier-Gazette poll subsequently showed a comfortable majority agreed with the decision.

To date, three deaths have been caused by anthrax, and a total of 14 cases of exposure have been identified. During a severe winter 20,000 Americans die from flu and, obviously, millions are exposed to and actually come down with it. I know flu is a natural event and that anthrax is a random, irrational event that is designed to cause terror ― but just the numbers alone give an indication of the disproportionate overreaction of the news media, and us, to this event.

The real question is: Is the media to blame for hyping this up; or, are they just giving us what we demand? It's the chicken-and-the-egg question.

But, one can't help coming to the inescapable conclusion that after years of media focus on the risks of everyday life (cars that turn over when they shouldn't, drugs that cause side effects, school shootings, power lines that cause cancer, etc., etc.), we have become a neurotic, self-absorbed nation, for whom even the littlest risk is too much. Maybe we have gone soft. Maybe on the other hand "softness" is just a part of modern life. And if that's the case, we're going to have to change if we're going to successfully confront what the terrorists are going to throw at us ― because, certainly, there's more to come.

There is a difference between cautiousness and nervousness, between being concerned and being afraid, between hard realism and self-defeating pessimism. We're going to need patience in the days ― and years ― ahead, and grit and a sense of proportion, as well as a sense of humor.

I was reminded of the latter when a friend of mine emailed me a cartoon from the Times of India, which showed a teacher at an "Afghanistan Terrorist School" instructing some new recruits in what the sign said was "The Human Bomb Class." The teacher was strapped with dynamite and was saying, "Pay attention because I'm only going to do this once." It was, indeed, a funny cartoon, but the friend who sent it to me apologized for making light of a serious situation. But I think a little ability to laugh in the face of danger ― not because we don't realize life is dangerous, but because we are able to take on even big challenges with equanimity ― is a valuable tool.

The good news is that we didn't have CNN around in the 19th century when we were creating this country: "Recapping today's news from our correspondents on the frontier: There were six Indian attacks with three killed and 17 wounded; 14 accidental drownings crossing swollen rivers; 42 women dead at childbirth; 13 deaths from snake bite; four cases of serious injuries from bear maulings; and a severe outbreak of smallpox in Dodge City. Now, stay with us as our panel of experts gives tips on how to pick the right wagon train and avoid the fate of the Donner party. This will include a live interview with one of the survivors."

If we had had CNN in those days, would we ever have settled the West? God, would we ever have crossed the Appalachians?

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Arab-Israeli Problem (Oct. 25, 2001)

To fully understand the animosity felt by the Arab "street" toward the U.S., it is useful to understand the Palestinian-Israeli problem in a broad historical context ― the way the Arabs understand it ― as opposed to seeing it as something that has developed solely as a consequence of the Arabs unreasonably refusing to accept Israel as a neighbor.

The state of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, less than six months after the recently founded United Nations had passed a resolution partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. While to many this may appear to be the start of the process, in fact this represented the climax of the first half of a history which is now more than 100 years old and had begun in 1897 when Theodor Herzl opened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland; it adopted a resolution defining the aim of Zionism as the creation "for the Jewish people of a home in Palestine." Following this Congress, several European rabbis were sent to Palestine to review the concept: they sent back a now famous cable, "the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man" ― in other words, the concept of a Jewish home in Palestine was a great idea, but unfortunately there was a large Arab population already there.

The primary focus of the Zionist movement in the early part of the 20th century was to get support for their idea from one or more of the great European powers. An important success was achieved in 1917 when the foreign secretary of Great Britain responded in a letter to Lord Rothschild that "his majesty's government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The Balfour Declaration, as history was to dub this letter, illustrated the British colonial mentality at its height: at the time Balfour penned it, Palestine was still part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, and the Arab population there was 10 times greater than the Jewish population.

With the end of the First World War, the Arabs, who had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks for four centuries, were divided by British and French mandates, with the British controlling Palestine and the areas that subsequently became the countries of Jordan and Iraq. Thus, Great Britain was put into a position where it had control over immigration into Palestine, and despite, unsurprisingly, growing Arab opposition, hundreds of thousands of European Jews were permitted to go there in the '20s and '30s. After the Second World War, survivors of the Holocaust created another wave of immigration, and with the situation spiraling out of control, the British government referred the matter to the nascent United Nations in early 1947; by that time the Jewish population had increased nearly ten-fold to 500,000. Ironically, the British, who had done most to foster the circumstances that led to the creation of Israel, abstained from the UN resolution, and when Israel declared itself a state in May, it was the U.S. and the Soviet Union that initially recognized it.

From an Arab perspective, the creation of the state of Israel was the last act ― and clearly the most significant ― of imperialism by the Western powers who, while relinquishing their colonial mandate over the Arab Middle East, left, in its wake, a state with alien values and a largely foreign population.

Until the time of the creation of the state of Israel, there had been relatively large Jewish populations in the great cities of the Middle East, including Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Baghdad. The Ottoman Turks had ruled these lands ― in Egypt's case only nominally so ― well into the early part of the 20th century, and the anti-Semitism that had been a feature of Western Europe for nearly 1,000 years was notably absent under Ottoman rule, and Arabs and Jews (and Christians for that matter) had lived together, without intermarriage, but generally without friction. The Arabs early on saw the presence of the Jewish state in the Middle East as a colonial construct, on the one hand, and a Western acknowledgement of its guilt towards the Jews. The only problem with the Western absolution of their sin of anti-Semitism was that it was the Arabs who were chosen to pay the price.

Arab independence after WWII represented the first time the Arabs had been free of foreign domination for some 500 years. But Arab independence came with a price ― the creation of the state of Israel ― that the Arabs were neither politically nor emotionally nor militarily able to deal with. The Arabs felt betrayed by the West, and, not surprisingly, were dead set against the creation of an independent Israel. In May 1948 when the Arabs attacked the newborn state of Israel, the total number of Arab troops, both regular and irregular, were only about three quarters of the number of Israeli troops and, by the end of the war, the Israelis had an army nearly twice as large as the Arabs. The creation of large numbers of refugees ― some through Arab encouragement and some through Israeli terrorism ― created an albatross that these fledgling governments, defeated in their first war after being a subject people for 500 years, did not know how to deal with.

The 1967 war, sparked off by Egyptian miscalculation, further humiliated the Arabs and made them that much more intransigent. The 1973 war, in which Egypt and the other Arabs claimed victory, set the framework under which a settlement would have been possible ― basically the "land for peace" rule. From 1973 on, however, the U.S. championed Israel by selling her weapons and planes that made her vastly stronger than the Arab armies facing her. Additionally, nearly $100 billion in aid has gone to Israel since then, a staggering amount considering the population of the country. The U.S. has always justified its overwhelming support of Israel by claiming to the Arabs that a strong Israel is necessary to feel confident enough to make peace; in fact, the Arabs have seen that a strong Israel lacks the incentive to compromise with the territory it captured in the 1967 war unless pressured by the U.S. to do so. The Arabs, accordingly, believe that the U.S. has never acted as the "honest broker" in resolving fairly the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Both Arab intellectuals as well as the man in the street believe that without American support, Israel would not have been able to retain the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. When, therefore, the Arabs see the U.S. successfully attacked by an Arab fanatic ― one that, granted, hardly any of them would want to follow ― they react with satisfaction. In their minds, all the pent-up injustices that had been visited on the Arab world since the Balfour Declaration nearly 85 years ago are now being called to account. It is no accident that recent studies show that more than 60% of the Arab public believes the Palestinian issue to be the most important one facing them.

The U.S. gets no advantage from an Arab world that is increasingly anti-American. The U.S. gets no advantage from having Israel as its only friend in the Middle East. And, surely, neither the Arabs nor the Israelis are better off because of the unresolved Palestinian situation. The Arabs are right in their belief that the only country that can bring resolution to this festering sore is the U.S.

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Why Did They Do This? (Oct. 4, 2001)

(published October 4, 2001, before the onset of the U.S. action in Afghanistan)

In terms of their short-run objectives, part of their own internal propaganda has always been that the United States, and for that matter all of Western Christian society, is morally weak and much more susceptible to terrorist attacks than is commonly believed. Thus, from a tactical point of view, the operation on September 11 was intended to show our vulnerability as well as the strength and reach of Bin Laden's terrorist organization.

As to the larger issue, why are they so anti-American, this stems from a variety of different historical causes that are tied in with their fundamentalist Islam mindset. Most Arabs, even pro-Western Arabs, have long believed that the United States pursues a pro-Israeli policy at the expense of the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors. When viewed alongside the results of our sanctions policy towards Iraq ― the thousands of Iraqi children that have died from lack of medicine and proper nourishment ― and our approval of Israel's collective punishment approach, its refusal to abide by various UN resolutions and its human rights violations, they see the U.S. as hypocritical and self-serving.

Similarly, the strong human rights position which the U.S. takes towards various third world countries, they see as contradicted by our support of pro-Western but distinctly undemocratic regimes in the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt (where most of the terrorists seem to have come from). The rallying cry of getting U.S. troops off the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia (sacred because Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia) is probably one reason Bin Laden has been able to recruit so many Saudis.

Longer term, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda probably hope that such terrorist actions against the United States, and Western Europe as well, can encourage greater internal opposition to pro-Western Arab governments (by "showing" the weakness of their Western supporters), especially if these governments ally themselves ever closer to the United States in the struggle against terrorism. Ultimately the overthrow of the Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian regimes is certainly desirable from Bin Laden's point of view; obviously, radical regimes in these countries would be totally antithetical to U.S. and Western interests.

Can we wage this war on terrorism without making huge numbers of Muslims more anti-American?

It's possible, though it will be extremely tricky to do so. As both Spain and Great Britain know, defeating terrorism ― stopping either the Basque terrorists, who have been operating after all only in Spain, or the IRA, based in England and Ireland ― has been extremely difficult; for the U.S. to stop Bin Laden and his associates will be much harder. They are, after all, based primarily in Afghanistan ― i.e., in an unfriendly country whose terrain if anything is even more problematic for the U.S. than its politics and is, in addition, thousands of miles away and surrounded by Islamic countries with their own internal problems (Pakistan) or political problems with us (Iran).

Having said that, the advantages are not all with the terrorists. As a start, despite the fact that the Taliban controls probably 85 to 90 percent of Afghanistan, its radical interpretation of Islam cannot be popular with the majority of the population, and it is not impossible, handled adroitly, that the Taliban itself may factionalize, to our advantage, into hard liners and more moderates.

Obviously the one thing we should not do is a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, a la the Persian Gulf War, or a mass bombing from 15,000 feet a la Kosovo, with resulting civilian casualties. An invasion ― which it certainly appears the administration realizes would be a self-defeating and fruitless task ― would serve no practical goal and could indeed destabilize Pakistan and force our moderate Arab supporters to distance themselves from us quickly, the opposite of what we want. Finally, although Iran has always (something the United States cannot claim) had a hatred and mistrust of the Taliban, any possibility of using this to our advantage would be destroyed by aggressive military action in Afghanistan. Bombing would only cause civilian casualties in a country that has been savaged by war for more than a generation and would be unlikely to have any practical military benefits. A series of special operations, conducted with small numbers of well-trained Special Forces or clandestine groups, involving minimum collateral damage would appear to be the most effective. Frankly, assassinations of the most radical Taliban leaders could also be productive. Supporting the Northern Alliance, the opposition to the Taliban, could be useful, but because it is primarily made up of tribal minorities (and the Taliban, whatever its faults, is generally drawn from the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan) would be particularly dicey long term. Recent articles have highlighted Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old deposed king, as a possible alternative to the Taliban; that seems a long shot indeed, and in any case, presupposes the disappearance of the Taliban government.

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Mac Deford's Credentials

(The following is excerpted from the articles published by The Free Press of Rockford ME. For readers who are not Maine-iacs, the reference to "Midcoast" ... as in "Midcoast Forum" ... refers to parts of Maine which are roughly halfway between New Hampshire and Canada.)

Shortly after the September 11 attack on the United States, The Free Press began to try to get in touch with Thomas McAdams (Mac) Deford.

Because he lived and worked in so many parts of the world ― Latin America, Asia, the Middle East ― before taking up residence in Maine, we hoped he would be willing to help us learn more about this world of ours that is suddenly so much with us and in many ways so unknown.

Deford served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1965 to 1977 ― in Vietnam, Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Washington. After his foreign service career, he worked for Merrill Lynch International for 18 years in several of their overseas offices and in New York. After his retirement, he attended Bangor Theological Seminary. Among his many current positions, he is president of the Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations.

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