Saturday, June 18, 2005

Jeb steps in, Dick steps out

Two updates, via Demagogue, on two of my recent posts (one on Gitmo (here), one on the Schiavo case (here)):

1) On Gitmo (see here): In recent days, Cheney has come out to defend Gitmo in a serious of rare public appearances. But why, you ask? Is it just to defend the administration? Or does it have just as much (or more) to do with the fact that Halliburton, his former company and one in which he still has financial interests, has been tapped to build a new $30 million detention facility at Gitmo?

2) On Schiavo (see here): Jeb Bush has asked prosecutors to investigate the cause of Terri Schiavo's sudden collapse 15 years ago, a clear attempt to keep the tragic story alive by persecuting Michael Schiavo (who has already been demonized to the point of death threats by the religious right). Is this Jeb's attempt to placate the religious right in anticipation of a presidential run in 2008 or beyond? Could it be that transparent? Well, yes.

And we wonder why there's so much cynicism out there? (Or maybe we no longer do.)

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Religious moderation... Hallelujah!

I'm not terribly religious myself, but John Danforth, Episcopal minister and former Republican senator from Missouri, makes an excellent case here for what could be called moderate Christianity. The entire piece is a must-read (and check out The Carpetbagger Report's take here), but let me single out a key passage:

In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship between the two. To assert that I am on God's side and you are not, that I know God's will and you do not, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God's kingdom is certain to produce hostility.

By contrast, moderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claiming to possess God's truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base. We believe it is God's work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today's politics.

Danforth's acute diagnosis of the problem of the Christian right within the context of the Republican Party doubles as a thoughtful defence of moderation (and moderate politics) against the extremes, specifically the extremism of the religious right. Given that the religious right has assumed such power and influence within the Republican Party -- and by extension within American politics -- his arguments that "[p]eople of faith are not of one mind," that "equally devout Christians come to very different conclusions," and that "[m]oderate Christians are less certain about when and how [their] beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings" need to be taken seriously.

Danforth sets himself apart from much of the Republican Party on key wedge issues like Terri Schiavo, stem-cell research, and a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. And, unlike the right-wing extreme, he "strongly support[s] the separation of church and state, both because that principle is essential to holding together a diverse country, and because the policies of the state always fall short of the demands of faith". If only the religious right (and its opportunistic partisans in the Republican Party) would remember that God "reached out in compassion to all human beings" and that "the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves".

If only.

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Sign of the Apocalypse #9: Katie Holmes-Cruise, scientologist

So Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are, allegedly, getting married. Not that I really care -- shouldn't we be more concerned about Darfur, for example? -- but there just seems to be so much wrong with it, from the obvious publicity-lust to boost their summer movies (War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, respectively), to Cruise's recent public antics, to the age difference (I'd say the maturity difference, but Cruise seems to be regressing in that area), to Holmes's impending conversion to scientology (don't get me started -- does she have any idea what she's getting herself into or it is all just brainwashing and lies?), to the rumours that she was his fifth choice (what does this say about his character?), to... well, check out this odd site if you want more.

Remember what Slate's Dana Stevens said about the celebrity-industrial complex? This makes Brangelina look relatively normal.

(For Signs of the Apocalypse 1-8, see right sidebar -- scroll down.)

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Friday, June 17, 2005

What the troops know about Iraq

Some of you may know about this already, since it isn't new, but have you all seen the "Iraq Culture Smart Card" for American troops? Check it out here. (A PDF version is available at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) site here.)

Fascinating stuff. I encourage you to look it over. Indeed, we could all learning something from it.

All I can say is that, despite all the allegations of abuse -- and they're obviously extremely troubling (see here, here, here, and here for my takes) -- there's absolutely no justification for the moral equivalency argument (i.e., that America/Americans are no better than [fill in the blank]). Some Iraqis may not exactly have welcomed the U.S., and the U.S. may not have done things exactly right, but at least there has been considerable effort -- and this Smart Card is proof of that -- to be sensitive and understanding of the local culture and to try, in terrible conditions, to do the right thing.

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Downing Street Memo: In search of a smoking gun

Did the Bush Administration "fix" intelligence to suit its war aims? Was Bush ever serious about diplomacy, or was war with Iraq a foregone conclusion? In short, does the DSM provide Bush's opponents with a smoking gun?

There's been a lot of hot air coming from both sides lately, but Fred Kaplan offers an excellent dissection of the DSM (and related documents) at Slate.

As one of the only sober commentaries on what has become an incredibly hot issue (some liberals are even talking impeachment -- foolishly, I might add), I think it's a must-read. As some of you know, Kaplan is generally opposed to all things pertaining to Bush's foreign policy, from Bolton to Iraq to Rumsfeld's Pentagon reforms, but he's exceptionally fair-minded here. The verdict: There's not much to the DSM that hasn't already been said by Richard Clarke, Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward, and Seymour Hersh, among others. The Bush Administration may have politicized intelligence, but they (and the British) believed what that intelligence told them. Kaplan:

Is there anything important in the Downing Street memo? This is the now-notorious secret transcript of a British ministerial meeting on July 23, 2002 -- obtained and published by the Sunday Times of London just this past May Day -- which seems to suggest that, nine months before the war in Iraq got started, the Bush administration a) knew Saddam Hussein didn't pose a threat; b) decided to overthrow him by force anyway; and c) was "fixing" intelligence to sell the impending invasion to a duped American public.

Many critics see the memo as the ultimate proof of Bush's duplicity -- and, given that no U.S. newspaper picked up the story for two weeks (and then buried it deep inside), as further evidence of the mainstream media's cravenness. Others, and not just Bush apologists, see the affair as overblown and the document's contents as no big deal...

The "killer quote" in the original Sunday Times story is this passage from the July 23 ministers' meeting: C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

"C" is the code name for Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. His "recent talks in Washington" would almost certainly have been with his counterpart, George Tenet, then-director of the CIA. Tenet would have told him about the "perceptible shift in attitude." What accounts for it? "Bush wants to remove Saddam through military action."

This is about as solid as the evidence gets on these matters: By mid-summer 2002 -- at a time when Bush was still assuring the American public that he regarded war as a "last resort" -- the president had in fact put it on his front burners.

Okay, fine. And? What's so surprising there? More:

In other respects... the memo doesn't make as strong a case against Bush as some have claimed. Read in conjunction with the six other British documents, the case weakens further. The memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims...

The implicit point of these passages [in related documents] is this: These top officials genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—and that they constituted a threat. They believed that the international community had to be sold on the matter. But not all sales pitches are consciously deceptive. The salesmen in this case turned out to be wrong; their goods were bunk. But they seemed to believe in their product at the time...

What of the second half of the key quote from the Downing Street Memo of July 23 -- that Bush wanted war, justified by WMD and terrorism, but "the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy"? It's worth noting that "fixed around" is not synonymous with "fixed." To say that Bush and his aides "fixed" intelligence -- as some Web sites claim the memo shows -- would mean that they distorted or falsified it. To say "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" means that they were viewing, sifting, and interpreting intelligence in a way that would strengthen the case for their policy, for going to war.

Either way -- "fixed" or "fixed around" -- Bush and his aides had decided to let policy shape intelligence, not the other way around; they were explicitly politicizing intelligence.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they thought their claims were false...

Again, what exactly have we learned here? Well, essentially that there isn't a smoking gun. As it turns out, based on a more careful reading of the documents in question, there really isn't much that's at all surprising. Bush was planning (even itching) to go to war even as he was talking diplomacy, even as he wasn't being straightforward with the American people. So what? Isn't that generally what "war" leaders do? It would have been foolhardly to publicize his intentions too early, and equally stupid not to start planning for war well ahead of the invasion. If anything, Bush and his inner circle were guilty of politicizing intelligence. But it's important to remember, as Kaplan notes, that they believed that Iraq possessed WMDs. And so did every other reputable intelligence service around the world.

A message to my liberal friends and readers: Look, I get it. And I'm with you. I don't like Bush either. I was a passionate Gore supporter and then a passionate Kerry supporter. And anyone who has spent any time here at The Reaction knows where I'm coming from. But let's keep this in perspective.

I supported the war, largely as a "Blair Democrat," for a number of reasons -- WMD, the ongoing threat of terrorism (even if there wasn't a connection between Iraq and 9/11), Saddam's unwillingness to abide by U.N. resolutions, and humanitarianism (let's remember that he gassed his own people) -- and I truly believed that the U.S. would do everything possible to ensure a stable transition to democracy (or to a new regime generally). Needless to say, I was wrong about that second part. The planning of the war was weak, of the aftermath horrible. The U.S. is paying the price, and Iraq remains in a suspended state of insecurity. There are increasing calls for an exit strategy, but, to me, the U.S. needs to finish the job it started. Everything possible must be done to secure peace and some semblance of a liberal democracy in Iraq. Backing out now would leave America without credibility and Iraq without hope.

(I also think it's important to keep in mind that the world (and the Middle East in particular) is much better off without Saddam in power. It's tough to say, given all the American and Iraqi casualties, but I'd rather have the uncertainty of the present situation than Saddam's ruthless brutality.)

What bothers me in the context of the DSM is that some on the left (not all, some) are using it as some sort of "smoking gun" to attack Bush. In so doing, though, they're doing just what they're accusing Bush of having done -- that is, selective reading and politicizing intelligence, all for the sake of some preconceived agenda. Many are taking a few lines of the DSM out of context to impugn the entire Iraq War. Hey, look, argue against the war and oppose Bush with as much passion as you can muster -- fine. Again, I'll be with you. But don't twist the facts to suit your own political purposes.

What I like about Kaplan's piece is that it's a liberal rebuke (of a sort) of liberalism's worst anti-Bush tendencies. We who are opposed to Bush, and to the Republican Party generally, need to offer an alternative to Bush, not merely to be anti-Bush. And we must deal with the realities of Iraq in the present, not the could-have-beens of Iraq in the past.

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Are the Democrats gaining in popularity?

So it seems that Democratic senators have higher approval ratings, on average, than their Republican counterparts. Ruy Teixeira of Donkey Rising (he of The Emerging Democratic Majority fame) reports here. Rick Heller of Centerfield (where I'm one of the group bloggers, cross-posting some stuff from The Reaction along with some original pieces) reports here. I'm not sure what to make of it. 2006 is just around the corner, and it may be that extremism and over-reach are beginning to catch up with Republicans. And, too, the Republican caucus in the Senate has moved noticeably to the right in recent years. This is no time for Democratic complacency, and I would only suggest that Democrats focus on providing a viable alternative to Republicans by encouraging internal diversity, fostering an atmosphere of respect, promoting serious policy debates, and working on a coherent message that will resonate with voters. Easier said than done, maybe, but now's their chance. (For my takes on the Democrats and their fortunes, see here, here, and here.)

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Yoda vs. E.T.

If you want a break from politics, check out this fascinating article on the Lucas-Spielberg friendship/feud at Slate. Who knew? For my part, I respect Lucas's vision, but he's an awful filmmaker. Spielberg relies on simplistic plot devices to manipulate his audiences, but at least, at his best, he's a brilliant director: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the better sci-fi offering of 1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report. Hard to believe he was once Lucas's submissive sidekick.

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Flag burning? Again? Come on, really?

Yes, it might "Thune" be a reality (sorry, couldn't resist). A constitutional amendment, that is, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota (the guy who ungraciously unseated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- for how he did so, see here) is the leading sponsor in the Senate. The Carpetbagger Report has the story. It looks like the amendment, now in its seventh go-around, will pass the House (where the right goes largely unchecked), but now there's some concern that it might even get through the Senate, usually a much more stable, deliberative body. The reason? New Republican senators like Thune, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and David Vitter of Louisiana. All of them "voted for the amendment as House members and plan to do so again".

Need I even comment?

During Bush II's presidency, there have thus far been two major constitutional amendment proposals. The first was the marriage amendment that would have legally restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. The second is this one. The first is an amendment that would, for the first time, constitutionalize discrimination against a specific group of American citizens (gays and lesbians). The second is an amendment that would, for the first time, undercut the First Amendment by restricting individual liberty.

Both are dangerous. Both are un-American. And both are insane.

But the second, at least, is now on its way through Congress. I suspect that the amendment wouldn't get past the states, even it survives the Senate, but I wonder if this isn't yet another example of Republican over-reach. If so, it could backfire against the Republicans in 2006 by persuading some moderates to move over to (or back to) the Democrats and by mobilizing the Democrats' more liberal base. But I'm not sure I want to take that risk.

This story isn't getting much attention at the moment, but it's incredibly bad news for anyone who cares about the Constitution and the protection of liberty that it enshrines as one of the foundations of American life. What is the rest of the world to think when it sees America reverse the spread of liberty right at home by tampering with the First Amendment?

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The life and death of Terri Schiavo: Now we know the truth, politics and all

The Terri Schiavo story seems like a distant memory -- I wrote about it extensively in the very early days of The Reaction, back at the end of March (see here and, more generally, here) -- but it reemerged today with the long-awaited results of the autopsy. See the Times article here:

An autopsy on Terri Schiavo, the severely brain damaged woman whose death sparked an intense debate over a person's right-to-die, showed that her brain was severely "atrophied," weighed less than half of what it should have, and that no treatment could have reversed the damage.

Now, this story is sad enough, and I hope that the results of the autopsy can finally put it to rest. But there's an important point here that needs to be addressed. In the days leading up to Terri's death, back during the storm over whether or not her feeding tubes should have been reinserted, back when Congress intervened to pass emergency legislation, back when President Bush flew back to Washington to sign said legislation, back when the federal judiciary was called upon to review the decisions of the Florida courts to grant Michael Schiavo's request to have her feeding tubes removed, a number of Republicans -- notably (Dr.) Bill Frist and (not-Dr.) Tom DeLay -- rejected medical determinations that she was in a "persistent vegetative state". In fact, Bill Frist even watched a few minutes of edited video footage from several years ago and diagnosed Terri without ever having even examined her. That was an astonishing piece of quasi-medical arrogance, but the Republicans (and the conservatives generally who rallied to defend Terri's "life") didn't back down. Removing the feeding tube (or, more specifically, refusing to reinsert it) amounted, in their view, to murder. That was always the implication, anyway, even if some weren't quite so explicit. But now we know the truth. Terri just wasn't there anymore -- not in any real, human way. This is how I put it back in March:

For my part, without knowing enough to reach any definite conclusions, I can only trust the expertise of her neurologists -- and, whatever the last-minute claims of doctors brought in by her family, those neurologists agreed that she was, in fact, living in a vegetative state. Or is that even the right way to put it? Was she at all living? In a sense, yes, but not, it would seem, in any truly human way. She was alive insofar as her body hadn't yet shut down. And those videos, streaming across the world, showed something. Yes, they had been conveniently edited to imply something approaching full consciousness, and hence to raise hopes of a miracle recovery, but they were nonetheless touching. But look through that. Her brain -- or at least the part of it that make a human being human in any full sense -- wasn't there anymore. It had withered away, much like the Terri Schiavo that had been there before the heart stoppage that ended up taking her life. In fact, it can be said that she was already "dead," and had been these past 15 years. That may sound like a heartless thing to say, but how can it be said that she was truly "alive"?

But will there be an apology or an admission of error -- or several of them -- from Frist, DeLay, and the rest of their Republican allies? Or from the thoughtless right-wing commentariat/blogosphere that jumped on the bandwagon? How about from The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, who -- as I mentioned in the second post linked above -- declared that liberals were "[indifferent]... to the fate of Terri Schiavo," that "liberalism washed its hands of Schiavo," that she was merely "[s]ick, needy, and handicapped"? I suspect not. As we've learned quite clearly from the Bush Administration itself, the right isn't about to admit that it's made any mistakes. They'll spout nonsense about the so-called "culture of life," and they'll turn even the most sensitive issue of human suffering into a tool for partisan warfare, but, in their view, they're always right. Even when they're wrong.

Here's more from the Times article:

[Piniellas-Pasco Medical Examiner] Dr. [Jon] Thogmartin said Ms. Schiavo technically died of "marked dehydration" - not starvation - after her feeding tube was removed.

But he said the underlying mystery at the heart of her case -- why she suddenly collapsed 15 years ago -- could not be answered. He said he considered the manner of her death to be "undetermined."

Instead, the medical examiner discussed some factors that did not appear to lead to Ms. Schiavo's illness.

The autopsy, for instance, showed that physical abuse or poison did not play a role in her collapse , he said. Ms. Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had accused their daughter's husband, Michael Schiavo, of abusing her, which he has steadfastly denied. Dr. Thogmartin also said there was no evidence she had had an eating disorder before she collapsed, although a disorder was widely suspected because she had diminished levels of potassium in her blood.

And despite a widely televised video that appeared to show Ms. Schiavo responding to voices and other movement in her room, the autopsy said that Ms. Schiavo was blind in her final days. The medical examiner said she would not have been able to eat or drink had she been fed by mouth, as her parents had requested. The autopsy found no evidence that she suffered a heart attack, or that she had been given harmful drugs that may have accelerated her death.

Asked about persistent vegetative state, Dr. Stephen Milton, a neuropathology expert who joined Dr. Thogmartin at the news conference, said that term referred to a clinical diagnosis, not a pathological diagnosis. But, he said, "There was nothing in the autopsy that is inconsistent with persistent vegetative state."

Well, then, how about an apology for Michael Schiavo? He was turned into a villain, mostly by those right-wing activists, but, as it turns out, he probably knew Terri better than anyone. And he certainly knew that Terri had died long before her body gave out.

I don't often quote or link to Andrew Sullivan at The Reaction -- largely because I figure everyone knows who he is, not because I don't read him (which I do) -- but he's usually right on social/moral issues, and I find that he and I share the same libertarian instincts. His brief comments on today's news are right on:

THEY LIED: In her final days, Terri Schiavo was blind and her brain was about half its expected size. She wasn't in a PVS? Please. Bill Frist needs to acknowledge his reckless political opportunism at the time. The attempts of the fringe, theocon right to allege that her husband abused her have also been exposed as malicious falsehoods. Remember the lies that were told, the junk science that the theocons came up with, the endless slanders and misrepresentations? It's rare that we get an objective resolution of a fiercely disputed matter. We have now. And it ain't pretty.

The Republicans in Congress and their right-wing supporters around the country turned this into a sordid political story. They claimed it was because of their commitment to the "culture of life," but it surely had as much (or more) to do with scoring a few political points (even though polls were consistently against them). But, at heart, it wasn't a political story. It was a human one, and the truth is that poor Terri Schiavo had died a long, long time before her body gave out. She was alive, maybe, but not alive in any meaningful way. Not in any human way. The right has come to embrace life, but human life is also about living well, or at least being able to live well. Hopefully the results of the autopsy will confirm that her death was a release, and a relief, not a tragic loss of life.

But let us rather think fondly of that life that was lost, the life that was lived well, and of what Terri meant to her family and friends. Let us, that is, remember Terri Schiavo, not the political circus that developed around her death.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

We'll always have Tashkent...

Remember Uzbekistan? Think hard. It was in the news not too long ago. You know, U.S.-friendly dictatorship, crackdown on dissidents, shooting of innocents? Yeah, I know, it's easy to forget. It was big for a couple of days, but then... gone. From the news, anyway. But see here and here. I was outraged. And I'm sure many of you were, too.

Well, it's back in the news again, and the news is not good. Here's the Post report, via Laura Rozen's excellent blog War and Piece (see here). Britain and the rest of Europe (in NATO) wanted to look more seriously into the killing of hundreds of protestors last month, but their efforts were blocked by Russia and the U.S. With anger and frustration welling up inside me once again, let me just quote directly from the Post:

Defense officials from Russia and the United States last week helped block a new demand for an international probe into the Uzbekistan government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

British and other European officials had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a daylong meeting in Brussels on Thursday. But the joint communique merely stated that "issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan," had been discussed.

The outcome obscured an internal U.S. dispute over whether NATO ministers should raise the May 13 shootings in Andijan at the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S. access to a military air base on its territory.

The communique's wording was worked out after what several knowledgeable sources called a vigorous debate in Brussels between U.S. defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers.

State and Defense department spokesmen, asked to comment about the debate, said that Washington has one policy and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- at the ministerial meeting -- verbally endorsed previous statements about the incident by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush.

Other officials said the disagreements between Defense and State officials reflect a continuing rift in the administration over how to handle a breach of human rights that has come under sharp criticism by the State Department, the European Union and some U.S. lawmakers.

Rice has said publicly that international involvement in an inquiry into the killings in Andijan is essential, and she has declined an Uzbek invitation for Washington to send observers to a commission of inquiry controlled by the parliament. Three U.S. officials said Uzbek President Islam Karimov has retaliated against her criticism by recently curtailing certain U.S. military flights into the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, in the country's southeast. The U.S. military considers the base a vital logistics hub in its anti-terrorism efforts.

Four sources familiar with a private discussion among the ministers on Thursday said that the Defense Department's stance on the Brussels communique's language placed it in roughly the same camp as the Russians -- but for different reasons. The Russian position, as spelled out by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in statements before and after the ministerial meeting, is that the incident, although alarming, was "inspired" by Afghanistan.

Ivanov said it is NATO's responsibility to control terrorism there more aggressively, but added: "We do not want to... put any extraordinary pressure on anybody" about the shootings.

No, of course not. We wouldn't want to do that, would we? But there's more:

There are stirrings of dissent on Capitol Hill about placing access to the air base at the center of U.S. policy, however. Six senators warned Rumsfeld and Rice in a letter last week that "in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre, America's relationship with Uzbekistan cannot remain unchanged."

The senators -- Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- added that "we believe that the United States must be careful about being too closely associated with a government that has killed hundreds of demonstrators and refused international calls for a transparent investigation." They suggested that the administration explore alternative basing arrangements "in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and elsewhere in the region" to give Washington more flexibility.

The European parliament, in a statement Thursday, went further, calling on Washington to halt negotiations with Uzbekistan over long-term access to the base and urging Uzbek authorities "to bring those responsible for the massacre in Andijan to trial."

Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We are calling for a credible, transparent and independent investigation into the Andijan tragedy." Different language has been used by Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "The United States has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to undertake a full and transparent inquiry into the Andijan incident," he said, but did not specifically mention an international role.

To be fair, at least there's "an internal U.S. dispute," and at least a number of senators from both parties (and the secretary of state herself) are pressing not only for an international investigation but for a re-evaluation of American policy towards Uzbekistan. If only Bush would listen...

Maybe, just maybe, he will. With a "friend" like Uzbekistan, after all, the U.S. just looks like a giant hypocrite.

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Eyes (still) wide shut, part I: Cheney defends Gitmo

Amid calls for the closure of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Vice President Cheney has taken a public stance in its defence. Again, no surprise whatsoever. The Bush Administration rarely backs down and never admits defeat (or wrong-doing of any kind), and Cheney is no Powell.

Personally, I'm not sure what to make of this issue. On the one hand, it would make some sense to close down a facility that has come, rightly or wrongly, to symbolize everything that's wrong with U.S. efforts in the so-called war on terror. And, certainly, the U.S. needs to consider how it is perceived both in the international community in general and throughout the Muslim world in particular, not just what may or may not have gone on there, which continues to remain somewhat blurry.

There are, of course, head-up-the-ass idiots like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who claims that it's a "myth" that any detainees were tortured there, but more reasoned opinion generally acknowledges that some were. Amnesty International's 2005 report on the U.S., much of which has been lost in the debate over one AI official's use of the word "gulag," is clear, and I, for one, tend to believe that extreme interrogation techniques bordering on torture and likely even qualifying as torture have been used. I've written on this matter here and here -- and on "Korangate," the mistreatment of the Koran, here.

On the other hand, Gitmo would have to be replaced by some other detention facility, and one wonders if the problem simply wouldn't be transferred along with the prisoners. Or does this not matter? Perhaps it's now just a matter of resolving a serious public relations fiasco. As of now, just one prominent Republican, Senator Mel Martinez, has suggested that Gitmo be closed. But other big-time Republicans, including Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, are clearly worried about the impact of allegations of torture and abuse on America's already damaged reputation around the world.

In the end, Jimmy Carter seems to have found the appropriate middle ground here. While denouncing the "absurd" claim that Gitmo is "the gulag of our time," he has admitted that "[t]he U.S. continues to suffer terrible embarrassment and a blow to our reputation... because of reports concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo".

No, I don't know where Gitmo's prisoners would go, and the issue of torture, abuse, and general mistreatment won't go away just with a change of venue. But closing down Gitmo would be a good start. If nothing else, it would show that the U.S. cares about its reputation, about the very serious allegations that have come to light, and about winning the "soft" war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

But don't count on it. Not when Cheney shows once again that he just doesn't get it.

(For part II, see here.)

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Pakistan, our "ally": What the hell's wrong with the world?

Dear President Bush,

Do something about this. Please. For God's sake.

If you're serious about America's mission in the world, about the spread of freedom and democracy, stand up with all the moral righteousness you can muster and say with force, conviction, and unswerving determination that things like this simply cannot go on in a place that, allegedly, is an ally.

You welcome Pakistan's foreign minister to the White House, America's house, but Kristof is right: "President Musharraf has gone nuts." He's a thug. And now he's berated, harassed, and detained a poor woman, Mukhtaran Bibi, who dared speak out after she was gang-raped for some "infraction supposedly committed by her brother". She was jeered by her community and was expected to commit suicide in the wake of such humiliation. But "she fought back and testified against her persecutors. Six were convicted."

More than that, she used aid money to "[expand] the schools, [start] a shelter for abused women and [buy] a van that is used as an ambulance for the area. She has also emerged as a ferocious spokeswoman against honor killings, rapes and acid attacks on women." But now she's been detained in some "secret location," and "[s]he is barred from contacting anyone, including her lawyer."

"So, Mr. Bush," if I may quote Kristof's conclusion, "how about asking Mr. Musharraf to focus on finding Osama, instead of kidnapping rape victims who speak out? And invite Ms. Mukhtaran to the Oval Office -- to show that Americans stand not only with generals who seize power, but also with ordinary people of extraordinary courage."

She is the true face of Pakistan, a model of courage in the face of extraordinary hardship. She needs our attention. And she needs your help.


The Reaction

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Notes on The Reaction

Just a couple of quick things: I've expanded the front page of The Reaction to include all posts from the past two weeks. Delving into a blog's archives is always a time-consuming (and occasionally frustrating) task, and it makes more sense, I think, to keep as many recent posts as possible out here on the front page (without going too far and making it too long). So I invite you to scroll down the page and check out two weeks' worth of posts. This may also be helpful given that a number of them have invited some excellent comments from readers, and it's nice to be able to keep those discussions going beyond just a few days. In addition, I'm adding links to older posts grouped by theme over on the right side of the page, just below "Previous Posts". So far, I've added links to my Signs of the Apocalypse (now up to 8 with the addition of a new one tonight) and to my two lengthy posts on Leo Strauss. This should make navigation through The Reaction much easier. Now, when you read, say, about one of my Signs of the Apocalypse, you can just scroll down and have quick access to all the others by clicking on the appropriate links over on the right. Or you can just browse through some the themes I've addressed and check out some older posts, like the ones on Strauss, that would otherwise he hard to find in the archives. I'll be sure to add more links over the coming days and to keep the various themes updated as I write new posts in the future.

I'd also like to take this time to thank all of you -- those of you I know and the many more I don't -- for checking out my blog and, hopefully, for spending some time here. There are a lot of blogs out there, I know, many of them quite good and many extremely popular, but I hope I add something to the blogosphere that brings you back from time to time (and perhaps even regularly). I post regularly -- usually 2 to 5 times a day -- so there's always something new, and I always aim to keep it interesting by delving into a broad range of topics and maintaining a sense of humour throughout (even though I've addressed some pretty serious topics, too). And I certainly invite you to read through the comments for each post and to add your own. I've already had the wonderful opportunity to meet some really interesting people out here, and it would be great to hear what others of you have to say in response to me or my other readers, whether some brief observations or some lengthier reflections. Ideally, after all, it would be great if The Reaction could become a place for thoughtful, intelligent discussion of some of most pressing issues of the day.

In the meantime, though, thank you again. It's an honour to be able to write for you and to have you here as my readers.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #8: Michael Jackson, "human being"

Need I say more?

Okay, fine. He got off. I was watching CNN late this afternoon, and, though I didn't really follow the case, I couldn't turn away. Such is the power of... what? Celebrity? Well, I don't much care for Jacko one bit, and his "celebrity" means very little to me. So, the media? Maybe. They build stories into must-sees, and, well, if you're not somehow taking in the story, if you're not somehow participating in the story even as a distant viewer, then you're just not living in reality as it is now understood. For "reality" -- the reality that we collectively share, that somehow seems to transcend us and guide us -- is what's out there in the media, the world as presented through the media. Indeed, that "reality" often seems more real than the "reality" of our everyday lives. The media connect us to one another, especially through stories like the Michael Jackson case. Without it -- without the fantasy of that reality -- we're left with nothing but, well, life. And we all know how hard that is. Thus the "reality" of the media provides us with an escape, and most of us are happy to take it from time to time, some of us even all the time. Is there any way out? Courage, friends, courage. Just don't pay any attention. Or do so, but realize that you're being manipulated, drawn into the web of an alternative reality, where, in this case, the trial of Michael Jackson takes on a meaning that lifts it above the humdrum ordinariness of the rest of us, that compels us to live vicariously through it, that turns us into media-consuming automatons. Surely that's what Wolf Blitzer wants, whether he knows it or not. Or is he not some similar creature of media consumption?

Let's us be media critics then, not media consumers. I was mediated this afternoon, drawn into that web, where every little movement seemed like it bore the weight of history. Surely not, though. Surely it was all just madness...

(So Michael Jackson got off. Fine. What do I care? Maybe the American justice system worked, maybe it didn't. I hope it did, but I'm not so sure. He may or may not be guilty of those crimes, but I suspect that something untoward happened behind the circus gates of Neverland, deep in the recesses of a grown-up child's living fantasy. Come on, does anyone really believe that nothing happened?

Either way, Michael Jackson, his life, his story, and his now-concluded trial is one huge Sign of the Apocalypse. And I, for one, want no more of it.)

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Shine on all you crazy diamonds!

"All we need to do is make sure we keep talking..." Posted by Hello

The Reaction is, as most of you know, a largely political blog, although it occasionally delves into philosophy and culture. And the last two posts, both about the fortunes of the Democratic Party, are themselves strictly political in scope.

But let me put that aside for the moment... For this is the best news that I've heard in a long, long time:

Roger Waters is reuniting with Pink Floyd -- David Gilmour, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason -- for a "Live 8" concert in London's Hyde Park on July 2. Brain Damage, the best Pink Floyd website, reports here. Needless to say, I'm an enormous fan. I and so many other Pink Floyd fans around the world had kept hoping and hoping that this day would come, and now it has. Sometimes pigs do fly!

For more on the Live 8 concerts -- part of a larger effort to persuade the G8 powers to fight poverty more aggressively -- see here. One of the chief organizers is Sir Bob Geldof -- he who organized the Live Aid concerts, who played Pink in the film version of Pink Floyd's The Wall (still one of the great anti-war movies), and who personally brought Pink Floyd back together for this concert (largely by opening up a line of communication between Gilmour and Waters, estranged since the early-'80s):

HERE’S THE PROBLEM: Every single day, 50,000 people are dying, needlessly, of extreme poverty. More than were dying at the time of Live Aid. Dying of AIDS, dying of hunger, dying of diseases like TB and Diarrhoea. Dying, often for want of medicines which we can buy over the counter in a chemist.

HERE’S THE OPPORTUNITY: On 6 July 2005, the 8 leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful countries meet for the G8 summit in Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Around the table will be George Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi, Paul Martin, Junichiro Koizumi and Vladimir Putin.

In front of these 8 men will be a costed and cogent plan -- the result of a year’s work by the Africa Commission -- a plan to drop 100% of the debts owed by the world’s richest countries by the world’s poorest countries, to double the amount of high quality aid which is spent in those countries adding an extra $50 billion, and to change the injustices of the trade laws so that those countries can build a future for themselves.

These 8 men will have it in their power to save literally millions of lives. There’s never been an opportunity like this before -- and may not be again in our lifetime. The G8 could put an end to the greatest scandal of our time!

HERE’S THE EVENT: At the G8 summit, those 8 men will have the choice to change the way our world works; but they won’t unless enough people tell them to.

That is why LIVE 8 is happening. To make them do the right thing.

It happens alongside a huge international campaign -- the Global Call To Action Against Poverty, Make Poverty History in the UK, Bono’s One Campaign in the USA -- millions of supporters in 71 countries, including all the G8 countries.

20 years on Bob Geldof, the driving force behind 1985’s Live Aid, has consistently refused to revive Live Aid - but he now believes this July’s G8 conference is a unique opportunity. "Charity will never really solve the problems. It is time for justice -- and 20 years after Live Aid, people now demand it of these 8 men."

LIVE 8 will be held on 2 July 2005. Five simultaneous free concerts are confirmed with the cream of international rock and pop artists performing in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Philadelphia. Hundreds of thousands will attend with billions more watching the international broadcasts.

Historic venues have been selected. Hyde Park, London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Philadelphia -- the Cradle of America and the Live Aid City in 1985, the historic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the staggering Circus Maximus in Rome -- and plans for concerts in the other G8 capitals are being developed.

A great event for a great cause. And a great cause that has brought Roger Waters back to Pink Floyd, if only for a single concert performance. Truly and utterly amazing. Forgive me if I'm a little, uh, comfortably numb.

See you all on the dark side of the moon!

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Dean flap, Part II: A perception of extremism that's bad for Democrats

(For Part I, see here.)

One problem for Democrats is that electoral success in America (and I'm writing from Canada, where we have a different electoral system altogether) depends on striking the necessary balance between mainstream appeals to the center and rallying one's base. One of the reasons for the Republicans' success -- and I'll focus here on strategy, not substance -- is that they've managed to do that extraordinarily well. Bush is marketed (by Rove et al.) as a "real" American with "real" values who stands up for other "real" Americans, specifically on national security and terrorism, but also on "values" generally. Whether or not he matches this image is another matter entirely (I don't think he does, as you might have predicted), but politics is often perception, and his success can very much be traced back to how he is perceived by (because marketed to) the electorate.

Meanwhile, however, Republicans have learned (from 2000, mostly) that lower voter turnout across the board means that turning out the vote is a key to electoral success. And when half of Americans don't vote, give or take, turning out the vote means rallying one's base, those emotionally-charged voters who will take the time to come out and vote and make their voices heard. Isn't this the brilliant strategy of 2004? Bush wins just enough centrists by appealing to national security and terrorism to complement a huge turnout by the religious right, his base.

Democrats are learning this, but in-fighting always seems to be getting the better of them. So the choice always seems to be between a liberal Democrat like Dean who can rally the base and a moderate Democrat like, say, Lieberman or Biden, who can appeal more directly to the non-partisan center (Nixon's silent majority, if you will). There should be room in the Democratic Party for both liberals and moderates, but the Dean storm only serves as a reminder of those internal tensions.

In the end, Dean wasn't right to make those comments, at least not in the way he did, but Biden and Edwards weren't right either to chastise him publicly. Democrats need to be strong, united, and organized. This means recognizing Democratic diversity, but also the need to put up a united front. Because, yes, Republicans are loving this. They love to see us come apart at the seams just as we love to see them splinter into disunited factions, just as we love to see the religious right and the moderate neo-liberal center at odds with one another.

Democrats won't win by ignoring their base, and that includes the Deaniacs and the types, but nor will they win if their party chairman is spewing such venomous, and ill-founded, loathing for the Republicans. We may feel such things in our hearts, and think them in our heads, but there must be a filter somewhere between the heart, the head, and the mouth. Otherwise, all we'll continue to do is provide fodder for the Republicans and the right-wing commentariat/blogosphere, and push away moderate voters who want to give us a chance (but who also want us to give them a good reason to vote Democratic).

  • I should add here -- and this is very important -- that what I am advising is that Democrats not act like Republicans. Not all Republicans, of course -- I respect the likes of McCain and Hagel, for example -- but many Republicans get away with brutally obnoxious attacks against Democrats (and liberals) -- and I'm talking about elected Republicans, Republican officials, and their mouthpieces in the media (including the blogosphere). I wrestle with this all the time. If they do it, why can't we? Fair enough. We need to be tough, too. But I suggest that Democrats cede the partisan low-road to Republicans and stand up for themselves and their ideas with confidence, strength, and conviction. Americans -- who are looking for real leadership in this time of crisis and challenge -- will respond to them, respect them, and vote for them if they do.

As I mentioned in a previous post about the fortunes of the Democratic Party, there are Democrats who are doing very well in "red" states: Bredesen in Tennessee, Easley in North Carolina, Sebelius in Kansas, and Warner in Virginia, among others. It may be true that many voters in those highly Republican jurisdictions don't may much attention to Democratic politics, and it's true that we might all be making something of nothing, or of very little, largely because the right is so keen to keep this problem alive and because it all just seems like politics-as-usual, but Democrats won't recover the center, and won't win nationally, if they are perceived to be a party of the coastal establishments, out of touch with the concerns and values of middle America.

And they certainly won't win if they're perceived to be the party of Deaniac rage. Dean, I believe, has the makings of a fine DNC chair, and I think that all Democrats should try to work with him and to elevate their common concerns over petty bickering, but, above all, let's make sure to treat each other with respect. That means our fellow Democrats, our Republican friends, and those millions of Americans across the political center who are looking for Democrats to offer them a serious, viable alternative to Republican leadership -- because look where that's gotten them.

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