The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

The Final Battle

Iraq at Home (Part 2): Realizing the New 3rd Rail of American Politics

“Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq.”House Concurrent Resolution 63 (2/10/07)

“You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”John Kerry (11/1/ 2006)

The most crucial factor – in terms of the domestic political battle over Iraq policy – is neither geopolitical nor about precedent and signaling (see the background to this article). The Republicans have owned the concept in recent years and have invoked it time after time in the debates in the House this week; Democrats are trying to wrest it away. It defines the parameters of U.S. policy in Iraq and both parties are grappling to invoke it with great fervor. It’s the first half of H Con Res 63 (stated above): support for our troops.

Literally, speech after speech after speech in Congress the past three days has centered on this concept. Democrats have begun every statement about Iraq along the lines of “I firmly support our troops” before making a segue to an appeal for reason, sometimes citing a concern for preventing the future loss of troops’ lives to reinforce this assertion. In a realm of dodged questions and shifty statements, it’s the new social security, the sole inviolable third rail of American politics. Just ask John Kerry, who found out about the danger of crossing this fine line in November 2006.

Across the aisle, Republicans claim that supporting the resolution undermines our faith in the troops and the job they’re doing. It’s inconsistent to oppose the surge and support the troops in the field, they say. Hearing of the debate back home, morale among troops in the field will be undermined (in truth, this is an unfortunate facet of America’s political system that makes the sustained, unilateral occupation of a country increasingly difficult for a democratic country). In the face of increasing radicalization and violence on the ground, endless months of waiting for Iraqis to “stand up,” and an increasing realization that victory doesn’t mean winning on the battlefield, the last bastion of argument in favor of the war in Iraq is support for the troops. As long as the GOP can link its policies to support for the troops the party ensures that the American people will not turn against them. Democrats are trying to disentangle the two.

The National Narrative
Although they differ as to the policy implications, supporting the troops is perhaps the only thing that the parties squaring off in Congress can agree upon. They do so solely because they know it carries the most weight with the American people. In fact, it cuts deeper than the current political landscape, past the flags waving on the bottom of the screen on MSNBC and FOX News in 2003 to America’s national narrative, which we are raised with and which embraces the sacrifice of our forefathers storming the beaches of Normandy, winning two world wars and the Cold War so that America, guided by liberty and democracy, could become the world’s guiding light and sole superpower. The sacrifice of our troops was integral to all of these, and it’s celebrated in pop culture (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers), promulgated by our grandfathers, and complementary to our sense of pride and strength. As the amalgamation of many cultures and peoples, the one element shared by all Americans is the belief in this national narrative, which is inherently constructed upon the role of American soldiers.

Moreover, how could one have a friend, brother, sister, father or a mother in the U.S. military and yet oppose the war? Soldiers display a faith in their superiors that is central to the functioning of a hierarchical organization; how then, can you tell them that you don’t believe in the cause for which they are prepared to die? We can’t, of course, and we don’t. Many times it’s far from being so explicit, too; instead of consciously going through this thought process – and faced with a complex, fluid and divisive situation – people eagerly seek out reasons that comport with arguments supportive of their friends and family. Regardless of political ideology, people are likely to gravitate towards the policy consistent with their social relations. It’s the “us” versus “them,” it’s Palestinians versus Israelis, it’s Indians versus Kashmiris. This is a human condition, and is found in all nations.

Thus, opposing the troops would be akin to opposing the national narrative and repudiating our ties among each other. The country has been through this process before. After Vietnam the country went through the same painful process, and many people did turn against the troops, spitting at them and leaving them to beg on the streets after returning home.

We cannot make the same mistake this time. The troops are not to blame. Clearly, opposing the troops isn’t the point, and can’t be. But when support for the troops is linked inseparably to failed policies, how do we separate them without violating our bond with our brothers and sisters?

A Painful Hangover
Doing so requires a national catharsis. Many find it inconvenient now, but on March 29th, 2003 over 70% of America supported the invasion; the figure jumped to 83% when the troops were mentioned (Gallup Poll “U.S. at War with Iraq 2). Compared with the close to 60% who now think the war was a mistake (Gallup Poll “February Wave 1”), resolving this massive shift involves overcoming considerable guilt. We feel shame toward the families of those who’ve died serving in Iraq and to the people of Iraq. We feel embarrassment at having to admit that we were wrong to the original opponents of the war in “old” Europe. Clear-consciences reward those who opposed the war for the right reasons from the start.

It requires absolving ourselves from a process (mobilization for the Iraq war) in which we had only implicit involvement. Catharsis will be painful and involve redirecting blame to political leaders (read President Bush and GOP members unable to scatter in time), under whose leadership the nation has been exploited. It should also involve the government contractors (Halliburton, Blackwater, AEGIS) who made billions in profits while U.S. soldiers had to choose between placing their one bullet proof plate on their chest or back and crucial infrastructure projects went under-funded. Probes into government contracts awarded without competition to private military contractors – along with greater oversight in the future – are in order.

There are clear signs that this is beginning to happen, after the Democratic takeover of Congress, rock-bottom poll numbers for the President and the welcome return of vociferous debate in Congress (and fiery defense of Democrats’ patriotism by Tim Ryan, D-OH), sorely absent in recent years. New members of the legislature (Democrat and Republican) were not on the record supporting the Iraq war in ’03 and can more easily denigrate it as the mistakes of the previous Congress. And we should not feel bad about this: the manipulation of social bonds by political leaders is perhaps the most heinous tactic of all.

The Final Battle
This is truly the “final battle” of the Iraq war. America’s last battle will not occur in Iraq, but the United States. It’s the battle of the national psyche to come to terms with the events of the past four years and the dreadful consequences of the Iraq war. For better or worse, the United States will not withdraw from Iraq unless the country comes to terms with this issue.

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February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Democrats, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | 4 Comments

And I Didn’t Even Mention Sharon

Israel Gains while an Incumbent Hamas Calculates its Direction

President Bush’s conference today in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was noticeable for more than just Bushisms like “suicider,” despite the bland analysis given initially by Wolf Blitzer et al. The chummy repoire between the leaders illustrated once again that Israel has the ear of the United States like almost no other nation. PM Olmert stated that the country would quit “most of the [West Bank] settlements” while annexing major “population centers,” a perhaps geographically logical maneuver but one that conflicts with the international Road Map to peace and is sure to upset Palestinians. Announced at the White House, the move clearly had the administration’s approval. Even more promisingly for Israel, Mr. Bush spoke passionately about the two nations’ shared views and goals, from Palestine to Iraq to Iran.

Mr. Bush put his feelings on display by venting frustration at Hamas’ lack of recognition for Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, Hamas has to recognize Israel along with renouncing the use of terrorism as a legitimate method of diplomacy. Without these steps – already agreed to by previous Palestinian leaders – the peace process cannot proceed. As Hamas has refused to do so thus far, Israel and America have been spearheading efforts to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which helps pay salaries, secure fuel, and fund hospitals in the territories. The idea is that Hamas will be forced to capitulate. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.

That is because the Palestinian people voted Hamas into power in January. So despite the legitimacy of qualms about Hamas’ hostile rhetoric, America looks hypocritical: calling for democracy in the region but resisting it in practice when unfriendly parties are elected. Moreover, turning off aid is already showing signs of strangling the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further starving and depriving the Palestinian people cannot be the result here.


Where to now?

What it Wants to Do

Hamas may put its mettle on display through vitriolic resistance to Israel, taking a martyr’s stand and feeding off of frustration. In this scenario, hardliners would find it easy to exploit the standoff, and the peace process would stall as Israel further solidifies the borders of a final state. Sporadic suicide bombings, Israeli air strikes, and inflammation of opinion throughout the region would continue. Palestine and peace would be the losers.

Resistance to Israel and death to America may make popular campaign slogans, but fanaticism is hardly a policy used to build a strong society be it in Palestine or anywhere else. So while martyrdom may allow Hamas to maintain support for a time, endless penury will cause Palestinians to rethink their allegiance to an unyielding cause. Just as voters cast aside the late Yasser Arafat’s faction Fatah for failing to provide adequate public services, they would do the same to an ineffective, exposed, and incumbent Hamas. Systems defined by opposition – but lacking in constitution – everywhere crumble for the same reason: because they fail to deliver sustainable development and the people living under them tire of stale ideologies. How long this takes depends on the propaganda and guns of the regime, but in the meantime lives suffer.

And What it Should Do

There is chance for a rosier outcome, however, if Hamas reads the runes shrewdly. When Hamas won power it grabbed 76 out of 132 seats in parliament with the support of a majority of electorate. Most Palestinians don’t cling to unrealistic visions of Israel’s total destruction or desire the rejection of the peace process, and it wasn’t for such views that they backed Hamas. Instead, it was a desire for change and a backlash against the corruption and mismanagement of Fatah – without Arafat – that led them to Hamas, which was offering security and basic services, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Could Hamas begin to court this mainstream segment of its supporters? Hamas may find the realities of power more trying than obstreperously playing the spoiler from the sidelines. Accordingly, it could try to score points through fostering infrastructure and becoming more conciliatory toward Israel. It should reject extremists and move towards normalization. Crazy? Unlikely maybe, but it took Nixon to go to China and Sharon to withdraw from Gaza. Some think it possible because Hamas counts several American-educated operators among its number.

Lantos Lay Off my Jam Toast

Closer to home, Tom Lantos (D-CA) is of indubitable moral character, founding the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and expounding about rights transgressions around the world for decades. He made headlines for getting arrested outside the White House at the Darfur protest rally in April. But the bill he co-sponsored today – which passed 361 to 37 and imposes sweeping sanctions on the PA in response to Hamas’ victory – was pointless, and even the White House said so. As the administration ended funding last month, it was an unnecessary act that accomplishes nothing while portraying the United States as insensitive to the Palestinian people.

How much outsiders can influence the direction Hamas takes is uncertain. But if blocking funds contributes to humanitarian problems within Palestine it will not only enervate the people but arguments for America’s integrity. Despite misgivings about its past, the Quartet must preclude a humanitarian crisis and offer significant carrots to Hamas for recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence. However unsavory, the platform was elected and must be tolerated. If Hamas insists on belligerence, failure and stagnation are guaranteed; yet until the people’s candidates are allowed to govern they will fight to the death for the opportunity to find that out for themselves.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 24, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Hamas, International Relations, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics, United States | 1 Comment

Tom the Truculent’s Time to Retire

Sleaze and the Slander of American Democracy

The unfortunate product of a sleazy triangle between government, special interests, and unscrupulous lobbyists, widespread corruption is neither new nor surprising. Yet media outlets are far more likely to cover eye-catching events such as the gruesome abduction of pretty young girls or a judge reducing a pedophile’s prison term. The web of shady relations is byzantine, and the public largely prefers easily defined events like former President Clinton’s lurid sexual escapades. Complex corruption simply isn’t a very good news story. As a result, public debate has been quite dispassionate considering the magnitude of the problem.

This is true even in the face of the disgraced and truculent Tom Delay, former House Majority Leader; the arrest of the depraved lobbyist Jack Abramoff; subsequent allegations against Illinois Congressman Bob Ney, which outrageously also involve the “gang-land style” murder of a Florida businessman; the potential indictment of Bush confidant Karl Rove, hugely influential GOP strategist; VP Cheney’s former Chief of Staff Scooter Libby’s indictment, and more. The litany is so comprehensive it’s almost unbelievable.

Yet politically, and despite the fact that these scandals and a myriad of other blights are explicitly associated with the GOP, the Democrats have thus far been impotently unable to turn it to any advantage. This is bad not just for supporters of the Democratic Party, but for the whole country. When the extended lack of effective opposition allows any party unfettered control of all three levers of government, intolerance, arrogance, and corruption are inevitable results. In a democracy, elections are the remedy: when voters become fed up with their leaders they can remove them.


No thank you, Massachusetts: beans and lager make better exports

The Legacy of Elbridge Gerry

In the United States, however, among several disturbing trends there is at least one deeply troubling circumstance that threatens to undermine the efficacy of the electoral method. Redistricting – a euphemism for its more harmful cousin, gerrymandering – is a stratagem used to institutionalize political dominance at the expense of competition. From the Economist:

“Imagine a state with five congressional seats and only 25 voters in each. That makes 125 voters. Sixty-five are Republicans, 60 are Democrats. You might think a fair election in such a state would produce, say, three Republican representatives and two Democrats.

Now imagine you can draw the district boundaries any way you like. The only condition is that you must keep 25 voters in each one. If you were a Republican, you could carve up the state so there were 13 Republicans and 12 Democrats per district. Your party would win every seat narrowly. Republicans, five-nil.

Now imagine you were a Democrat. If you put 15 Republicans in one district, you could then divide the rest of the state so that each district had 13 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Democrats, four-one. Same state, same number of districts, same party affiliation: completely different results. All you need is the power to draw district lines. And that is what America provides: a process, called redistricting, which, through back-room negotiations too boring for most voters to think about, can distort the democratic system itself.”

This is a real problem in America, from Texas to California and everywhere else. The Economist – no petty partisan critic – calls the process “how to rig an election” and a “travesty of democracy.” They are right: in this year’s Congressional elections approximately 30 of 435 House seats will see competitive races.

Less Tinkering, More Oversight, and a Novel Idea

Republicans should be wary of resorting to disdainful methods, which also include eliminating the Senate filibuster – a vital tool of the minority since 1789 – and the near total exclusion of Democrats from seats of consequence on important committees. These will undermine democracy and will return to haunt them should they lose control of the legislature either in this year’s elections or afterward. Moreover, independent committees should handle legitimate redistricting needs, instead of allowing state legislatures to police themselves. Closer monitoring and regulation of lobbyists and a reduction of pork barrel spending are also needed.

Due to refusal to examine these issues, flouting of democratic methods, extreme profligacy (which has enraged small-government conservatives), and seemingly never-ending corruption, the GOP should be dealt a defeat in November. Indeed, some inauspicious signs are materializing for the GOP’s fortunes. Yet the Democrats likewise have work to do in that they must prove themselves capable of addressing the nation’s challenges. Unless they come up with a galvanizing idea about an issue of importance to the American people these will not translate to an electoral sweep. Without these, headlines will be captured by extremist proposals with little chance of passing or of accomplishing anything besides aimless legislative drift until 2008.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2006 Posted by | 2006 Elections, Author: DML, Congress, Corruption, Democrats, Politics, The GOP, United States | Leave a comment