June 30, 2006

Abject Failure in the Parliament of Whores

Steve Sack, June 28, 2006
© 2006, Steve Sack and Minneapolis Star Tribune
In 1991, political satirist P.J. O’Rourke penned a book entitled Parliament of Whores about the wastefulness and stupidity endemic to the United States Congress. Written as it was at the end of the Reagan Era, it is still more than merely a paen to that president’s desire to “get government off the backs of the people;” it is – or at least it has been up until recently – a sort of universal guide for what to expect out of Washington, DC, and it skewered both Democrats and the GOP. In this modern period of single party federal rule however, it’s not hard to imagine even O’Rourke wishing for the days when the faults of Congress and the President were merely amplified by the system in which they worked, rather than threatening the very foundation of the nation.

As anyone who had a middle school civics class remembers, the legislative, judicial and executive branches of the government are set up so that each both limits and counters the powers of the other two through an architecture called “checks and balances.” Today however, Congress has almost completely abdicated its role, while President Bush has claimed powers for himself more at home in a monarchy than in a representative democracy.

Mr. Bush has vetoed precisely zero pieces of legislation passed by Congress, which is unprecedented for a commander in chief in his sixth year in office. Even when he has threatened a veto unless Congress meets certain budget requirements, the nation's chief executive has still approved 100% of the bills that Congress has sent him, whether or not they have met those conditions, and no matter what outrages they contain.

Is it because Congress is now sending the President bills with which he agrees entirely? No, it is not. Instead, Mr. Bush has perverted the original intent of something called a signing statement to effectively refuse to enforce elements of legislation that he signs into law, but with which he disagrees.

To date, President Bush has claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 separate laws, ranging in subject from the shielding of whistle-blowers to protection from political interference for scientific research to prohibitions on torture. Worse, Mr. Bush has failed to properly inform Congress of a string of civil liberties-abridging programs that the legislature should be overseeing, such as rendition of terrorism suspects to foreign countries for interrogation, warrantless NSA surveillance of domestic phone calls and most recently, the tracking of international monetary movement through SWIFT. As Constitutional law scholar Jonathan Turley states, it’s getting damned hard to figure out exactly “what the President thought he was swearing to when he took the oath of office to uphold the Constitution and our laws.”

Compounding the President’s misapprehension of his powers under the Constitution is the fact that the Republican-controlled Congress has thoroughly abdicated its oversight role. In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has cobbled together a shameless piece of legislation that would morph the current legal requirement for the president to consult the FISA Court on all clandestine surveillance with national security implications into simply an “option” with retroactive amnesty for any and all who had broken the law up until now.

While Specter’s latest betrayal of the American people is still only in the “proposed legislation” category, yesterday, the House followed his craven example and rammed through a resolution declaring that oversight had taken place on the SWIFT financial surveillance and condemning the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal for reporting on it.

That’s right: Despite the fact that there has been zero documented oversight on this program, the Republicans forced passage of a resolution stating that there had been oversight, that the program was just fine and dandy from a constitutional perspective, and that those who reported on the lack of oversight were enemies of Mr. Bush’s “War on Terror.”

We have now officially entered territory in which the word “Orwellian” applies to the here and now, and not to some future state we hope to avoid. We have left the relative innocence of patronage, corruption and wastefulness which we can normally expect to ascribe to Congress, for an uncertain future in which the fundamental system of government in the United States is profoundly threatened.

This is not alarmism. This is fact.

Whether you agree with the policies of this president or not, if this Republican-held Congress will not do it’s job and you cherish the form of government that makes this nation special and unique, it is high time to throw the bastards out.

Congress’s function is not to serve as presidential lap dog. Remember that in November.

June 27, 2006

Terrorists at the Grey Lady?

New York Times Building
Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory has a piece that should be required reading on the furor over the New York Times' recent story about the Bush Administration's secret monitoring of financial transactions.

In his usual thorough fashion, Glenn systematically destroys the arguments of those who claim that the "War on Terror" has been undermined by the Times, and proves that, in fact, the paper has reported on nothing that Bush & Co. have not themselves trumpeted in the past. In so doing, he shows these critics for what they really are: proponents of a belief that the interests of the Bush White House and the interests of the country are synonymous; people who fundamentally misunderstand the role of the press in American society.


June 26, 2006

Is There a Project Manager in the House?

After weekend reports that General George Casey had developed a plan for drawing down U.S. troop levels in Iraq, the Bush Administration has stated that the plan is not "engraved in stone," and is only one element of potential scenario building. Democrats reacted angrily for having been labeled "cut and run" by Republicans in the House and in the Senate last week when they proposed a similar course of action, and wondered aloud whether the GOP would now label the U.S. military in the same way.

Joe Gandelman over at The Moderate Voice has an excellent piece about the nature of this story, and the likelihood that it is a carefully orchestrated and "official" leak from the White House potentially tied to the midterm elections, so I won't belabor that point here. However, what remains stunning to me is that there is still no discussion of the specific conditions that will allow withdrawal. Troop levels are mentioned, along with an admonishment that force reductions will be dictated by conditions on the ground, but again there are zero specifics in the public debate.

As I stated in my last post, without success criteria, it is impossible to tell whether or not this, or any other plan is achieving the goals for which it was designed. Absent milestone metrics, General Casey could just as easily announce that the U.S. will be bringing 100% of its troops home by July 4th as long as "conditions on the ground" support it. Of course we know that conditions on the ground would have to execute a miraculous turnaround to allow anything like an Independence Day homecoming, but unless we can truly tie force draw-downs to interim goals, such a bold scheme is no less substantive than Casey's reported plan.

Management guru Tom Peters coined a phrase that has taken solid hold among operations managers in private industry: "What gets measured gets done." Clearly the Bush Administration is not going to talk about how to measure the criteria for American withdrawal from Iraq, and drawing from that rule of thumb, our expectations for the level of actual execution should be commensurately low. This is fertile ground for the Democrats, who should spend less time on non-binding resolutions, and more on specific plans of action.

June 23, 2006

Policy by Underpants Gnome

On Thursday, the Senate defeated two pieces of legislation aimed at getting American troops out of Iraq.

The first was an amendment offered by Senator John Kerry to put into law a plan to start withdrawing combat forces immediately and complete the process by next July. It failed on a vote of 86-13. The second was a nonbinding resolution widely supported by Democrats that urged President Bush to begin withdrawing troops this year, but that did not set a deadline for completion. It too, failed - albeit more narrowly - 60-39.

As usual, both the Republicans and the Democrats railed at each other, with the former accusing the latter of wanting to “cut and run” (the new GOP catchphrase heading into the midterm elections), and the latter villifying the former for blindly following the president while ignoring the will of the people. The Democrats have at least got the fundamental issue right: there is an unquestionable need for a concrete plan to end the occupation of Iraq, but they would have an even stronger case if they didn't appear to be leaping straight for withdrawal without defining interim milestones to which the public can subscribe.

Although 53% of Americans responding to a recent CNN poll believe a timetable for getting out of Iraq needs to be set, advocating a withdrawal date without a plan for achieving it is clearly unsupportable either from a military standpoint or a public policy one. The question of exactly how to go about bringing our troops home remains unanswered - at least in the public forum - and most people recognize both the need for a plan and the debt we have incurred to the nation of Iraq by effectively tearing it down.

The public needs to understand exactly what advocating withdrawal means. Are we really willing to throw up our hands and simply leave, no matter what is happening in Iraq at the time and no matter the longer-term consequences? Or are we going to lay out some interim conditions that must be met, and stay longer than our originally-stated withdrawal date if things are not as we believe they have to be?

As incomplete as these calls for withdrawal from Iraq are, the Democrats are at least asking the right questions. The GOP’s position that we need to “stay the course” is patently ridiculous. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results,” and clearly that maxim holds here. Despite some small victories like the recent killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, three years after the U.S. rolled into Baghdad, Iraq’s infrastructure remains in shambles, sectarian violence is on the rise, bombings and executions are daily events, and American troops continue to be killed and injured.

Staying the course isn’t so much a plan as an episode of South Park; specifically the episode entitled “Underpants Gnomes,” in which one of the characters is terrorized by nighttime visits from gnomes who steal his underwear. When one of the creatures is captured and asked why he is purloining skivvies, the gnome responds that it is all part of a grand plan, the constituent elements of which are:

Phase 1 – Collect underpants
Phase 2 - ?
Phase 3 – Profit

When it is pointed out to the gnome that Phase 2 is missing, he is momentarily at a loss, but then enthusiastically repeats the mantra “Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 3: Profit!” Substitute “Stay the course” and “Achieve victory!” respectively, and the parallels to the stupidity of current policy are evident. Phase 2 is “Plan strategic withdrawal based on defined goals,” and as with the Underpants Gnomes, it’s clearly absent.

Why aren’t we talking about what, specifically, needs to happen for our armed forces to leave Iraq? “We’ll stand down as they stand up” – yet another GOP talking point – is nothing more than an empty slogan. What does it mean for Iraqis to “stand up”?

In other words, how many fully trained and equipped brigades of functioning Iraqi military do there need to be before the country's armed forces are deemed self-sufficient? How far does the daily rate of suicide bombing and sectarian murder have to fall before we believe Iraqis can handle the situation? How many barrels of oil does Iraq need to be pumping each day so that the U.S. can stop pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the country? During what percentage of the day will there be available electricity to the citizens of Iraq before we call the infrastructure sound?

Why is no one talking about success criteria or at least criteria for moving to a new phase of the American occupation? What are the specific steps toward getting our troops home? If this information exists, why isn’t it part of the public discourse?

Given the negligence shown by the Bush Administration in prosecuting the Iraq War, the Democrats have a solid and obvious case for redeploying our troops out of Iraq. To be taken seriously however, they need to start filling in the details and fleshing out the concept of withdrawal to create a substantive policy. Doing so would not only get the U.S. out of its current role as occupying force, it would nullify the Republican's "cut and run" rhetoric, and further expose the Bush Administration for its clueless worship of ideology over fact.

June 20, 2006

Personal Belief and Professional Obligation

Plan B

According to an editorial in The Washington Post, the House of Representatives inserted a provision into the most recent defense authorization bill designed to ensure that evangelical Christian military chaplains are permitted to pray in Jesus’ name during public ceremonies. Cooler heads in the Senate are debating their own version of the bill - minus this provision - but given the pressure applied by evangelical groups to get it included in the House edition, there is every chance that this will become the latest shred of “evidence” in the supposed “War on Christianity.”

Military policy through the years has wisely kept public and mandatory ceremonies non-denominational, recognizing that not only are there significant numbers of non-Christians in our armed forces, but that there are Christians who are embarrassed by the proselytizing of their, at times, over-enthusiastic brethren. Those entering the military to serve as chaplains are, and have been, fully aware that they will be ministering to a diverse flock, but the public justification for the House provision is that evangelicals who cannot preach in the name of Jesus Christ are restricted in their faith, and that that’s religious discrimination.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is an exact parallel to what is currently taking place with regard to some pharmacists and the so-called Plan B emergency contraceptive. Plan B is effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but a recent survey indicates that a strong majority of pharmacists believe they should have the authority to refuse to fill a legal, doctor-authorized, time-sensitive prescription if their “beliefs” would be in conflict with providing the drug.

Leaving for a moment, the fact that it would seem as if those opposed to abortion – as these pharmacists almost universally are - would logically want to provide tools to women anxious to avoid unwanted pregnancies, this is a truly frightening statistic. In a nutshell, it means that someone standing behind the counter of your local Target can not only trample all over your rights as a patient, but can do so in a way that negates treatment. (See this recent personal account, by a 42-year-old working mother of two, on the consequences of making emergency contraception unavailable.)

The idea that someone’s religious beliefs can trump my right to find solace in my own organized faith (if I have one) or my access to legal medical care is, in a word, ludicrous.

The role of a pharmacist is to fill legal prescriptions accurately, ensure that harmful drug interactions do not take place, and answer questions about things like side effects and the consequences of missed doses. This is clear from the moment one enters pharmacology school - or at least it should be – and it should be even more clear that the job of pharmacist does not include a requirement that one’s customers be judged morally. If it is otherwise, then pharmacist Tom Cruise could refuse prescription medication to women suffering post-partum depression – which can lead to infanticide in the worst cases – because of his Scientologist beliefs.

Likewise, military chaplains are present to provide religious support to members or the armed services who want it, no matter what denomination those service people are. The last thing a soldier seeking strength to go into battle or minister to fallen comrades needs is someone in a position of authority calling into question his belief system. The U.S. armed forces, like public schools, courts and government institutions as a whole, simply should not be used for proselytizing, period.

Questions are now being asked about the rights of the pharmacist versus the rights of the patient, as well as the rights of the chaplain versus the rights of the service person of another denomination, and where the boundaries of these respective rights meet. But this supposes that the question even needs to be asked, and if this tactic of “selective professional obligation on moral grounds” is given credence, it’s not hard to imagine a Muslim applying for a position in a slaughterhouse that kills pigs, and then claiming that his religious freedom is being violated because he is expected to touch swine.

Simply put, if you can’t do the job, don’t apply for it, and don’t pursue it as a profession. "Pharmacist's rights" and "chaplain's rights" clearly represent the cusp of a very slippery slope, and are yet more reason that religion, faith, spirituality or whatever one decides to call it, should remain a personal matter rather than a public one.

June 16, 2006

Keeping Hidden the Human Cost of War

Coffins at Dover Air Force Base
Wednesday was Flag Day in the United States, a holiday that celebrates one of the most prevalent, popular and important symbols of our nation. To mark the occasion, National Public Radio broadcast a story about the dozen or more states that currently mark the burial of service people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying the flag at half mast.

Personally, I am astonished that so few states perform this act of memoriam, even on a limited basis, but apparently, lowering the flag to half staff to acknowledge war dead is actually fraught with controversy.

On the one hand, there are those who seem to legitimately believe that states do not have authority to lower the national banner on their own (like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom) but then there are also others who have divergent reasons. The NPR story cited one veteran who felt that flying the flag at half mast was both unfair and unnecessary because it hadn’t been done for soldiers killed in previous wars, and because we already honor members of the armed forces on Memorial Day and on Veterans Day. The NPR story also stated that there are those who oppose lowering the flag because they see it as a protest against the war. (Although no one in the NPR story who represented that view was quoted.)

The Flag Code, as I understand it, allows for a fair amount of flexibility in flying the Stars and Stripes at half staff, but it is open to interpretation, and if a governor or mayor or similar figure honestly believes that he or she doesn’t have authority to lower the flag, I suppose that’s at least bureaucratically defensible, if potentially not morally. Claiming however, that individual acknowledgement of fallen soldiers is unnecessary, unfair, or political however, strikes me as cowardly and disingenuous.

The claim that it’s unfair to fallen veterans of previous wars to fly the flag at half mast in honor of individual burials is a weak argument, and for most people, probably obviously so. Just ask any woman if it’s unfair to women who died before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution that she has the vote, and if she thinks she should give up that right because women didn’t have it in the past. Or ask a black man if he thinks he should return to slave status because his ancestors lived and died prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

As I said: weak.

Further, the idea that we should limit our observance of the sacrifices made by our service men and women to Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and – oh, what the heck – Independence Day, strikes me as both unpatriotic and crass. Considering how much we really do owe the men and women in the uniforms of our armed forces, and considering how much they give up to serve, and considering also how little they get back and how much they lose in many cases, this position is pretty hard to support.

Might these two weak positions then, be masking something else?

My contention is that they are proxies – weak proxies, but proxies – for opposition to using the flag to call attention to the cost of the War in Iraq. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been “luxury wars,” barely impinging on the lives of ordinary Americans unless they happen to be watching the news or have a family member in the service. There is no rationing, there is no hardship (the climb in gas prices is relatively recent and tied to Iraq only indirectly, if at all), and there is no draft. And for these reasons, this ill-advised war of choice has been allowed to continue as it has. There is little pressure on our leadership to withdraw our troops (leaving aside the geopolitical implications thereof, for now) that they cannot ignore.

Imagine however, if we actually could see photographs of the flag-draped caskets containing the mortal remains of the young men and young women who have died in combat. (The Bush Administration has specifically prohibited the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases.) Imagine if, every time one of those men and women were buried, the flag was lowered to half mast. Might we not at least notice the blood we are spending? Might we not be forced to consider what we’re letting our elected officials do?

Yesterday, we passed the grim milestone of 2,500 Americans dead in Iraq, but even that number – small as it may be relative to lives lost in wars like Vietnam – is just a number. It’s an abstract concept that doesn’t really register with people, even though an equivalent loss on my own personal level would be if everyone in my high school class, as well the five that followed mine, were killed.

Because (to borrow a phrase) a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic, what is needed to appreciate the true cost of war, unfortunately, is personalized loss. Lowering the flag to half mast when a soldier is killed meets that criterion, as do photographs of coffins swathed in Old Glory, and that is why those who have supported the War in Iraq oppose both.

While the House of Representatives today passed a resolution along party lines wrapping the Iraq conflict into the so-called “War on Terror” and rejecting a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal, pro-war congressmen postured for the cameras. Representative John Murtha, however, got it right, noting that it’s “easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say, 'I'm going to stay the course,’” adding "That's why I get so upset when they stand here sanctimoniously and say we're fighting this thing. It's the troops that are doing the fighting."

Which leads me to what I believe are the questions we should be asking: Would this war of choice be allowed to continue if the human cost were more visible? And if it’s necessary to hide and depersonalize the life lost for this “cause,” can this cause truly be said to be worthy? Is remembering, honoring and keeping track of those who have been killed following the orders of people who represent us "political"?

I think the answer to all of the above is “no.”

June 12, 2006

Governing by Conviction vs. Governing by Polls

President George W. Bush

Increasingly, as President Bush's approval ratings have continued their southward slide, there has been a call from his most ardent supporters - often I believe, the mythical "values voters" who admire Mr. Bush's "steadfastness" and "resolution" - to admire him for governing by his convictions rather than by poll numbers. This is a false set of alternatives however, implying that there is no middle ground, and worse, that there are no additional options.

The president is elected to represent the people of the United States, which entails both guiding the country as it’s commander in chief and reflecting the will and interests of the citizenry through policy. The problem with President Bush is that he has been wholly focused on the first, and has actively avoided any semblance of addressing the second. Worse, in regard to his position as commander in chief, he has disregarded changing realities on the ground both domestically and internationally, and has ignored inputs that would make his overall goals more viable.

A president should certainly have convictions, but he (or she) must also realize that the world is not some cartoon realm of good and evil; it is instead merely full of people, many of whom have widely divergent viewpoints and vested interests. The president must understand that, while convictions are an excellent method for framing goals and policies, adaptation and the ability to absorb new data are also crucial.

President Bush’s approach has been to act as if the world is as he wants it, rather than as it is. His view of reality on Wednesday is the same as it was on Monday, no matter what happens on Tuesday. (To borrow a phrase from Steven Colbert.) And while that may be fine in certain other aspects of life, it is a recipe for disaster for any kind of leader.

The well-deserved criticism of President Bush is that he has displayed terrible incompetence rooted in an arrogance that he knows what's best, despite anything those who know more than he does may have to say, and despite what goes on around him. Just because someone – whether it be the president or the man in the street – believes something to be true (in other words, has a conviction) doesn’t mean he’s right or even effective. It is not a question of “convictions” versus “governing by polls”; it is rather one of objective, clear-headed deliberation versus emotional, wishing thinking based on ignorance.

And that brings us to the real question: Should this president - or any president for that matter - not develop his strategy from the widest possible array of data and expertise, adjusting his tactics to fit a changing world, rather than form and pursue both based on preconceived notions that have failed when tested in reality?