Sunday, November 06, 2005

Three Scandals or One?

In the fifth year of George W. Bush's presidency, three great storm clouds have come piling up from the recent past to converge in the present, and throw the deepest possible shadow over the future.

The first cloud is of course the scandal surrounding the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, in connection with which the Vice President's Chief of Staff, I. Lewis Libby, was recently indicted, and the President's own closest advisor, Karl Rove, remains in possible legal jeopardy.

The second cloud is that which swirls around the question of whether the Bush administration knowingly distorted intelligence in making its case for war against Saddam Hussein, thereby creating the impression of an imminent threat where none existed--a question recently given new life by, among other things, Sen. Harry Reid's bold use of Senate Rule 21 to force the majority to undertake a promised, but never-delivered, Intelligence Committee investigation of the matter.

The third cloud shadowing the Bush presidency is one that first appeared on the scene with the Abu Ghraib revelations in April 2004, and that has gained new urgency from such events as the disclosures regarding prisoner abuse by Capt. Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne, and the recent revelation of a CIA-run network of secret prisons abroad.

The betrayal of Valerie Plame, the distortion of pre-war intelligence, the torture of prisoners: Each of these scandals has, by itself, the potential to damage the Bush presidency deeply enough, that nothing short of an internal coup--along the lines of what Howard Baker did for Ronald Reagan's second term in the wake of Iran-Contra--will save it.

Is there anything of substance connecting the three scandals? Do they share a common root?

That we cannot know--at least not yet. For each of the three scandals is surrounded by its own firewall. Mr. Libby, as John Dean recently remarked, is the firewall for Mr. Cheney--or, at least, what Patrick Fitzgerald's five indictments allege to be Libby's systematic program of deception is acting as a barricade to prevent Mr. Fitzgerald from following the trail of Valerie Plame's exposure wherever in the administration it might lead. If Mr. Libby knew that George W. Bush would not be in a position to extend to him, in the event of a conviction, the same courtesy that George H. W. Bush extended to the Iran-Contra conspirators, this might concentrate his mind more on his own fate. But Mr. Bush seems unlikely to let Mr. Libby feel thus abandoned, so long as the firewall stays in good repair.

The situation is even less promising in the other two cases, for there we have no special prosecutor to test the resilience of the firewalls. On the question of torture, it is true, Sen. McCain is making himself troublesome to the administration and its loyal defenders in the House majority. But Sen. McCain is asking only that the administration disavow torture from now on. He has 90 votes in the Senate for that, but he does not have 90 votes for getting the administration to come clean about who is responsible for the torture that has already happened. On that question, the firewall is probably manned by reliable majorities in both houses.

Sen. Reid, meanwhile, has certainly shown that the Senate minority is not without weapons of its own, and he has successfully deployed one of these to compel at least a formal resumption of the stalled-then-abandoned investigation into the politicization of pre-war intelligence. But Sen. Reid's arsenal cannot contain many more weapons like that one, and the majority knows this. Moreover, his Rule 21 gambit succeeded largely through the element of surprise, and the majority is unlikely to be taken unawares a second time. It remains to be seen whether his threat created enough fear to force from the majority more than token adherence to the promise of completing a genuine investigation into how intelligence was used (and misused) in the run-up to the war.

Under these circumstances, it will hard enough for any one scandal to be traced to its ultimate source, much less for the links between any two, or all three, to be disclosed. If I were to guess, I would say that all roads, in the end, lead back to what Col. Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff, has called the "cabal" centered around Dick Cheney. At least, it very much looks as if the "Team B" mentality, with which the Vice President has long been associated--contempt for regular military and intelligence institutions and procedures, belief that real power should be in the hands of parallel institutions staffed by trusted hawks-- has dominated the administration's foreign policy agenda. It might fall to historians, more than to contemporaries, to test that intuition.

Whatever the actual connections between them, however, these three embarrassments are now crystallizing into a unified scandal more powerful than any since Watergate. And as in Watergate, the disparate elements of super-scandal are held in concentric orbits by the inescapable gravity of a war gone bad--or rather, of an administration's failed wager concerning such a war.

Nixon wagered his presidency on the idea that he could extract the country from Vietnam by drawing down troops while unleashing more and wider-ranging violence on the enemy. This was the real "secret plan" to end the war, on the promise of which he had campaigned. The draw-down would placate a home front that had, at the very least, lost faith in the government's predictions of imminent success. The redoubled destruction, meanwhile, would make the North Vietnamese pliant at the bargaining table, out of fear of what "crazy" Nixon would do next.

Nixon lost that wager because neither the Vietnamese enemy nor the American people responded as he had hoped they would. The former proved endlessly resilient, and the latter proved unwilling to overlook that fact--or to forgive Nixon for not having reckoned with it. The more obvious it became that the wager had been a bad one, the more Nixon staked on it, lashing out both publicly and clandestinely at all those who raised their voices in protest at the ever-rising losses. Watergate is the name history ultimately gave to the secret portions of that organized lashing-out.

George W. Bush placed his own wager in the spring and summer of 2002. The spontaneous upwelling of national unity following 9-11 had given him an unprecedented amount of what he likes to call "political capital," and he was determined to use it to make even more. But Bush's political capital of 2002 was, like Nixon's of 1969, highly leveraged. Bush was betting that a splendid little war would silence critics who pointed to the absence of an imminent threat, or of a connection between Hussein and the perpetrators of 9-11, or of substantial international support. Even more, regime change in Iraq, charter member of the "axis of evil," would transform the War on Terror into the political equivalent of World War II--and Bush himself into a sort of right-wing FDR.

Like Nixon, Bush's initial wager was consumed by the uncertainties of war. And like Nixon, he has responded to bruising losses by throwing good coin after bad. It was bad enough to have exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to get us into the war; it was worse yet to let panic about the war's course take over administration policy, driving it to an increasingly flagrant and widespread use of torture abroad, and an increasingly ruthless program of character assassination of the war's critics here at home. The former gave us Abu Ghraib and the other torture scandals, the latter gave us the exposure of Valerie Plame as a means to bury Joe Wilson.

One of the things that set Watergate apart from the typical Washington scandal was how what began with the disclosure of a seemingly small-bore bit of political skullduggery--the famous third-rate burglary--ultimately precipitated the unveiling of an entire political demimonde of force and fraud underlying the Nixon presidency.

In that respect, it is starting to look like 1973 all over again.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

GOP Governing Philosophy

The original intent of Federal disaster assistance is to supplement State and local response efforts. Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, State and local efforts.

Having Federal assistance supplement, not supplant State and local efforts is, most likely, going to be one of the more difficult measures aimed at responsibility and accountability that this Administration will have to work through.

-- Joe M. Allbaugh, Bush crony and unqualified political hack, who preceded equally unqualified political hack Micheal Brown (his former college roommate good friend and handpicked successor), as director of FEMA, testifying before Congress in 2001.

Shorter GOP governing philosophy: Don't do anything right for the people, it only encourages them.

Harold Meyerson covers the longer version here.

UPDATE: The Shrill One is on the case as well. Best line: "Why did the administration make the same mistakes twice? Because it paid no political price the first time." Or, to translate for the benefit of Washington journalists, "pointing the finger," now, means saving American lives, the next time these jokers have to deal with a national emergency.

SECOND UPDATE: It seems that even the normally somnambulant New York Times editorial board has taken to sounding something like the Executive Committee of the Liberal Conspiracy that wingnuts always imagine it to be: "Political patronage has always been a hallmark of Washington life. But President Bill Clinton appointed political pals at FEMA who actually knew something about disaster management." The Times editorial board, comparing Bush unfavorably to--Clinton? Maybe the apocalypse really is upon us.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Excuses, Excuses (and Lies)

Josh Marshall reads the WaPo article describing how the White House is engaged in a full-scale effort to shift blame for the slow, woefully inadequate emergency response to Katrina onto the backs of state and local officials. Apparently, the original "Who knew?" excuse just wasn't cutting it, so now they're rolling out this new and improved model. Or as Josh puts it:
Now at least we have the storyline. The Bush administration wasn't caught sleeping on the job while New Orleans went under with a gutted FEMA run by a guy who got fired from his last job policing horse shows. In fact, according to the new White House storyline, the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans didn't ask for help quickly enough. And the White House was powerless to act until they did. Apparently they couldn't even reschedule the president's vacation until the locals got the right forms signed.

Unfortunately for the career of this latest excuse, AmericaBlog is ready with this reality check, drawn straight from the White House's own August 27th press release on "Federal Emergency Assistance for Louisiana," which reads, in part:
The President today declared an emergency exists in the state of Louisiana...

The President's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population...

Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency...

The 27th was the Saturday before Katrina hit. So which is it? Was the President overstepping his constitutional authority on Saturday the 27th? Or is the White House currently engaged in a campaign of organized lying to cover up the federal government's mismanagement of a disaster relief effort it was duly authorized to coordinate?

UPDATE: Over at TPM Cafe, nascardaughter has dug up the actual legal criteria that govern DHS/FEMA involvement. There's little doubt they were met in this case. No more excuses, indeed.

SECOND UPDATE: (Via Atrios) Pamela Leavey at The Democratic Daily reads the same WaPo article that Josh did and finds that, despite its overall critical tone, it contains at least one uncritically recycled, baldfaced lie from an anonymous Bush administration official, to wit:
As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.

Pamela Leavey conclusively demonstrates that this claim is utterly false, simply by linking to both the official state declaration of emergency [PDF], dated the 26th, and the letter Gov. Blanco sent to Bush [PDF] on the 28th, informing him that a state emergecy had been declared, and asking him to make the appropriate federal declaration (which, as we have seen, he subsequently did, on the 27th).

This raises the questions: Why did the Washington Post reporters and editors accept, at face value, and then publish, in their newspaper, a plainly politically self-serving, anonymous leak from an administration official, rather than doing the very minimal fact checking that would have been required to determine that the leak was a baldfaced lie? And: What is the WaPo going to do now, to redress such a flagrant instance of journalistic and editorial malpractice?

I won't be holding my breath.

Epidemic of Real Journalism Continues to Rage in Wake of Katrina

Headlines on the Washington Post homepage, September 3, 2005, 11:00 PM PST:

Thousands Await Help, While Feds Shift Blame

What Went Wrong: Disarray at the Top Despite 9/11

The latter article, in particular, by Susan B. Glasser and Josh White, is unflinching in calling failure by its proper name, and calling bullshit on official ass-covering.

Okay: Who are these people and what have they done with the gentle courtiers of the Washington press corps?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Who Knew?

I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.

President George W. Bush, Interview with Diane Sawyer
ABC's Good Morning America, Sept. 1, 2005

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as ifthey were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented airconditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead onthe city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however--the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level--more than eight feet below in places--so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million peoploe were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't--yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City.

Joel K. Bourne, Jr., "Gone With the Water"
National Geographic Magazine, October 2004

In Bush's defense, I guess you could say that the National Geographic story was a sort of "historical document." Oh wait--they used that one already, didn't they?

UPDATE: Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff is also on message. Unfortunately for him, it seems that the mainstream media's tolerance level for baldfaced lying has finally been breached (or was it just overflowed?) by the category five BS coming out of official Washington this week, resulting in a veritable flood of actual journalism, as evidenced by this CNN lede:
Defending the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur.

But in fact, government officials, scientists and journalists have warned of such a scenario for years.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Do You Know What it Means?

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong, the feeling's getting stronger
The longer I stay away

Miss the moss-covered vines, tall sugar pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing
I'd love to see that old lazy Mississippi
Hurrying into Spring

The moonlight on the bayou
A Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom
And I'm wishin I was there

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
When that's where you left your heart
And there's one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans

Words By Louis Alter
Music by Eddie DeLange
Recorded by Louis Armstrong, 1947

More here and here, from Syntax of Things, and also here, from fauxreal, over at Moon of Alabama. All of which I submit, in place of an argument, against the sort of thinking that could come up with a response like this.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Wes Clark on Iraq

Gen. Wesley Clark has followed up his excellent Washington Post Op-Ed ("Before It's Too Late in Iraq"), as well as the interesting online discussion that ensued, with his first guest blog post over at TPM Cafe. The main subject in all three cases is the General's proposed "success strategy" for Iraq. My own summary of the first day's commentary by Cafe habitués--the good, the bad and the silly--is here.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Realism and Democratic Foreign Policy

John Ikenberry has an interesting and useful post up at TPM Cafe that touches on the relationship between "liberal" and "realist" schools in international relations theory and current orientations among Republican and Democratic policy makers. It struck me as a useful corrective to the utterly obsolete view that Dems are the stary-eyed idealists, and Republicans the hard-headed realists, when it comes to questions of power and foreign affairs. Anyone who still thinks this is the case, has been asleep for the last four years.

My comment elaborating on the point is here. Cafe denizen Dan K's thoughts on the matter are also worth checking out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The World's Best Bassless Rock Band Hearts Fender Amps

Guitar Player has an interesting interview with Sleater-Kinney about their new, apparently quite heavy album (The Woods), in the course of which Corin Tucker gives her vintage Fender Showman some major props:

GUITAR PLAYER: Corin, how do you manage to fill up so much low-frequency space without being a bass player?

TUCKER: My ’65 blackface Fender Showman is the absolute best amp for holding down the bottom end of the sonic spectrum in this band. That amp is the key to the versatility of my sound. It’s super heavy, flexible, and it has a really low, bassy sound.

If I were a marketing VP at Fender, I'd cut Corin a hefty check right now. You can't buy PR like that. In fact, as it turns out, lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein is into Fender amps now too. She's also got a mean collection of pedals:

GUITAR PLAYER: Carrie, what’s your setup?

BROWNSTEIN: I was using a Vox AC30 up until we recorded the new record, when I switched to a ’64 blackface Fender Super Reverb because I wanted more versatility. The Vox is overpowering. It’s very loud on stage, and although it has a grittiness that I love, the midrange is really pronounced. I feel like the Fender fills out the highs and lows a little better, and it’s a much warmer amp than the Vox.

My main guitar is a 1972 Gibson SG, and I also have a ’78 Guild with a Bigsby. The Guild is kind of brittle and “garage-y,” and the SG has a real warm sound. As far as pedals go, I have a Maestro fuzz, a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver, a Z.Vex Super Hard On, and a Roland AD-50 DoubleBeat—which produces some of the most blown-out fuzz distortion I’ve ever heard.

GUITAR PLAYER: The Super Hard On is an ironic pedal name for a female guitarist.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. Every time I set that one up on stage it prompts endless jokes from the front row.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

George W. Bush, Philosopher

Kudos to John Cole over at Balloon Juice, for parting company with Bush so decisively over the latter's massively stupid (or massively cynical--take your pick) endorsement of the teaching of so-called "Intelligent Design" alongside Evolution. Says Cole:
Intelligent Design in a religion class--fine. Intelligent design in a philosophy class--fine. Intelligent Design in science classes? Not fine.
That's a pretty sound position. I would like to add, however, that the proper place for "Intelligent Design" in a philosophy class would not exactly be a place of honor, either.

The argument does indeed have a philosophical pedigree, and a pretty long one at that. But it is chiefly remembered, these days, as one of the arguments that Hume blasted to smithereens over two centuries ago, leaving behind a smoldering pile of intellectual rubble. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume puts the Argument from Design in the mouth of Cleanthes, and gives the most devastating criticisms of that argument to Philo, the skeptic.

Cleanthes tries to maintain that the material world, with its fantastic combination of order and complexity, somehow proves the existence and character of its Creator. Philo correctly identifies this as an anthropomorphic argument from analogy (just as the human mind is the author, or cause, of such artifacts as buildings and watches, so too the Divine Mind must be the Author, or Cause, of the natural order as a whole, of Being). He then proceeds to shatter the analogy with a barrage of counter-arguments, the two most powerful of which are:

1. That the Argument from Design commits the fallacy of composition--of assuming that what is true of a part (of creation) must be true of the whole. It assumes, without warrant, that the human mind is to the material on which it works, as God is to the cosmos. But, as Philo says, "What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?" Why should the part of creation that is the human mind, in its relation to the limited number of things that can be considered that mind's artifacts, be treated as the template for the way causality works in the world at large?

2. That the Argument from Design is arbitrary in stopping where it does (with an ideal/mental world being the cause of a material world), because, if you take its premises seriously, there is no reason that an ideal/mental world should not itself have a cause. And with that, you have an infinite regress (turtles all the way down): "Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves wihout going on ad infinitum?"

The perception of the world as a glorious design that bespeaks the hand of its Designer is, like the perception that human beings both do and don't fit harmoniously into this design (both are and are not made for it), so commonplace that it seems to be almost a part of human nature. But it is not, for that reason, a proof of, or argument for anything--least of all for the existence of a creator, or the methods of creation. And the minute one tries to make it a proof, one ends up discrediting the very thing one was trying to establish. (Putting an end to that kind of thing is one way to describe the philosophical project Kant undertook after Hume--so the story goes--awoke him from his dogmatic slumber.)