By FRANK RICH
THERE were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda on 9/11. There was scant Pentagon planning for securing the peace should bad stuff happen after America invaded. Why, exactly, did we go to war in Iraq?
"It still isn't possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq war," writes the New Yorker journalist George Packer, a disenchanted liberal supporter of the invasion, in his essential new book, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." Even a former Bush administration State Department official who was present at the war's creation, Richard Haass, tells Mr. Packer that he expects to go to his grave "not knowing the answer."
Maybe. But the leak investigation now reaching its climax in Washington continues to offer big clues. We don't yet know whether Lewis (Scooter) Libby or Karl Rove has committed a crime, but the more we learn about their desperate efforts to take down a bit player like Joseph Wilson, the more we learn about the real secret they wanted to protect: the "why" of the war.
To piece that story together, you have to follow each man's history before the invasion of Iraq - before anyone had ever heard of Valerie Plame Wilson, let alone leaked her identity as a C.I.A. officer. It is not an accident that Mr. Libby's and Mr. Rove's very different trajectories - one of a Washington policy intellectual, the other of a Texas political operative - would collide before Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury. They are very different men who play very different White House roles, but they are bound together now by the sordid shared past that the Wilson affair has exposed.
In Mr. Rove's case, let's go back to January 2002. By then the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan had succeeded in its mission to overthrow the Taliban and had done so with minimal American casualties. In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Mr. Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November's midterm elections. Candidates "can go to the country on this issue," he said, because voters "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." It was an early taste of the rhetoric that would be used habitually to smear any war critics as unpatriotic.
But there were unspoken impediments to Mr. Rove's plan that he certainly knew about: Afghanistan was slipping off the radar screen of American voters, and the president's most grandiose objective, to capture Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," had not been achieved. How do you run on a war if the war looks as if it's shifting into neutral and the No. 1 evildoer has escaped?
Hardly had Mr. Rove given his speech than polls started to register the first erosion of the initial near-universal endorsement of the administration's response to 9/11. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey in March 2002 found that while 9 out of 10 Americans still backed the war on terror at the six-month anniversary of the attacks, support for an expanded, long-term war had fallen to 52 percent.
Then came a rapid barrage of unhelpful news for a political campaign founded on supposed Republican superiority in protecting America: the first report (in The Washington Post) that the Bush administration had lost Bin Laden's trail in Tora Bora in December 2001 by not committing ground troops to hunt him down; the first indications that intelligence about Bin Laden's desire to hijack airplanes barely clouded President Bush's August 2001 Crawford vacation; the public accusations by an F.B.I. whistle-blower, Coleen Rowley, that higher-ups had repeatedly shackled Minneapolis agents investigating the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, in the days before 9/11.
These revelations took their toll. By Memorial Day 2002, a USA Today poll found that just 4 out of 10 Americans believed that the United States was winning the war on terror, a steep drop from the roughly two-thirds holding that conviction in January. Mr. Rove could see that an untelevised and largely underground war against terrorists might not nail election victories without a jolt of shock and awe. It was a propitious moment to wag the dog.
Enter Scooter, stage right. As James Mann details in his definitive group biography of the Bush war cabinet, "Rise of the Vulcans," Mr. Libby had been joined at the hip with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz since their service in the Defense Department of the Bush 41 administration, where they conceived the neoconservative manifesto for the buildup and exercise of unilateral American military power after the cold war. Well before Bush 43 took office, they had become fixated on Iraq, though for reasons having much to do with their ideas about realigning the states in the Middle East and little or nothing to do with the stateless terrorism of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush had specifically disdained such interventionism when running against Al Gore, but he embraced the cause once in office. While others might have had cavils - American military commanders testified before Congress about their already overtaxed troops and equipment in March 2002 - the path was clear for a war in Iraq to serve as the political Viagra Mr. Rove needed for the election year.
But here, too, was an impediment: there had to be that "why" for the invasion, the very why that today can seem so elusive that Mr. Packer calls Iraq "the 'Rashomon' of wars." Abstract (and highly debatable) neocon notions of marching to Baghdad to make the Middle East safe for democracy (and more secure for Israel and uninterrupted oil production) would never fly with American voters as a trigger for war or convince them that such a war was relevant to the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11. And though Americans knew Saddam was a despot and mass murderer, that in itself was also insufficient to ignite a popular groundswell for regime change. Polls in the summer of 2002 showed steadily declining support among Americans for going to war in Iraq, especially if we were to go it alone.
For Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by fictional, more salable ones. We wouldn't be invading Iraq to further Rovian domestic politics or neocon ideology; we'd be doing so instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons. The facts and intelligence had to be fixed to create these whys; any contradictory evidence had to be dismissed or suppressed.
Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney were in the boiler room of the disinformation factory. The vice president's repetitive hyping of Saddam's nuclear ambitions in the summer and fall of 2002 as well as his persistence in advertising bogus Saddam-Qaeda ties were fed by the rogue intelligence operation set up in his own office. As we know from many journalistic accounts, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby built their "case" by often making an end run around the C.I.A., State Department intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Their ally in cherry-picking intelligence was a similar cadre of neocon zealots led by Douglas Feith at the Pentagon.
THIS is what Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's wartime chief of staff, was talking about last week when he publicly chastised the "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" for sowing potential disaster in Iraq, North Korea and Iran. It's this cabal that in 2002 pushed for much of the bogus W.M.D. evidence that ended up in Mr. Powell's now infamous February 2003 presentation to the U.N. It's this cabal whose propaganda was sold by the war's unannounced marketing arm, the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, in which both Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove served in the second half of 2002. One of WHIG's goals, successfully realized, was to turn up the heat on Congress so it would rush to pass a resolution authorizing war in the politically advantageous month just before the midterm election.
Joseph Wilson wasn't a player in these exalted circles; he was a footnote who began to speak out loudly only after Saddam had been toppled and the mission in Iraq had been "accomplished." He challenged just one element of the W.M.D. "evidence," the uranium that Saddam's government had supposedly been seeking in Africa to fuel its ominous mushroom clouds.
But based on what we know about Mr. Libby's and Mr. Rove's hysterical over-response to Mr. Wilson's accusation, he scared them silly. He did so because they had something to hide. Should Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove have lied to investigators or a grand jury in their panic, Mr. Fitzgerald will bring charges. But that crime would seem a misdemeanor next to the fables that they and their bosses fed the nation and the world as the whys for invading Iraq.
October 26, 2005
Wal-Mart Memo Suggests Ways to Cut Employee Benefit Costs
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
and MICHAEL BARBARO
An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart's board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer's reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.
In the memorandum, M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits, also recommends reducing 401(k) contributions and wooing younger, and presumably healthier, workers by offering education benefits. The memo voices concern that workers with seven years' seniority earn more than workers with one year's seniority, but are no more productive.
To discourage unhealthy job applicants, Ms. Chambers suggests that Wal-Mart arrange for "all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering)."
The memo acknowledged that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had to walk a fine line in restraining benefit costs because critics had attacked it for being stingy on wages and health coverage. Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.
Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.
In an interview, Ms. Chambers said she was focusing not on cutting costs, but on serving employees better by giving them more choices on their benefits.
"We are investing in our benefits that will take even better care of our associates," she said. "Our benefit plan is known today as being generous."
Ms. Chambers also said that she made her recommendations after surveying employees about how they felt about the benefits plan. "This is not about cutting," she said. "This is about redirecting savings to another part of their benefit plans."
One proposal would reduce the amount of time, from two years to one, that part-time employees would have to wait before qualifying for health insurance. Another would put health clinics in stores, in part to reduce expensive employee visits to emergency rooms. Wal-Mart's benefit costs jumped to $4.2 billion last year, from $2.8 billion three years earlier, causing concern within the company because benefits represented an increasing share of sales. Last year, Wal-Mart earned $10.5 billion on sales of $285 billion.
A draft memo to Wal-Mart's board was obtained from Wal-Mart Watch, a nonprofit group, allied with labor unions, that asserts that Wal-Mart's pay and benefits are too low. Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Watch, said someone mailed the document anonymously to her group last month. When asked about the memo, Wal-Mart officials made available the updated copy that actually went to the board.
Under fire because less than 45 percent of its workers receive company health insurance, Wal-Mart announced a new plan on Monday that seeks to increase participation by allowing some employees to pay just $11 a month in premiums. Some health experts praised the plan for making coverage more affordable, but others criticized it, noting that full-time Wal-Mart employees, who earn on average around $17,500 a year, could face out-of-pocket expenses of $2,500 a year or more.
Eager to burnish Wal-Mart's image as it faces opposition in trying to expand into New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Wal-Mart's chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., also announced on Monday a sweeping plan to conserve energy. He also said that Wal-Mart supported raising the minimum wage to help Wal-Mart's customers.
The theme throughout the memo was how to slow the increase in benefit costs without giving more ammunition to critics who contend that Wal-Mart's wages and benefits are dragging down those of other American workers.
Ms. Chambers proposed that employees pay more for their spouses' health insurance. She called for cutting 401(k) contributions to 3 percent of wages from 4 percent and cutting company-paid life insurance policies to $12,000 from the current level, equal to an employee's annual earnings.
Life insurance, she said, was "a high-satisfaction, low-importance benefit, which suggests an opportunity to trim the offering without substantial impact on associate satisfaction." Wal-Mart refers to its employees as associates.
Acknowledging that Wal-Mart has image problems, Ms. Chambers wrote: "Wal-Mart's critics can easily exploit some aspects of our benefits offering to make their case; in other words, our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance."
Her memo stated that 5 percent of Wal-Mart's workers were on Medicaid, compared with 4 percent for other national employers. She said that Wal-Mart spent $1.5 billion a year on health insurance, which amounts to $2,660 per insured worker.
The memo, prepared with the help of McKinsey & Company, said the board was to consider the recommendations in November. But the memo said that three top Wal-Mart officials - its chief financial officer, its top human relations executive and its executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs - had "received the recommendations enthusiastically."
Ms. Chambers's memo voiced concern that workers were staying with the company longer, pushing up wage costs, although she stopped short of calling for efforts to push out more senior workers.
She wrote that "the cost of an associate with seven years of tenure is almost 55 percent more than the cost of an associate with one year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity. Moreover, because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases, we are pricing that associate out of the labor market, increasing the likelihood that he or she will stay with Wal-Mart."
The memo noted that Wal-Mart workers "are getting sicker than the national population, particularly in obesity-related diseases," including diabetes and coronary artery disease. The memo said Wal-Mart workers tended to overuse emergency rooms and underuse prescriptions and doctor visits, perhaps from previous experience with Medicaid.
The memo noted, "The least healthy, least productive associates are more satisfied with their benefits than other segments and are interested in longer careers with Wal-Mart."
The memo proposed incorporating physical activity in all jobs and promoting health savings accounts. Such accounts are financed with pretax dollars and allow workers to divert their contributions into retirement savings if they are not all spent on health care. Health experts say these accounts will be more attractive to younger, healthier workers.
"It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier work force than it will be to change behavior in an existing one," the memo said. "These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart."
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families U.S.A., a health care consumer-advocacy group, criticized the memo for recommending that more workers move into health plans with high deductibles.
"Their people are paying a very substantial portion of their earnings out of pocket for health care," he said. "These plans will cause these workers and their families to defer or refrain from getting needed care."
The memo noted that 38 percent of Wal-Mart workers spent more than one-sixth of their Wal-Mart income on health care last year.
By reducing the amount of time part-timers must work to qualify for health insurance, Wal-Mart is hoping to allay some of its critics.
One proposal under consideration would offer new employees "limited funding" so they could "gain access to the private insurance market" after 30 days of employment while waiting to join Wal-Mart's plan.
Such assistance, the memo stated, "would give us a powerful set of messages to use in combating critics. (For instance, 'Wal-Mart offers associates access to health insurance after they've worked with us for just 30 days.')"
Steven Greenhouse reported from New York for this article, and Michael Barbaro from Bentonville, Ark.
By BOB HERBERT
The White House is sweating out the possibility that one or more top officials will soon be indicted on criminal charges. But the Bush administration is immune to prosecution for its greatest offense - its colossal and profoundly tragic incompetence.
Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressed the administration's arrogance and ineptitude in a talk last week that was astonishingly candid by Washington standards.
"We have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran," said Mr. Wilkerson. "Generally, with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita ... we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence."
The investigation of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby et al. is the most sensational story coming out of Washington at the moment. But the story with the gravest implications for the U.S. and the world is the overall dysfunction of the Bush regime. This is a bomb going "Tick, tick, tick . . ." What is the next disaster that this crowd will be unprepared to cope with? Or the next lunatic idea that will spring from its ideological bag of tricks?
Mr. Wilkerson gave his talk before an audience at the New America Foundation, an independent public policy institute. On the all-important matter of national security, which many voters had seen as the strength of the administration, Mr. Wilkerson said:
"The case that I saw for four-plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, perturbations, changes to the national security decision-making process. What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."
When the time came to implement the decisions, said Mr. Wilkerson, they were "presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out."
Where was the president? According to Mr. Wilkerson, "You've got this collegiality there between the secretary of defense and the vice president, and you've got a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either."
One of the consequences of this dysfunction, as I have noted many times, is the unending parade of dead or badly wounded men and women returning to the U.S. from the war in Iraq - a war that the administration foolishly launched but now does not know how to win or end.
Mr. Wilkerson was especially critical of the excessive secrecy that surrounded so many of the most important decisions by the Bush administration, and of what he felt was a general policy of concentrating too much power in the hands of a small group of insiders. As much as possible, government in the United States is supposed to be open and transparent, and a fundamental principle is that decision-making should be subjected to a robust process of checks and balances.
While not "evaluating the decision to go to war," Mr. Wilkerson told his audience that under the present circumstances "we can't leave Iraq. We simply can't." In his view, if American forces were to pull out too quickly, the U.S. would end up returning to the Middle East with "five million men and women under arms" within a decade.
Nevertheless, he is appalled at the way the war was launched and conducted, and outraged by "the detainee abuse issue." In 10 years, he said, when this matter is "put to the acid test, ironed out, and people have looked at it from every angle, we are going to be ashamed of what we allowed to happen."
Mr. Wilkerson said he has taken some heat for speaking out, but feels that "as a citizen of this great republic," he has an obligation to do so. If nothing is done about the current state of affairs, he said, "it's going to get even more dangerous than it already is."
It takes gall to use Hurricane Katrina as cover to undermine the democratic process, but that's what conservative ideologues are attempting in the House. Among their budget-cutting proposals - being sold as "tough choices" for America to pay for the Gulf Coast recovery - is a startling plan to kill public financing in the presidential election system.
That program, financed by $3 checkoffs volunteered by taxpayers on their returns, has been a bulwark of presidential elections. It was enacted about 30 years ago, after the Watergate scandal exposed the big-money bagmen corrupting the heart of the political process. It makes politics more competitive for underdogs, more involving for the public and less reliant on floods of special-interest campaign money.
Congress should indeed turn its attention to the program - not to end it, but to repair its outdated limits. The primary calendar has become so front-loaded that the candidates with the strongest sources of private donations are now choosing to skip the limitations of public financing so they can spend early and furiously, leaving other challengers at a disadvantage.
The primary subsidy formula needs to be made more realistic to level the field, and the checkoff amount should be increased. Candidates should not be allowed to have it both ways by feeding on private money in the primaries, then switching to public money in the general election, as President Bush and Senator John Kerry did last year.
Under the current system, participating candidates in the primaries receive matching funds for the first $250 of each private contribution. This one-to-one formula should be increased to two-to-one matching or more as a way to invite more of the small donations that began showing up impressively last year from Internet users.
Sponsors of the House proposal must know they are wrong because they are trying to tuck the change into a budget bill without a public hearing and debate. If they want budget cuts, they should focus on government waste, not open elections.
By PAUL KRUGMAN
In 1999 Delphi, the parts division of General Motors, was spun off as an independent company. Now Delphi has filed for bankruptcy. Its chief executive, Robert S. Miller, wants the company's workers to accept drastic wage cuts, from an average hourly wage rate of about $27 to as little as $10 an hour.
There are a lot of questions about how Delphi and the auto industry in general reached this point. Why were large severance packages given to Delphi executives even as the company demanded wage cuts? Why, when General Motors was profitable, did it pay big dividends but fail to put in enough money to secure its workers' pensions?
But Delphi's bankruptcy is a much bigger deal than your ordinary case of corporate failure and bad, self-dealing management. If Delphi slashes wages and defaults on its pension obligations, the rest of the auto industry may well be tempted - or forced - to do the same. And that will mark the end of the era in which ordinary working Americans could be part of the middle class.
There was a time when the American economy offered lots of good jobs - jobs that didn't make workers rich but did give them middle-class incomes. The best of these good jobs were at America's great manufacturing companies, especially in the auto industry.
But it has been a generation since most American workers could count on sharing in the nation's economic growth. America is a much richer country than it was 30 years ago, but since the early 1970's the hourly wage of the typical worker has barely kept up with inflation.
The contrast between rising national wealth and stagnant wages has become even more extreme lately. In 2004, which was touted both by the Bush administration and by Wall Street as a year in which the economy boomed, the median real income of full-time, year-round male workers fell more than 2 percent.
Now the last vestiges of the era of plentiful good jobs are rapidly disappearing. Almost everywhere you look, corporations are squeezing wages and benefits, saying that they have no choice in the face of global competition. And with the Delphi bankruptcy, the big squeeze has reached the auto industry itself.
So what are we going to do about it?
During the 1990's optimists argued that better education and worker training could restore the economy's ability to create good jobs. Mr. Miller of Delphi picked up that argument as part of his public relations campaign for wage cuts: "The world pays knowledge workers far more than it pays manual, industrial workers," he said. "And that's what's sweeping over here."
But that's a very 1999 sort of answer. During the technology bubble, it was easy to believe that "knowledge workers" were guaranteed good jobs. But when the bubble burst, they turned out to be as vulnerable to downsizing and layoffs as assembly-line workers. And many of the high-paid jobs that vanished when the technology bubble burst have never come back, partly because they have been outsourced to India and other rising economies.
Today, some of us like to stress the depressing effect of the dysfunctional American health care system on wages. A large part of the problem facing the auto industry and other employers that still provide good jobs is the cost of providing health insurance, both to their current employees and to retired workers.
If we had a Canadian-style system - which is enthusiastically supported by the Canadian subsidiaries of U.S. auto companies - the big squeeze might be averted, at least for a while. One more reason to be angry with auto executives is that they never threw their support behind national health care in this country, even though such a system is clearly in their companies' interest.
What if neither education nor health care reform is enough to end the wage squeeze? That's the possibility that makes free-trade liberals like me very nervous, because at that point protectionism enters the picture. When corporate executives say that they have to cut wages to meet foreign competition, workers have every right to ask why we don't cut the foreign competition instead.
I hope we don't have to go there. But denial is not an option. America's working middle class has been eroding for a generation, and it may be about to wash away completely. Something must be done.
The cheeky website buzzflash.com recently posted a petition calling for Jenna and Barbara Bush to serve in Iraq. But the famously private Bush twins have never disclosed their views on the war; they may even be opposed. So calling for them to serve might not be fair. But there are young and prominent Bush-backers who deserve to be targets of such a petition: The assorted leaders of the College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) are cheerleaders for a war they are unwilling to fight.
Both YAF and College Republicans have staged prowar demonstrations on college campuses across the country. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the College Republican National Committee released a statement proclaiming, "As our troops prepare for battle, the College Republican National Committee and its 100,000 members are prepared to show the world that the majority of students support the efforts of the president and our troops to liberate the people of Iraq and to rid the world of this murderous dictator and his weapons of mass destruction." The CRNC's website praises George W. Bush for "defending the peace by taking the fight to the terrorists."
The even more zealous YAFers have made it clear that they not only support the war but are openly hostile to those who oppose it. Their rowdy prowar rallies have attracted plenty of press. In March 2003, CBS news reported on a YAF event held in Minnesota at which the chapter's executive director Chris Hill had strong words for antiwar activists: "The top of the antiwar movement is led by communists, and I will call them that," he said. "Unlike these communists, we have truth on our side.... We say to those who oppose this war, Go to France." Hill's YAF chapter has also publicly denigrated antiwar demonstrators as "cowards." All of this raises the question: If opponents of the war should go to France, shouldn't Hill--and other members of YAF and College Republicans--go to Iraq? In response to a query by The Nation about whether any leaders have volunteered to fight the war in Iraq, Shauna Moser, the chairman of Penn State YAF, said only that information on YAF officials could be found with a simple "search in a search engine."
Indeed, YAF chairman Erik Johnson, vice chairman Darren Marks and fourteen other national officials have posted brief autobiographies on YAF's website. According to these bios, not one of them has served in the military or has any intention to do so in the future. YAF official Chris Hill told The Nation that he had been a member of his university's Navy ROTC program and the moderator of a blog where he offered advice to aspiring soldiers on how to obtain a military commission. But he chose to seek a master's degree rather than join the armed forces. Asked about this decision, he said, "But I know people over there, and that's a fact." Does it undermine his group's prowar position if all the YAF higher-ups are unwilling to participate directly in the war? "I don't think so," Hill replied. "You don't have to be involved in something to believe in it."
And that appears to be the sentiment of the College Republicans' board members as well. None of them--the controversial chairman Paul Gourley and officers Jess Beeson, Nathaniel Harding, Britton Alexander, Dan Schuberth and Tom Robins--boast any military experience. Their posted bios do not refer to any past, present or future military service, though they do describe in detail the postgraduate work and political aspirations of these young right-wingers.
Conservative campus groups like YAF and College Republicans are growing in strength and numbers. And since the start of the Iraq War, these outfits have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush to support the war, but they have not stood alongside the soldiers doing the actual fighting and dying. They want someone else to do the hard work.
When the Senate voted this week to bring America's chain of military prison camps under the rule of law, President Bush threatened a veto. The White House explained his objections by saying the measure would bind the government's hands. Yes, exactly. The rules would finally bind military prisons to democratic values and the standards of behavior recognized by every other civilized nation. They would bind the government to a code of conduct that will help protect those in the nation's uniform.
The measure would ban "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of prisoners held by the military - which, by the way, is already against American law and a longstanding treaty. Mr. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are about the only ones left who want to defend the justness and practical value of the abhorrent practices introduced at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and then exported to Abu Ghraib. Ninety senators voted for the new law, including 46 Republicans - even Bill Frist, the majority leader, who yanked the measure from the floor last summer.
More than two dozen retired senior military officers endorsed it, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili and Colin Powell. Generals know that turning American servicemen and servicewomen into torturers endangers Americans captured on the battlefield. Senator John McCain, the primary sponsor of the legislation, was among the Americans tortured by North Vietnamese jailers. He said that "Every one of us - every single one of us - knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies."
The arguments made by the handful of senators still loyal to Mr. Bush on this issue were sadly comical. Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, argued that requiring American troops to follow their own field manual was not practical in the so-called war on terror. This is the central myth behind the administration's policies on prisoners, that the 9/11 attacks required a review of the rules and justified changing them to allow the torture of suspected terrorists. No serious person with experience in this field believes that, only because torture yields worthless information and false confessions.
Not only is the Bush administration trying to block the Senate's efforts to finally fix this enormous problem, but it continues to block any serious investigation of the abuse, torture and murder of prisoners.
The senators who voted for the law on the humane treatment of prisoners should also lend their backing to another measure that would create a truly bipartisan and independent commission, armed with subpoena power, to investigate the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and other military detention camps - like the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Republican majority in the House should also pass the new law on interrogations - then override Mr. Bush if he has the bad judgment to veto it.
The Maker of US policy
What a stroke of luck that God's advice to George Bush fits so neatly alongside US national interests
Saturday October 8, 2005
Given our previous knowledge of President Bush, the suggestion that he believes that God is dictating American foreign policy should be no more surprising than a revelation of the Pope's Roman Catholicism. And yet, surprisingly, the White House has been fiercely atheistic about such claims. A West Winger has rubbished suggestions by former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath (made in a new BBC2 series from the distinguished and highly reliable film-maker Norma Percy) that Bush had confided the Almighty's role as a sort of super national security adviser, a secretary of higher state.
According to Shaath's recall of Bush's confession, God, apparently addressing the president each time as "George", had told him, in three separate briefings: "Go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan ... go and end the tyranny in Iraq ... go and get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security."
While it's clearly not in a columnist's interest to encourage other pundits, especially omniscient ones, it would also be fascinating to have the deity's opinion on whether it should be Clarke or Cameron and just how worried to be about Asian bird flu. But, as a commentator on foreign policy, what's perhaps most striking is the sudden shift from an Old Testament God (smiting terrorists and tyrants) to such a carefully nuanced position on the Middle East, respecting the key demand of each side.
It's perhaps surprising that divine revelation should so precisely coincide with state department policy during the Bush administration. A fundamentalist believer would explain this overlap by saying that the president is simply being obedient to God, but it seems rather convenient to have a supreme overlord whose politics so closely mirror your own. The really interesting question for Bush would be whether God has ever told him he was wrong about anything, whether the Maker has broken administration policy as well as making it.
We're unlikely to get clarification on this because the White House spokespeople seem to have decided, echoing Alastair Campbell's public line on the possibility that Blair looks to a higher power than Jack Straw on foreign affairs, that "we don't do God".
Given British embarrassment about religion, Campbell's judgment was probably correct, but Bush has spoken openly about his personal conversation with God in the past and in this very week could probably benefit from wearing his sacred heart on his sleeve, as his Christian-right supporters are upset by the nomination to the supreme court of White House counsel Harriet Miers, who is not thought by hardline believers to have put in enough knee-time in public.
But the likeliest reason for the White House's panic is that they can see the trap set by the Shaath anecdote. Bush's previous religious admissions have suggested that God was a kind of vice-president, whereas it now seems that George is the running mate.
The political risk of this is obvious. If God is directing American foreign policy, He is presumably also advising on domestic issues, such as supreme court nominations. If so, Bush would face the fascinating task of explaining to the Christian right why God advised against a supreme court justice who was too associated with Christian fundamentalists.
And, even before the Palestinian insight into his beliefs, we can guess that the president's theology was in a mess. Throughout his five years in office, Bush has sustained a simple old Sunday-school world view in which external evil threatens American interests and is then met by force which believes it has God on its side. The fact that the perceived aggressors (Bin Laden, Saddam) also feel divinely justified is no more of an obstacle to this belief system than it has been for the religious throughout history.
Hurricane Katrina, though, severely challenges this exegesis. What can a president of such simple religious faith have made of the devastation of America by what insurance policies call an act of God? Whereas even an event as terrible as 9/11 could be sustaining and confirmational for someone of Bush's apparent Manichean convictions, a sudden drowning of the chosen invites only agonised study of the Book of Job. This affront to Bush's relationship with God may explain his public bewilderment during the weather crisis.
What we would give to know what Bush's secretary of higher state said to him after those events. But the president is likely to be less confessional to foreign politicians about these matters from now on.
There's nothing inherently dangerous about a leader having religious beliefs - politicians can be just as lethal if they believe too devoutly in themselves - but Bush's alleged conversation with Shaath suggests that the president has kicked all decision-making upstairs. And, even though American politics is theistically inclined, this is understood as too steep a genuflection.
· Israel and the Arabs - Elusive Peace, Monday, 9pm, BBC2
It was almost inevitable that we would see every kind of legislative lunacy after Katrina, proposed in the name of accelerating the cleanup in New Orleans, improving the nation's energy security or achieving other worthy objectives. And so we have: Congress has used Katrina as cover for ideas that could never stand on their own and for a remarkably brazen raid on the public treasury and environmental protections.
Take, for example, Richard Pombo, the chairman of the House Resources Committee, who is proposing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, allow states to opt out of a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling, and suspend judicial and administrative reviews of federal decisions to open public lands for oil and gas leasing. This is the same Richard Pombo who proposed last week - joking, he said - to sell off a few lesser-known national parks if money from the Arctic refuge was not forthcoming.
Then there is Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who, ostensibly to increase fuel supplies, rammed a bill through the House energy committee that would ease clean air restrictions on refineries and drive a final nail in the coffin of New Source Review, a useful law the administration has been trying to kill for years. The law requires older industrial facilities to install modern pollution controls, and Mr. Barton's bill would remove not only refineries but hundreds of coal-fired power plants from its reach.
Similar mischief is afoot in the Senate, where James Inhofe, the ferociously anti-regulatory Oklahoma Republican who runs the environment committee, would suspend for up to 18 months any environmental law that in his view stands in the way of post-hurricane reconstruction.
The most egregious example of self-dealing comes from the Louisiana delegation. Not content with the $62.3 billion Congress has already appropriated for emergency relief, the state's representatives have asked for $250 billion more in federal reconstruction funds, equal to more than $50,000 per Louisiana resident.
This seems a bit much, especially since the proposal also calls for suspending important environmental reviews and funneling huge sums to the Army Corps of Engineers for projects that seem to have more to do with the delegation's political ambitions than with flood control and the intelligent restoration of the Louisiana Delta.
Congress's first obligation is to help Louisiana's stricken residents get back on their feet. It is also obliged to design and deliver a reconstruction plan that makes sense now and for the future. To exploit this disaster for short-term political and ideological gain is cynical even by Congressional standards.
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Federal aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina is already faltering on two crucial fronts: health care and housing. Incompetence is part of the problem, but deeper political issues also play a crucial role.
Start with health care, where conservative senators, generally believed to be acting on behalf of the White House, have blocked bipartisan legislation that would provide all low-income victims of Katrina with health coverage under Medicaid.
In a letter urging Senate leaders to reject the bill, Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, warned that it would create "a new Medicaid entitlement." He asserted that victims can be taken care of by Medicaid "waivers," which basically amount to giving refugees the health benefits, if any, that they would have been entitled to in their home states - and no more.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, many needy victims won't qualify for aid. For example, Medicaid doesn't cover childless adults of working age. In fact, surveys show that many destitute survivors of Katrina are being denied Medicaid, and some are going without medicines they need.
Local hospitals and doctors will often treat Katrina victims even if they can't pay. But this means that communities that have welcomed Katrina refugees will, in effect, be financially punished for their generosity - something local officials will remember in future crises. (The administration has offered vague, unconvincing assurances that it will do something to compensate medical caregivers. It has offered much more concrete assurances that it will reimburse religious groups that provide aid.)
What about housing? These days, both conservatives and liberals agree that public housing projects are a bad idea, and that housing vouchers - which help the poor pay rent - are much better. In the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, special housing vouchers issued to victims worked very well.
But the administration has chosen, instead, to focus its efforts on the creation of public housing in the form of trailer parks, which have been slow to take shape, will almost surely be more expensive than a voucher program and may create long-term refugee ghettoes. Even Newt Gingrich calls this "extraordinarily bad policy" that "violates every conservative principle."
What's going on here? The crucial point is that President Bush has been forced by events into short-term actions that conflict with his long-term goals. His mission in office is to dismantle or at least shrink the federal social safety net, yet he must, as a matter of political necessity, provide aid to Katrina's victims. His problem is how to do that without legitimizing the very role of government he opposes.
This dilemma explains the administration's opposition to Medicaid coverage for all Katrina refugees. How can it provide that coverage without undermining its ongoing efforts to reduce the Medicaid rolls? More broadly, if it accepts the principle that all hurricane victims are entitled to medical care, people might start asking why the same isn't true of all American citizens - a line of thought that points toward a system of universal health insurance, which is anathema to conservatives.
As for the administration's odd insistence on providing public housing instead of relying on the market, The Los Angeles Times reports that Department of Housing and Urban Development officials initially announced plans to issue rent vouchers, then backed off after meeting with White House aides. As the article notes, the administration has "repeatedly sought to cut or limit" the existing housing voucher program.
This suggests that what administration officials fear isn't that housing vouchers would fail, but that they would succeed - and that this success would undermine the administration's ongoing efforts to cut back housing aid.
So here's the key to understanding post-Katrina policy: Mr. Bush can't avoid helping Katrina's victims, but he doesn't want to legitimize institutions that help the needy, like the housing voucher program. As a result, his administration refuses to use those institutions, even when they are the best way to provide victims with aid. More generally, the administration is trying to treat Katrina's victims as harshly as the political realities allow, so as not to create a precedent for other aid efforts.
As the misery of the hurricane's survivors goes on, remember this: to a large extent, they are miserable by design.
Sept. 29, 2005 President Bush has no advisor more loyal and less self-serving than Karen Hughes. As governor of Texas he implicitly trusted the former Dallas television reporter turned press secretary with the tending of his image and words. She was mother hen of his persona. In the White House, Hughes devoted heart and soul to Bush as his communications director, until, suddenly, she returned home to Texas in 2002, citing her son's homesickness. There were reports that Karl Rove, jealous of power, had been sniping at her.
From her exile, Hughes produced a memoir, "Ten Minutes From Normal," which is deeply uninteresting and unrevealing. Amid long stretches of uninformative banality lie unselfconscious expressions of religiosity, accounts of how she inserted Psalms 23 and 27 into Bush's speeches after Sept. 11, 2001, and an entire page of small type reproducing a sermon she delivered on Palm Sunday aboard Air Force One. She quotes then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice: "I think Karen missed her calling. She can preach."
After two undersecretaries of state for public diplomacy resigned in frustration in the face of the precipitous loss of U.S. prestige around the globe, Bush found a new slot for Hughes this year. She may be the most parochial person ever to hold a senior State Department appointment, but the president has confidence she can rebrand the United States.
This week, Hughes embarked on her first trip as undersecretary. Her initial statement resembled an elementary school presentation: "You might want to know why the countries. Egypt is of course the most populous Arab country ... Saudi Arabia is our second stop. It's obviously an important place in Islam and the keeper of its two holiest sites ... Turkey is also a country that encompasses people of many different backgrounds and beliefs, yet has the -- is proud of the saying that 'all are Turks.'"
Hughes appeared to be one of the pilgrims satirized by Mark Twain in his 1869 book, "Innocents Abroad," about his trip on "The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion." "None of us had ever been anywhere before; we all hailed from the interior; travel was a wild novelty to us ... We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans -- Americans!"
Hughes' simple, sincere and unadorned language is pellucid in revealing the administration's inner mind. Her ideas on terrorism and its solution are straightforward. "Terrorists," she said in Egypt at the start of her trip, "their policies force young people, other people's daughters and sons, to strap on bombs and blow themselves up." Somehow, magically, these evildoers coerce the young to commit suicide. If only they would understand us, the tensions would dissolve. "Many people around the world do not understand the important role that faith plays in Americans' lives," she said. When an Egyptian opposition leader inquired why President Bush mentions God in his speeches, she asked him "whether he was aware that previous American presidents have also cited God, and that our Constitution cites 'one nation under God.' He said, 'Well, never mind.'"
With these well-meaning arguments, Hughes has provided the exact proof for what Osama bin Laden has claimed about American motives. "It is stunning ... the extent [to which] Hughes is helping bin Laden," Robert Pape told me. Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who has conducted the most extensive research into the backgrounds and motives of suicide terrorists, is the author of "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," and recently briefed the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center. "If you set out to help bin Laden," he said, "you could not have done it better than Hughes."
Pape's research debunks the view that suicide terrorism is the natural byproduct of Islamic fundamentalism or some "Islamo-fascist" ideological strain independent of certain highly specific circumstances. "Of the key conditions that lead to suicide terrorism in particular, there must be, first, the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize. The second condition is a religious difference between the combat forces and the local community. The religious difference matters in that it enables terrorist leaders to paint foreign forces as being driven by religious goals. If you read Osama's speeches, they begin with descriptions of the U.S. occupation of the Arabian Peninsula, driven by our religious goals, and that it is our religious purpose that must confronted. That argument is incredibly powerful not only to religious Muslims but secular Muslims. Everything Hughes says makes their case."
The undersecretary's blundering grand tour of the Middle East may be the latest incarnation of "Innocents Abroad." "The people stared at us everywhere, and we stared at them," Twain wrote. "We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America's greatness until we crushed them."
The stakes, however, are rather different than they were on "The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion." Hughes' trip "would be a folly," Pape says, "were it not so dangerous."
posted by Going Very Well For Those In Power at 2:39 AM
As a side note, the Egyptian opposition leader probably said "never mind" because he realized (and Ms. Hughes didn't) that 'One nation under God' appears in the Pledge of Allegiance (God gets no mention in the Constitution).
Let us say that I have been around the block a few times. So I have learned that I don't know much, and that I think that I am smarter than I really am. But I would like you to hear about my take on the world, on my original country, this country, this campaign, myself, my life, your life and how I believe that you should live it.