The American Surveillance State

Glenn Greenwald writes:

One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian government is its fixation on hiding everything it does behind a wall of secrecy while simultaneously monitoring, invading and collecting files on everything its citizenry does. Based on the Francis Bacon aphorism that “knowledge is power,” this is the extreme imbalance that renders the ruling class omnipotent and citizens powerless.

In the Washington Post today, Dana Priest and William Arkin continue their “Top Secret America” series by describing how America’s vast and growing Surveillance State now encompasses state and local law enforcement agencies, collecting and storing always-growing amounts of information about even the most innocuous activities undertaken by citizens suspected of no wrongdoing. As was true of the first several installments of their “Top Secret America,” there aren’t any particularly new revelations for those paying attention to such matters, but the picture it paints — and the fact that it is presented in an establishment organ such as the Washington Post — is nonetheless valuable.

Today, the Post reporters document how surveillance and enforcement methods pioneered in America’s foreign wars and occupations are being rapidly imported into domestic surveillance (wireless fingerprint scanners, military-grade infrared cameras, biometric face scanners, drones on the border).

In this respect — whose significance can hardly be overstated — Barack Obama is worse than George Bush: Bush’s excesses and the ideology he represented could be circumscribed by his administration and in theory America could purge itself of the effects through the ritual purification of an election. What Obama is doing is normalizing those excesses so that the Bush era can be perpetuated without being tainted by the names Bush and Cheney.

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George Bush gets some advice from the Conservative Mayor of London

Borris Johnson writes:

It is not yet clear whether George W Bush is planning to cross the Atlantic to flog us his memoirs, but if I were his PR people I would urge caution. As book tours go, this one would be an absolute corker. It is not just that every European capital would be brought to a standstill, as book-signings turned into anti-war riots. The real trouble — from the Bush point of view — is that he might never see Texas again.

One moment he might be holding forth to a great perspiring tent at Hay-on-Wye. The next moment, click, some embarrassed member of the Welsh constabulary could walk on stage, place some handcuffs on the former leader of the Free World, and take him away to be charged. Of course, we are told this scenario is unlikely. Dubya is the former leader of a friendly power, with whom this country is determined to have good relations. But that is what torture-authorising Augusto Pinochet thought. And unlike Pinochet, Mr Bush is making no bones about what he has done.

Unless the 43rd president of the United States has been grievously misrepresented, he has admitted to authorising and sponsoring the use of torture. Asked whether he approved of “waterboarding” in three specific cases, he told his interviewer that “damn right” he did, and that this practice had saved lives in America and Britain. It is hard to overstate the enormity of this admission.

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Bush’s Decision Points is a terrifying journey into the authoritarian mind

Anis Shivani writes:

This would be less grim to talk about if Bush weren’t still with us. But he is, in every way that matters. The Bush Doctrine lives. No leading American politician can disavow the two key aspects of the Bush Doctrine: that we cannot distinguish terrorists from the countries where they live, and that we must act preemptively against gathering threats before they materialize (propositions contradicting international law). Bush’s memoir is arguably the most important book of the year because it reveals — far better than do books by Charlie Savage, Isikoff and Corn, or Bob Woodward — how he fundamentally reconceptualized the functions of the presidency, the balance of power among the branches of government, and the expectations and obligations of citizens, with lasting effects.

Reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times treat Bush respectfully — much as a Machiavellian prince would desire to be treated after going into retirement; too often reviewers play Bush’s game by humanizing him, or treating him with humor, or safely relegating him to history. But Bush truly was a transformative president, among the rare few, and we deceive ourselves — as many in the commentariat continue to do, as with Maureen Dowd’s light-hearted mockery of him — if we consider him an anomaly, a rare eruption of a virus that won’t repeat itself. This book’s ideas will have resonance with a large segment of the population, and a notable number among the elites; we need to study Decision Points (Crown, Nov. 9) seriously, as onerous a task as it may be, if we are to make sense of the perpetual aura of crisis that has enveloped America, and why we seem to be stuck on a self-destructive path.

Decision Points is a classic recipe for a benign dictatorship, a uniquely American form of dictatorship, to be sure — from its rigid understanding of morality (good versus evil) to its distorted valuation of life (only American lives matter; Bush is not concerned about the loss of civilian life in the countries he attacked) — that gives comfort to many in a time of economic and cultural stress.

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British deny George Bush’s claims that torture helped foil terror plots

The Guardian reports:

British officials said today there was no evidence to support claims by George Bush, the former US president, that information extracted by “waterboarding” saved British lives by foiling attacks on Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf. In his memoirs, Bush said the practice – condemned by Downing Street as torture – was used in CIA interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the US.

He said Mohammed, below, was one of three al-Qaida suspects subjected to waterboarding. “Their interrogations helped break up plots to attack American diplomatic facilities abroad, Heathrow airport, and Canary Wharf in London, and multiple targets in the United States,” he wrote.

It is not the first time information extracted from Mohammed has been claimed as helping to prevent al-Qaida attacks on British targets. Mohammed cited attacks on Heathrow, Big Ben and Canary Wharf in a list of 31 plots he described at Guantánamo Bay after he was subjected to waterboarding 183 times following his capture in Pakistan in March 2003. The Heathrow alert in fact happened a month before his arrest, with army tanks parked around the airport, in what was widely regarded as an overreaction.

British counter-terrorism officials distanced themselves from Bush’s claims. They said Mohammed provided “extremely valuable” information which was passed on to security and intelligence agencies, but that it mainly related to al-Qaida’s structure and was not known to have been extracted through torture. Eliza Manningham-Buller,head of MI5 at the time, said earlier this year that the government protested to the US over the torture of terror suspects, but that the Americans concealed Mohammed’s waterboarding from Britain. Officials said today the US still had not officially told the British government about the conditions in which Mohammed was held.

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America and Iran: strikes, sanctions and scapegoats

Gary Sick writes:

For the pundits, there are only two questions about U.S.-Iran relations that are of any importance: (1) Will Israel and/or the United States attack Iran? and (2) will the new sanctions have enough bite to persuade Iran to change its nuclear policy? Despite all the printers ink spilled on these two issues, the answers are an easy no and no.

Neither the United States nor Israel will take the military option off the table, thereby giving the pundits (and the crowd that is dying to repeat Iraq) latitude to keep the distant prospect of military action on the front pages, where it has been for years. As a lede, it sells columns and newspapers, so it will not go away. But as analysis it is either blinded by the momentary hype or else is simple wish fulfillment.

Uber-neocon John Bolton had it right. If any such attack were to occur, it would have been at the end of the Bush administration when there was nothing left to lose. Bolton thought it was so inevitable that he predicted it unequivocally in a Wall Street Journal column in 2008. Dick Cheney apparently agreed, judging from his subsequent statements of regret. So it is fair to say that George W. Bush, after looking the potential consequences, resisted the advice of his neocon advisers, his previously dominant vice president, and the reported direct request from the government of Israel — and rejected a strike. What is the likelihood that Barack Obama, with the same catastrophic scenario before him, will approve? Forget it.

One of the more enlightening parts of Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Point of No Return,” conveyed the same point:

“We all watched his speech in Cairo,” a senior Israeli official told me, referring to the June 2009 speech in which Obama attempted to reset relations with Muslims by stressing American cooperativeness and respect for Islam. “We don’t believe that he is the sort of person who would launch a daring strike on Iran. We are afraid he would see a policy of containing a nuclear Iran rather than attacking it.”

This official noted that even Bush balked at attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and discouraged the Israelis from carrying out the attack on their own. (Bush would sometimes mock those aides and commentators who advocated an attack on Iran, even referring to the conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol as “the bomber boys,” according to two people I spoke with who overheard this.)

“Bush was two years ago, but the Iranian program was the same and the intent was the same,” the Israeli official told me. “So I don’t personally expect Obama to be more Bush than Bush.”

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Me talk presidential one day

Me talk presidential one day

If my colleagues at the White House were even momentarily scared straight about McCain over the convention fracas, the clarity wore off just as quickly as it came when the very conservative governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was picked as McCain’s running mate. I didn’t have anything against Governor Palin from what I knew about her, which was next to nothing. The instantaneous reaction to Palin at the White House, however, was almost frenzied. I think what was really going on was that everyone secretly hated themselves for supporting McCain, so they latched onto Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm. Even the normally levelheaded Raul Yanes, the president’s staff secretary, was overtaken by Palin mania. He’d been slightly annoyed with me for not jumping on the McCain bandwagon and for saying aloud that I thought McCain would lose. Now, of course, I had to be enthusiastic about the ticket. “You still think we’re going to lose?” he asked me laughingly.

“Yep,” I replied.

Raul looked incredulous. “Well, you obviously don’t believe in facts!”

I was about to be engulfed by a tidal wave of Palin euphoria when someone—someone I didn’t expect—planted my feet back on the ground. After Palin’s selection was announced, the same people who demanded I acknowledge the brilliance of McCain’s choice expected the president to join them in their high-fiving tizzy. It was clear, though, that the president, ever the skilled politician, had concerns about the choice of Palin, which he called “interesting.” That was the equivalent of calling a fireworks display “satisfactory.”

“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”

Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When Ed told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, “Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.” He thought about it for a minute. “She’s interesting,” he said again. “You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.” Then he made a very smart assessment.

“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.” It was a rare dose of reality in a White House that liked to believe every decision was great, every Republican was a genius, and McCain was the hope of the world because, well, because he chose to be a member of our party. [continued...]

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Cheney uncloaks his frustration with Bush

Cheney uncloaks his frustration with Bush

In his first few months after leaving office, former vice president Richard B. Cheney threw himself into public combat against the “far left” agenda of the new commander in chief. More private reflections, as his memoir takes shape in slashing longhand on legal pads, have opened a second front against Cheney’s White House partner of eight years, George W. Bush.

Cheney’s disappointment with the former president surfaced recently in one of the informal conversations he is holding to discuss the book with authors, diplomats, policy experts and past colleagues. By habit, he listens more than he talks, but Cheney broke form when asked about his regrets.

“In the second term, he felt Bush was moving away from him,” said a participant in the recent gathering, describing Cheney’s reply. “He said Bush was shackled by the public reaction and the criticism he took. Bush was more malleable to that. The implication was that Bush had gone soft on him, or rather Bush had hardened against Cheney’s advice. He’d showed an independence that Cheney didn’t see coming. It was clear that Cheney’s doctrine was cast-iron strength at all times — never apologize, never explain — and Bush moved toward the conciliatory.”

The two men maintain respectful ties, speaking on the telephone now and then, though aides to both said they were never quite friends. But there is a sting in Cheney’s critique, because he views concessions to public sentiment as moral weakness. After years of praising Bush as a man of resolve, Cheney now intimates that the former president turned out to be more like an ordinary politician in the end. [continued...]

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NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Muntader al-Zaidi

When the shoe fits

In a war that has been punctuated by iconic moments, the shoe will be the symbol that most likely endures longest in connecting George Bush to Iraq. In 2003, the sight of a statue of Saddam Hussein being assaulted with footwear highlighted the moment in which, at Mr Bush’s instigation Saddam’s regime had visibly lost power. In 2008, the sight of the US president ducking to avoid flying shoes conveyed the eagerness among many Iraqis to witness Mr Bush’s exit from power.

While Muntader al-Zaidi may have been simply been venting a spontaneous outburst of anger as he hurled both his shoes at the president of the United States of America, his act of defiance struck a chord with many Iraqis along with fellow Arabs across the region.

As Hazim Edress, a resident of Mosul, told The New York Times: “He has done what the whole world could not.” [continued...]


(via Firedoglake)

Editor’s CommentMarc Lynch is concerned that the Muntader al-Zaidi story might distract attention from Human Rights Watch’s new report, The Quality of Justice: Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court. But reports, however worthy of attention, rarely garner much public interest. Indeed, if reports and rumors about Zaidi’s mistreatment in detention turn out to be true, his case may well serve to draw attention towards Iraq’s failed justice system.

This is a case where one would have thought that out of pure self-interest and political expediency, the White House would be pushing for Zaidi’s prompt release simply to serve its own public relations interests. The longer that takes to happen, the more potent a symbol Zaidi will become.

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: A structure for dealing with Iran

Why John Bolton is right on Iran

As usual, John Bolton is absolutely right. His policy prescriptions may be reckless to the point of foolishness (”When in doubt, bomb!”), but his understanding of what is happening in Washington policy (as outlined in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday) is unerringly accurate.

While much of the world was hyper-ventilating over the possibility that the United States (and maybe Israel) were getting ready to launch a new war against Iran, Bolton was looking at the realities and concluding that far from bombing the US was preparing to do a deal with Iran. He had noticed that over the past two years the US had completely reversed its position that originally opposed European talks with Iran. [complete article]

A test of US flexibility toward Iran

Last week, when a member of the Senate foreign relations committee repeatedly asked US undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns if Washington was considering sending a representative to international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme this month, the veteran diplomat and newly anointed number-three US state department official took pains to equivocate in his response and not say anything beyond what his cabinet-level superiors had previously stated publicly.

“My question is, has there been any discussion within the administration about having an American representative at the next meeting?” Senator Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican, asked Burns at the July 9 hearing.

“Senator, as I said, our position remains that secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice herself is prepared to sit down in negotiations along with the [permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany] along the basis of the ‘suspension for suspension’ proposal,” Burns responded, referring to an international proposal under which if Iran would agree to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, the international community would agree to suspend international sanctions against it. [complete article]

US plans to station diplomats in Iran for first time since 1979

The US plans to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in 30 years as part of a remarkable turnaround in policy by President George Bush.

The Guardian has learned that an announcement will be made in the next month to establish a US interests section – a halfway house to setting up a full embassy. The move will see US diplomats stationed in the country. [complete article]

See also, US will talk to Iran (Paul Woodward, The National).

Editor’s Comment — Back in early May, during his visit to Israel, Bush told the Jerusalem Post that “before leaving office he wants a structure in place for dealing with Iran.” It was one of the clearest indications he had given that in spite of all the pro forma declarations that military action was still on the table, it was not only an option that was firmly bolted down, but Bush had a tangible alternative in mind.

Expressions of his “commitment to a diplomatic solution” have always sounded a bit flimsy — especially coming out of the mouth of a president who seems to find the diplomatic process threatening. But let’s suppose that back in May, Bush had already started toying with an idea that would be as shocking to his critics as it would be to his supporters: that the structure he had in mind to put in place for dealing with Iran was a foundation stone for diplomatic relations.

As Bush contemplated his hopes to salvage some sort of legacy, maybe he took a lesson from Nixon and concluded that his predecessor’s mistake was that he didn’t save his trip to China until close to the end of his presidency. It’s not that I anticipate seeing George Bush shaking Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hand some time in the next few months, but I do think it’s possible that Bush is angling to pull a non-explosive surprise out of his sleeve before he leaves office.

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EDITORIAL: Talking to Hamas

Talking to Hamas

Exchange from a Sky News interview, Davos, Switzerland, January 2006, soon after Hamas had won free and fair democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza:

James Rubin: Do you think that American diplomats should be operating the way they have in the past, working with the Palestinian government if Hamas is now in charge?

Sen. John McCain: They’re the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy towards Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so . . . but it’s a new reality in the Middle East. I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, that they want democracy. Fatah was not giving them that.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Churchill, unlike George Bush, was eminently well equipped to employ the power of language. Churchill understood that negotiation is not the same as appeasement.

If we were able to drill down into the psychological roots of the pathology of the Bush presidency, is it possible that the core fear embedded in so many of Bush’s postures is his awareness that whenever he opens his mouth he risks looking like a fool?

It would hardly be surprising that a president who is so intimidated by words would have a strong preference for violence.

But that’s his failing – it doesn’t have to be everyone else’s.

In 2006 John McCain — perhaps slightly intoxicated by the rarefied atmosphere of Davos — uttered a heretical yet utterly common sense view. In free and fair elections, the Palestinian people had expressed their democratic will. They had chosen Hamas. “Sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them,” McCain said.

The proponents of democracy – and this of course included the Bush administration which in the face of Fatah’s objections had called for Hamas’ inclusion in the election – faced a challenge: they could honor the democratic process and find out whether Hamas was ready to live up to the challenge of governing, or, they could perpetuate a political narrative that precluded the very possibility of a Hamas government.

By choosing to do the latter, Bush sent a clear message across the Middle East: In the eyes of America, terrorism matters more than democracy.

Naturally, under George Bush’s watch, terrorism has flourished much more than democracy.

If an American president isn’t willing and capable of negotiating with adversaries, he or she isn’t fit for office. Bush would have us believe that he has taken a bold stand on principle. In truth he has merely tried to conceal his incompetence.

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EDITORIAL: Bush’s bullshit

Bush’s bullshit

In his eighth year as president, George Bush still lacks the courage to address anyone but an overly sympathetic audience. Indicative of his plummeting approval rating, he now has to travel six thousand miles to find such company. Should we be surprised that in front of the Knesset he would come out with a crowd pleaser like this?

Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

That so many would be now be trotting out a prissy line like, “…beneath the dignity of the office of the president…,” is probably comforting to both Bush and McCain. It shows the GOP how easily Democrats will rise to the bait. That said, at least Joe Biden gave a straight response: “This is bullshit.”

Meanwhile, Bush said something else that is sure to be ignored: his prediction about when a Palestinian state will come into existence.

In 2002, Bush supposedly boldly crossed a political frontier by becoming the first president to express his commitment to seeing the creation of a Palestinian state. Bush was so full of it at that time that he suggested it could come into being by 2005.

By 2004 he started hedging, saying 2005 was unlikely. He pushed back, but still said, “I’d like to see it done in four years. I think it’s possible.”

So now it’s 2008 and what does Bush see in his crystal ball? A Palestinian state some time in the next sixty years! This is Bush’s bold vision: By the time Israel celebrates it 120th anniversary there will be a Palestinian state.

Were it not for global warming, I’d say that the pace Bush has set for advancing the peace process is glacial in its speed. Unfortunately in this era, glaciers actually move faster – but like the peace process, they move in the wrong direction.

*

Going back to Bush’s appeasement line, it does articulate something worth noting. That is, the Bush communications model.

Here’s how Bush defines “negotiate”:
1. Use words to force the other party to think the way you do, or if that doesn’t work,
2. Use the threat of violence to bend your opponent’s will, or if that doesn’t work,
3. Use violence to force your opponent into submission, or if that doesn’t work,
4. Use violence to annihilate your opponent.

What the Bush communications model precludes is the possibility that Bush can or ever will change the way he thinks. What this suggests is that the Bush brain is impervious to any influence whatsoever from experience. In other words, the Bush brain is a closed circuit that can neither process nor be modified by new information.

Essentially, the president is brain dead.

Let’s not get too agitated about what comes out of his mouth.

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GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Mr Bush and his “legacy”

Mr Bush and his “legacy”
By John Robertson, War in Context, April 6, 2008

According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph our war-hero “Decider” president has decided that he will pull no more troops out of Iraq. According to the report, which cites Pentagon sources, he feels that showing such “resolve” will cement his legacy – which, he obviously assumes, is going to be an honorable one that will burn his glorious presidency indelibly into the pages of our national memory. A major contributor to his decision, moreover, seems to have been a report from another of our war-hero stalwarts, Fred Kagan, American Enterprise Institute all-star and an “intellectual” godfather of the “Surge.” Kagan is also a frequent contributor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard (required reading for the – one would have hoped by now – discredited neocon faithful), where right up to the recent Basra humiliation he was serving up self-congratulatory pieces about the success of the Surge and declaring Iraq’s civil war to be “over.” Sorry, Fred, but most of the real experts (people like Juan Cole, Nir Rosen, and Patrick Cockburn – that is, people who know the country intimately, have lived there, and can read its newspapers) who’ve been reading the tea leaves suggest that, in the inimitable words of an American showman whose name I can’t recall, we “ain’t see nuthin yet.”

Please forgive me if I sound callous or flip by putting it that way, but by now it ought to be clear that the unfortunate people of Iraq have a long road to travel – and probably many years of suffering ahead – before they will be able to enjoy an existence graced by any consistency of peace, prosperity, and security. Surge notwithstanding, the Sunni Arabs of Anbar and elsewhere are no closer to being included in the governing of the Iraqi state than they were during the proconsulship of L. Paul Bremer, who marginalized them from the outset of the American occupation. The much-touted Sunni sahwa (“Sunni Awakening”) – to which the Bush-Petraeus “Surge” owed so much of its putative success – now seems, at best, to be hitting its collective snooze alarm while the US tries to keep these new militias, which are completely outside the control of the central government, paid off. Despite its ongoing entreaties, the Bush administration has been unable to convince the Shia-dominated Maliki government to incorporate them into the Iraqi army. Nor is that government making any appreciable effort to find them jobs to divert their attention and secure them some livelihood, and paychecks. It is likely only a matter of time before they bug out altogether and turn their newly obtained arms, equipment, and training on the people against whom so many of them were originally most intent on fighting in the first place: the US occupation forces and their Shia Badr Force allies.

Meanwhile, the sun seems to be setting on the hope-filled halcyon days of the Kurds’ autonomy in Iraq’s northeast, in which they were able to bask only because (after years of being sheltered and nurtured under a US-enforced no-fly zone) they supported the US invasion right down the line, while the US could point to them as Iraq’s model of stability and potential. But now the US has shown itself all too willing to sell them out when a stronger, more potentially useful ally, Turkey, put its marker down in this new “great game.” Notwithstanding the protests of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkish forces only recently completed major incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan to go after the PKK; only days ago, for the umpteenth time, Turkish warplanes flew bombing sorties into the region; and the Turkish republic’s leaders have reserved the right to violate the sovereignty of the KRG (and, by the standards of anybody’s interpretation of international law, the sovereignty of the state of Iraq) when and if they deem it necessary (which, given the current turmoil in the Turkish government, also translates to “politically expedient”). And as if the threat from Turkey weren’t enough, the future stability of Kurdistan faces what is perhaps an even direr threat: the possibility of civil war among Kurds, Arabs, and Turks over the ultimate control of the city and region of Kirkuk.

And speaking of civil war, it’s pretty safe to say that the violence of late March in Basra and Baghdad was only a taste of what might be in store for Iraq’s largely Shia south and center, where the scions of the powerful and prestigious al-Hakim and al-Sadr clerical lineages (along with smaller groups like the Fadhila party in Basra) are vying for political control (and in Basra, control of Iraq’s vital oil exports) as provincial elections, scheduled for October, approach. Their respective leaders – Abdulaziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr – control well-armed and inspired militias (respectively, the Badr Forces and the Jaish al-Mahdi, or “Mahdi Army”) that fought each other viciously in the holy city of Karbala only a few months ago, and in Basra and Baghdad only recently. Thanks largely to the intervention of Iran (which was spearheaded by a “terrorist” Revolutionary Guard general), Muqtada agreed to a truce, not to be mistaken for a peace treaty. Simply put, the two militias hate each other. Add then to this very combustible mix that Muqtada is the leader of a huge popular political movement that claims the support of hundreds of thousands of the poor Shia of teeming slums like Sadr City in Baghdad, and of hundreds of thousands more in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. He has called upon his followers – and other Iraqis who want the US occupation out of Iraq – to come together next week for a million-man march. That march was originally set for the holy city of Najaf, a stronghold of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shia political movement led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Now, however, Muqtada has decided to stage the march in Baghdad.

Keeping a lid on the tensions that will be bubbling in Baghdad next week will be the job of the Maliki “government.” This is, of course, the same Maliki government that was recently humbled by its failure in Basra and that appears ever more dysfunctional, hunkered down in the “Green Zone” (beyond which it exercises little real control) and confronted with a divided, often absentee parliament. The army Maliki commands has proved itself largely unreliable and ineffective, often including members of the Badr militia whose loyalties to the state are suspect or forced to rely on Kurdish peshmerga who are loath to be involved in inter-Arab conflicts. But it’s this army with which Maliki is entrusted with keeping a damper on the situation as Muqtada’s march approaches. Can we really believe they’re up to it?

No. Which is why US troops, air power, and special forces will be on the scene aplenty next week – and why, Mr. Bush has now decided, and why Gen. Petraeus will insist next week, they will need to be there for the foreseeable future. And it’s also why Mr. Bush will feel it justifiable and necessary to hand off the Iraq tinderbox to his successor. Given the current mood of US citizenry (of whom, a new poll indicates, more than 80 percent believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction), that successor will likely not be a member of Mr. Bush’s political party. But with a level of military effort no longer sustainable (as almost all of the top brass have insisted), and with the national economy swirling the bowl, that successor will most certainly have to begin to disengage the US from Iraq – and be left to hold the bag for the hubris, incompetence, and catastrophe of his predecessor.

Because, as US forces pull out, Iraq will most certainly fall apart even more, its misery and violence ratcheting up by several notches. With much more justification than Mr. Bush did last week, many across the world will proclaim it a “defining moment.” Some will proclaim that the American behemoth has been vanquished once and for all. Others, perhaps more reflectively, and dishearteningly, may surmise that whatever fires America might have lit for insisting on goodness and justice on the planet lie in cinders, if not altogether doused.

But Mr. Bush’s glorious page in our national memory will be completely up in smoke, wisps on the wind of history.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.

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FEATURE: Why Bush should reflect on Pinochet

The green light

greenlight.jpg
The abuse, rising to the level of torture, of those captured and detained in the war on terror is a defining feature of the presidency of George W. Bush. Its military beginnings, however, lie not in Abu Ghraib, as is commonly thought, or in the “rendition” of prisoners to other countries for questioning, but in the treatment of the very first prisoners at Guantanamo. Starting in late 2002 a detainee bearing the number 063 was tortured over a period of more than seven weeks. In his story lies the answer to a crucial question: How was the decision made to let the U.S. military start using coercive interrogations at Guantanamo?

The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a “trickle up” explanation: that is, the decision was generated by military commanders and interrogators on the ground. This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration—by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees—lawyers—who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option. This is the story of how the torture at Guantanamo began, and how it spread. [complete article]

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OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Prankster president

Soft shoe in hard times

Everyone here is flummoxed about why the president is in such a fine mood.

The dollar’s crumpling, the recession’s thundering, the Dow’s bungee-jumping and the world’s disapproving, yet George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly, tap dancing and singing in a one-man review called “The Most Happy Fella.”

“I’m coming to you as an optimistic fellow,” he told the Economic Club of New York on Friday. His manner — chortling and joshing — was in odd juxtaposition to the Fed’s bailing out the imploding Bear Stearns and his own acknowledgment that “our economy obviously is going through a tough time,” that gas prices are spiking, and that folks “are concerned about making their bills.”

He began by laughingly calling the latest news on the economic meltdown “a interesting moment” and ended by saying that “our energy policy has not been very wise” and that there was “no quick fix” on gasp-inducing gas prices.

“You know, I guess the best way to describe government policy is like a person trying to drive a car in a rough patch,” he said. “If you ever get stuck in a situation like that, you know full well it’s important not to overcorrect, because when you overcorrect you end up in the ditch.”

Dude, you’re already in the ditch.

Boy George crashed the family station wagon into the globe and now the global economy. Yet the more terrified Americans get, the more bizarrely carefree he seems. The former oilman reacted with cocky ignorance a couple of weeks ago when a reporter informed him that gas was barreling toward $4 a gallon. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — I imagine Bush learned his happy-go-lucky trick some time in his adolescence. It’s a familiar ruse everyone remembers from the classroom. There’s a kid who’s mediocre but proud and he thinks he can avoid being embarrassed by his poor performance. He parades his lack of seriousness as though to say, “You know I could really excel if I wanted to, but none of this matters to me so I can’t be bothered. You can study and I’ll party.” This is Bush’s exit strategy from the White House. He wants to tell us he fooled us; that when we thought he was doing badly because we thought he was incompetent, in truth he wasn’t even trying.

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OPINION: Terrorism, Iraq, and the facts on the ground

Normalizing air war from Guernica to Arab Jabour

For those who know something about the history of air power, which, since World War II, has been lodged at the heart of the American Way of War, that 100,000 figure [-- the quantity of explosives dropped on Arab Jabour south of Baghdad last week --] might have rung a small bell.

On April 27, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (a prelude to World War II), the planes of the German Condor Legion attacked the ancient Basque town of Guernica. They came in waves, first carpet bombing, then dropping thermite incendiaries. It was a market day and there may have been as many as 7,000-10,000 people, including refugees, in the town which was largely destroyed in the ensuing fire storm. More than 1,600 people may have died there (though some estimates are lower). The Germans reputedly dropped about 50 tons or 100,000 pounds of explosives on the town. In the seven decades between those two 100,000 figures lies a sad history of our age. [complete article]

The state of the (Iraqi) union

The George W Bush-sponsored Iraqi “surge” is now one year old. The US$11 billion-a-month (and counting) Iraqi/Afghan joint quagmire keeps adding to the US government’s staggering over $9 trillion debt (it was “only” $5.6 trillion when Bush took power in early 2001).

On the ground in Iraq, the state of the union – Bush’s legacy – translates into a completely shattered nation with up to 70% unemployment, a 70% inflation rate, less than six hours of electricity a day and virtually no reconstruction, although White House-connected multinationals have bagged more than $50 billion in competition-free contracts so far. The gleaming reconstruction success stories of course are the Vatican-sized US Embassy in Baghdad – the largest in the world – and the scores of US military bases.

Facts on the ground also attest the “surge” achieved no “political reconciliation” whatsoever in Iraq – regardless of a relentless US corporate media propaganda drive, fed by the Pentagon, to proclaim it a success. The new law to reverse de-Ba’athification – approved by a half-empty Parliament and immediately condemned by Sunni and secular parties as well as former Ba’athists themselves – will only exacerbate sectarian hatred. [complete article]

Al Qaeda loves Bush: Thanks for the free advertising

It shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point that the president uses al Qaeda as code. Last night, in his State of the Union address, he mentioned al Qaeda 10 times, terrorism 23, extremism eight, Osama bin Laden once. Sure we are fighting a war against terrorism, and al Qaeda is always a ready reminder of Sept. 11. But the president uses this code as much to describe our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in that, he purveys a brand of confusion and surrender.

First, confusion: Al Qaeda in Iraq, whatever it is, is just one of many organized groups fighting the United States and its military coalition, fighting the Iraqi government, and seeking to create enough chaos and insecurity to defeat both. Since the very beginning of the Iraq war, when Donald Rumsfeld dismissed those attacking U.S. troops as “dead enders” and Baathists, the American description of the enemy in Iraq has contained an element of self-deception: if the enemy were just Saddam recalcitrants, then we could convince ourselves that everyone else welcomed us and was on our side.

Since Iraq started going downhill, we have described those fighting against U.S. forces as Shia and Sunni extremists, Iranian-backed militias, foreign fighters, even criminals and opportunists. By the time Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as an identifiable leader, al Qaeda had stuck as the most useful label. It didn’t always apply, and it unfortunately connoted command and control of the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation from some mountain headquarters in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but U.S. spokesmen have become extremely careful never to say Iraqis attacked U.S. forces. [complete article]

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NEWS & OPINION: Signing statements

The fine print

With President Bush, you always have to read the footnotes.

Just before Monday night’s State of the Union speech, in which Mr. Bush extolled bipartisanship, railed against government excesses and promised to bring the troops home as soon as it’s safe to withdraw, the White House undermined all of those sentiments with the latest of the president’s infamous signing statements.

The signing statements are documents that earlier presidents generally used to trumpet their pleasure at signing a law, or to explain how it would be enforced. More than any of his predecessors, the current chief executive has used the pronouncements in a passive-aggressive way to undermine the power of Congress.

Over the last seven years, Mr. Bush has issued hundreds of these insidious documents declaring that he had no intention of obeying a law that he had just signed. This is not just constitutional theory. Remember the detainee treatment act, which Mr. Bush signed and then proceeded to ignore, as he told C.I.A. interrogators that they could go on mistreating detainees? [complete article]

Bush issues signing statement on defense act, waiving ban on permanent bases In Iraq

P President Bush yesterday signed the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act after initially rejecting Congress’s first version because it would have allegedly opened the Iraqi government to “expensive lawsuits.”

Even though he forced Congress to change its original bill, Bush’s signature yesterday came with a little-noticed signing statement, claiming that provisions in the law “could inhibit the President’s ability to carry out his constitutional obligations.” CQ reports on the provisions Bush plans to disregard:

One such provision sets up a commission to probe contracting fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another expands protections for whistleblowers who work for government contractors. A third requires that U.S. intelligence agencies promptly respond to congressional requests for documents. And a fourth bars funding for permanent bases in Iraq and for any action that exercises U.S. control over Iraq’s oil money. [complete article]

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