Saturday, August 09, 2003


H. Ross Perot, the diminutive billionaire autocrat with the OWEN MEANY SHRIEK and the low-tech audiovisuals, made life miserable for President George H.W. Bush back in 1992. And then he disappeared.

Perot is a creature of the federal deficit. He arose with the monstrous deficits of the Reagan/Bush years, like one of those 1950s movie monsters created by atomic radiation. Under President Bill Clinton, the deficit dwindled then disappeared altogether -- and so did Perot. But now, thanks to the Prodigal Son, the deficit is back and bigger than ever. That can only mean ...

Yes. Ross Perot is preparing for a comeback.

I still believe the man is half-dippy, half-crazy. But I also think he helped to put the federal deficit front and center in the presidential campaign of 1992.

George W. Bush's record-demolishing, structurally perpetual deficit is even worse than his father's budget gap. If Ross the Boss can help put Bush's feet to the fire and take some accountability for this fiscal debacle, then more power to him.

= = = = = = = = = =

June 1, 2003 slacktivist post: "Ross needs to get his pointer and easel out of storage, whip up another batch of pie graph charts and rent himself some air time."

July 23, 2003 David Broder column: "Where is Ross Perot now that we need him?"

posted by Fred Clark 2:52 AM

Friday, August 08, 2003


In a Newsweek Web exclusive, Christopher Dickey cuts through a lot of speculative musing about the length of America's occupation of Iraq and gets to the heart of the matter:

We're here forever. The simple fact about the New Iraq is that never in our lifetimes will it be able to defend itself from its neighbors. It will always be dependent on the United States to do that job.

This echoes this historical view of former Bush administration analyst James Dobbins, as recounted in Fred Kaplan's must-read summary in Slate:

Time is equally important—a long time. One of the Bush administration's deepest, if most understandable, mistakes was its pledge to pull American troops out of Iraq very soon after the war. According to Dobbins, in no successful postwar nation-building effort have U.S. troops stayed for less than five years. (In fact, in every successful case, U.S. troops are still based there today, including in Germany and Japan, nearly 60 years after war's end.) Staying around for a long time doesn't guarantee success, Dobbins notes, but "leaving early ensures failure." The mere act of setting departure deadlines—and, with them, the expectation of imminent withdrawal and the assumption of shallow commitment—often prompts disaster.

Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces, was asked if the occupation would need to last another two years. "At a minimum, an absolute minimum, we'll have to be here that long," he said.

So there it is, somewhere between two years and forever.

posted by Fred Clark 2:18 PM


A sermon on sin from the bully pulpit.

Michelangelo Signorile does a nice job of breaking down some of the code words in President Bush's recent comments on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. But Signorile missed one key code word.

Here's the full text of what Bush said, followed by some reactions.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I am mindful that we're all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take the speck out of their neighbor's eye when they got a log in their own. I think it's very important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country. On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage. And that's really where the issue is heading here in Washington, and that is the definition of marriage. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.

1. The categories of "sin" and "sinners" are -- thank God -- nowhere to be found in the Constitution of the United States. Bush's use of this language in a presidential press conference gives new meaning to the "bully" in bully pulpit.

It also illustrates what I think is Bush's fundamental misunderstanding of America's religious pluralism. Like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Lefevre), Bush seems to view pluralism as a winner-take-all power struggle between competing religious visions. He seems to think that the language of sin and sinners is appropriate from the presidential podium because -- in his view -- if the majority of Americans believe something is a sin, then the majority wins and gets to make that sin illegal for everyone else.

In seven sentences, Bush traveled from "we're all sinners" to "we ought to codify that." Signorile's response here is spot on:

Need it be pointed out that Bush is not our spiritual leader but the president of the United States? Why is he pontificating about sin in the White House Rose Garden, in the context of having his lawyers look into possible legislation?

2. This is not to say that the language of "sin" has no place in public discourse. But when religious leaders take their religious vision before the wider public they should be acting as prophets, not presidents.

One example of the prophetic use of the language of "sin" was when the Reformed communion of churches declared that South African apartheid was both a sin and a heresy. These religious terms had no binding legal authority over the Afrikaaner regime, of course, but the words had a prophetic, moral force.

Martin Luther King Jr. similarly employed prophetic, religious language -- sometimes very narrowly sectarian, Christian language -- during the long struggle for civil rights. So also did the religious extremists of the 19th century who formed the heart of the abolitionist movement. (And remember that their sectarian argument that slavery was a "sin" ran directly counter to the Constitution, which enshrined slavery in its 3/5 person obscenities.)

But the point here is that Bush is the president and not a prophet. He cannot speak truth to power because he is power. Bush's religious language was, therefore, bewilderingly inappropriate.

3. When religious leaders speak prophetically to the larger society, they need to recognize that their premises, frame of reference and language are not all shared by those outside their religious community. Prophets need to present their message in a way that makes sense to the larger community.

Imagine a hypothetical Mormon legislator arriving in Washington and introducing legislation to outlaw the ingestion of caffeine. He would need to do more than simply declare to his overwhelmingly non-Mormon colleagues that the use of caffeine is a "sin."

"Maybe for you it is," the Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish and atheist legislators would say. "But not for us, and not for all of America."

The Mormon congressman's argument fails not because he is in the minority, but because his argument is parochial and not pluralistic. For his anti-caffeine bill to get anywhere, he would need to present his case in non-sectarian terms and to offer an argument for the common good.

This is where President Bush and most opponents of same-sex civil unions have failed. They have not presented their argument in non-sectarian terms. They have offered a religious vision of marriage -- you can't get any more religious than the repeated mantra of "sanctity" -- but have not explained why this religious vision should prevail in a pluralist society. Yet, unlike our hypothetical Mormon, their religious views are shared by a majority of Americans, so they are able to force those views onto the minority who may not share them.

Without putting forward a non-sectarian argument they may be able to win the power struggle, but they're losing the debate. (And Adam Felber is winning it.)

4. Signorile sees the following as merely a "feel-good, throwaway line" from President Bush:

I think it’s very important for our society to respect each individual, to welcome those with good hearts, to be a welcoming country.

I think it's more than that. "Welcoming" is a loaded word when it comes to homosexuality and American Christianity. It's half of "welcoming and affirming" -- the signal phrase employed by many congregations who welcome gay members without condemnation. (See here for example.)

But note that Bush did not speak of "welcoming and affirming those with good hearts" or of making ours a "welcoming and affirming country."

Bush's half-use of this phrase was, I believe, a deliberate effort to signal where he wants to draw the line against homosexuality. This phrasing follows the lead of evangelical theologian Stanley J. Grenz, whose 1998 book exploring "an evangelical response to homosexuality" was called Welcoming but Not Affirming.

Grenz, like Bush, is seeking a kind of "compassionate conservatism." Like Bush, he begins with a reminder that "we are all sinners" and points out that all sinners must be welcomed by the church. But, Grenz argues, the church ought not to "affirm" sinners in their sin and, he says, homosexuality -- or at least homosexual acts -- is a sin. I disagree with much of Grenz's argument, but bracket that.

One does not have to agree with Grenz's argument to acknowledge that it is his right -- as a religious scholar writing within his religious community -- to make this argument.

And one does not have to disagree with Bush's argument to acknowledge that -- as a secular public official in a pluralist society -- he has no right to make it.

5. Note the ambiguity of Bush's "feel-good" phrase: "to welcome those with good hearts."

In context, this might mean that the president is acknowledging that one can be homosexual and still have a "good heart" (Bush's highest honorific -- see here). That's mighty white of him.

On the other hand, this phrase could also be read to mean that our national hospitality is conditional -- that we are a welcoming country, but only to those with good hearts. The category of the good-hearted thus might be expansive enough to include homosexuals, but only if they know their place and don't rock the boat too much by asking for "special" rights like, you know, the ones everybody else has.

6. (This one is for all you Calvinists out there.) Bush says "we are all sinners." But he also suggests that we all have "good hearts." Can these ideas be reconciled? Discuss.

posted by Fred Clark 12:01 PM

Thursday, August 07, 2003


Why copy editors don't like Joe Lieberman or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Far too many Americans base their voting on a candidate's personality (see here). Many others vote according to a candidate's position on the issues, or according to party affiliation -- a sometimes useful shorthand summary of those stands.

But consider for a moment those of us who pay the bills by writing headlines. We have our livelihood to consider, and the election of certain candidates could mean years of hardship ahead for those in our guild.

This occupational hazard was underlined yesterday when a "big name movie star" entered the California recall election. Big name is right. S-C-H-W-A-R-Z-E-N-E-G-G-E-R. Fourteen letters, including a sprawling "w" for goodness sakes. What are we supposed to do with a name like that?

Sure, "Schwarzenegger" will fit in one of those expansive, six-column horizontal heds that stretches across an entire page -- but even then we don't have room for much more. And what about two-column or the dreaded single-column heds? The only way "Schwarzenegger" is going to fit in those is if we use a type size that's smaller than the text of the article.

The hulking movie star's hulking name forces headline writers to resort to other means of referring to him. "Actor" is much shorter, but not wholly accurate. "Film star" is more likely to fit, but you're still going to have to get that gargantuan name into a subhed or deck somehow.

Most Californians dislike Gov. Gray Davis, but copy editors like the guy for the same reason they like President Bush. Sure, they've overseen massively irresponsible, record-setting deficits, but their names fit in a headline.

Today, throughout the Golden State, copy editors are pleading with their bosses to be allowed use of the chummy, first-name basis for the newly declared recall candidate. "Arnold" still communicates -- although there might be some confusion with Gary Coleman entering the race as well. The copy editors will probably win this battle for economic reasons -- the name "Schwarzenegger" is so huge it cuts into valuable ad space.

These same copy editors are hoping that once they cross the threshhold with "Arnold" they'll also be able to get by with "Arianna" -- much more manageable than the 10-letter "Huffington." California headline writers at this point may be silently backing Larry Flynt (five letters, including a slender "l" and "t"), while hoping Bernie Mac jumps into the race.

In the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, copy editors come out squarely behind former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Sure he's revolutionized the use of the Internet to gain surprising momentum. Sure he's got a track record as a budget-balancer who could clean up Bush's fiscal mess. But it's not about that.

D-E-A-N. Four letters. That fits in a two-column hed with room to spare for a terse verb. A Dean vs. Bush campaign would be a godsend. Two candidates, eight letters. My job gets a whole lot easier.

Of the other Democrats, John Kerry would also be acceptable. Gephardt, Edwards, Graham, Sharpton and Kucinich not so much. Lieberman no way.

Carol Moseley-Braun's stock went up when she lopped off the larger, pre-hyphen portion of her name. In doing so she followed in the political shoes of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Op-ed columnists mocked Hart for superficiality, but op-ed columnists don't have to write headlines. We copy editors gratefully cheered on Mr. H-A-R-T against Walter M-O-N-D-A-L-E.

This whole post is rather frivolous, of course, but space considerations can have a real-world affect on matters of substance.

Recently, for instance, President Bush finally and fleetingly -- after weeks of serving up scapegoats -- accepted responsibility for a misleading claim he made in his State of the Union address. But as much as Bush wanted to "accept responsibility" (whatever that means -- and it certainly didn't seem, in his view, to entail accountability), most heds just don't allow space for such an effusive, 20-character phrase. As a result, in newspapers across the country, Bush didn't just "accept responsibility" -- he "took blame."

In that example, brevity actually produces more clarity and comes closer to the truth. But that is not always the case.

Take for example the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" -- sometimes shortened to "WMD" or just "weapons."

That sprawling phrase -- four words, 24 letters -- was still shorter than what it stood in for: "nuclear, biological and chemical weapons" or some such construction. But by including all of these categories under the single rubric of "WMD," important distinctions were blurred. Saddam Hussein's probable possession of stocks of mustard gas could be conflated with the unlikely notion that he possessed a nuclear weapon -- which is what "mass destruction" originally referred to.

Journalists adopted the Bush administration's shorter, fuzzier term in order to save column inches and to avoid repeating a longer list of things that are not really all the same. Distinctions were lost. Important distinctions -- like whether Iraq really posed an imminent threat to America's national security.

The joking conceit I entertain above -- that space considerations might shape a person's political views -- is sadly, partly responsible for taking our country to war. That's not so funny after all.

posted by Fred Clark 1:05 PM


Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to govern "the worst state in the worst nation in the world."

Bodybuilder-turned-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy yesterday for governor of California in that state's increasingly bizarre recall election.

Arnold. Larry Flynt. Gary Coleman. Darrell Issa. Jack Grisham. Gallagher. Angelyne. The reality surpasses anything witty, sarcastic or dismissive one might be tempted to say.

Schwarzenegger's big announcement came yesterday on The Tonight Show. He had to go with Jay Leno because David Letterman had already said all anyone really needed to say about the musclebound millionaire's candidacy.

(Jay's other guests -- "Last Comic Standing" winner Dat Phat and singer/songwriter Jewel -- missed an opportunity last night. They should have declared their candidacies as well. Tom Petty is on tonight. Tom: Your country needs you.)

Former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan is the GOP's most serious, viable potential candidate. He has been described as a friend of Schwarzenegger's and has said he would not run if Arnold did.

That means, basically, that Schwarzenegger's announcement could be good news for Gray Davis -- and for California's other Democrats, the ones not despised by four-out-of-five people in the state.

(It's possible that Maria Shriver, Arnold's Kennedy-clan, Democratic wife, realized this. Maybe it's why she encouraged him to run. Or maybe it's because she wants to get to the bottom of those rumors about his womanizing. Revenge is a dish, after all, and a woman scorned hath no fury like a gossipy press corps in election season.)

Riordan might still decide to run, but if he does, Arnold's support will erode his own and he'll have to overcome his initial statements that he wouldn't. (Americans love a "reluctant warrior" candidate. A flip-flopping, wishy-washy one is another matter.)

Schwarzenegger's carefully scripted announcement came across as a bit leaden. Arnold's accent isn't the problem -- it's his diction (the Austrians can't understand him either). Phrases like "fiddling, fumbling and failing" had to be slowed down so much that they lost some of their alliterative punch. While his populist remarks were sprinkled with people-vs.-politicians applause lines, these drew only scattered -- if enthusiastic -- whoops of approval. (And the tortured, botched delivery of the pre-written "bikini wax" joke was painful to watch. The joke worked in the paper the next day. It even worked when news anchors repeated it. But for Arnold it fell embarrassingly flat.)

Schwarzenegger's writers also burdened him with some lines that were simply incoherent.

"When I moved to California in 1968 it was the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world," he said. "Now it is totally the opposite."

Um ... the opposite? The would make it "the worst state in the worst nation in the world."

Is that really what one wants to say when kicking off one's campaign for governor?

UPDATE: Edited to correct Darrell Issa's name. Also, please accept my apology for being one of thousands to use the "Total Recall" headline. In the future, I'll try to stay away from the easy ones.
posted by Fred Clark 12:44 PM

Wednesday, August 06, 2003


Nicholas Kristof, repeat after me, "You're not allowed to kill civilians."

Today is the 58th anniversary of America's dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. That's city -- not "missile site" or "strategic installation," but city -- as in "population center where lots and lots of noncombatants live." The American bomb killed 231,920 people -- the great majority of whom were noncombatants. Women and children. Civilians.

You're not allowed to kill civilians.

No utilitarian calculus, no alternative-history what-if gamesmanship after the fact can alter that rule.

But Nicholas Kristof tries, and with little more by way of argument than that he seems to have read The Man in the High Castle back in high school.

All of Kristof's hypothetical what-iffery doesn't change the rules. You may not both 1) intentionally target and incinerate 230,000 noncombatants in an act of terrorism; and 2) not be a monster.

You're not allowed to kill civilians.

Kristof doesn't even seem to argue that the bombing of Hiroshima wasn't monstrous. He instead takes the by-this-point hackneyed "gritty realism" approach. This is the tack by which the rationalizers of monstrosity puff-up their chests and with as much bravado and machismo as they can imitate, talk about the "hard choices" that "realists" are "forced" to make.

Kristof delivers this line with more academic condescension than with John wayne-ish bluster, but the impact is the same. His argument boils down to Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, screaming that anyone who believes in a moral universe and the rule of law simply "Can't handle the truth!" Here's Kristof:

... the greatest tragedy of Hiroshima was not that so many people were incinerated in an instant, but that in a complex and brutal world, the alternatives were worse.


To be fair to Kristof, the brevity of an op-ed column does not allow for extended discussion, so the fact that he merely asserts the inevitability of the atomic bombing, rather than explains or defends it, can be forgiven. But we cannot forgive Kristof's inhumanly callous assertion that "the alternatives were worse" when he does not bother to explore what "the alternatives" really were.

He skips tra-la-la through the usual rationalizing argument -- thousands more U.S. and Japanese soldiers would have been killed, more conventional bombing and firebombing of civilian centers would have been "necessary," etc. -- and concludes that the ends justified the means. But he never really explores what the "ends" are.

It was certainly preferable that America's defeat of Japan in World War II be a complete and utter victory. By crushing imperial Japan so totally, we not only completely crushed its aggressive ambitions but we sent a strong message to the rest of the world about our vision for and ability to enforce the postwar order.

But was this the only acceptable alternative? By August 6, 1945, Japan's defeat was already certain -- no matter how intransigent some members of its military leadership might have been. America and its allies had the capability to contain a chastened and weakened Japan. That is the road not taken.

Total victory and Japan's utter defeat was, as I said, a preferable outcome to simple containment. But -- Kristof argues -- such total victory could only come by means of a monstrous act that forever changed the character not only of America, but of the postwar world as well. And not for the better.

If your goal is total victory and the humiliation of your enemy, and if you determine that the only way to achieve this goal is the mass-slaughter of 230,000 civilians then you have only one viable, credible or permissible option -- you must change your goal.

Kristof, like all defenders of atrocities, seems unable even to imagine this option. We are, he says, without alternatives. We must be monsters.

posted by Fred Clark 3:05 PM


In today's New York Times, Maureen Dowd summarizes the Neocons latest attack on Secretary of State Colin Powell. The whole thing is worth reading, but one anecdote in particular illustrates the cultural ignorance of the U.S.-led coalition in general (see previous post) and of Paul Wolfowitz in particular (see the post before that):

[Wolfowitz] told Charlie Rose about his vice-regal trip to Iraq, where he said at last grateful Iraqis were thronging. "As we would drive by, little kids would run up to the road and give us a thumbs up sign," he said. (At least he thought it was the thumb.)

Wolfowitz might be interested to learn that the "thumbs up sign" does not have the same meaning in Arab cultures as it does in the U.S. It's meaning is not a polite one -- the rough equivalent of our own middle finger.

It may be true, of course, that Iraqi residents have by now learned the strange American custom of using this obscene gesture to indicate positive, friendly feelings, but one also has to imagine they take some delight in the ambiguity of the symbol. "Come on," you can imagine these kids saying, "let's go flip-off the Americans and watch 'em smile."

It is unlikely that the Iraqi children urging Wolfowitz to go screw himself recognized the American official as he drove by. But while he seems not to have understood the real message behind their smiles, they seem to have fully appreciated the real message behind his.

(On a related note: as photojournalists in the West Bank are well aware, but their editors back home seem not to be, the hand-gesture indicating solidarity with the Palestinian intifada is the same gesture we Americans use to mean "peace" -- or, to add a third layer of ambiguity, "victory." I've seen dozens of photographs of this gesture in American newspapers, few of which were accompanied by cutlines appreciating the ambiguity of the gesture.)

posted by Fred Clark 2:07 PM


A while back (archives bloggered) I did some sketchy arithmetic on the much-vaunted "19-nation coalition" on the ground in postwar Iraq. Since U.S. and British troops account for all but about 1,000 of the troops present, and those 1,000 troops represent the remaining 17 nations, I figured that comes to roughly 60 troops from each coalition member.

In Slate's "Explainer," Brendan I. Koerner provides some more specific numbers. The coalition includes:

* 1,000 Australians
* 43 Estonian soldiers
* 28 Macedonian troops
* 470 from the Netherlands
* 130 Norwegians
* 10 Hungarian truck drivers
* 4 Canadians
* 30 policemen from Singapore

That last contingent should help to reduce the rampant gum-chewing and failing-to-flush-public-urinals that has been plaguing postwar Iraq.

The Guardian also reports that this coalition expects to soon be bolstered by 2,000 Spanish troops. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a worry about their uniforms:

[The troops will be] wearing on their shoulders the Cross of St James of Compostela -- popularly known in Spain as "the Moor Killer".

Patches bearing the cross, the symbol of a saint who allegedly guided the medieval Christian re conquista of Spain from the Muslims, are to be worn by a 2,000-strong Spanish brigade in central Iraq, who will patrol the sacred Shia city of Najaf.

Further evidence that the battle for the Iraqi people's hearts and minds is being led by people without either hearts or minds.

The question for investigative journalists everywhere is this: What has the Bush administration promised to these coalition member nations in exchange for their worthy support? How many millions in aid or trade has this cost the U.S.? And what does that work out if calculated per-Macedonian soldier or per-Hungarian truck driver?

posted by Fred Clark 1:10 PM


Slate's Fred Kaplan offers a devastating critique of the Bush administration's plans -- or lack thereof -- for rebuilding postwar Iraq. The critique is not Kaplan's own, it comes from James Dobbins, a former special envoy of the Bush administration to post-Taliban Afghanistan who is now a policy director for the Rand Corp. and author of America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.

Dobbins main point is that successful nation-building efforts require three things the Bush administration has not been willing to commit to postwar Iraq: a massive troop presence, lots of money and lots of time.

Kaplan contrasts Dobbins historically informed view with the myopia of Paul Wolfowitz, who told a congressional hearing last February:

It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine.

Wolfowitz was glaringly, massively wrong. And he still is. As Kaplan notes, "It's one thing to be wrong. It's another to be incapable of imagining yourself wrong."

Here's another essential paragraph from Kaplan's/Dobbins' critique:

Bringing in more troops and at least some police after the war would also have meant fewer American and Iraqi casualties. Dobbins is categorical on this point: "The highest levels of casualties have occurred in the operations with the lowest levels of U.S. troops." In fact, he adds, "Only when the number of stabilization troops has been low in comparison to the population" -- such as in Somalia, Afghanistan, and now Iraq -- "have U.S. forces suffered or inflicted significant casualties." By contrast, in Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- where troop levels were high -- Americans suffered no postwar combat deaths.

Dobbins' view, based on a survey of what has and hasn't worked in more than 12 instances of American "nation-building" since World War II, directly contradicts the opinions of the "senior Pentagon official" (Wolfie again?) who said in early July "... if you put more troops in, you put more targets in there."

Note especially the comparison with the occupations of Germany and Japan following WWII. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his supporters -- within the Bush administration and throughout the blogosphere -- likes to bring up the German and Japanese occupations as a way of responding to critics of the chaos and steady flow of American casualties in Iraq. These folks seem to think that this shows they are taking the "long view." But taking the long view would mean realizing that America's commitment to rebuilding Iraq is woefully undermanned, underfunded and underplanned when compared with every successful historical precedent.

Next time Rumsfeld or any of his disciples brings up the occupations of Germany or Japan, ask one simple question: How many Americans died during those occupations?

posted by Fred Clark 12:53 PM

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