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Monday, February 27, 2006
The Ground's The Limit
How low can you go?

This low, according to the latest CBS poll:

(CBS) The latest CBS News poll finds President Bush's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, while pessimism about the Iraq war has risen to a new high.

Americans are also overwhelmingly opposed to the Bush-backed deal giving a Dubai-owned company operational control over six major U.S. ports. Seven in 10 Americans, including 58 percent of Republicans, say they're opposed to the agreement.

CBS News senior White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that now it turns out the Coast Guard had concerns about the ports deal, a disclosure that is no doubt troubling to a president who assured Americans there was no security risk from the deal.

The troubling results for the Bush administration come amid reminders about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina and negative assessments of how the government and the president have handled it for six months.

In a separate poll, two out of three Americans said they do not think President Bush has responded adequately to the needs of Katrina victims. Only 32 percent approve of the way President Bush is responding to those needs, a drop of 12 points from last September’s poll, taken just two weeks after the storm made landfall.

If these numbers are borne out by other polls, it spells the end of (among other things) the Dubai port deal. The administration plan to "review" the deal for 45 days is too small a fig leaf to suit members of Congress, especially in an election year.

It's rare for any President to get poll numbers this low, and I can't imagine that Bush's support could drop below this. But given the staggering incompetence and mendacity of this administration, who knows?

C For Culture War

People should not be afraid of their movies. Movies should be afraid of their people.

The denizens of the right-wing blogosphere are preoccupied with the political subtext of everything that goes on in popular culture. Not unlike the cultural komissars of the old Soviet Union, unorthodox political ideas are perceived as most dangerous when they appear most innocuous -- when they are found in the world of low art and entertainment. Thus movies that don't seem remotely political -- like Revenge of the Sith and King Kong -- are attacked as politically suspect (that is, not identifiably right-wing), while The Chronicles of Narnia and March of the Penguins are lauded as politically suitable for conservative consumption.

That makes me wonder how conservative bloggers will greet the Wachowski brother's V For Vendetta, which opens March 17.

Based on the Alan Moore comic book series, V For Vendetta is set in a future England where fear has metastasized into right-wing dictatorship. Civil liberties are a thing of the past, and the citizens live in terror of their own government. A young woman named Evey Hammond is saved from rape and murder at the hands of secret police by a masked avenger known only as V. Joining V's cause, Evey is drawn into a plot to blow up Parliament, overthrow the government and restore freedom to England.

But "freedom" is not always easy to define, and V's quest to bring freedom to others can be a little hard to take. His methods are disturbing and morally difficult to defend. He does not seem to be fighting the existing regime so much as fighting any regime; he is not so much a person as a chaotic force of nature that dogs the fringes of any "civilized" society.

The moral ambiguities inherent in the storyline promise to make it a fascinating movie. But ambiguity doesn't sit well with conservatives, and it remains to be seen what sort of fodder they try to make of it. My guess is they will give the movie a lot of play; the right-wing scream machine needs lots and lots of fodder.

Thursday, February 23, 2006
Reverse Psychology

George, you're doing a heck of a job.

As Iraq tips toward all-out civil war, the Bush administration is pulling out the stops to exert control over the situation. But the more control they try to exert, the more helpless they appear:

Just on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad threatened the Iraqi government with a loss of funds for training their military unless the new government being hammered out was “non-sectarian.” “The ministers, particularly security ministers, have to be people who are non-sectarian, who are broadly acceptable, who do not represent or have ties to militias,” he said.

The next day, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari fired back, saying the formation of the government is strictly an Iraqi affair. “When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘no, we do not want a sectarian government—not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told a news conference. “We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you.”

Do you get the feeling that issuing ultimatums to the Iraqi leadership might actually be counterproductive? Maybe Khalilzad should have demanded that the Iraqis form a sectarian government immediately, funded exclusively by militias. The Iraqis would probably be clamoring for a peaceful unity government then.

The wild card in this latest flare-up is al-Sadr, who fought two insurrections with the Americans in 2004. He lost both military battles, but emerged each time politically stronger than before. The areas around Kut, Karbalah and Najaf to the south of Baghdad have seen hit-and-run attacks on American forces, the most recent on Monday resulting in the destruction of a Humvee and the death of an American soldier. Mahdi Army forces loyal to Sadr are widely blamed for these attacks.

If too much pressure is put on the Shi’ites to concede posts to Sunnis, al-Sadr’s followers may not tolerate it and could turn on the Americans again. Today al-Sadr vowed revenge for the attack and threatened to take matters into his own hands unless the Iraqi government does something. In Sadr City, thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets waving AK-47s and shouting ant-American slogans. In Kut, another Sadr stronghold, about 3,000 people marched in the streets, burning American and Israeli flags and shouting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans.

Wonder how this will affect the Pentagon's plans to draw down American forces throughout 2006? The timetable to reduce American forces in the region was an artificial one, designed to boost Bush's popularity going into the midterm elections. Sustaining Bush's popularity has always been Job 1 at the White House. What will they do -- what can they do -- to get it back?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Don't Cry For The Empire
Could it be a portent of the end-times? Could it be a harbinger of the end of history itself?

Could it be that Frank Fukuyama is actually -- ulp! -- right for once?

I know, I know, it seems incredible. But after reading his piece in the New York Times magazine, where he's published the obituary for the neoconservative movement, I'm starting to wonder:

The Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters did not simply underestimate the difficulty of bringing about congenial political outcomes in places like Iraq; they also misunderstood the way the world would react to the use of American power. Of course, the cold war was replete with instances of what the foreign policy analyst Stephen Sestanovich calls American maximalism, wherein Washington acted first and sought legitimacy and support from its allies only after the fact. But in the post-cold-war period, the structural situation of world politics changed in ways that made this kind of exercise of power much more problematic in the eyes of even close allies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, various neoconservative authors like Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol and Robert Kagan suggested that the United States would use its margin of power to exert a kind of "benevolent hegemony" over the rest of the world, fixing problems like rogue states with W.M.D., human rights abuses and terrorist threats as they came up. Writing before the Iraq war, Kristol and Kagan considered whether this posture would provoke resistance from the rest of the world, and concluded, "It is precisely because American foreign policy is infused with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power."

It is hard to read these lines without irony in the wake of the global reaction to the Iraq war, which succeeded in uniting much of the world in a frenzy of anti-Americanism. The idea that the United States is a hegemon more benevolent than most is not an absurd one, but there were warning signs that things had changed in America's relationship to the world long before the start of the Iraq war. The structural imbalance in global power had grown enormous. America surpassed the rest of the world in every dimension of power by an unprecedented margin, with its defense spending nearly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Already during the Clinton years, American economic hegemony had generated enormous hostility to an American-dominated process of globalization, frequently on the part of close democratic allies who thought the United States was seeking to impose its antistatist social model on them.

There were other reasons as well why the world did not accept American benevolent hegemony. In the first place, it was premised on American exceptionalism, the idea that America could use its power in instances where others could not because it was more virtuous than other countries. The doctrine of pre-emption against terrorist threats contained in the 2002 National Security Strategy was one that could not safely be generalized through the international system; America would be the first country to object if Russia, China, India or France declared a similar right of unilateral action. The United States was seeking to pass judgment on others while being unwilling to have its own conduct questioned in places like the International Criminal Court.

Another problem with benevolent hegemony was domestic. There are sharp limits to the American people's attention to foreign affairs and willingness to finance projects overseas that do not have clear benefits to American interests. Sept. 11 changed that calculus in many ways, providing popular support for two wars in the Middle East and large increases in defense spending. But the durability of the support is uncertain: although most Americans want to do what is necessary to make the project of rebuilding Iraq succeed, the aftermath of the invasion did not increase the public appetite for further costly interventions. Americans are not, at heart, an imperial people. Even benevolent hegemons sometimes have to act ruthlessly, and they need a staying power that does not come easily to people who are reasonably content with their own lives and society.

Throughout the essay, Fukuyama correctly -- but oh so belatedly -- diagnoses the flaws in the neocon agenda. The neoocons were ultimately doomed for exactly the same reason the communists were: they began to believe that their wishes and dreams were not just historical possibilities, but historical inevitabilities, woven into the fabric of causality itself. And by trying to push history forward to its predetermined conclusion, they ended up pushing it off a cliff instead.

Hamas' recent victory in the Palestinian elections seems to have driven the final nail in the coffin of neoconservativism: this is not at all what Perle and Kristol and Krauthammer had in mind. Question is, where do conservatives go from here?

Seems reasonable that the next stop is neo-isolationism. But who knows?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Hey Presto
Here's what the National Review wrote in an editorial dated Tuesday, February 14, about Dick Cheney's reluctance to speak publicly about last weekend's shooting incident:

Cheney himself should make a public appearance on the matter, and the sooner the better. He should get himself with a respected national anchor — perhaps Brit Hume of Fox News — as soon as this evening to express his regret and explain in his own words what happened. He should stop relying on press aides who were not present at the accident to tell his side of the story. Not talking only feeds speculation, and aids the cause of those who want to lampoon and smear him. Let's hear from the vice president.

Brit Hume, a "respected national anchor"? Respected by the black helicopter wing of the Republican party, I guess they mean.

Well, what do you know:

Vice President Dick Cheney, publicly silent since accidentally shooting a Texas lawyer while hunting last week, will offer his first words on the incident Wednesday, the White House said.

Cheney will be interviewed by Fox News at 2 p.m. ET, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.

The interviewer will be "respected national anchor" Brit Hume.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Spin Till The Cows Come Home
Atrios posted this useful list of things he's learned since Sunday:

Every conservative on the internet is an avid hunter and they've all been shot multiple times.

Shotguns aren't really guns, just toys. You can't really hurt people with them, only animals.

It's standard hunter etiquette to yell and scream at your fellow hunters as they're stalking their prey.

The most dangerous place to be is behind the people with the guns.

And Dick Cheney was not drunk, so stop saying that.

The latest news is that the unfortunate Mr. Whittington has been moved back into the ICU because of a minor heart attack, caused by a piece of birdshot penetrating his heart tissue. This should put the lie to at least two of the Republican talking points: that Whittington "was more bruised than bloodied", and that he was shot with a pellet gun -- which is what some mainstream media outlets have been reporting.

Clearly, Whittington's injuries are serious -- serious enough to cast doubt on assertions that the guy was thirty yards away from Cheney at the time. Thirty feet is probably closer to the truth. And while every shotgun fires shotgun pellets, not even the smallest one could be called a pellet gun.

The Bush team can spin this until the cows come home, but hunters already know what B.S. it all is.

Monday, February 13, 2006
If we lived in any other time, under any other administration, the story of Dick Cheney's wounding of a fellow hunter would be a minor story. The vice-president is known to be an avid hunter, and serious accidents happen even to careful sportsmen from time to time.

But we do not live in ordinary times. We're talking about the Bush administration, the biggest collection of goons, nutters and blockheads in the history of our Republic.

This incident is in many ways a microcosm of the Bush administration itself. It is a textbook example of the administration's dysfunctional nature. A mistake is made through carelessness, or stupidity, or recklessness. The idea of owning up to the mistake, taking responsibility for it, being open about what happened, is immediately rejected as unacceptable.

Instead, the plan is to bury the incident -- make sure that no one ever hears about it.

But the bigger the mistake, the more difficult it is to hide. Inexorably, all the painful, embarrassing, messy details are dragged into the open.

Once this happens, the administration's propaganda machine is sent in to spin the problem out of existence. But some problems are harder to spin than others.

Like a guilty schoolkid who has just thrown a baseball through somebody's plate-glass window, it's now time to slink away -- to distance yourself from the incident in question:

Asked by The New York Times why it did not make the news known, Cheney spokeswoman McBride said, "We deferred to the Armstrongs regarding what had taken place at their ranch."

Armstrong said later, according to The Associated Press, that everyone at the ranch was so "focused" on Whittington's health Saturday that it wasn't until Sunday she called the Caller-Times to report the accident.

"It was accidental, a hunting accident," Sheriff Ramon Salinas III of Kenedy County told The New York Times, adding that the Secret Service notified him Saturday of the episode. "They did what they had to according to law."

Quite a profile of courage, our vice president. It happened at the Armstrong's ranch, not my ranch. See? Nothing illegal happened. I was so focused on Whittington's health I didn't have time to report it. What's that? Is there a question from the back? Okay, for those of you who didn't hear it, the question is, "If you were so focused on Whittington's health, how come you didn't visit him in the hospital, but immediately left town?". Okay, next question.

When that doesn't work, it's time for a favorite Bush administration tactic: blame-shifting.

Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," Armstrong said, according to the Associated Press.

That excuse doesn't wash. Anyone who's ever gone pheasant hunting knows better. The main group walks together in the open mostly, say along the rows at the edge of a cornfield, and one person cuts to the outside, back through the trees to flush out the pheasants. When the birds are flushed out they come up fast; and you only have a few seconds to take your shot. It's quite common for you to wheel around, trying to get a bead on a fast-moving target. But as a hunter it's your responsibility to not shoot anyone standing behind you. It's not their responsibility to duck when you pivot around, blasting away.

But blame-shifting is SOP for these guys, regardless of whether or not it's a smart or credible tactic. And true to the workings of the Mighty Propaganda Wurlitzer of Death, the blame-shifting always comes from subordinates. The higher ups just stand there with their mouths behind their sleeves, trying to keep the grins off their faces.

The president, who was at the White House over the weekend, was informed about the incident in Texas after it happened Saturday by Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and was updated on Sunday, press secretary Scott McClellan said.

But neither the White House nor the vice president's staff announced the shooting. The Washington Post reported late Sunday that Cheney's office did not make a public announcement....

In an odd disparity, Armstrong told the Houston Chronicle that Whittington, 78, was "bruised more than bloodied" in the incident and "his pride was hurt more than anything else." Yet he was airlifted to a hospital and has spent more than a day in an intensive care unit.

Okay, let's review: the guy's "pride was hurt more than anything else"? I don't think being shot by another member of your hunting party can be brushed off as an embarrassing pratfall. And if it was such a minor incident, what was he doing in the ICU? Was his pride on life-support?

Clearly Cheney's wasn't. His hubris is the healthiest thing about him.

Thursday, February 02, 2006
John Derbyshire''s World: A Great Place To Live, If You're Us
John Derbyshire is a neocon, so I expect him to have a bleak view of human nature. But how bleak?

Answer: pretty damned bleak. Here's how he wants to deal with Iran and any other nation that looks like it might end up with nukes:

Nukes can only be made by biggish, stable--whether under dictatorship or law--well-organized nations. Any such nation friendly to terrorists, hostile to us, and looking as if it is on the way to getting nukes, demands action.

The question is: What action? My answer would be, has always been: Attack them, smash up their assets, kill their leaders if you can, cripple their military. Then leave them in rubble and chaos. They're not going to be making any nukes in that condition. Mission accomplished. That was what I hoped we would do to Iraq, and why I supported the war. It is what I believe we should now do to Iran. The reduced-to-rubble nation might indeed "breed terrorists"; but then, as you pointed out, so might New Zealand or Spain. Rubble nations are not a threat to us. Africa has a score of them; none threatens us.

The administration has taken another course, one of "spreading American values," "building democracy," and so on. This won't work. It will end in tears. Any leaders of Iraq installed under any system we set up will be lynched by ululating mobs within a month of our departure. We can't export our system, even to small, cheap, near places like Haiti (where we have been trying for nigh on a century).

This is bad news for the many people living in the sphere of barbarism who would like a quiet, middle-class, law-governed, Western style of life, but it's not especially bad news for **us**, if we can just acknowledge it frankly and act accordingly.

By 'act accordingly', of course, Derbyshire means 'bomb the hell out of anyone who annoys us'. In the end, of course, we will be living in a world where every nation is "in rubble and chaos" -- every nation except the United States. It's the same old mistake the neocons keep making. They simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that bombing the hell out of somebody else's country is not the solution to every foreign policy problem. In fact, bombing the hell out of somebody else's country might actually make things worse. And not just for the great unwashed "them", but for us as well.

It is an article of faith among neocons that alliances are useless, diplomacy equals surrender, and democracy is a luxury that rich nations should dabble in only when social conditions are favorable.

Fear drives the neocon agenda. They look outside the borders of our country and they are terrified. But history shows that nations that live in fear of the outside world are never spared the chaos that goes on around them.

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