My Afghanistan Reader: ‘Taliban in Total Rout’

President G.W. Bush in Aurora, Missouri, January 14, 2002:

“…I’m proud of the efforts of many all around our country who are working endless hours to make America safe. But the best way to make America safe is to hunt the enemy down where he tries to hide and bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

“I gave our military a mighty task, and they have responded. I want to thank those of you who have got relatives in the military, a brother or a sister, or a son or a daughter, or a mom or a dad. They have made me proud, and I hope they made you proud, as well.

“We sent the military on a clear mission, and that is to bring the evil ones to justice. It’s a mission, however, that I expanded to include this: that if you hide a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, if you provide aid and comfort for a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorist. That’s why the Taliban is no longer ruling Afghanistan.

“I think that one of the most joyous things for me is to see the faces of the Afghan women as they have been liberated from the oppression of the Taliban rule. Not only is our military destroying those who would harbor evil, destroying whatever military they had, destroying their defenses, but we’re liberators. We’re freeing women and children from incredible oppression.

“… The Taliban is in total rout. But we haven’t completed our mission yet. And we’re now at a very dangerous phase of the war in the first theater, and that is sending our boys and troops into the caves. You see, we’re fighting an enemy that’s willing to send others to death, suicide missions in the name of religion, and they, themselves, want to hide in caves.

“But you know something? We’re not going to tire. We’re not going to be impatient. We’re going to do whatever it takes to find them and bring them to justice. They think they can hide, but they’re not going to hide from the mighty reach of the United States and the coalition we have put together. …”

Speech delivered in the warehouse of the MFA Food Mill. Full text here.

The $25,000 Solution

As I’ve made annoyingly clear to most of my friends and acquaintances–the people who stand still long enough to hear me say a full sentence before looking for a safe exit–I have a simple, elegant answer to many of the intractable ills that plague America: poverty, a failing educational system, crime, the illicit drug trade, stagnant inner-city economies, the obesity epidemic.

Here it is: Let’s give $25,000 in cash, no strings attached, to each and every American who lives below the federally set poverty line (and no, I don’t care what your papers say: if you’re here, you’re an American). It’s a yearly payment until you don’t qualify anymore (and no, the payment does not count as income and wouldn’t disqualify you; only earnings independent of the poverty stipend count to get you out of poverty and off the program. We’re talking about cold, hard cash here: no bureaucrats wanted, no social engineers need apply for a grant.

I can hear the peals of outrage: You mean, just give all those poor people all that money? Just GIVE it to them? That’s crazy! They’ll spend it all on crack!

I answer unruffled: It may be nuts. And some of that nicely redesigned cash may be spent unwisely. But what we’re administering is the only weapon that’s proof against all the problems mentioned above. When confronted with difficulty, doubt or obstacles of any sort, the affluent in America utter slogans about values and steadfastness. As their words die on the wind, they wheel in their trusty artillery: the credit accounts and cash reserves. Meantime, we bleed little dribbles of cash into the lives of the poor, and all it does is keep them poor. Their poverty and all that accompanies it, from lousy health care to crappy schools, is tolerated with a wink of concern and a nod to reform, and little, very little, changes. It’s not that we don’t mean to do better. We do. Millions of people far better than me have dedicated their lives to improving life for others. I just think it’s time the rest of us, through our gigantic government ATM machine, got into the act.

Don’t think about the downside for the moment–where in the world will we get all that money?–think about the upside: First of all, an economic stimulus that would have groceries and big-box stores and banks and other services the rest of us take for granted fighting to get into neighborhoods they’ve shunned for generations; that stimulus would also have a far-reaching impact in creating new government revenue. Second, removing the principal motive and driver for most inner-city crime. Third, giving the have-nots some real clout about where they send their kids to school. Fourth, providing resources for community self-improvement projects.

Now about the cash. Spending that kind of dough should give us pause. Some recent statistics show that 37 million Americans live below the federal “poverty line.” Let’s round up to 40 million, since things haven’t gotten any easier in the year and a half since those numbers came out. Now if we gave each of our less fortunate fellow citizens 25 grand apiece–everyone in the family gets a payment, even the kids and the ex-cons who never graduated eighth grade–that comes to $1 trillion.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Over the last five or six years, we’ve been reminded of that repeatedly, especially when it comes to the government and money. Iraq: $550 billion and counting (that amounts to a $25,000 payment to every Iraqi–even the ones who don’t love us). The negative economic impact over the next generation is forecast to be as much as $3 trillion. Bush tax cuts: the total number is so high it will make your nose bleed, but the yearly cost if they’re made permanent is expected to be $400 billion. Then there’s the Year of the Bailout. It’s getting hard to keep track, but off the top of my head: $30 billion for Bear Stearns; Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac: $200 billion; Great Bailout of Ought-Eight: at least $700 billion. I feel like I’m forgetting a couple hundred billion somewhere.

Now, the architects of our tax cuts, wars, and financial mega-rescues say roughly the same thing in defending their handiwork: it’s all necessary for our prosperity, well-being, and national survival. I’ll make the same claim for my $25,000 Solution: It’s a prescription for the economic and social ailments that beset not only the 40 million people who live in poverty, but for the entire society that has failed in its efforts to address those ailments.

And really, after the Bush years, what could it hurt to try?

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‘Well Done, Good and Faithful Servants’

Seeing this headline–“Administration is Seeking $700 Billion for Wall Street Bailout“–and this one–“At Least 40 Are Killed in Blast at Pakistan Hotel“–I reflected briefly on how we got here. My quest took me to Bush II’s first State of the Union address, in 2001. The new president talked about a nation at peace, a government that enjoyed a sizable budget surplus, and how he would go about fixing all that. His stirring conclusion:

“We all came here for a reason. We all have things we want to accomplish and promises to keep. Juntos podemos — together we can.

“We can make Americans proud of their government. Together we can share in the credit of making our country more prosperous and generous and just, and earn from our conscience and from our fellow citizens the highest possible praise: Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Well done, indeed, Mr. President.

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Seed Spitting

As noted in previous years, the Fourth of July party here on Holly Street in beautiful, mostly unperturbed North Berkeley features a watermelon-seed spitting contest, complete with trophy. The contest features several different divisions — for “pros,” kids, novices, and seniors — and categories — distance, accuracy and “trick spitting.” The judges award colorful home-made ribbons to each participant.

Some time back there in the early ’90s, Kate and I did a trick spit that involved us pretending to spit seeds to each other in the midst of some faux acrobatics. And then we did theme spits; for instance, one honoring the soccer World Cup (spitting a seed into a goal and celebrating), another for the X Games (spitting while skateboarding), another for the Summer Olympics (synchronized spitting). The prize ribbon would be awarded based on audience applause, and we’d win handily. Then our neighbors, the Martinuccis, started to compete with trick spits based on musicals or movies: “West Seed Story”; “The Phantom Melon” (a la “Star Wars”); “Titanic”; “Harry Potter and the Spittoon of Merlin.” Seriously daunting competition. (Though Kate has expanded her contest repertoire with a song, “You’re a Grand Old Seed,” that’s become the event anthem, and debuted a new number, cabaret style, this year: “The Street Where We Spit.”)

Anyway, eventually our performances exceeded my natural EQ (embarrassment quotient) and I faded out from the contest. The Martinuccis’ extended family became less of a factor, too. So then, Kate and our neighbor Jill would take the lead in cooperative dramatic efforts. This year’s may have been the best ever. Untitled, it was topical: It combined a nod to the recent finale of “The Sopranos” with the latest ugly brouhaha from Bush’s Washington: the Scooter Libby pardon. Yeah, it’s hard to imagine, right? But it was brief, brilliantly conceived, and full of watermelon-specific puns. The script starts below (and continues after the jump). Jill played Tony; Kate played Lewis “Spitter” Libby; Nico played Pasquale, the guard; and Ellen (Jill’s sister-in-law) played the Narrator.

Narrator: For all of you who don’t have HBO, and for those of you who do and are still wondering what happened to Tony Soprano – here is how the Sopranos might have ended, and how the two most anticlimactic melondramas of the summer could have been resolved.

Scene: Tony is sitting alone in a café, eating watermelon. He spits out the seeds periodically. There is an empty chair across from him.

Guy 1: Hey Tony, there you are. I’ve got a rind to pick with you!

Tony: Yeah? Go talk to Pasquale over here. (Snaps his finger at bodyguard. Guy 1 is escorted off stage by guard, who returns)

Guy 2 : Hey “T”, I hear you’re looking for seed money for that new casino.

Tony: Yeah. We’ll talk. Call me next week.

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Continue reading “Seed Spitting”

Supporting the Troops: A True Story

The president is getting lots of air time today for his visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center; now that imperfections in the nation’s care for its wounded warriors have come to light, he vows, solemnly and sincerely, that the government will do better. And as long as someone’s keeping their eye on the problem–someone like the Washington Post, which brought the scandalously poor treatment to light–things will probably improve.

Meantime, he is escalating the war in Iraq, guaranteeing a steady flow of new clients for Walter Reed and the nation’s other military and veterans’ hospitals. The escalation also means that the services have to scrape together bodies to make sure that units headed for Iraq, or those held there on prolonged tours, are as close to full strength as possible. Where is the Pentagon finding the bodies? Here’s a story involving a friend of ours and her son.

The son was in the Marines, part of the first-wave invasion force sent into Iraq in March 2003. His unit’s combat assignment was over quickly, and he and his comrades were pressed into police duty in Baghdad and other locations in northern Iraq. Back then, when the mission was declared accomplished and administration’s victory lap was interrupted only by the need to mop up “non-compliant forces” and “destablizing influences” in the lexicon of the day, the son’s unit was quickly rotated back to the States, and he was discharged soon after.

I don’t know the letter of military regulations, but my understanding of the deal Marines have is that when they leave the corps, they don’t really leave the corps. For the first 48 months after discharge, they’re considered part of a ready reserve force and can be called back to service at any time. Only after that 48 months is up are you free and clear from an involuntary call-up; if you decide to join the reserves or go your own way at that point, that’s your business.

For our friend’s son, that four-year period for involuntary call-up will be over in a few months. He got married recently, and he’s going about his life pretty much the way any kid in his mid-20s would, with the significant exception that he’s been in combat and was assessed a disability rating of 40 percent because of post-traumatic stress syndrome when he left the corps. His mom, who’s not a Veteran’s Administration bureaucrat, a Navy medical officer, or a military lawyer, sort of figured that the 40 percent disability meant her son couldn’t or wouldn’t be called back despite the news that the armed services have begun to recall discharged members.

So she was puzzled the other day when her son asked her whether he had gotten anything from FedEx.

No, she told him—was he expecting a package?

No, he said–a letter from the Marines; they might be recalling him to service.

How could that be, she asked–you have a 40 percent disability.

The son told her that sure, that was right–but that a buddy of his, someone rated with a 60 percent disability (I don’t know the reason) had been summoned back to duty.

So this is the support the troops get from an administration whose leading members made damned sure they were never anywhere near the shooting when it was their turn: First, send the troops out on a tragically half-baked mission; second, when they start coming home with major physical and psychological trauma, make them fight an ill-prepared bureaucracy and medical system for care; third, when you find yourself in a pinch, call on the guys who have already given pieces of themselves and tell them they’ve got to go back in. Oh, and fourth, you question the patriotism and loyalty of anyone who questions your way of doing business.

All in all, it’s a heck of a recruiting campaign.

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Generals Bound, Unbound

Now that Congress has done the unexpected and voted to try to rein in the president’s open-ended war in Iraq, the president is blustering about how the troops must be “fully funded.” That’s a non-issue, as the Democrats who engineered the bills in both houses made sure that, even if there’s no tax revenue to pay for it, the military and the president get all the money they want over the next year or so to keep the blood flowing into the sand. That’s fine. Congress’s power to limit the president’s warmaking by cutting off the money sounds great in theory, but it’s such a political snare that no one wants to get close to it until they see everyone else headed in the same direction. We haven’t gotten to that point; and if we haven’t yet, you wonder what it would take.

The president and the Republicans who want to prolong the war indefinitely also decry a bunch of politicians trying to manage the war by imposing conditions and timetables on troop deployments. It is a little strange to see a branch of government that appeared content to let the president have his way in Iraq for four years suddenly sit up and take notice. But the bills that have passed and the deadlines they include are trivial limitations on military commanders when compared to the conditions the president and his crew have thrust upon the generals and their troops.

To begin with, the war had to be a streamlined, lightning-fast operation. The number of troops committed was to be kept to a minimum. Planning for postwar Iraq proceeded on the rosiest assumptions about Iraqi society, politics and physical infrastructure. Those who dissented from the plan, who questioned the basic assumptions, were openly chastised or shunted aside. When it turned out that not a single element of the president’s blueprint matched the reality on the ground, there was no Plan B; certainly, there was no option to seek wider involvement from allies since we had charged into battle in nearly complete isolation from those who might have played a part. So, a year after the invasion, when the lid really came off, the commanders were left to figure out how to proceed in a situation whose own architects swore didn’t even exist: those resisting us were just dead-enders, or the insurgency was in its last throes, or it would go away once one or two or three key bad guys were eliminated.

Meantime, the reality of what has happened in Iraq is too awful to honestly contemplate in terms of the destruction of life and the unraveling of a society. We’re privy to pallid secondhand accounts of the ongoing mass killings and car-bomb attacks and the exodus of everyone who has a chance of getting out of the country; but at the president’s urging, we go on with our lives except for offering knee-jerk praise to the members of the armed services. The president’s answer to the disaster he unleashed is essentially the same as it has always been: more of the same, but smarter this time. If the current escalation fails–and it will, if the definition of success is really pacifying Iraq–the president will go looking for another general with a bright idea about how to prevail. And he’ll keep the military handcuffed to a war he never had good reason to start and which long ago ceased making sense. It’s about time someone tried to tell him that this can’t go on forever.

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Smarter Than an Oxford Man

In a dark armpit of TV Land–13 minutes or so when we were done watching something we’d recorded and were waiting for our “news” fix–Kate and I happened upon “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” Kate then went back and recorded a full show, which we just watched. Wow.

Not that the show is unsophisticated. The kids who serve as the “classroom” for the dim-bulb adult contestants are quick, winning and photogenic as heck. The host, Jeff Foxworthy, probably doesn’t grow tiresome until the third or fourth viewing. And the contestants–the grown-ups who struggle with questions like “Which state is farthest west: Alaska, California, or Nevada?”–are clearly carefully chosen: they’re attractive, witty, emotive, willing to play along and show no shame that they can’t name the ocean that covers the North Pole and have to lean on their 11-year-old playing partners to keep going in the game. Also, we saw a total of three contestants, and they’re all Gen Xers or later. The show’s looking for a young audience, and it’s drawing players from the target age group; a balding slack-gutted Boomer know-it-all would be the last thing that would fly on this show, not that I’m thinking of trying to get on.

But even allowing for the careful sifting of players to find the perfect combination of empty-headedness, glibness and charming good looks, it’s still surprising to me how little the people we saw knew or were confident of knowing. The one who made the strongest impression not only blew the questions above, he was stumped by the true/false proposition, “The Earth is more than 50 million miles from the sun” and flummoxed when asked to take a 12-inch-by-12-inch square and come up with half its area in square inches (his answer: 24; he’s supposedly a building contractor). But since the fifth-graders helping the guy were actually pretty bright, he still walked away with $50,000.

You wonder whether something going on here–the comic spectacle of the good-natured dunce guffawing at his mistakes without embarrassment, the portrayal of ignorance as harmless and fun–explains something bigger happening in the country. Watch Letterman every night, and you get to see Bush mocked for his latest idiotic utterance. Bush and his guys have watched that mockery for years and cried their way all the way to the Oval Office. They figured out ages ago that most people will laugh along with you if you don’t pretend you’re a smart guy with all the answers; they’ll keep laughing long after the joke’s not funny anymore; they’ll give you a break when you screw up because after all, who could’ve known?

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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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