Monday, July 11, 2005

Every Frog March Begins With a Single Step

It has been a long time in coming. Twenty-one months ago, in one of my rare fits of optimism, I wrote the following about the Plame affair:
During the Clinton years, we got used to more-or-less constant pseudo-scandals -- great waves of public disgrace signifying nothing. These were of course topped off by a single, authentic scandal. But even that exception proved the rule, as the story of one very public middle-aged man's entanglement in a very private moral snare was overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of the scandal machinery deployed to exploit his personal failing for partisan gain.

So it comes as something of a shock to be confronted with the real thing, probably for the first time since Iran-Contra, and it's perhaps understandable that most journalists have had a hard time getting their bearings. They are, after all, out of practice handling the real thing. But that is where we are.

After some initial confusion (much of it intentionally sewn by administration apologists) the basics of the story are now completely clear for all to see: At least two top White House officials repeatedly disclosed the identity of an undercover CIA officer, in probable violation of federal law, in order to punish and/or discredit an influential critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

Early efforts to tone down the story were doomed by the facts: According to several sources, the CIA officer in question is apparently a career spy who has worked under the deepest level of cover. Her work focused on the very issue (WMD proliferation) that the administration hyped as their rationale for speeding to war in Iraq, and the CIA itself has formally notified the Justice Department that national security was in fact compromised by the revelation of her identity. The officials who revealed it were both highly placed and quite deliberate in their efforts to get the story out. Finally, there is nothing remotely routine about this particular kind of leak (that of a covert officer's identity) -- least of all originating from the White House.

I do not see how this can now stop short of high administration officials being questioned under oath (and probably under the gaze of television cameras) about their involvement. Because the Democrats do not control any of the relevant investigative machinery, it is possible that the day of reckoning may be put off for a while. (If Bush holds on to win reelection, '04 may prove to be his '72.) But once the process begins, the incentives for more disclosures -- whether anonymously to the press (Deep Throat) or publicly to the investigators (John Dean) -- is likely to become overwhelming.

Will it bring the administration down? This depends on how much of a house cleaning (if any) Bush is willing and able to do, and how soon he does it (if at all). The longer he waits, the worse will be the eventual revelations, for the closer they will come to the presidency. At the limit of recklessness (or assuming there is already an evidentiary trail that leads straight to the top, one that is too well established to permit of erasure), the administration will bring itself down -- exactly as Nixon's did.

I am pretty sure this is the beginning of the end.
In retrospect, I ought to have closed with Churchill's old line: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning." For that's what the original Plame revelation has proved to be: the end of that first phase of the Bush administration's grand snow job regarding the Iraq war, during which no potentially fatal public mistakes had yet been committed in the effort to cover up the fundamental chicanery of the whole project.

By that schedule, we might only now be reaching the beginning of the end -- the phase when the normally-somnabulent Washington Press corps rouses itself, shakes off its collective professional stupor and begins to realize that, on this matter (as indeed on nearly everything touching the Iraq war), they have been played for fools. At least that is what Garance Franke-Ruta and Kevin Drum think, while both Digby and Yglesias are, for different reasons, quite a bit more pessimistic.

Franke-Ruta and Drum have on their side the fact that today's blistering White House press gaggle, following upon the Newsweek revelation (that Karl Rove was Matt Cooper's source) triggered a rare trifecta of homepage headlines in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as an actual piece of critical journalism from the often-obsequious AP.

I, too, would like to believe that this one good day portends many more to come -- that the floodgates of critical press scrutiny will at last swing wide. But I fear that Yglesias is probably right:
"The issues here, fundamentally, run much deeper than the subjective attitudes of the press corps vis-à-vis the White House. It has to do with the conception of journalism as primarily a stenographic activity, concerned with duly recording official statements and, perhaps, balancing those statements with contradictory quotations from official or quasi-official members of the opposition."
For the time being, therefore, I am pinning my hopes, not on any sudden change in professional self-conception on the part the Washington press, but rather on Mr. Fitzgerald, his Grand Jury, and his subpoena power. Until and unless the Democrats can win control of the House in '06 (so far still an unlikely prospect, given the system of incumbent protection), this is the only game in town -- and by far the most likely source of continuing pressure on the press to begin probing the manifold web of lies whereby the country was led down a pre-determined path to unprovoked war.

And that, let us never forget, is what the Plame affair is all about. It is the most prominent of many loose hanging threads which, if pulled sufficiently far, could unravel the entire dark, knotted history of what Mark Danner has called "the secret way to war." As Danner reminds us:
Whether or not the Downing Street memo could be called a "smoking gun," it has long since become clear that the UN inspections policy that, given time, could in fact have prevented war—by revealing, as it eventually would have, that Saddam had no threatening stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction"—was used by the administration as a pretext: a means to persuade the country to begin a war that need never have been fought.
The crime behind the crime, in other words, is perhaps the highest crime the executive of a democratic country can commit -- namely, deceiving his own people in order to make war, not for their necessity, but at his pleasure.

For the leak of Plame's identity was a naked attempt by the White House to discredit Joe Wilson's public airing of his finding that the Niger uranium story -- so instrumental to the Bush case for war -- was transparently false. As Josh Marshall and others have reminded us, behind the attack on Wilson's public unmasking of the Niger yellowcake hoax stand the forged documents themselves -- the ones that launched that hoax to begin with. And, we might add, alongside those documents sits the putative "evidence" of the aluminum tubes that proved not to be appropriate for uranium enrichment, and all the tall tales of "curveball" regarding Iraqi WMD, not a single one of which proved to be true.

The attack on Wilson was not simply an ad hoc response, however ruthless and possibly even illegal, to a particularly troublesome administration critic. It was instead part of a systematic cover-up of the process whereby, in the words of the Downing Street Memo, the pre-war "intelligence and facts" had been "fixed around the policy" of regime change in Iraq.

This, and not simply the legal culpability of Karl Rove in this single incident (bad as that is), is the real quarry here -- just as the real quarry in Watergate wasn't mere legal culpability for the famous "third-rate burglary" but an entire mechanism of force and fraud aimed at supressing domestic opposition to the continuation of a bitterly unpopular war, deceitfully and unjustly begun. And Nixon of course did not launch his war, but rather inherited it; the Bush administration is, in this respect, like the worst of Johnson and Nixon combined.

Only time will tell if a quarry of that size can be brought to bay without an opposition party being in control of at least part of the federal government. But I tend to think that it can not be. So even if this is the beginning of the end, we still have a long, long way to go before we reach that end.

Friday, July 08, 2005

City Air Makes Free

On a day when every decent person in the world is a Londoner, London Mayor Ken Livingstone speaks for all of us:
I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at Presidents or Prime Ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.

That isn’t an ideology, it isn’t even a perverted faith - it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other. I said yesterday to the International Olympic Committee, that the city of London is the greatest in the world, because everybody lives side by side in harmony. Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity alongside those who have been injured and those who have been bereaved and that is why I’m proud to be the mayor of that city.

Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

Monday, July 04, 2005

American Patriotism

For his Independence Day post, Billmon writes a moving elegy for American patriotism, half-disguised as a repudiation of it. The disguise isn't very convincing. Only someone for whom the American idea still exercises a powerful attraction would bother to write words like these:
But hatred and revenge are patriotism's curse, not its justification. When Lincoln spoke of "mystic cords of memory" and urged his countrymen to put their common heritage ahead of their political divisions, he wasn't appealing to their tribal loyalties, but their loyalty to an ideal: democratic government under the law. If American patriotism has any claim to be an exception to the general run of blind national chauvinism, it has to be found in that idea. If America is to be an exceptional nation, one worth glorifying above all others, it has to be because of the quality of her justice and the strength of her democracy -- not because of the language she speaks, or the God she worships or the color of her skin. And not because of her material wealth or military power or imperial ambitions. Least of all those.

Pat Buchanan and I agree on very few things, but he wrote something many years ago that I can endorse wholeheartedly: "America was a great country before she was a rich country." In many ways a greater country, I would probably add -- not because she was poor (if you've seen real poverty, Third World poverty, you know there's nothing to admire about it) but because she stood a little less apart from the rest of humanity, and had to rely a little more heavily on the promises inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, rather than power of her aircraft carriers, to impress the world.
It's hardly surprising, of course, that such ardent patriotism will occasionally wish itself out of existence, as when Billmon prefaces these remarks by saying, "I'm not a big fan of patriotism, at least not as most Americans understand the word. Patriotism is just another word for nationalism...." No, it isn't, and the long passage I just quoted proves that Billmon knows it isn't -- as does that anguished qualifier, "at least as most Americans understand the word." This is not a repudiation, but a stifled plea for renewal.

Nor is that mood anything new. The truest American patriots have often been close to the edge of despair -- and often enough over it. And since the standard raised at our birth was nothing less than a promise of the extraordinary made ordinary -- of that rarest and most fragile of historical flowers, political liberty, made the common possession of all human kind -- the so-to-speak objective case for despair has always been strong. James Baldwin once said that he could not possibly dispute what Malcom X was telling his followers about the reality of race in America -- that any alternative to the future being offered by Malcom had to begin with the acknowledgment that he was speaking a long-supressed truth about the American past and present.

Any country, moreover, that had a birth knows it can die and therefore, as Stanley Cavell once remarked, "feels mortal." In other words, both America's existence and its identity are always subject to doubt, and the one because of the other -- hence its unquenchable need for, and suspicion of, dissent. Hannah Arendt, writing about the crises of the Republic at the bitter end of the sixties, once called dissent "the hallmark of free government" because "one who knows that he may dissent knows also that he somehow consents when he does not dissent."

The social contract, in other words, is no mere harmless abstraction here, but a considerable existential-political burden. As Mark Danner recently put it, "Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world... and what you yourself can't help but understand about that world -- this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have." Americans are a people whose founding and subsequent history forces such a vision upon them. And since we are so often unequal to that vision (how could we not be?), we will often be found refusing it, with modes of refusal that run the gamut from the merely ridiculous to the astonishingly destructive.

But, from time to time, we do embrace the vision, without reservation or evasion. And at such times, we admit to ourselves exactly what Billmon (almost) says: that without a dedication to enacting the ideal of "democratic government under law," there would be no such thing as American patriotism -- and then our love of country really would amount to nothing better than one more tribal nationalism among others, no more to be admired, and (because of our enormous power) far more to be feared, than most. And this outcome, of course, is one possible destination for America, and one that always has its advocates among us. American patriotism, we might say, is never a given for us, but rather a possibility we must continually struggle to keep alive.

That, at least, is how I read the following words of Lincoln's, given before Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in February of 1861, as this greenest of presidents elect was making his way to Washington, to assume the leadership of a Republic teetering on the brink of Civil War -- a war over the question of what it means to be an American:
Mr. Cuyler:—I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to our distracted country. I can say in return, sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. (Great cheering.) I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence—I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. (Applause.) I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it. (Applause.)

Now, in my view of the present aspect of affairs, there is no need of bloodshed and war. There is no necessity for it. I am not in favor of such a course, and I may say in advance, there will be no blood shed unless it be forced upon the Government. The Government will not use force unless force is used against it. (Prolonged applause and cries of "That’s the proper sentiment.")

My friends, this is a wholly unprepared speech. I did not expect to be called upon to say a word when I came here—I supposed I was merely to do something towards raising a flag. I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet, (cries of "no, no"), but I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.