John McCain was on Letterman Wednesday night and announced (or pre-announced) that he’s running for president. There was a moment a few years back when I felt pretty good about McCain. You know: stand-up guy, moderate, rational, independent thinker, as demonstrated by his willingness to go against Bush, Cheney and company on the issue of the United States employing torture against detainees enemy combatants. McCain managed to rally veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress for his anti-torture bill and got Bush to publicly acquiesce and sign the thing. Here’s what’s strange about that story, though, and a hint about what’s wrong with McCain’s quest for the presidency: He uttered not a whisper of public protest when news reports disclosed that Bush had appended a signing statement to the new law that said, essentially, the executive branch would enforce it as it saw fit.

Why would McCain not raise a fuss about that? It’s as if, having made his principled stand, having won his public relations victory, he couldn’t be bothered with confronting Bush’s designs to thwart his work. It’s as if the only way he can imagine becoming president is to be part of the team that’s running things now.

And then, of course, there’s Iraq. McCain not only supports the “surge,” a piece of window dressing designed to buy time, but he has long called for the United States to send a far larger force into Iraq. That’s his answer to the Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney “mismanagement” of the war–an American army big enough to bang heads together and “create the conditions” for peace. I’ll give Letterman credit: He left off fawning long enough to ask McCain a hypothetical question that was at least as probing as what he’d get from the likes of Tim Russert or Katie Couric:

“The country of Iraq is stabilized, the government is now, as you described, stabilized, the violence is now significantly reduced; the net benefit to the United States, beyond Americans have stopped losing their lives there, is what?”

To which McCain responded:

“Probably that we have a functioning democracy or a government that will become a democracy, that there will be oil revenues which will then be used by the Iraqis to build up there own country. And maybe it will spread in the region. You know, there are really only two democracies in the region, Israel and the other is Turkey, in the whole region, and obviously we would like to see that.

“I think I know what you’re getting at, and that is should we have gone in in the first place. There was massive intelligence failures and books have been written about the mismanagement of the war, and I would recommend ‘Fiasco’ and ‘Cobra Two’ or one of these other books. But we are where we are now–we are where we are now–and rather than reviewing all the problems we have, if we withdraw early, every expert I know says it will descend into chaos, sectarian violence and even genocide, so that’s why when I say this may be our last chance to succeed, because Americans are very frustrated and they have every right to be. We’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives, over there.”

So, part one of the answer is the same old fairy tale: If we try hard enough, we’ll turn Iraq into a functioning democracy or start the evolutionary process toward democracy in motion (hey, a Republican who believes in evolution!). And maybe it will spread to the other benighted corners of the Middle East, like those governed by our closest Arab allies.

Part two is also getting to be an old saw: If we withdraw, there will be unimaginable violence (senator, check your morning paper). In short, this is the same answer we’d get from Bush, complete with occasional signs of the same fractured syntax (though I note that McCain slipped and said American lives have been wasted in Iraq, which is a heresy among the true believers; if some Democrat had said that, Fox News and the whole right-wing opinion mob would be flaying them alive, the mainstream media would be picking up on it, and a mealy-mouthed clarification/apology would be in the works).

The bottom line is nuts: We’re gonna fight our way out of this, only smarter this time. Don’t ask what it costs, because we can’t afford to fail.

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A Reminder: What We Know

Q. What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time [on Iran supplying IEDs to Iraqi insurgents] will be accurate?

THE PRESIDENT: Ed, we know they’re there, we know they’re provided by the Quds force. We know the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. I don’t think we know who picked up the phone and said to the Quds force, go do this, but we know it’s a vital part of the Iranian government.

What does President Bush know, and when does he know it? It matters because, despite his insistence that he’s not spoiling for a war with Iran, the things he knows tend to take on a life of their own and consequences for everyone else. So: A look back at what the administration presented as fact during its campaign to launch the war in Iraq. The speaker unless otherwise noted is Bush; the source is

August 26, 2002 (Vice President Cheney): Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.

September 26, 2002: We know that the Iraqi regime is led by a dangerous and brutal man. We know he’s actively seeking the destructive technologies to match is hatred. We know he must be stopped. The dangers we face will only worsen from month to month and from year to year. To ignore these threats is to encourage them. And when they have fully materialized it may be too late to protect ourselves and our friends and our allies. By then the Iraqi dictator would have the means to terrorize and dominate the region. Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX — nerve gas — or some day a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally.”

November 7, 2002: Well, I think most people around the world realize that Saddam Hussein is a threat. And they — no one likes war, but they also don’t like the idea of Saddam Hussein having a nuclear weapon. Imagine what would happen. And by the way, we don’t know how close he is to a nuclear weapon right now. We know he wants one. But we don’t know. We know he was close to one at one point in time; we have no idea today.

January 28, 2003: From three Iraqi defectors we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents, and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities. He’s given no evidence that he has destroyed them.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

The dictator of Iraq is not disarming. To the contrary; he is deceiving. From intelligence sources we know, for instance, that thousands of Iraqi security personnel are at work hiding documents and materials from the U.N. inspectors, sanitizing inspection sites and monitoring the inspectors themselves.

March 6, 2003: We care about the suffering of the Iraqi people. I mentioned in my opening comments that there’s a lot of food ready to go in. There’s something like 55,000 oil-for-food distribution points in Iraq. We know where they are. We fully intend to make sure that they’re — got ample food. We know where their hospitals are; we want to make sure they’ve got ample medical supplies. The life of the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve.

March 15, 2003: We know from prior weapons inspections that Saddam has failed to account for vast quantities of biological and chemical agents, including mustard agent, botulinum toxin and sarin, capable of killing millions of people. We know the Iraqi regime finances and sponsors terror.

April 12, 2003: As people throughout Iraq celebrate the arrival of freedom, America celebrates with them. We know that freedom is the gift of God to all mankind, and we rejoice when others can share it.

April 22, 2003 (Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary): Q But the primary motivation behind going into Iraq, at least as expressed by the administration at the time, was the danger presented by Saddam holding these WMDs. Even if they did not exist, does the administration think that going into Iraq was the right thing to do?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can’t share the premise. We know they exist and we’re confident they will be found.

Continue reading “A Reminder: What We Know”


Saddam Hussein is gone. He got his, the just deserts for 30 years of brutality and tyranny, violence and oppression unleashed against his own people and anyone else within reach. By this point, everyone knows the big irony: The tyrant brought low by us, the nation that once upon a time saw fit to encourage his designs–as long as those designs injured a common enemy and didn’t rebound against us.

Ancient history. And now, the morbid fascination of Saddam’s departure. The New York Times says that part of the pre-hanging procedure involved preparing a “red card” to inform the condemned man he was about to be executed. The red card is part of the vengeance exacted on Saddam, as his regime reportedly invented the practice of presenting the notices to the thousands it condemned to death.

So Saddam hangs. Surely, there’s some kind of justice in that–even if only the score-settling kind that Iraqi Shiites and others Saddam suppressed will savor. But after Saddam? It’s difficult to believe his execution matters much in a large sense; that it will end extinguish a dire threat to the world or bring peace or freedom to Iraq or do much to assuage the victims of his crimes.

And his crimes: Beyond ruling by fear and murder, he launched wars that visited untold suffering on people inside and outside Iraq. He aspired to the part of regional power broker, and player on the world stage, and in a sense got his wish. He became our president’s Public Enemy No. 1, and Bush is said to have the pistol Saddam was carrying when he was captured, mounted and on display in his private White House office. And look at the headlines now: Not just any two-bit gangster gets this kind of attention when he takes a fall.

The one thing you can say for Saddam at the end, though: He was held to account for his crimes and paid the price. Not to equate the actions of Bush & Co. to Saddam’s; I can express my opinion and go to sleep without fearing much what the next day may bring. But I wonder whether Bush and the people around him–those who led us into a war that has little to show for it beyond hanging Saddam Hussein–will ever be held to account for their deceit, for their violation of trust, for the lives and treasure they’ve thrown away,

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Saturday Night’s Alright for Dribbling

Why Do You Call It MAY-Hee-Koh? Lydell points out a query posed to the Chicago Tribune’s lingo expert:

Q. Why do Americans pronounce Chicago with a “sh” sound at the beginning (as in “she”), instead of a “ch” (as in “chick”)? You might have noticed that Spanish speakers, even bilingual speakers (such as myself) make a very clear distinction between the CH sound and the SH sound. My lips refuse to conform to anything but a “Chick-ah-go” pronunciation.

— Stephanie Pringhipakis Guijarro, Chicago

To his possible credit, the Tribune guy ignores the multicultural preciousness behind the question and answers it seriously. I would have been tempted to respond. “Dear Stephanie: Where the heck did those people down in México come up with that voiceless velar fricative pronunciation for the X: MAY-hee-koh? What’s with that strange-o accent and wild vowels? You may have noticed Americans (such as myself) say “MeKSiko.” My Midwestern lips (actually, the back of my tongue and my soft palate) absolutely refuse to pronounce X as anything but the most excellent consonant cluster “ks” (except in all the many exceptional cases, such as the “gz” in “exit”). P.S. What’s a ‘Pringhipakis’?”

Doubts Answered:
By way of Steve Downey, fellow cyclist and connoisseur of notable sports names, we encounter Lucious Pusey, a linebacker with Eastern Illinois University. Maybe I should say former linebacker, because Pusey reportedly changed his name and the EIU roster now shows him as Lucious Seymour. Mr. Seymour-Pusey’s name has been the subject of frequent blog-based chortling; I join in the chorus only for the most noble of reasons: because I told someone this story and they dared to doubt me.

Blogger Embed: There’s lots of talk about bloggers being the future of journalism, but it’s rare at this point to find bloggers trying to tackle real reporting. An exception: Bill Roggio, a blogger who has embedded with U.S. military units in the past and has just gone back to Iraq to do it again. He’s unattached to any news organization, and his trip is funded by readers. I kicked in 25 bucks despite the fact I’m not in love with his hawkish take on the war. But I think it’s worth supporting anyone willing to put themselves on the line to report independently (or as independently as possible in a situation where staying alive means staying with the troops).

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Engaged in a Great Verbal War

The PBS NewsHour this evening featured another round of “Iraq: Is It a Civil War or Not? And If It Is, What Difference Does It Make?” (The game will never take off with a title like that.)

On hand was Donald Kagan, a history professor from Yale. He started out by saying that he felt the discussion–is it or isn’t it?–is “frivolous.” Check.

Then he went on to say he feels the debate over what to call the conflict is “a calculated effort on the part of those people who would like to see the United States flee from its responsibilities in Iraq to use a term that is more frightening, more dangerous-sounding than simply the kind of uprising that they’ve been dealing with and decide that it’s a civil war in order to make it a more frightening prospect to try to win this thing and persuade Americans that it’s hopeless and they should go away.”

A “civil war” is more frightening than what we’ve been dealing with? The discussion has been ginned up by people who want the United States to flee its responsibilities? Here’s an alternative theory, respectfully submitted to Dr. Kagan: Maybe people are just trying to understand what the heck it is we are involved in. The people who were putatively responsible for knowing what they were getting us all into have demonstrated they had less than no idea what to expect in Iraq and have been incapable of telling the truth about it for going on four years now. Maybe once we have some understanding of the situation–if it’s not too late for that–maybe we can decide whether the instinct to pack up and leave is sound or not.

Eventually, the “NewsHour” interviewer got around to lobbing Kagan a real softball. Something along the lines of, “Professor, does this kind of semantic argument happen in every war?” Kagan’s answer:

“The best historical example that jumps into my mind is the American Civil War, which I don’t remember anyone calling it that during the time. The South referred to it as the War Between the States to suggest they were within their rights in breaking away from the other states, and up here in Connecticut we referred to it as the rebellion of 1861. And it’s that sort of thing that’s characterized this kind of issue throughout history.”

What jumped into my mind when I heard Kagan say that was the phrase, “We are now engaged in a great civil war.” He’s right that “anyone” did not say that. Lincoln did, in the Gettysburg Address, which he sure enough made “during the time.” Somewhere or other, someone can tell us the very first time the term civil war was used to describe that conflict; it’s doubtful Lincoln was the first.

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Mr. Flight Suit

Link: Bush Draws Iraq Lesson From Vietnam – New York Times.

Our president is not lacking for audacity. Or for rocks in his head. He’s in Vietnam and, by way of promoting his administration’s most important product, its Iraq disaster, presumes to even mention a war that he made damned sure he was no part of. The lession of Vietnam, Mr. Mission Accomplished says, is that "we’ll succeed unless we quit." Not that it matters–we”re Americans, and we’re exceptional folks who don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks–but you wonder what the Vietnamese think about the president’s analysis (one that leaps over the facts of what happened over there; but then again, Bush and facts and his Iraq strategery have never been seen in the same room, either).

‘You’re Doing a Heckuva Job’–Rumsfeld/Cheney Edition

Bush came out the other day to tell the world that Rumsfeld and Cheney are his guys for the rest of his term. No disaster they author is too large for the president to send them on a permanent vacation. Translation, by way of my brother John: “You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Dick and Rummy.” So now: How long before one of them–Rumsfeld, because the only way Cheney’s going down is if Darth Vader throws him into the Death Star’s reactor core (or whatever that was in “Return of the Jedi”)–is sent packing.

Maybe not long. Check out the Army Times editorial urging Bush to get rid of Rumsfeld:

‘So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion … it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth.’

“That statement was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Marguerite Higgins more than a half-century ago during the Korean War.

“But until recently, the ‘hard bruising’ truth about the Iraq war has been difficult to come by from leaders in Washington.

“One rosy reassurance after another has been handed down by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: ‘mission accomplished,’ the insurgency is ‘in its last throes,’ and ‘back off,’ we know what we’re doing, are a few choice examples. …” (Read the rest.)

Score one for the reality-based community,

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This and This and This and That

John Kerry: You know, a quip that requires a half hour of set up and 72 hours of explanation–it ain’t a quip. Please: Go away, dismal man. Let us remember you as you were in your finest hour: Conceding defeat.

Cruz Bustamante: It’s flattering to California voters that the first words out of your mouth in your campaign spots are, “I was really fat.” Yes, if you don’t live here, you’re missing a real treat: A career pol–he’s a Democrat, for the record–term limited out of his spot at the trough (lieutenant governor) and snuffling and snarfling his way toward another (state insurance commissioner). How ironic to compare him to a swine swilling down slops, because he’s basing his appeal to voters on the fact he went on a diet and lost 70 pounds. It all connects with his hunger to serve the public because he says he promised his family he’d lose the weight, and he did; and now, he’s promising to help us all get cheaper insurance–and he’ll keep that promise, too. If the Republican in the race–Steve Poizner–is not a serial murderer, I may vote for him. (One of the Bustamante ads, on YouTube, is below).

And then there’s David Brooks: His op-ed column in today’s New York Times (you’ve got to be a paid subscriber to get it online, so no link). This former gung-ho Iraq war supporter decides, three years, 7 months, and 14 days into the enterprise (not that anyone’s counting) that it might be a good idea to study up on the history of Iraq to see whether it offers any clues about the challenges the project poses. And–zounds!–it does:

“Policy makers are again considering fundamental chnges in our Iraq poliicy, but as they do I hope they read Elie Dedourie’s essay, ‘The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect.’

“Kedourie, a Baghdad-born Jew, published the essay in 1970. It’s a history of the regime the British helped establish over 80 years ago, but it captures an idea that is truer now than ever: Disorder is endemic to Iraq. Today’s crisis is not three years old. It’s worse now, but the crisis is perpetual. This is a bomb of a nation.”

Later, Brooks quotes Kedourie’s view of the nation’s political future: “‘Either the country would be plunged into chaos or its population should become universally the clients and dependents of an omnipotent but capricious and unstable government.’ There is, he wrote, no third alternative.”

“An omnipotent but capricious and unstable government.” Saddam, anyone?

Despite the finality of Kedourie’s view, Brooks complacently describes the alternatives he sees open to the United States now. Make one last effort to pacify Baghdad–thus, he apparently believes, pouring oil on the restive countryside. Acknowledging that probably won’t pan out, he says Iraq ought to cease to exist.

“It will be time to effectively end Iraq, with a remaining fig-leaf central government or not. It will be time to radically diffuse authority down to the only communities that are viable–the clan, tribe or sect.”

But guess what? Brooks says we’ll still be there–apparently forever. Our “muscular presence” will be needed to “nurture civilized democratic societies that reject extremism and terror.” Uh, yeah, just what the doctor ordered: Having the troops referee the contest among the clans, tribes and sects. Someone needs to give Brooks something else to read to give him a clue about how that’s turning out.

(He might start in his own paper, which features a front-page story today on a combat medic and one of his patients, “Tending a Fallen Marine, with Skill, Prayer and Fury.”

“Petty Officer [Dustin] Kirby, 22, is a Navy corpsman, the trauma medic assigned to Second Mobile Assault Platoon of Weapons Company, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines. Everyone calls him Doc. He had just finished treating a marine who had been shot by an Iraqi sniper.

“ ‘It was 7.62 millimeter,’ he continued. ‘Armor piercing.’

“He reached into his pocket and retrieved the bullet, which he had found. ‘The impact with the Kevlar stopped most of it,’ he said. ‘But it tore through, hit his head, went through and came out.’

“He put the bullet in his breast pocket, to give to an intelligence team later. Sweat kept rolling off his face, mixed with tears. His voice was almost cracking, but he managed to control it and keep it deep. ‘When I got there, there wasn’t much I could do,’ he said.

“Then he nodded. He seemed to be talking to himself. ‘I kept him breathing,’ he said.”

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‘I Want My Neighbor’s Cow to Die’

George F. Will’s latest, on Iraq, by way of my brother John, who notes, “You know the jig is up when George Will sounds like Frank Rich.”

“Many months ago it became obvious to all but the most ideologically blinkered that America is losing the war launched to deal with a chimeric problem (an arsenal of WMD) and to achieve a delusory goal (a democracy that would inspire emulation, transforming the region). Last week the president retired his mantra ‘stay the course’ because it does not do justice to the nimbleness and subtlety of U.S. tactics for winning the war.

“A surreal and ultimately disgusting facet of the Iraq fiasco is the lag between when a fact becomes obvious and when the fiasco’s architects acknowledge that fact. Iraq’s civil war has been raging for more than a year; so has the Washington debate about whether it is what it is.”

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