Saturday, March 29, 2008

Re: Zbig Speak, You Listen

In re Matthew Yglesias’s comments about Zbigniew Brzezinski’s comparison between the arguments by supporters of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Iraq, see my post on Matt’s blog here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Let the Free Market Work

Ronald Reagan rode into Washington in 1981 on a horse named Hostility to Government. He was going to cut taxes (very popular amidst the stagflation of the 1970s), reduce “gubmint” spending by ferreting out “waste, fraud and abuse,” eliminate what he saw as unnecessary government regulation and engage in a massive buildup of the military (also very popular in the context of the Iran hostage crisis, which dragged on throughout the 1980 election year). There was an inherent contradiction, of course, between Reagan’s people/government dualism. For if government was indeed a threat to individual liberty as Reagan claimed, it was curious that he was campaigning to run it; and while he certainly cut government spending on social programs, he also engaged, as previously mentioned, in a huge buildup in our nation’s armed forces and inaugurated development of a missile defense system. Nonetheless, it was clear from his rhetoric, at least, that Reagan saw government as inimical to the interests of the public. That the same government grew tremendously during Reagan’s presidency was certainly ironic, but one doubts that the majority of the public, 80% of which was getting all of its news from television, was aware of the paradox. It should thus be no surprise that those seeking to emulate Reagan would, like their mentor, ignore the abundant contradictions in his record and rhetoric, and simply repeat his mantra: government bad, people good. Let the budget cutting and regulation erasures begin.

When in 1995 the GOP-dominated House of Representatives sought to force President Clinton to enact a series of draconian cuts in social spending, they shut down the government as a means to that end. This was accompanied by the familiar Reagan rhetoric of a government/people opposition, and produced what should have been for everyone involved a predictable result: Millions of people across the country couldn’t get their social security checks. Many others, employees of the government at various levels, couldn’t get their paychecks. Businesses were unable to apply for government loans and grants. An enormous public outcry ensued, and the Republicans in the House backed down. There was clearly a relationship between the people and their government more complex than the simple opposition articulated by Reagan and his ideological heirs.

Yet while they abandoned the tactic, the GOP remained tied to the ideology that produced it. Thus the Glass-Steagal Act, enacted during the Great Depression to regulate the nation’s financial markets, was overturned during the Clinton Administration. And during the presidency of George W. Bush (who has proclaimed himself a dedicated follower of Reagan), regulations of all sorts have been tossed aside. This was supposed to free American entrepreneurs to reach their full potential, unencumbered by the dead hand of bureaucratic second-guessing. As Reagan often said, “Let the free market work.”

The results of dispensing with government oversight of such things as the building and testing of flood levees, the financial markets, food and drug safety, environmental regulations and contractor behavior in Iraq have been as predictable as was the public reaction to the 1995 government shutdown. But some things no rational person should expect. A story on the front page of today’s New York Times describes how, in the true spirit of Reagan, the Pentagon awarded a $300 million contract for Afghan army weapons and supplies to a company led by two twenty-somethings. The contract was loosely worded; oversight, nonexistent. The company purchased arms from Albania, China and various parts of the former Soviet Union. In many cases, the materials purchased were 40 years old and barely functional, if at all. The Afghans started complaining, American military personnel did the same, and now that the story has come out, the Pentagon has dropped the contract and Democrats in Congress want to talk to the company’s young officials.

Even by the —ahem— standards of the Bush administration, this is astonishing, but I’m sure that with 10 more months to go, the Decider and his cronies will find some way to top it. God help us all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Strong and Wrong

hilzoy takes on Megan McArdle’s reaction, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, to those of us who have criticized the reasoning of those (McArdle, f’rinstance) who supported the war in the first place.

I love the “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” logic of McArdle and other such characters. When faced with the prospect of going to war, they were all rectitude and certainty. Now that everything they believed and argued has been proven false, we discover that the process of deciding is impossibly complicated. The “complex webs of interactions” producing success are impossible to trace out, you see, while failure is generally obvious. Donald Rumsfeld used the same dodge when chaos exploded in Iraq after the invasion. Remember how “messy” democracy turned out to be? “Stuff happens.” Who would have pegged Donald Rumsfeld as a relativist?

Maybe we’ve misunderstood the neocons and their enablers altogether. Here we were, watching a group of extremely aggressive, arrogant, self-confident bureaucratic infighters and veteran cold warriors embark on a war of choice. Yet all the time, hiding under those gruff exteriors were a bunch of Buddhist monks, meditating in carefully disguised serenity on the inherent randomness of life.

I don’t know about you, but I feel downright beatified by this new awareness.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

October Surprise?

Frank Hope argues that recent ship movements in the Middle East may presage war with Iran. Others disagree. I don't pretend to have a crystal ball. I confess that I can see a lot of reasons to think such a turn of events unlikely in normal circumstances. The problem is that the situation is far from normal.

For example, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post about the Cheney Vice Presidency.

Essentially, Cheney salted allies throughout the government, starting before he & The Decider got into the White House. These were people beholden to Cheney who could be counted on to do his bidding. Once his personal network was in place, they proceeded to enact policy at all levels & in all departments of the government, often circumventing the cabinet secretaries responsible for the agencies involved. This extended to include even crucial decisions on the war in Iraq which were made without the knowledge of Secretary of State Colin Powell or National Security Advisor (now Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice.

The neocons, Cheney definitely included, wanted war with Iraq long before 9/11. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, began writing about and agitating for war shortly after the end of the first Gulf war in 1991. The Project for a New American Century, a right-wing foreign policy advocacy organization, was founded in 1997 by William Kristol (who currently infests the Op-Ed page of The New York Times), and has included such well-known extremists as Elliott Abrams, Gary Bauer, William J. Bennett, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Eliot A. Cohen, Midge Decter, Paula Dobriansky, Steve Forbes, Aaron Friedberg, Francis Fukuyama, Frank Gaffney, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Fred C. Ikle, Donald Kagan, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, I. Lewis Libby, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, Dan Quayle, Peter W. Rodman, Stephen P. Rosen, Henry S. Rowen, Donald Rumsfeld, Vin Weber, George Weigel, and the aforementioned Paul Wolfowitz. PNAC’s stated goal is promotion of a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity,” to be achieved via increased military spending, an aggressive global posture (including the establishment of a series of military bases around the world—including a significant military presence in the Persian Gulf region), promotion of democracy and attainment of overwhelming military superiority over all other countries. Nothing specific was said in the organization’s September 2000 statement about invading Iraq, but its implications were clear. (Interestingly enough, the main focus of PNAC’s attention at the time was China—which just demonstrates the role of contingency in the course of foreign policy.)

For more details, watch the excellent Frontline program on the war in Iraq now broadcasting on PBS.

Cheney is determined, clever and extremely ruthless. I have no doubt that if he wants war with Iran, he’ll find a way to get it.

Unintentional Altruism?

Pat Buchanan, evidently concerned that many people in this country are unable to identify racism when they see it, has graciously consented to present himself to the public as an example. hilzoy explains.

Monday, March 24, 2008

U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Declared a Success

Published March 24, 2008
by U.S.S. Intrepid

WASHINGTON — President Bush announced today that the deaths of 4000 American soldiers in Iraq proved that his strategy to destroy the American military is succeeding. “We scared them into enlisting with talk about mushroom clouds, then we invaded a country that hadn’t attacked us, and we didn’t even supply them with kevlar vests or armor for their vehicles,” laughed the president. “And with stop loss, we get to keep sending them back into combat over and over until we kill them all off.” An additional plus, said the president, was that such conditions and policies were leading to an overall decline in recruiting, further stretching an already overextended military.

The president expressed satisfaction with the quality of medical care wounded veterans receive in the U.S. as well. “Take what happened at Walter Reed,” he said. “We had wounded vets just lying in filthy beds, ignored by the people who were supposed to be caring for them. And with a health care system that works only for the rich, these folks who’ve risked their lives for their country get to come back home and end up sleeping in a doorway. You couldn’t ask for a better ending.”

Asked whether he thought his efforts had brought progress in the war on terror, the president energetically agreed. “Thanks to our total ineptitude, we’ve put 140,000 of America’s bravest people in harm’s way, giving terrorists an opportunity to attack them and gain valuable experience—a kind of terrorist training on the job.”

The president was particularly gratified by the alienation of our allies due to the administration’s abrogation of signed international treaties and contemptuous rejection of all efforts at international cooperation. “Almost everybody everywhere hates us,” he said. “I hope to make that sentiment universal by the time I leave office.”

“Just think,” said Bush. “By the time I leave office, the whole army may be reduced to a smoking cinder. Mission accomplished.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Five Years On

I'm obviously not the first to write a blog entry marking the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I feel compelled to do this out of a sense that something roughly analogous to the post-Vietnam CYA exercise is being concocted by many of the rogues responsible for the mess in which we are seemingly inextricably mired at present. My purpose in jumping on this already overloaded bandwagon is to provide some links to articles by various people who wisely anticipated the disaster that was about to unfold.

On Sunday the New York Times, whose Op-Ed page has become a way station for William Kristol (one of the main architects of the war), convened a gaggle of neoconservative war promoters and a couple of their liberal enablers to ruminate on the lessons supposedly learned from our misadventure in Iraq. Needless to say, this opportunity to bemoan supposed minor misconceptions while reinforcing the major ones was not missed by such luminaries as Richard Perle and Paul Bremer.

Suffice it to say that the idea to invade Iraq, as far as the panelists were concerned, was absolutely sound; mistakes were made (as the official line has traditionally put it), but the various disasters along the way were either someone else’s fault or the sorts of things one must expect when taking on the nobel business of (a) demolishing a society whose history (about which our policymakers know almost nothing) extends back to the beginnings of human civilization and then, as if by magic, (b) installing (with seemingly no prior planning) a political system and laissez-faire economy amidst total chaos occasioned by our intervention. How could anyone have anticipated that such an enterprise would fail?

Actually, some of us did. Tom Engelhardt and Greg Mitchell provide a list of those who were evidently too perceptive to make the cut for the New York Times retrospective last Sunday.

James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, also foresaw the disaster before it unfolded.

So did Paul Starr, Harold Meyerson and Robert Kuttner in a September 2002 article in TAP.

I’m sure there were many more. Please feel free to provide your own sources in the Comments section. It’s hard to understand how the newspaper of record could have selected for its retrospective only those who got it badly wrong while ignoring entirely those who got it right. Maybe the Grey Lady feels a need to cover her posterior as well?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

History and Geraldine Ferraro

Just about everyone has already opined on Geraldine Ferraro's statements about Barack Obama's supposed race-based advantage in the current primary contest. I see no reason why I should be left out. Rather than rehash the whole chain of events, I'd like to propose a reading list for anyone (certainly including Ms. Ferraro) who is still a bit hazy as to the history of racism and slavery in this country. I do not claim that the list below is anywhere near exhaustive; time limitations preclude comprehensiveness, I'm afraid. What follows therefore, is a list of some of the most powerful and influential books on the subject. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in Comments.

A parade of evidence and book titles ran through my mind when I read and heard Ferraro's comments--facts and titles of which, I'm certain, Ferraro is (amazingly, at this point in our history) unaware.

Among those books are The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth Stampp, a meticulously researched and dispassionately written explanation of the conditions and practices of slavery in the United States. This book (written in 1955) demolished the long existing pattern of rationalizations in defense of slavery within the American history profession. After this book was released, no knowledgeable person could honestly claim that slavery had been anything but an extraordinarily cynical economic enterprise dependent on the thoroughgoing dehumanization of one group of people by another.

Nor did emancipation eradicate the physical, social, political or psychological conditions of slavery. In fact, Reconstruction at best temporarily interrupted some of those factors in specific locations. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner, is a magisterial account of the gradual unraveling (under relentless pressure of unreconstructed former slaveholders and other bigots and opportunists) of efforts to establish legal and social equality for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.

After the secret bargain between Republicans and Democrats in the 1876 election, Rutherford B. Hayes became president and formally ended Reconstruction. What followed, a series of laws formalizing the legalized racial oppression of African Americans throughout the south know as Jim Crow, is outlined in C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow. This was the system that remained in place until the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.

It is amazing to consider that only 45 years ago, black and white citizens of this country could not drink from the same water fountains, go to the same schools, ride the same buses, or live in the same neighborhoods; nor could black Americans even vote in many states. Nor has the bigotry underlying such laws disappeared from our society, although its expression continues to bubble, usually under the surface. If you doubt that, please try to explain honestly the obvious success of GOP campaign tactics such as the Willie Horton ad, and claims in the 2000 South Carolina primary that John McCain had supposedly fathered a black child. Then consider the murder of James Byrd a few years ago in Texas, and the consistent study results, year after year, showing clear evidence that black mortgage applicants and renters with the same credentials as white applicants are steered to "black" areas and "black" neighborhoods. See also the consistent study results showing that black job applicants with credentials identical to those of whites have their applications rejected at a much higher rate than the latter. And while we're at it, consider the various efforts by the GOP to repeal or limit the civil rights laws and their (allegedly) principled opposition to affirmative action.

Consider all of the above and try to convince me that Geraldine Ferraro's statements were not ignorant and/or perverse.