Thursday, April 17, 2003


Bush's hardball with Syria may actually be a hanging curve.

Interesting interview on Wednesday's Fresh Air on NPR. Terry Gross' guest was Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria. The discussion turned to the Bush administration's escalating rhetoric directed at Syria.

I heard this in the car, so I can't quote verbatim, but Zakaria's response was that the U.S. must be careful not to overplay its hand against Syria. The terms of Iraq's 1991 surrender and the (far more ambiguous than Zakaria would allow) U.N. resolutions on that country gave the U.S. at least the appearance of international legitimacy for its pre-emptive war on Iraq. No such cover would exist for aggression against Syria. Zakaria pointed out that the international community -- even Britain -- would condemn any such aggression, and it's clearly not an option.

Now, Zakaria may be overestimating the rationality of the U.S. position. U.S. foreign policy is being shaped by ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle -- people for whom such decisions are a matter of religious zeal, not of the kind of rational calculation Zakaria assumes. Yet his analysis seems sound. And the Syrians are smart enough to realize this.

The only credible threat the U.S. really has is that of economic sanctions, but as Zakaria points out, the effect of these would be limited by Syria's fairly limited engagement with and dependence on the global economy.

The efficient war on Iraq proved what everyone pretty much already knew: militarily, no country can stand against the United States. But diplomatically, the U.S. is making a high-profile and blatant bluff -- we've got a hand full of nothing and we're showing everybody our cards. The logical step for Syria will be to raise the stakes, then walk away with as much as they can win. (They're already hinting at this by pushing for "regional disarmament" -- hardly the behavior of a country on the defensive and cowed by a superpower.)

There is, however, one frightening wildcard -- Syria and Israel have fought before, and it never takes a great deal of provocation for the shooting to start in the Middle East. And once the shooting has started, the U.S. wouldn't need to worry about U.N. resolutions or all that meddlesome multilateralism.
posted by Fred Clark 2:58 AM

Wednesday, April 16, 2003


A while back I presumed upon the grace of the graceful, gracious poet, Wislawa Szymborska, stretching fair use a bit to share with you her wise poem "The Century's Decline." Once again I find that anything I have to say pales in comparison to what she has to say, so once again I beg her allowance (or forgiveness, or permission, or both) to bring another of her poems, from the lively translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh (buy the book, you'll be glad you did).

= = = = = = = = = = = = = =


After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

-- Wislawa Szymborska, 1993
trans. by Stanislaw Baranczak & Clare Cavanaugh

posted by Fred Clark 3:38 PM

Tuesday, April 15, 2003


For the majority of Americans, April 15 is not the biggest tax day.

So I've got less than 11 hours to get my federal income tax return in the mail. I emphasize income tax because it is only one of several taxes we pay, and not the largest or most onerous for most Americans. For 7 out of 10 of us, the payroll tax takes a much bigger bite. It's also a regressive tax, as opposed to the fairly progressive income tax.

You'd never know this from listening to most politicians, and particularly not from listening to the Bush administration. Bush likes to talk about "tax cuts" when he really means "income tax cuts" as though this were the only tax that matters. Whether Mr. Bush is simply oblivious to the finances of the majority of Americans, or if he is deliberately carrying out class warfare is difficult to tell. But his intent is irrelevant -- the effect is the same. His pretending that only income taxes matter is a WMD in the war on the poor.

Take for instance, the Biggest Tax Increase In American History. This was not -- despite what Bob Dole said repeatedly, even after being corrected, during the 1996 presidential campaign -- the work of a Democratic president. It was, rather, the work of a Republican. And not just any Republican -- the Biggest Tax Increase In American History was the work of Ronald Reagan. In 1982, Reagan and the GOP-controlled Senate hiked the payroll tax for social security through the roof with a package bearing the Orwellian name "Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act." This raised taxes $215 billion over three years -- which amounts to more than $400 billion in 2002 dollars.

Reagan's all-time record tax hike increased payroll taxes -- hitting wage earners and the "bottom" 70 percent particularly hard. Much of that revenue went to pay for his 1981 income tax cut -- which benefited primarily those not in the bottom 70 percent. The sentence "Ronald Reagan cut taxes" is only true if one assumes -- as the Bush administration does -- that only income taxes matter. That the business press repeats this confusion without clarification is a real disservice -- an expensive disservice -- to the majority of American households.

And but so anyway today is April 15 and radio stations are playing the worst song George Harrison ever wrote ("Was it a millionaire / who said 'Imagine no possessions?'") and talking about "tax day." But of course, it isn't really "tax day" -- it's income tax day. For most of us, tax day comes every two weeks -- on pay day.

The news today is full of tut-tutting about how so many filers wait until the last possible moment, implying that those who do so are somehow irresponsible. This is nonsense.

If you're expecting a refund, then waiting until April 15 to file is irresponsible (but less foolish than giving H&R Block a big chunk of that refund just to get a little cash a little earlier through the ought-to-be-illegal "refund loan" scam). But if you owe money, as I do, then there is nothing responsible or wise or rational about handing over that money one day sooner than you absolutely have to. I'll fulfill my civic responsibility willingly, even cheerfully, but I'm not going to distress my cash flow and sacrifice a few weeks of float on the money I owe just because some local news anchor tells me I shouldn't "procrastinate."

posted by Fred Clark 1:44 PM

Monday, April 14, 2003


The Axis of Evil: Iran, North Korea and Iraq Syria.

So the administration's tough talk directed at Syria has everyone wondering if Syria's next on the regime-change stairway to empire. We probably won't know for sure until Wolf Blitzer starts hitting us with a daily barrage of poll questions that end with something like "... should the U.S. invade Syria?" (e.g., "The Mets are off to a faltering 4-9 start, so do you support U.S.-led military action against Syria?")

Syria is a bit of a dark horse in the "Who's next?" sweepstakes. The Vegas line favored the other formal members of the axis of evil -- North Korea and Iran. I'm picking Venezuela -- a bit of a longshot, but we've been quietly massing troops along the Colombian border for the past year and gradually expanding their mission. Plus they have, you know, that black bubbly stuff that's completed unrelated to America's military adventures elsewhere in the world.

The fall of Saddam Hussein has put a bit of a wobble into the spin of the axis of evil. (Will there, one wonders, be some formal declaration that Iraq has lost its membership in this nefarious trio? At what point, exactly, does it cease to be evil? When Franklin Graham arrives in downtown Baghdad?) An axis needs three members, and the administration does seem awfully intent on maintaining the triad, getting Syria warmed up to replace Iraq.

This development has been so obvious that even the White House press corps seems to have noticed. Here's an exchange from Thursday:

REPORTER: Is the President contemplating any other regime changes in the Middle East? Because you hear -- I mean, there seems to be something in the atmosphere that he may not stop with Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me remind you specifically in using the words regime change that this was an act of Congress signed by the previous administration that coined the word "regime change," and it's obviously something that this administration supported.

As the President has made very clear, Iraq is unique. Iraq presented a whole set of threats to the world that were unique in the world. And there are other, of course, elements in the world that are not complying with the efforts of -- what the United States and others around the world would like to see in terms of peace and security. But every region of the world presents a unique set of challenges or difficulties for the United States and for partners in peace, and each is dealt with separately.

And so Iraq is a unique set of circumstances, and that's how the President treats it.

REPORTER: So the answer is, no?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's exactly as I said -- Iraq is unique, and that's how the President treats it.

"Iraq is unique" seems, at first glance, reassurance that the administration will not -- as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton and others have suggested -- continue playing the game of regime change. But the reporter's follow-up and Fleischer's non-response shows that this isn't really all that reassuring.

Consider, especially, this: "Iraq is unique ... but every region of the world presents a unique set of challenges or difficulties." See how that works? Iraq is unique. So is Syria. So, I suppose, is Venezuela.

Those who oppose imperial, aggressive war should stop printing up signs and start using white boards, like restaurants use for their daily specials. That way you can change the sign as needed: "No war with Syria," "No war with Burkina Faso," "No war with Greenland." Whoever the suspected-WMD-possessing evildurrr du jour happens to be.

That the saber-rattling and cross-hair-leveling directed at Syria has been at all qualified can be viewed as a victory of sorts for the millions of people who took to the streets around the world to voice their opposition to what they considered an imperial war. The protesters may not have stopped the war on Iraq, but perhaps they have helped to stop the war on Syria. Or Iran. Or Venezuela. Or Freedonia. Or wherever.

posted by Fred Clark 11:10 PM

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