Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lawyers, Guns, & Money

I was gambling in Havana,
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this

—Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns, and Money

We’ve all seen films and television programs utilizing the standard Twilight Zone-like climactic device wherein the protagonist must convince people of some imminent but fantastical-sounding peril (“the aliens are coming”; “we’re being replaced by pod-people”; “the president is as foolish as he appears”; etc.). You know the hero, his desperate urgency making him look like a lunatic, is in trouble when the authorities start in with the soothing, condescending voices; you’ve probably thought to yourself, as I have: just keep your mouth shut, fool, can’t you see they’re going to lock you up?
Therefore, by benefit of the unique education in wildly improbable eventualities that TV and cinema have afforded us, we all know that if, say, you see a gremlin on the wing of your passenger jet, it’s better to try to calm yourself, close the shade and order a double scotch. Sometimes all you can do is hold on tight or discreetly get out of the way.
So it is with this in mind that I quietly pack some essential belongings into the truck, put in a Spanish language-immersion tape (hola, senior Martinez; hoy es lunes, manana es martes; si muy bien; two days of this and I expect to have an accent like Ricardo Montalban), and merge onto the five freeway southbound one last time. I should have done this sooner.

Never again will I try to convince you that the war in Iraq not only had nothing to do with terrorism or WMD, but that our “leadership,” such as they are, knew this from the start. I will no longer make the assertion that the forcible “liberation” of the Middle East is a means to an end; not of defending America, but of keeping America uniquely dominant in the world. There is a difference, even if the neoconservative “intellectuals” insist no.

It is a very odd world indeed when, among a range of possibilities, that which makes the most sense is treated as conspiracy fantasy.
In an inversion of this Twilight Zone cliché ours is a helter-skelter reality where the absurd is obvious and the obvious absurd:
“what’s that you say? We invaded the nation with the third largest oil reserves in the world, secured its Oil Ministry while all about it was looted and burned, began construction of massive, permanent military bases, locked in long-term, highly favorable oil contracts, attempted to install a criminal expatriate of our own with no domestic support as president before allowing one man-one vote elections only after being pressured by massive street demonstrations not to satisfy the natural yearning for freedom that exists in every Muslim breast and upon which our own existence depends? Now, now—of course we believe you—the doctor is just going to give you a little something to calm you down
Offered for your consideration, in my best Rod Serling voice.

I think the confusion really began when we did away with the Department of War; creating a “Department of Defense” can only lead to Orwellian double-think, if that wasn’t the intention from the start.
But this isn’t what I came to say.

Many years from now, when the lasting consequences of the Iraq war reveal themselves and the fanciful, obscuring rhetoric has calmed like the dust of a volcanic explosion settling to reveal the new contours of the landscape; when we ask, yet again, how could this have happened, we may be appalled to conclude that it was largely the climax of an epic family drama.
We’ll have to gradually introduce this idea; we can’t all at once disillusion ourselves about just how corrupt our political process is and how the vanity of men, some of them remarkably small and petty, can influence the course of our great nation.

At the moment it is necessary that we assume the might of the United States can’t be leveraged by the egomania of a resentful son; this isn’t Shakespeare, and Freud lost relevance long ago. But never has a family drama of vanity, pride, and filial resentment played itself out on so grand and tragic a scale, as is happening right now before our eyes. It’s a fascinating spectacle, if we cannot yet allow ourselves to look at it full on.

The American republic's is a powerful chief executive, growing alarmingly more powerful still, even as the current officeholder flounders and smashes all about him with his current measure of privilege. One has to wonder how much value Dick Cheney expects to draw from his hard-won imperial presidency (that he could only enjoy by proxy through the second-rate son of a old rival—how it must grate) before handing it off to who knows (perhaps to the transparently egomaniacal John McCain—things could get more interesting still).

Before his surreal elevation to the highest office in the world, George W. Bush had played two very different, one dimensional roles for various interests both political and commercial, that of the affable front man and that of the back-room bully.
In the past George W. Bush lent the name his father cultivated to commercial concerns eager to access influence. He enjoyed his role as front man and disdained details and operation; this is a fair description of his presidency. We all know he once headed a failed oil company; we all know it wasn’t his fault it failed because he wasn’t much involved in its operation. When the end came he dutifully invoked his privileged background, drew what favorable terms that entitled, and was bailed out by his father. The music stopped, and most of the investors were without chairs, but the name, the brand, Bush was mostly shielded from dishonor.
I have to wonder how it felt when it was made clear to him that he wouldn’t surpass his father in business.

Donald Rumsfeld's long overdue ouster and (pending) replacement by perennial insider, possible Iran-Contra conspirator, avowed realist, and alleged intelligence fixer Robert Gates, and the staged intervention of Bush Sr's friend and associate James Baker, is billed as the end of neocon misrule, the surrendering of an incompetently led command.
It is largely theatre (unless you really think that those who we should now turn to for guidance include Vernon Jordan and Leon Panetta); the Iraq Study Group is a Greek chorus to segue our hapless leadership through the costume change from military fatigues to statesmen’s robes. Calling it a “study group” is mildly amusing; once again W. pays someone else to do his homework, and tardily.

The I.S.G. is in reality tasked with fashioning a pretext and political cover for the hasty retreat now made necessary by our absolute failure in Iraq, a failure that was long ago determined; they are crafting the narrative for an exit that was shamelessly put off until now for political considerations. Baker, close friend of the father, is here to bail out the son.

(Baker, you may recall, served as discreet mouthpiece for the former President Bush, voicing concern over W's impending crusade errant in Iraq. Bush the Younger once infamously made a point of publicly dismissing the rare advantage afforded him by being the son of the only other president to make war with Iraq by brandishing his sanctimonious and imaginary close relationship with a "higher father." We embarrass our children from adolescence to adulthood in return for the embarrassment they caused us as children; but some children never stop embarrassing their parents. Some come to do it out of spite.)

The question remains if the son, abetted by the now isolated Cheney, resentful and desperate as his own megalomaniacal hour nears midnight, will attempt one last act of petulant defiance by publicly spurning the discrete offer of a lessened humiliation.

Some are already attempting to redefine success. “We got Saddam” is destined to become an ironic chestnut along the lines of “it only hurts when I laugh.” There isn’t a serious minded person left who doesn’t secretly wish we could put him right back, not in his spider hole but in the presidential palace. If only we could take a mulligan.
But there is no success to be rescued. There are no shining paths of glory before us; just darkened, uncertain escape routes.

Now that there are no more political advantages to seek or defeats to guard against, and G.W. Bush, the draft horse of grander designs he only dimly understands, has ferried his last load, this administration begins the belated process of determining the least costly means of extrication. It is a salvage operation described as a "change of course."
In Korea, when outnumbered Marines had to fight their way out of the Chosin Reservoir, Major General O.P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, refused to describe it as a retreat, insisting that we were merely "attacking in a different direction." But the ground was yielded. Bush will have to yield Iraq, finally, and that means the large sprawling military bases and favorable oil contracts that, predictably, were the first goals secured and are now the last to be relinquished.
Democracy in Iraq, on the other hand, was initially to be the installation of the exiled Ahmad Chalabi. Failing that it became provisional rule, stalling and trying to channel the elections before bowing to pressure from the (somehow) unaccounted for ambitions of the Shia clergy. Now it has collapsed into talk of partition, coup, and withdrawal. Still, some insist that any suggestion that the goal of installing democracy in Iraq was a ruse is wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

Rhetoric follows power; it provides a veneer of morality and necessity for the more base needs of the state.The neocon theory of worldwide democratic revolution was always cover for naked ambition taking advantage of public fear. A means to an end and a pretext for garrisoning the Middle East against the real threat to American power, Chinese and Russian designs for the world's energy market.
The most fervent media supporters of the Iraq War believed the lyrics they improvised from the sheet music provided by their cappelmeisters in power; they fell in love with the sound of their own voices and the fantasia they presented. But they were made into propagandists and fabricators, unwitting or not.The last to know defeat is at hand will be the hapless volunteers of the blogging brigades, now left behind to fight a rear-guard action for an army in full retreat. As the forces of reality and accountability descend and cut them to pieces, they will turn to find the king's elite guards have left the field.

Cheney remains at V.P. in all likelihood because he knows where the bodies are buried; he buried them. For all of Rumsfeld's crimes and connivance, his image in the public eye is more of an arrogant incompetent than a conspirator. His sacrificing attempts to strengthen the myth of "right war, wrong strategy." History will dispose of that nonsense, but for the moment, for the political establishment that includes the newly victorious and emboldened (but inconveniently complicit) Democrats, a fiction will do. A sort of historical placeholder; a non-defeat defeat.

As for Rumsfeld's departure and Cheney's unimaginable survival, in America we've not only come to expect dishonesty, we admire it; losers we cannot abide. Another defect acquired by a history of triumphalist, moralist posturing; posturing in service of power that has accompanied every war, justified or not, we've engaged in.
The age-old rousing to battle of which neoconservatism is only a recent manifestation. Our experience with this rhetoric is older than the nation itself, emboldening wars of conquest over the Indian tribes while we were still colonies. Then it was land; now it is oil. Then it was our duty to bring Christian enlightenment to the benighted savages; now our duty is to free the "natural desire of every human being" for liberty. Those in need of our help are almost always in possession, or in the way, of something we need. That most of the neocons misunderstand their role in history only makes them more detestable.

The war is lost; it was lost from the start.Those who say we "won the war but lost the peace" have a very curious notion of peace. Has Iraq had a moment's peace since we invaded?

Yesterday's questioning of General Abazaid by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, a vehicle for McCain and Clinton to strut and preen as defenders of the same public will they took for granted until now, was just more theatre; providing second act character transformations for these competing leads designed to make us forget their duplicity. A plot point for the still unwritten third act that will attempt to make our hasty retreat from Iraq resemble victory.
The one question that needed to be asked I didn’t hear (but I may have missed; I can only endure these things piecemeal): General, is there a plan in place for withdrawal?

Still concealed from the public is that the withdrawal of over a hundred thousand troops and untold tonnage of equipment from a chaotically hostile environment is a problem of its own epic proportions. We are about to initiate a very uncertain and dangerous exit.

So two prominent senators bearing no small measure of responsibility are now allowed to pose as our skeptical saviors demanding competence from the administration; it is them we need to be saved from. That’s quite enough senators, thank you for your service.

In David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia there's a scene where Lawrence, the idealistic Englishman who organizes an Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I, has led a band of Bedouin fighters on a daring raid that requires first crossing the treacherous Nefud Desert. In the night one of Lawrence’s servants goes missing, but his camel remains; the boy apparently succumbed to sleep and fell from his mount. Separated from the group on foot, he is written off as dead. Lawrence insists on taking it upon himself to go back for the boy; Sherif Ali, the Bedouin leader already leery of Lawrence's ambitious plan, is furious. Lawrence will certainly die and jeapordize the entire force, he says, in a hopeless effort to save someone his own reckless ambition has already doomed.
The boy, the Sherif tells Lawrence:
"You have killed already."
President Bush, Senators McCain and Clinton:
Iraq you have killed already.

If only we could send them into the desert.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Elitist Benevolence Threatened by Representative Democracy

Left behind in the muck by the receding waters of Tuesday's Democratic tsunami are countless predictable articles characterizing it as a refutation of Republican immigration "hardliners." At least one comprehensive reform supporter is a little more honest, noticing that the newcomers are well to the "right" of the Democratic leadership; most outflanked their Rebublican opponents to the restrictionist side. Jacob Weisberg’s Slate column, "Lou Dobbs Democrats," is commendable for not relying on the boilerplate, but still he seeks to dissuade the freshman class of representatives from harboring too much regard for the popular will, fashioning an argument out of a precarious distinction between what he terms “economic populism” vs. “economic nationalism”:
Many of the Democrats who recaptured seats held by Republicans have been described as moderates or social conservatives, who will be out of synch with Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi. The better term, with props to Fareed Zakaria, is probably illiberal Democrats. Most of those who reclaimed Republican seats ran hard against free trade, globalization, and any sort of moderate immigration policy. That these Democrats won makes it likely that others will take up their reactionary call. Some of the newcomers may even be foolish enough to try to govern on the basis of their misguided theory.
“Illiberal” has a very nasty ring in and of itself. Il- is a loaded prefix, suggesting dysfunction or mental illness. But that’s the least of it. Weisberg’s use of the phrase combined with his “props to” (Jacob [J-Wee?] is pretty fly for a white guy) Fareed Zakaria constitutes an underhanded allusion to fascism. Zakaria's “illiberal” democrats were the concern of his essay-turned-book The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, warning of democracy's potential for empowering extremists (ya don't say?). From Zakaria's book:
THE AMERICAN diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered a problem on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country. "Suppose the election was declared free and fair," he said, and those elected are "racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma."
Weisberg seems to be lamenting that America is electing the wrong people. We're, apparently, no more trustworthy with the keys to democracy than the Third World primitives that Weisberg wants to throw the border gates open for. (This phrase, electing the wrong people, was used by a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority when explaining the delay of Iraq's promised elections.)
Weisberg's not sure we can be trusted with democracy. We might use it to interfere with market forces. He continues:
Nationalism begins from the populist premise that working people aren't doing so well. But instead of blaming the rich at home, it focuses its energy on the poor abroad.
I suppose this is technically accurate, in that an illegal alien is very much "abroad."
Weisberg's “economic populism” is good because, unlike its evil twin above, it knows its place, limiting itself to minimum wage laws, confiscatory taxes and stumping for social programs, while accepting whatever may come of unbridled immigration and outsourcing. And it "blames the rich at home." Because you can never have enough class envy.
This illustrates the fundamental problem with our open borders faction. It is currently an alliance of two opposing political movements: on one wing, we have the Clinton Democrats (Hillary, not Bill) and their designs to institute national health care, maintain race and sex quotas, and broaden social programs; on the other we have the economic libertarians, who oppose most government interference in the market and are otherwise diametrically opposed to the other wing's plans.

It's as if they are engaged in a game of chicken, to see who will abandon their principles first.
Both sides gloss over the glaring contradiction; one bets on a return to the policies of the Johnson Administration; the other on a miraculous deliverance from the persistence of economic inequality that provoked the welfare state in the first place, somehow to be achieved by the mass importation of poor people. My money's on the first group.

"Moderate” in Weisberg’s approximation is of course Hagel/Martinez, tripling current immigration levels and invoking twenty year-old deja vu regarding enforcement. Come on Charlie Brown, kick that football. And why wouldn't we trust proponents of "comprehensive reform", who alternate between deriding enforcement as futile and insisting they will eventually deliver it?

"Moderate" of course means not having the coarse manners to take enforcement seriously. Is this fair, when "enforcement first" is nothing more than an attempt to enforce existing law? At what point did we make the deliberate decision that our immigration laws were no longer needed and our border a mere inconvenience?
The federal government has silently and without the assent of a distracted public gotten away with abnegating its responsibilites over the last twenty years (since '86's amnesty law and its ignored enforcement provisions). This is a curious interpretation of the consent of the governed in a republic. It suggests a decay and corruption that anyone should be opposed to, regardless of how they feel about its consequences.
One might chalk it up to a lazy and apathetic electorate getting the government it deserves, but now the public is forcefully expressing its will that the law be applied. A congressman or senator who seeks the same is now considered opposed to "any moderate policy"? I must be missing something. But the slightest resistance is enough to set off Weisberg's sanctimony:
One heard similar themes in the other pivotal Senate races. In Virginia, apparent winner James Webb denounced outsourcing and blasted George Allen for voting to allow more "foreign guest workers" into the state. In Missouri, victor Claire McCaskill refused to let incumbent James Talent out-hawk her on immigration. "Unfair trade agreements have sent good American jobs packing, hurting Missouri workers and communities," she said in one of her ads. "We should be encouraging businesses to stay at home, not rewarding them for moving overseas [emph. added]
Oh the heresy!

Clinton espoused a strong free-trade position and embraced globalization through his presidency. This set the direction for his party, despite significant resistance in Congress. Clinton's argument was always that government should address the negative consequences of open trade through worker retraining programs and by providing benefits not tied to employers, like health care and portable pensions. But that human-capital part of Clinton's globalization agenda never went anywhere, which partially explains the current backlash.

This plan, to couple a more libertarian immigration policy with liberal social programs, constitutes continually transferring wealth from an ever-expanding unskilled population to a much smaller skilled population, taxing it back from them to fund government programs, then delivering some of the wealth back to the unskilled to alleviate the very poverty magnified by the process in the first place. It is inherently dehumanizing and dysfunctional.
This rube goldberg-like construct might work, but the question is why would you want it? Because after all, whether you're a liberal or conservative on the question of social programs, unrestricted unskilled labor makes your agenda more difficult to realize by importing poverty along with the uneducated.

A growing uneducated population and a shrinking manufacturing base are on a collision course; a collision bound to result in the further division of the nation into an extremely wealthy elite, a diminishing middle class, and a growing underclass that uses the political process to shake down the resented, and increasingly removed, wealthy elite.
That these economic divisions will also be largely racial spells disaster. The vehemence with which immigration libertarians denounce any mention of this while doing nothing to refute it points out the fatal flaw in their philosophy. Market forces have not yielded racial economic equality; they in fact produce a troublesome inequality. This inequality can only be alleviated by forms of confiscation: through affirmative action; by corrupt political machinery, a la New Orleans; by taxation. But the worst consequence of open borders will be a polity increasingly divided into hostile factions, led by demagogues.
The real danger is that a liberal immigration policy yields a much harsher version of Weisberg's "illiberal democrats."
But we can't consider the political and cultural ramifications of immigration because it smacks of "nationalism", or worse, to some.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

An Inconvenient Man, The Sequel

(This originally ran on Dec. 7, 2005, when I thought that Saddam Hussein was sure to embarrass us with his antics and revelations during his trial; I offer it up here as a premature eulogy for a man scheduled to become the most conspicuous sacrifice to the Bush Administration's political designs, a sacrifice that threatens to convulse the teetering Iraqi nation in one last, perhaps fatal, spasm of violence)

Read Part I here.

It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
Alex, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

Saddam is ready for his close-up.
Of the many ill-considered aspects of the war in Iraq none has more comic potential than the trial of Saddam Hussein. According to the script he would meet his demise in the rubble of the opening sequences of "shock and awe." Saddam was only supposed to appear in a series of flashbacks—not even a speaking role. He was to be no more vocal than Frankenstein’s monster, glowering and grunting in hazy, skewed camera angles.
He, however, never signed on for the role of heavy. He always viewed himself as the leading man type, hankering to play Saladin, hero of the Arab world. That’s the role he’s been studying. Maybe the agents weren’t talking to one another, but the amateur screenwriters who sold a president historically ignorant of history on their script treatment didn’t anticipate Saddam would be around to force a rewrite. In fact, by this point the blockbuster production was to have concluded its theatre run, having assured the president’s re-election, and was to be readying for the big video release coinciding with the 2006 mid-term elections.

Filmmaker Haskell Wexler made a name for himself by using the streets outside the1968 Democratic Convention as the real world set for his film Medium Cool. The unanticipated violence surrounding the protests there provided him with a dramatic windfall of sorts, his actors moving about and improvising amidst the disarray; creating a surreal imposition of the real world into cinematic fiction. The would-be reality filmmakers of the Bush White House thought Iraq would be an ideal set for the epic sequel Persian Gulf II: Clear and Gathering Danger. The script treatment looked good on paper:

American president, relatively young with a regular guy persona, think Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, in a somber briefing learns of an imminent threat from the Middle East. Here we’ll have a great plot point illuminating scene: in a dimly lit conference room the president is briefed as his loyal Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (big, broad shouldered African American, think John Amos in West Wing) lays out the disturbing news: Saddam has nukes and the terrorist connections to deploy them within the U.S.:

YOUTHFUL PRESIDENT
How soon can he deploy this weapon?

HEROIC AFRICAN AMERICAN GENERAL
He may already have.

CLOSE SHOT OF YOUTHFUL PRESIDENT
Concerned, resolute, he raises his chin from where it had been resting between thumb and forefinger in a contemplative pose.

FADE
Of course in the ideal movie version the president himself suits up and goes to battle. The politically ambitious architects of current White House policy figured they could approximate that scene well enough with the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” farce, wherein our president, having campaigned on the promise to bring dignity back to the office, played dress-up in a flight suit complete with a crotch that looked suspiciously enhanced.

When President Bush used the term clear and gathering danger he wasn’t only seeking to alarm the public with the description of a threat he assumed would be made plausible once Hussein’s army was quickly dispatched and enough evidence was dug up; he was purposely invoking the emotional, mystifying, naturally propagandistic language of cinema. President Bush’s use of the phrase sounded suspiciously reminiscent of Clear and Present Danger, the title of a film from our other reality (a title itself lifted from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous definition of constitutionally unprotected speech which included the example of shouting fire in a crowded theatre, and I can’t help but think mine’s a perverse mind to find that ironic).
It takes real nerve to steal so openly, but a White House bold enough to embark on a massive war the purpose of which was political gain justified by the risible pie-in-the-sky fantasies of the neocons wasn’t about to blush over a little Hollywood-style creative incest.
But this wasn't really theft; this was the homage paid when one work of art references another. You were supposed to think of the film. It would be a convenient shorthand, an abbreviated, simplified language that would appeal to a populace still trying to understand a terrifying new reality; instantly activating the complex of false memories and associations we've all acquired watching endless reels of film and countless hours of television; the message contained therein that we're always right and we always win.
They intended no irony, but when amateurs put on a show, unintentional humor has a way of embarrassing them: both the film and the real life production would feature clueless presidents led about by their subordinates.

What the White House hadn’t planned on was the physical world’s tendency to behave unpredictably. Their production and theatrical release were one and the same, transpiring in real time, so they couldn’t afford to get it wrong. Now the production is out of control, way over budget, long past its scheduled deadline, having gone through so many directors and with so many producers involved nobody’s sure who’s in charge.

They still haven’t written a third act, and along comes Saddam Hussein, sending everyone to their scripts, didn’t we kill this guy off in scene one?, and he’s improvising up a storm. The cameras are rolling and can't be stopped, yet another oversight; the screenwriters are working furiously attempting to inject another incongruous flashback scene or perhaps to find some plausibility in the mind numbing unreality of it all, but they can't get it into the script, now taking on a life of its own; cut to our youthful president, now looking tired and forgetting his lines.
The cameras have taken over like some sinister intelligence all their own and the heavy not only hasn’t got the script revisions he never got the script in the first place; now he's shown up having written for himself some sort of unlikely character transformation; no longer the sinister potentate but now an eccentric old man, cranky, possibly crazy. This is not good. This guy threatens to become sympathetic in the eyes of the key Muslim/Arab demographic. This could sink the whole franchise and the third installment (working title, Clear and Gathering Danger III: Shi'ite Showdown) was this close to a greenlight.

(intermission)