Sunday, October 29, 2006

Alternative realities, by George Packer

by George Packer
Issue of 2006-10-30
Posted 2006-10-23

When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration o security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that th American commander in Iraq was asking for two new combat brigades immediately and fifty thousand additional troops in the coming months
“We’ve just heard a very dour intel briefing,” the national-security adviser said, opening the floor to discussion. “With more resources, can we really get it right? Can we do it better than we’ve done in the past three and a half years?”
“What is ‘it’?” another participant asked. “What do we mean by success? A democratic Iraq?”
“Can we achieve a stable, unified Iraq?” the national-security adviser persisted. “Does anyone here believe that’s still possible? And, if not, then Plan A has failed and we have to come up with other options.”
“Plan A is dead,” the Secretary of State announced, and sketched out a new strategy to bring Iran, Syria, and Iraq’s other neighboring countries into negotiations, in order to prevent civil war from spreading across borders. “We have to take what is a hugely eroded leadership position in the international community and try to turn it around. It’s a hell of a long shot.”
The meeting was remarkable for its clarity: the principals looked at unpleasant facts from every angle, asked fundamental questions about the choices available, criticized past failures, and agreed on new plans without concern for the political fallout. The old habits of wishful thinking and blind loyalty were gone.
If this discussion had taken place at the White House, one could be a little hopeful, not just for a change of policy but for a change of climate in which new policies might be imagined. Instead, it occurred a mile away, at the Brookings Institution, where a dozen civilian and military officials of previous Administrations had come together for a daylong war game on Iraq.
Conversations like this one are taking place in quiet corners of the government and the military, within small groups of trusted friends, but they are not happening where it matters. Obstacles to critical thinking are not exclusive to this Administration, with its incurious President and its ruthless political “commissars,” as they are known among their colleagues. The fear of leaks, and the damage they can do to an appearance of unity and resolve, makes it almost impossible for top officials in any Administration to speak freely in groups of more than three or four. But the resistance intensifies when the White House is under siege. “The worse the situation gets,” the imaginary national-security adviser said, “the harder it is to make the point that there’s a problem.” When the real Office of Policy Planning at the real State Department proposed writing a memo on the alternatives facing the Administration if its Iraq policy failed, the idea was dismissed by the department’s real leadership.
The President’s Iraq war is lost. Plan A—a unified and democratic Iraq that will be a model in the region—is no longer achievable. The civil war for which the Administration will not consider new responses is already at hand. Because no one in power can admit any of this, the United States is in the position of trying to hold still while the ground shifts violently underfoot. The resistance to thinking about Plans B, C, and D means not only that this country remains stuck while Americans and Iraqis die but that its ability to affect events six or twelve months away is rapidly diminishing.
In the Brookings war game, the mock National Security Council, functioning the way the National Security Council should, responded to the deterioration in Iraq by making certain decisions, and then responded to the consequences of those decisions. By the end of the day, American policy had shifted from the President’s “democracy agenda” to a focus on stabilizing Baghdad and bringing the warring parties to the conference table, to an effort to stem the flow of refugees, to a policy of countering Iranian domination of Iraq. By that point, the American forces were out of Baghdad and positioned along Iraq’s borders and in Kurdistan. It was the revenge of Realpolitik. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs reminded the committee that the new policy meant greatly increased casualties among Iraqis and “a terrible loss for U.S. prestige, credibility, and legitimacy.” But, in an atmosphere of critical thinking and open debate, the officials had to accept it.
Others are trying to fill the vacuum of debate from the outside. Recently, Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton’s Middle East envoy, proposed in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the United States should negotiate its departure with the Iraqi government, basing the timing and manner on whether the factions there can reach a settlement: “If Iraqis are ready to resolve their internal political differences, to adjust to reality and to make the hard choices they face, our presence can help in the transition. But if they continue to avoid reality, our presence will simply prolong both their state of denial and ours.”
Earlier this year, Congress commissioned the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, which is looking into Iraq policy and will offer recommendations. Such is the paralysis of official Washington that the course of the war seems to be waiting for the report, which won’t be released until after next month’s elections. News stories suggest that it will call for changes along the lines of the Brookings war game: talk to Iran and Syria, negotiate with armed Iraqi factions in a Dayton-style conference, and, as a last resort, reduce American casualties by shifting from supporting the government in Iraq to containing the fighting.
Every one of the proposals coming from outside the real Administration starts from the assumption that its policy has failed. Plans B, C, and D are also admissions of defeat. They are an acknowledgment that our highest interests in Iraq no longer involve the welfare of Iraqis. For anyone who had hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring a better life to Iraq’s people, these are hard truths to accept. But they also suggest that between the President’s resolve to persist in folly and the public’s instinct to be rid of Iraq there is a range of choices that could prevent the disaster from inflicting permanent damage on American interests. This kind of clear, rational thought is less heartless—even, in the end, less defeatist—than willful blindness.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Flags of our fathers, Clint Eastwood

October 20, 2006
A Ghastly Conflagration, a Tormented Aftermath

It seems hard to believe there is anything left to say about World War II that has not already been stated and restated, chewed, digested and spat out for your consideration and that of the Oscar voters. And yet here, at age 76, is Clint Eastwood saying something new and vital about the war in his new film, and here, too, is this great, gray battleship of a man and a movie icon saying something new and urgent about the uses of war and of the men who fight. “Flags of Our Fathers” concerns one of the most lethal encounters on that distant battlefield, but make no mistake: this is also a work of its own politically fraught moment.

The film distills much of the material covered in James Bradley and Ron Powers’s affecting book of the same title about the raising of the American flag during the battle for Iwo Jima. Mr. Bradley’s father, John Bradley, nicknamed Doc and played by an effectively restrained Ryan Phillippe, was one of six men who helped plant the flag (it was the second planted that day) on the island’s highest point on the fifth day of the monthlong American offensive. An Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, immortalized the moment, and American politicians seized the day, sending the three surviving flag raisers — Doc, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, delivering heartbreak by the payload) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) — on a hugely successful war-bond drive.

Collectively hailed as heroes from sea to shining sea, Rene embraced the spotlight, Doc settled into stoic unhappiness, while Ira, a Pima Indian shattered by Iwo Jima and its dead, sobbed and drank himself into oblivion. The efforts of Doc’s adult son (Tom McCarthy) to tell his father’s story years later give the film its scaffolding, but it is Mr. Beach’s Ira, with his open face and vulnerability, who haunts it. Tears mixing with booze, he floods his scenes with raw emotion that serves as a rebuke to gung-ho fictions like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” a 1949 bad joke in which John Wayne hands an American flag to the real Ira, Doc and Rene so they can raise Old Glory once more, this time over the sands of Southern California.

Mr. Eastwood’s cinematic deconstruction takes a considerably darker view of the historical record. The Air Force had repeatedly bombed Iwo Jima before the American landing on Feb. 19, 1945; by D-Day, barely a blade of grass survived, even as more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers remained dug in. To replicate that scorched earth, Mr. Eastwood drains much of the color from the film’s already muted palette, so much so that many of the scenes on the island look as if they were shot in black and white. It seems impossible that anything living could survive long in this charred, spooky place, and it isn’t long after the invasion that American bodies begin piling up amid the orange-red explosions and dull-red sprays of blood.

During these anxious moments, Mr. Eastwood characteristically keeps his sights (and ears) on the troops and the choreographed chaos of their movements; the focus remains on them, not the filmmaking. When the men hit the shore, the cameras stick close to them, moving and then, during a sudden hailstorm of bullets, running alongside the men as if similarly searching for cover. Despite the occasional bird’s-eye view that underscores the staggering scale of the operation — the hundreds of boats hugging the coast, the thousands of men dotting the land — the filmmaking retains a devastating intimacy, as in a quiet shot of dead soldiers lying facedown on the beach, the water under their bodies receding as if it were blood.

The scenes on Iwo Jima are harrowing, borderline surreal, and even after Doc, Ira and Rene leave the island, they never fully escape it. During the bond drive, the pop of a camera bulb, a flash of lightning and the bang of a backfiring car engine instantly return the three to the island and its horrors, a blurring between past and present that, with seamless, ruthless efficiency, Mr. Eastwood and his longtime editor, Joel Cox, turn into a dreadful memory loop. In Mr. Bradley and Mr. Powers’s book, one Iwo Jima veteran describes seeing his dead friends while sitting in class at medical school; the flashbacks, he says, were “like a movie screen wrapped around me.” We see a version of that movie here, and it is terrible.

Most war movies, even those that claim to be antiwar, overtly or implicitly embrace violence as either a political or cinematic means to an end. Few filmmakers can resist the thrill of the rocket’s red glare and the spectacle of death; the violence is simply too exciting. There are plenty of big bangs in “Flags of Our Fathers,” but because the screenplay, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, oscillates among three separate time frames — Iwo Jima, the bond tour and, less successfully, contemporary scenes involving Doc and his son — and because the flag raisers were pulled off the field before fighting ended, the violence of their war remains at a frenzied pitch. It doesn’t build, evolve, recede; it terrifies and keeps terrifying.

What do we want from war films? Entertainment, mostly, a few hours’ escape to other lands and times, as well as something excitingly different, something reassuringly familiar. If “Flags of Our Fathers” feels so unlike most war movies and sounds so contrary to the usual political rhetoric, it is not because it affirms that war is hell, which it does with unblinking, graphic brutality. It’s because Mr. Eastwood insists, with a moral certitude that is all too rare in our movies, that we extract an unspeakable cost when we ask men to kill other men. There is never any doubt in the film that the country needed to fight this war, that it was necessary; it is the horror at such necessity that defines “Flags of Our Fathers,” not exultation.

In this respect, the film works, among other things, as a gentle corrective to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” with its state-of-the-art carnage and storybook neatness. (Mr. Spielberg, whose company bought the film rights to “Flags of Our Fathers,” is one of its producers.) Where “Saving Private Ryan” offers technique, Mr. Eastwood’s film suggests metaphysics. Once again, he takes us into the heart of violence and into the hearts of men, seeing where they converge under a night sky as brightly lighted with explosions as any Fourth of July nocturne and in caves where some soldiers are tortured to death and others surrender to madness. He gives us men whose failings are evidence of their humanity and who are, contrary to our revolted sensitivities, no less human because they kill.

One view of Mr. Eastwood is that he has mellowed with age, or at least begun to take serious measure of the violence that has been an animating force in many of his films. In truth, the critical establishment caught up with the director, who for decades has been building a fascinating body of work that considers annihilating violence as a condition of the American character, not an aberration. “Flags of Our Fathers” is an imperfect addition to that body of work, though its flaws are minor and finally irrelevant in a film in which ambivalence and ambiguity are constituent of a worldview, not an aftereffect. Notably, Mr. Eastwood’s next film, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” set to open early next year, revisits the same battle, this time from the point of view of the Japanese.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The representation of war and its battlefield atrocities is extremely graphic.


Opens today nationwide.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Mr. Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 132 minutes.

WITH: Ryan Phillippe (John Bradley), Jesse Bradford (Rene Gagnon), Adam Beach (Ira Hayes), John Benjamin Hickey (Keyes Beech), John Slattery (Bud Gurber), Barry Pepper (Mike Strank), Jamie Bell (Ralph Ignatowski), Paul Walker (Hank Hansen) and Robert Patrick (Col. Chandler Johnson).

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Don't make nice, Paul Krugman

October 23, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Don’t Make Nice

Now that the Democrats are strongly favored to capture at least one house of Congress, they’re getting a lot of unsolicited advice, with many people urging them to walk and talk softly if they win.

I hope the Democrats don’t follow this advice — because it’s bad for their party and, more important, bad for the country. In the long run, it’s even bad for the cause of bipartisanship.

There are those who say that a confrontational stance will backfire politically on the Democrats. These are by and large the same people who told Democrats that attacking the Bush administration over Iraq would backfire in the midterm elections. Enough said.

Political considerations aside, American voters deserve to have their views represented in Congress. And according to opinion polls, most Americans are actually to the left of Congressional Democrats on issues such as health care.

In particular, the public wants politicians to stand up to corporate interests. This is clear from the latest Newsweek poll, which shows overwhelming public support for the agenda Nancy Pelosi has laid out for her first 100 hours if she becomes House speaker. The strongest support is for her plan to have Medicare negotiate with drug companies for lower prices, which is supported by 74 percent of Americans — and by 70 percent of Republicans!

What the make-nice crowd wants most of all is for the Democrats to forswear any investigations into the origins of the Iraq war and the cronyism and corruption that undermined it. But it’s very much in the national interest to find out what led to the greatest strategic blunder in American history, so that it won’t happen again.

What’s more, the public wants to know. A large majority of Americans believe both that invading Iraq was a mistake, and that the Bush administration deliberately misled us into war. And according to the Newsweek poll, 58 percent of Americans believe that investigating contracting in Iraq isn’t just a good idea, but a high priority; 52 percent believe the same about investigating the origins of the war.

Why, then, should the Democrats hold back? Because, we’re told, the country needs less divisiveness. And I, too, would like to see a return to kinder, gentler politics. But that’s not something Democrats can achieve with a group hug and a chorus of “Kumbaya.”

The reason we have so much bitter partisanship these days is that that’s the way the radicals who have taken over the Republican Party want it. People like Grover Norquist, who once declared that “bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” push for a hard-right economic agenda; people like Karl Rove make that agenda politically feasible, even though it’s against the interests of most voters, by fostering polarization, using religion and national security as wedge issues.

As long as polarization is integral to the G.O.P.’s strategy, Democrats can’t do much, if anything, to narrow the partisan divide.

Even if they try to act in a bipartisan fashion, their opponents will find a way to divide the nation — which is what happened to the great surge of national unity after 9/11. One thing we might learn from investigations is the extent to which the Iraq war itself was motivated by the desire to have another wedge issue.

There are those who believe that the partisan gap can be bridged if the Democrats nominate an attractive presidential candidate who speaks in uplifting generalities. But they must have been living under a rock these past 15 or so years. Whoever the Democrats nominate will feel the full force of the Republican slime machine. And it doesn’t matter if conservatives have nice things to say about a Democrat now. Once the campaign gets serious, they’ll suddenly question his or her patriotism and discover previously unmentioned but grievous character flaws.

The truth is that we won’t get a return to bipartisanship until or unless the G.O.P. decides that polarization doesn’t work as a political strategy. The last great era of bipartisanship began after the 1948 election, when Republicans, shocked by Harry Truman’s victory, decided to stop trying to undo the New Deal. And that example suggests that the best thing the Democrats can do, not just for their party and their country, but for the cause of bipartisanship, is what Truman did: stand up strongly for their principles.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Paul Krugman: The war against wages: Walmart

October 6, 2006
The War Against Wages
Should we be cheering over the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has finally set a new record? No. The Dow is doing well largely because American employers are waging a successful war against wages. Economic growth since early 2000, when the Dow reached its previous peak, hasn’t been exceptional. But after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, because workers’ productivity is up, but their wages aren’t — and because companies have dealt with rising health insurance premiums by denying insurance to ever more workers.
If you want to see how the war against wages is being fought, and what it’s doing to working Americans and their families, consider the latest news from Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart already has a well-deserved reputation for paying low wages and offering few benefits to its employees; last year, an internal Wal-Mart memo conceded that 46 percent of its workers’ children were either on Medicaid or lacked health insurance. Nonetheless, the memo expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising, in part “because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases.”
The problem from the company’s point of view, then, is that its workers are too loyal; it wants cheap labor that doesn’t hang around too long, but not enough workers quit before acquiring the right to higher wages and benefits. Among the policy changes the memo suggested to deal with this problem was a shift to hiring more part-time workers, which “will lower Wal-Mart’s health care enrollment.”
And the strategy is being put into effect. “Investment analysts and store managers,” reports The New York Times, “say Wal-Mart executives have told them the company wants to transform its work force to 40 percent part-time from 20 percent.” Another leaked Wal-Mart memo describes a plan to impose wage caps, so that long-term employees won’t get raises. And the company is taking other steps to keep workers from staying too long: in some stores, according to workers, “managers have suddenly barred older employees with back or leg problems from sitting on stools.”
It’s a brutal strategy. Once upon a time a company that treated its workers this badly would have made itself a prime target for union organizers. But Wal-Mart doesn’t have to worry about that, because it knows that these days the people who are supposed to enforce labor laws are on the side of the employers, not the workers.
Since 1935, U.S. workers considering whether to join a union have been protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which bars employers from firing workers for engaging in union activities. For a long time the law was effective: workers were reasonably well protected against employer intimidation, and the union movement flourished.
In the 1970’s, however, employers began a successful campaign to roll back unions. This campaign depended on routine violation of labor law: experts estimate that by 1980 employers were illegally firing at least one out of every 20 workers who voted for a union. But employers rarely faced serious consequences for their lawbreaking, thanks to America’s political shift to the right. And now that the shift to the right has gone even further, political appointees are seeking to remove whatever protection for workers’ rights that the labor relations law still provides.
The Republican majority on the National Labor Relations Board, which is responsible for enforcing the law, has just declared that millions of workers who thought they had the right to join unions don’t. You see, the act grants that right only to workers who aren’t supervisors. And the board, ruling on a case involving nurses, has declared that millions of workers who occasionally give other workers instructions can now be considered supervisors.
As the dissent from the Democrats on the board makes clear, the majority bent over backward, violating the spirit of the law, to reduce workers’ bargaining power.
So what’s keeping paychecks down? Major employers like Wal-Mart have decided that their interests are best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity, paid as little as possible and encouraged to leave after a year or two. And these employers don’t worry that angry workers will respond to their war on wages by forming unions, because they know that government officials, who are supposed to protect workers’ rights, will do everything they can to come down on the side of the wage-cutters.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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NYT Editorial: Kicked while down

October 7, 2006
Kicked While Down
In a blow to labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board recently expanded the pool of workers exempted from union membership. Specifically, the labor board found that registered nurses who assigned others to some shifts or tasks were supervisors, and thus not eligible to join unions. It was a bad decision, not only because of the specifics of the case, but also in its broader ramifications.
There are good reasons to bar managers from unionizing. It is extremely difficult to run a large organization efficiently if the people at the top are unable to easily hold their managers accountable for overall success or failure. But responsibilities like making out a schedule do not amount to management. If they did, interns would be the only non- managers in many of today’s workplaces.
Companies facing unionization drives have long found it convenient to discover that employees who are basically rank-and-file workers are actually managers. That seems to be the case with the nurses. The board’s decision opens the door for possibly millions of health-care workers and other professionals to be disqualified from the option of union protection.
This is one more step curbing the power of organized labor since President Bush came to office. The administration’s philosophical vendetta against unions has come at a time when their power is already on the wane. Membership has fallen to 7.8 percent of the private work force in this country, from over a third in the 1950’s. Far from balancing the scales, the anti-union drive comes when workers are already at a historic low in bargaining strength. Despite a growing economy and rising productivity, hourly wages adjusted for inflation have declined 2 percent since 2003. Corporate profits, meanwhile, are at their highest share of gross domestic product since the 1960’s.
We are getting closer and closer to a work force with no benefits and no substantive protections. Some unions succumbed to corruption and contributed to their own decline. But their role in giving common workers a voice is essential to a functioning society.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Borrowing During the Bush Years - Deeper and Deeper - New York Times

Borrowing During the Bush Years - Deeper and Deeper - New York Times
Deeper and Deeper

There is fresh evidence, if any more were needed, that excessive borrowing during the Bush years will make the nation poorer.

For most of the past five and a half years, interest rates have been low, allowing the government to borrow more and more — to cut taxes while fighting two expensive wars — without having to shoulder higher interest payments.

That’s over now. For the first time during President Bush’s tenure, the government’s interest bill is expected to rise in 2006, from $184 billion in 2005 to $220 billion this year, up nearly 20 percent. That increase — $36 billion — makes interest the fastest-growing component of federal spending, and continued brisk growth is likely. According to projections by Congress’s budget office, the interest bill will grow to $249 billion in 2007, and $270 billion in 2008.

All of that is money the government won’t have available to spend on other needs and priorities. And much of it won’t even be recycled back into the United States economy. That’s because borrowing from foreign countries has exploded during the Bush years. In 2005, the government paid about $77 billion in interest to foreign creditors in China, Japan and elsewhere.

And that’s not the worst of it. While foreign investors were putting up most of the $1.5 trillion the federal government has borrowed since 2001, they were also snapping up hundreds of billions of dollars in private sector securities, transactions that have been a big source of the easy money that allowed Americans to borrow heavily against their homes.

The result, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, is that for the first time in at least 90 years, the United States is now paying noticeably more to foreign creditors than it receives from its investments abroad. That is a momentous shift. It means that a growing share of America’s future collective income will flow abroad, leading to a lower standard of living in the United States than would otherwise have been achieved. Americans deserve better than this financial mess.