The Screaming Pen

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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.

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

The (ill) State of Iraq

Iraq at Home (Part 1): There’s nothing brave in writing about Iraq in February ’07. We’ll do it anyway.

In President Bush’s January State of the Union Address, he asserted – not for the first time – that the war in Iraq is indelibly linked (no pun intended) to the “war on terror.” He was right. Stop: that statement was not true before America deposed Saddam Hussein. The unfortunate reality is that this is a classic example of saying something enough that it becomes true. Hussein was a secular dictator and, according to available intelligence, had minimal contacts with al-Qaeda before the war in Iraq. Now, as the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate declares, the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

“has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat… The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, [is] the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda…Rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position.”

In Agreement?

Presenting this evidence in February 2007 is no bold statement. The administration botched the rebuilding of Iraq, Bush’s approval ratings are at all time lows, a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake (55% in February 2006, Gallup poll “February Wave 1”); the rest is familiar by now. What needs further examination is not a tired summary of the last few years but the motives and arguments behind the raging in Congress at present about how to proceed.

Iraq in U.S. Politics
Congressional debate is back today; since this morning House Republicans and Democrats have been firing blows at each other over House Concurrent Resolution 63, the proposed non-binding” Iraq resolution, which registers disapproval but does not block funds for the President’s “surge” proposal. For those of you without time for C-Span in your busy lives, the substance of the fiery debate has been predictably familiar. It was illuminating nonetheless.

While the Democrats’ opposition was initially characterized as opposing war for the sake of peace, there is now a tinge of realism to their arguments: the war is further radicalizing large swathes of the world and billions of dollars are being spent while many domestic issues need serious attention. They appeal to the historical democratic tradition of debate and the need for open discussion of policy, especially when it’s flawed. Crucially for the Democratic shift was their minority status during the Iraq war, (despite having largely supported it in ‘03) which makes them less politically tied to its future than the GOP. The Democratic takeover of Congress also brought fresh faces into politics with the luxury of not having gone on record in support of the war in ’03. The party is better able to make a pragmatic about-face (or stand by an initial decision against it) in light of unfavorable developments.

The GOP meanwhile is torn. Some members have rebelled against President Bush and opposed the surge. Conversely, those supporting the surge (and opposing H Con Res 63) wax eloquently but their statements are threaded by several clearly identifiable arguments. One centers on the resolution being non-binding. Opponents call it “political posturing” and “empty talk” that accomplishes nothing. This is insincere. Of course the resolution is politically motivated; everything in Washington is. More importantly, both sides know that symbols matter. Sending the signal that Congress opposes the increase is designed to isolate President Bush for posterity and influence the battle for public opinion and thus policy. Counter to their public declarations, Republicans tacitly acknowledge that symbols matter when they say, correctly, that terrorists will take note of domestic discord and be emboldened. And in case you have any further doubts, when was the last time that almost 400 representatives felt compelled (and were allowed) to make speeches on the House floor?

Quick! What channel is C-Span?

Secondly, they warn that if America withdraws from Iraq the country will ignite, Iran will capitalize, and the region will be engulfed by violence. While fears of a war erupting throughout the Middle East are easily overblown, it’s true that Iraq would likely devolve further into full-scale ethnic cleansing and massive displacement and forced migration. Iran would be further emboldened with first the removal of its neighborly nemesis Saddam Hussein and the failure of the United States to create a self-sufficient Iraqi state. As in past wars (i.e. Korea 1950 – 1953), the stronger power doesn’t have to be defeated in battle to lose the war. Stalemate works just as well if you’re able to outlast the other and wining a direct military confrontation was never a requirement for victory anyway.

President Bush offers a third justification for the war that is less often asserted by GOP members of Congress. On February 15th at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush restated that fighting terrorists in Iraq means that the United States won’t have to fight them at home. This is an attractive argument: a would-be suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia or Yemen finds it far easier to detonate him or herself in Baghdad than Boston.

Yet it’s common sense that the longer that the “war on terror” goes on – and it could be infinite – the more likely it is to happen. In the long run, terrorist attacks will occur regardless of whether or not America is fighting terrorists in Iraq. Both sides use this in support: Democrats ponder the question, “If we’re going to be attacked either way, why spend the blood and treasure in Iraq?” Republicans say that since the terrorists won’t let up if we withdraw, we need to take the battle to them.

An Accusation, Not an Argument
The GOP then asks, disingenuously, what the Democrats strategy is for Iraq. “If you oppose President Bush’s plan, why not propose your own? What is your plan?” they ask while asserting that the Democrats have none. These Republican critiques are accurate; the Democrats have no miracle strategy.

Before rushing to herald the Republican strategists, however, we should recognize that they’re simply making the best of a politically tenuous position, one that is likely to become increasingly unstable with time. And Republicans who are politically unable to distance themselves from their support for the war will – if the Democrats eventually withdraw the United States from Iraq – forever claim that it didn’t have to fail. They’ll be relieved of forging a solution and insist to the last that it could have been won, crowing that the Democrats “lost Iraq.”

The immensely depressing reality, not only for the Democratic Party but for the whole country, is that America is so deep into the war in Iraq that no good option now exists. In the following article I make the case that the country is beginning to come to terms with this and that there is one last political issue, the resolution of which will determine the course of American policy in Iraq.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Dissent, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a 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.


 2006. All rights reserved.

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

Pull Up a Chair

Immigration at Home (2): Mr. Bush is Right in Theory

With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living and working in the United States, calls for their arrest and deportation look extreme, impractical, and counterproductive. Finding them would be difficult enough, jails would overflow, and they are in America primarily because there’s a surfeit of jobs to go round. Crucially, appealing to the business wing of the GOP allows President Bush the political cover needed to defy his party’s archconservatives.

Indeed, in his address tonight Bush largely got it right, at least in theory. Complementing any naturalization proposals, the border needs to be tightened so that the problem doesn’t come full circle only to be dealt with again in a decade’s time. For those with shorter memories, this would not be the first time that a “path to citizenship” or “amnesty” is enacted: both the Reagan and Clinton presidencies pushed similar measures. Because of this history, Bush’s reluctance to use the term “amnesty” makes sense. Previous attempted fixes allowed naturalization while draining resources from the border control, thus allowing the current argument to metastasize. Legalization should only be done in conjunction with efficacious control of the border [ see Immigration: The Border (1)].

Yet giving illegals legitimacy is a crucial step. As already mentioned, the role they play in industry, agriculture, and construction is vital (although experts debate to what extent). Doing so would enable them to lobby for better working conditions (hours, benefits, safety) and pay more taxes, thus reducing the burden on public health care. Some evidence also suggests that – because they would be better placed to seek wage rises –the competitiveness and wages of other workers would be driven up as well. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are hardworking, friendly, family-centered, and otherwise law-abiding.

No, not that kind of alien

Demands must be made of illegals too. Segregation, voluntary or otherwise, is unacceptable and can be overcome through time and learning. While first generation immigrants are often too busied by labor to fully integrate, the second generation – when entered in English -speaking schools (and the nation’s education system needs fixing here too) – become as American as anyone. Anglos shouldn’t feel threatened hearing Spanish in the subway or on television; with a little effort and patience, language barriers and the resulting distance can be minimized. Immigrant protesters, however, are wrong to wave Mexican flags while clamoring for citizenship. The image inherently conflicts with the pursuit, and Spanish national anthems are equally pig-headed.

But the Devil’s in the Details

Resolved: immigrants must learn English. Peer deeper into the issue though and unanswered questions begin to arise. First, how will English proficiency be measured? Must they become fluent or just functional? What is functional? Are those who fail sent home or given another try? What test will be used to determine ability? Designing any such test invites reliability problems, and test-takers eventually seek to pass the exam in place of actual learning. Bush also made a distinction between those illegals who have “roots in our country” and those that have arrived recently. This appears to make sense, but what is the cut-off between the two? Additionally, locating the unpopular newcomers will prove arduous.

And he might be in Congress too

The president’s address tonight stated that, “The House has passed an immigration bill. The Senate should act by the end of this month so we can work out the differences between the two bills and Congress can pass a comprehensive bill for me to sign into law.” This seems to say that the House bill will stand (instead of requiring a new one to be passed, as most had expected), and differences with a Senate bill will be adjudicated in conference (after different versions of a bill are passed separately in the House and Senate, legislators from both chambers meet in conference to resolve discrepancies before sending it to the President). The House bill was of the extreme sort and much will depend on which Congressmen are chosen by the (GOP) leadership to work on the compromise. The questions mentioned above have thus been left to legislators to resolve; a task in which they have so far failed to impress.

With most of his second term agenda (Social Security reform & health care) in tatters and approval ratings barely above 30%, immigration actually looks to be one area where Mr. Bush can affect an important issue. He – and more importantly, the public – will have to nudge Congress to come to a reasonable solution. And a mistakenly overlooked component, one that is arguably as important as illegal immigration: expediting and increasing visas for top-notch students and skilled foreign workers who are increasingly pursuing opportunities elsewhere.


 2006. All rights reserved.

May 16, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Immigration, Latin America, Mexico, North America, Politics, The GOP, United States | 1 Comment

Espera un Minuto, Mi Compadre

Immigration on the Border (1): Why a Wall & Obstructionism won’t do, but the National Guard Will

As long ago as August 2004 there were reports of U.S. officials apprehending Syrians along the border. A prosaic statement you might say, except for that we are not here talking about Iraq, but New Mexico and Arizona. Admittedly, much of the hype surrounding Middle Eastern terrorists infiltrating the U.S.-Mexico border comes from minutemen groups. Yet combined with Senator Norm Coleman‘s (R-MN) announcement that government officials smuggled “enough radioactive material to make two dirty bombs” into America, it can only be hoped that the revelation causes alarm.

Terrorism is just one part of the broader debate about immigration though, the crux of which is two-fold: what to do about securing the border, and how to deal with those illegal immigrants presently inside the country (see Immigration at Home). Regarding the first, the potential link between illegal immigration and terrorism leads to the conclusion that securing the border is an absolutely vital concern. Moreover, as the current border control system is flagrantly incapable of doing so – evidenced by the estimated 11 million illegals that have already bypassed it – whatever method is most effective should be implemented.

 You know me, VIP, no ID, bottles in DP, I do it B-I-G

You know me, no I.D., drinking D-P, I do it B-I-G

Some suggest erecting a wall. Make it a hundred feet tall, replete with a moat, razor wire, spotlights, and attack dogs. But while such a barrier would be effective in theory, it conjures up images of Palestine and Berlin pre-1989 and is certain to provide America-bashers with plenty of useful PR.

Tonight, President Bush will propose in his primetime address that the National Guard “temporarily” assist the overwhelmed Border Patrol with its duties. Combined with steps to legalize those already in the United States and expedite the visa process (see forthcoming second article), this is a positive prescription. It would minimize the awkwardness caused by the petulant (and sometimes violently extrajudicial) minutemen militias and help deal with the onerous strain of illegal immigration on public infrastructure and slippery terrorist, drug smuggling, and criminal operations. The protests of Mexican President Vicente Fox can be overcome and he will soon be gone from office anyway.

The Guard’s being streched too thin due to other responsibilities is a legitimate concern, and military planners will have to work out the details. But eliminating the billions of dollars of pork that Congresspeople squander every year on pet projects would be a start and help free up valuable resources. Yet critics on both the left and the right frequently assert that it’s not the National Guard or U.S. military’s “role” to play grab ass along the border.

This argument, however, is categorically flawed. To begin with, almost every other country in the world – most of them with military expenditures a mere fraction of the half trillion dollars the U.S. Defense department consumes annually – uses it military to defend its territory. Additionally, the U.S. military already does patrol borders: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and elsewhere. Yet even holding these factors aside, previous transformations of the military haven’t been rejected simply because they would redefine its purpose; witness the Rumsfeld Doctrine and the “revolution of military affairs”. These shifts may be either celebrated or discredited but in both cases they are so judged based on their merits, not merely because they alter the status quo.

Ironically, the United States is the victim of its own success. Throughout the country’s history – stemming originally from the founders experience with the devastation standing armies had brought to Europe – Americans have rightly been wary of granting the military power at home. Two broad oceans and usually amicable neighbors made this possible. The presently broken system and the real danger it poses to U.S. security, however, make obstructive axioms about the military’s role inappropriate and unhelpful. The United States must know who is crossing its borders, and if the National Guard is best suited to monitor the border then it should be given the task.


 2006. All rights reserved.

May 15, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Immigration, Latin America, Mexico, North America, Politics, The GOP, United States | 3 Comments