Saturday, April 29, 2006

History repeats itself

And the process seems to go faster all the time. Will the next version of this book have to be written only ten years from now?

On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency
Mark Hertsgaard, June 1988

During the Reagan years, the White House Press Corps has "functioned less as an independent than as a palace court press," according to Hertsgaard. Basing his arguments on hundreds of interviews with important administration leaders and reporters, Hertsgaard convincingly portrays the White House press as noncritical and sycophantic. As members of the same power elite that they write about, White House reporters more often than not agree with the President's policies. In addition, they have been reluctant to strongly criticize Reagan for fear of being cut off from the flow of information and of losing their privileged status.

Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush
Eric Boehlert, May 2006

Lapdogs is the first book to demonstrate that, for the entire George W. Bush presidency, the news media have utterly failed in their duty as watchdog for the public. ... Throughout both presidential campaigns and the entire Iraq war to date, the media acted as a virtual mouthpiece for the White House, giving watered-down coverage of major policy decisions, wartime abuses of power, and egregious mistakes -- and sometimes these events never made it into the news at all. Finally, in Lapdogs, the press is being held accountable by one of its own.

Boehlert homes in on the reasons the press did not do its job: a personal affinity for Bush that journalists rarely displayed toward his predecessor, Bill Clinton; a Republican White House that threatened to deny access to members of the media who asked challenging questions or voiced criticism; and a press that feared being tainted by accusations of liberal bias. Moreover, journalists — who may have wanted to report accurately on the important stories — often found themselves at cross-purposes with media executives, many of whom were increasingly driven by economic concerns. Cowed by all of these factors, the media abandoned their traditional role of stirring up meaningful public debate.


Friday, April 28, 2006

Bread and roses

The U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo holds hundreds of men who are not terrorists or enemy combatants. Many of those are even recognized as innocent by our government, but for one reason or another, continue to be held.

I've been following the story of the camp so closely since it opened, and read so many horrifying accounts, that by now the impact has dulled. But this story, by a lawyer for one of these men, reduced me to tears:

...[Saddiq] lives behind razor wire in Camp Iguana, with eight other men whom the military cleared long ago but who are nevertheless forbidden newspapers, visits from loved ones, English-language dictionaries -- and flowers.

For some time we lawyers have been asking the military for a garden. Gardens are commonplace in prisoner-of-war camps, and these men aren't even enemies. They live in a pen, but it has a small patch of ground. Why not? The military refused.

You can probably guess the rest of the story, particularly if you are a gardener, but do read it. Saddiq is beginning his fifth year as a prisoner.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

First strike

Gary Farber, in comments to the previous post, took issue with my characterization of this administration's adoption of a first-strike nuclear policy as new:

[This] actually goes back to every National Security Directive since the invention of the bomb. ... There was never a credible threat against the Soviet Union without it, was the rationale. Thus, without it, no deterrence against their going through the Fulda Gap....

This is not the understanding of many professional observers of U.S. nuclear and military doctrine. It is true that U.S. national security policy since the 1940s has continuously given a central place to the possession of nuclear weapons and the willingness to use them in retaliation against attack. That stated willingness is what was supposed to give credibility to the deterrent effect of our nuclear arsenal. However, U.S. national security doctrine has never, until recently, officially countenanced the use of nuclear weapons against countries or entities that have not attacked us.

Key members of the Bush administration, in particular Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, came into office intending to change the U.S. nuclear and conventional security strategy in the direction of first strike. Donald Rumsfeld has advocated "missile defense" and weaponizing space for most of his career, in order to give the United States first-strike capacities not available to any other country. The 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document, drawn up by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby at the request of then-Defense Secretary Cheney, and the Project for a New American Century's 'Rebuilding America's Defenses' paper of 2000 both argue for this change. The spring 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (mandated by Congress in 2000) was written by adherents of the Cheney-Rumsfeld viewpoint.

The analysis of that 2002 NPR by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation was that "it suggests a shift in U.S. nuclear use doctrine":

The role of nuclear weapons has always been to deter an attack by a nuclear-armed adversary, and to retaliate as a last resort. Furthermore, the U.S. pledges not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPR reflects a noticeable shift in these long-standing policies. First, it suggests that nuclear weapons could be used in a pre-emptive first strike "against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities)."

Second, the NPR requires the U.S. nuclear force to be able to respond to immediate or unexpected contingencies involving North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, all of which are members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (although some of these countries are not members in good standing.) These contingencies suggest that the U.S. may be the first country to use nuclear weapons in a future conventional conflict.
[my emphasis]

Contrast this with the analysis of the Center for Defense Information of a previous Nuclear Posture Review, in September 1994, which emphasizes the deliberate ambiguity about occasions for use, but cites no language at all that envisions a situation in which the U.S. employs nuclear weapons as anything other than a reaction to an attack (though not necessarily a nuclear attack).

The current administration's September 2002 National Security Strategy document is an explicit statement that U.S. war policy now includes "preventive" war, military strikes against a perceived threat rather than in response to any actual attack. This policy was put into effect in the invasion of Iraq.

Now, there is clear evidence that this aggressive approach to conventional military action is broadening to include the use of nuclear weapons. William Arkin, a veteran defense reporter, wrote in June 2005 for the front page of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section:

In the secret world of military planning, global strike has become the term of art to describe a specific preemptive attack. When military officials refer to global strike, they stress its conventional elements.

Surprisingly, however, global strike also includes a nuclear option, which runs counter to traditional U.S. notions about the defensive role of nuclear weapons. The official U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons has not changed.

This passage implies that up until now, U.S. nuclear posture has been defensive, not first strike (preventive/preemptive). The main point of Arkin's opinion piece was his call for open discussion of this new policy, exactly because it was new, before it became official and permanent.

And that official U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons is in the process of changing. Walter Pincus reported last September:

The Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to use them to preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction. The draft also includes the option of using nuclear arms to destroy known enemy stockpiles of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

The document, written by the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs staff but not yet finally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would update rules and procedures governing use of nuclear weapons to reflect a preemption strategy first announced by the Bush White House in December 2002. The strategy was outlined in more detail at the time in classified national security directives.

Pincus' story ran on the front page, so the Post clearly considered it news, i.e., a change from existing nuclear doctrine. I have not seen anyone report since that Rumsfeld has signed off on the new nuclear posture, to make it technically official. But in practice the new posture has already taken effect, since Bush has refused to rule out nuclear weapons use in a first-strike attack on Iran.

Finally, the reaction of physicists around the world reinforces the view that something is changing:

A proposed change in U.S. nuclear weapons policy has exploded into a controversy between the Bush Administration and physicists worldwide. Sixteen faculty members of the MIT physics department have joined over a thousand physicists in signing a petition repudiating a Pentagon proposal that would “foresee pre-emptive nuclear strikes against non-nuclear adversaries.”

Everyone quoted in the article, including people who have declined to sign the petition, sees the Bush policy as a significant departure. Theodore Postol articulates the nature and implications of the change:

Postol said he believes the new policy “tremendously stimulates” states to develop nuclear weapons. “It will cause countries to reconsider their nuclear status. “The only way to prevent preemptive attacks is to develop arms” to deter these attacks, Postol said. ... He pointed out differences in perception towards attacking Iraq and North Korea as proof that possessing nuclear weapons can deter U.S. preemptive attacks.

Postol said that the U.S. has always been ambiguous about its nuclear first-strike policy because it serves the purpose of a deterrent.

Of course this country has always had the ability to launch a nuclear first strike. We are the only country ever to use nuclear weapons at all. But since the end of World War II, it has never been our stated policy to strike first.

Until now.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No attack on Iran!

How to respond to the administration's threat of war against Iran?

Whether you can bring yourself to believe that they would actually do it or not, we have to proceed as if they are going to. To sit quietly, hoping they won't, is to refuse to learn from quite recent and bitter experience. It also hands them the political stick they want to use against Democratic candidates.

So, what to do?

The most important thing is to counter the characterization of the situation as a crisis. There is no crisis.

It is almost certainly the case that nothing we and the rest of the world in concert can do will prevent Iran from having nuclear power technology. It is their right, as it is that of any other developed country and signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It may be that nothing can prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But they are many years, at least a decade from having that capacity.

This is not about weapons. The administration's threats and war-drumming are not about weapons, any more than was their drive to invade Iraq. Are theirs the actions of people concerned with nuclear proliferation? They have unilaterally abrogated the ABM treaty, defunded the disposal of Soviet client nukes, adopted an official first-strike nuclear posture, developed new nuclear weapons, encouraged favored governments to undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty, bullied international arms control agencies, purged arms control experts from the State Department, weakened international agreements and alliances of all kinds, and on and on.

Nor is the war drive about spreading democracy. This point doesn't need to be elaborated, other than to note that of course being the target of military attacks (and threats of military attacks) drives people closer to their government, however unpopular that government is. An assault on Iran would end the pro-democracy movement there for many years to come.

U.S. troops occupy the countries on either side of Iran. U.S. bases ring Iran. The war against Iran is about strategic control of the Middle East and Central Asia.

War is not the answer. Public, repeated threats of bombing are not diplomacy. "Coercive diplomacy" is not diplomacy. It's war-mongering.

Our ruling regime has a first-strike policy. This policy was explicitly stated in the National Security Strategy papers of 2002 and 2005, underlined in the Pentagon's new official nuclear posture, and put into action in the invasion of Iraq.

Set aside the more fundamental rogue-superpower, endless-war-creating aspects of a first-strike policy. Just on the amoral level of execution, such an approach requires plentiful and high-quality intelligence. Our intelligence on Iranian capabilities, intentions, political dynamics, and virtually everything else is very poor. Twenty-five years of no embassy, trade, consulates, or remotely normal exchanges will do that for you. On top of that, a credulity-straining set of screwups have wiped out many of the intel channels we did have until recently (the Chalabi-INC debacle, the outing of Valerie Plame who was apparently monitoring Iranian nuclear activity, and other serious gaffes detailed in James Risen's book), not to mention the vast increase in Iranian access to U.S. military information made possible by our occupation of Iraq and close work with Shiite parties in Iraq.

A policy toward Iran that is in the national interest would be the exact opposite of this administration's. Begin direct negotiations, open channels of communication. We are the threat, and only we can de-escalate it.

To sum up:
There is no crisis. This is not about weapons.
War is not the answer.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The horror, the horror

Illegal hockey sticks have been a hot topic in the Lovely Promise household this winter. In particular, Ilya Kovalchuk's too-curvy lumber has caused some low moments for our Atlanta Thrashers. Imagine how startled I was by this slice-of-life detail from Orville Schell, writing about entering the siege world that is Iraq:
At the departure gate [of the Amman airport], a crimson placard warns against carrying FORBIDDEN ITEMS: "Gun Powder, Golf Clubs, Hand Grenades, Ice Axes, Cattle Prods, Hocket Sticks [sic], Meat Cleavers and Big Guns"

No hockey sticks? Huh. Well, I hear it's pretty hard to get ice time, anyway.


Lessons learned?

From George Packer's interminable 'Letter from Iraq' piece in the April 10 New Yorker, 'The Lesson of Tal Afar':

Counterinsurgency cuts deeply against the Army’s institutional instincts. The doctrine fell out of use after Vietnam, and the Army’s most recent field manual on the subject is two decades old.

That would be the manual with which they ran the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador. By the mid-1980s, the United States funded 90% of the Salvadoran national budget. U.S. military "advisors" (many more than the 500 legally allowed or acknowledged, and many of whom were in combat) directed that war in detail. That level of involvement lasted for a decade.

So in what sense did counterinsurgency doctrine "fall out of use after Vietnam"? Is Packer young enough to have missed the whole sorry, prolonged, despicable collection of U.S. interventions in Central America? Or are they simply inconvenient for the picture he'd like to paint of a good-hearted but sadly ill-prepared military? The truth about U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine in El Salvador is that it did not defeat the insurgents. That's why it "cuts deeply against the Army's institutional instincts."

This is the kind of eyes-wide-shut garbage that makes me hold Packer in lower esteem than do many in the blog world. That, and his pissy defensiveness when called on his condescension towards those who got it right before the invasion of Iraq (on display last fall when Assassin's Gate was featured at TPM Cafe). His position is that noble intentions entitle him to be taken seriously despite large failures of judgment, for which he refuses to apologize (because those noble intentions actually absolve him).

If we're doing counterinsurgency, we're somewhere we shouldn't be. And noble intentions have so often served as cover for the ugliest, most brutal actions taken in our names that they should be a signal for intense scrutiny, not a free pass.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

I'm not sorry

Too large to ignore, too small to take power. That was my sad, sobered analysis of the left's dilemma in the aftermath of the 1994 elections in El Salvador, the first after the end of the war. The country was so polarized that the alternative to an FMLN government was continued rule by the far right.

Rightist control has been continuous since. Women are paying an especially horrifying price. It makes our failure all the more bitter.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Extending the middle finger

More and more it seems to me the Shia majority bloc in Iraq is sending the U.S. occupiers signals of fed-up-ness. A day after Condoleeza Rice and Jack Straw flew in to scold Jaafari in person, talks on forming a government broke off. Pro-Jaafari demonstrations took place in Sadr City. And, most significantly (to me, at least), Saddam was charged with genocide for the 1988 Anfal campaign in which his government gassed the Kurds in retaliation for an uprising.

The subtext of the new charges is that the U.S. government backed Saddam during that period, supplying him with agricultural credits, chemical feedstocks, intelligence, and weapons. U.S. pressure restricted the initial trial to much older offenses exactly because focusing on the anti-Kurdish campaign would put the spotlight on the Reagan administration's backing in that era. The Anfal charges serve at least two purposes for the Shia bloc: a warning to the Bush administration, and an effort to disarm the Kurds, who have been the most vocal of the anti-Jaafari factions. (Kurds may not be terribly impressed.)

Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, Blair, and Straw behave as if they were dealing with children. But colonialist mentality dies hard. Their humiliation at the hands of intransigent Shiites may simply feed a determination to attack Iran.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ephemeral pleasures

Friday a friend took me on a wildflower walk. One of the colleges in town has cross-country trails through wooded hills and along the river. What a delight!

March did finally go out like a lamb, and the heat (almost 80F by noon) had brought the floor of the woods into subtle bloom. The spring ephemerals lean heavily to white, which makes them stand out against a carpet of fallen leaves.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was in all stages of flowering. We'll have to go back in a week or so to see the leathery leaves spread out. What a tidy, self-satisfied little plant. Gardeners mostly grow the double form, which doesn't appeal to me, though friends report that the leaves are also larger than the wild form.

I'd never seen the tiny spring beauty (Claytonia) in bloom. There was more of it than anything else flowering, both C. virginica (narrow, grassy leaves, white flowers) and C. caroliniana (wider, rounded leaves and pink flowers). There were also examples of it that looked for all the world like the product of a cross, with leaves halfway between the two species in form and size and white flowers marked pink.

Once I began to notice the mottled, almost paint-splashed leaves of the toad trillium (T. sessile), I could see great sweeps of them. The upright buds hadn't yet begun to color, but these trilliums are just as well appreciated now; what happens next is that the buds turn maroon and barely open. Nothing so heart-stopping as the classic white Trillium grandiflorum, which still thrive in enormous sheets in a few spots in the county. I won't say just where.

Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata Cardamine concatenata) was another revelation. The leaves have the same form as black hibiscus or pot leaves: long, narrow, toothy, five-fingered. A refreshing change from all the ground-level blooms, toothwort flower stalks can be almost a foot tall, with flowers arranged around the top. Few gardeners grow woodland ephemerals, but these seem like a particularly overlooked possibility.

My friend is the hiker and native plant explorer, so she was the first to identify almost everything we saw. My one contribution was spotting Hepatica acutiloba among a group of spring beauty. As with the other plants, once we saw it, we began to see it everywhere. A few minutes down the path there was a huge pool of hepatica visible fifty feet away under a grove of spicebush. Books and pictures show them as pink or white; all the ones here are pure white.

The spicebush (Lindera benzoin) made a hazy yellow canopy all through the woods. Their elegant arched shape seems to invite other plants to show off underneath, and nothing accepts the invitation with such vim as Virginia bluebells (Mertensis virginiana). Most were still just getting their purply-blue-green leaf spears up, but some were in bud, and one or two had just opened. I'm determined to return for the full display.