Saturday, January 20, 2007

Oh, Gawd… It’s David Brooks again. But then there are Nicholas Kristof and Frank Rich to take the bad taste away. I’ll put ’em up in the order of deliciousness, with Brooks first and Rich for desert. Here’s David:

We’re in bipartisan nirvana. Bills are passing through the House 356 to 71 and through the Senate 96 to 2. Nancy Pelosi is aglow, and this week President Bush will trot out a State of the Union speech so conciliatory in tone it’ll sound like Gandhi on Quaaludes.

The question is, What is all this good cheer accomplishing? It’s time to render judgments on the substance of all this legislation coursing through the Democratic Congress:

Ethics reform: A–. This is the best thing the Democrats have done. The bans on lobbyist-financed gifts, meals and travel are unimportant. Few legislators are corrupted by a steak or even a ride in a Gulfstream.

But there are measures in the tough Senate bill that will change behavior. Legislators will have to wait two years before becoming lobbyists. Lobbyists will have to disclose donations they collect and bundle. There will be more transparency on earmarks. If this bill becomes law, the Democrats will have done something significant to clean up Washington.

Minimum wage: B–. The traditional argument against raising the minimum wage is that higher labor costs mean that employers hire fewer workers. It’s hard to believe this burden will cost many jobs, given how low the minimum wage is now.

On the other hand, raising the minimum wage won’t be of much benefit to the working poor. Only 0.6 percent of all wage workers make the minimum, and many of those are middle-class teenagers or recent grads.

The economists Richard Burkhauser of Cornell and Joseph Sabia of the University of Georgia estimate that a mere 12.7 percent of the benefits of a federal minimum wage hike would go to poor families, while 63 percent would go to families earning more than twice the poverty line. In sum, a poorly targeted publicity measure that will nonetheless help some people in need. Raising the earned-income tax credit would have been better.

Prescription drugs: D. While they were the opposition, Democrats fulminated that the Republicans were so deep in the pockets of Big Pharma that they wouldn’t even let the government negotiate lower drug prices. But governing is harder than kvetching, and the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the Democratic plan would have a negligible effect on prices for the elderly.

The plan allows the government to negotiate, but doesn’t take the politically difficult step of giving it any leverage to actually lower prices. A symbolic gesture.

Student loans: C–. House Democrats (and 124 Republicans) voted to cut the interest rates on student loans. This is a nice subsidy for middle-class grads, but will do almost nothing to help working-class kids complete college. Over the past three decades, the federal government has spent more than $750 billion on financial aid, with spending levels exploding over the past 10 years. This money has done little to improve graduation rates. That’s because relatively few students can’t complete college for financial reasons.

Study after study has failed to find any link between recent federal subsidy programs and college attendance. Democrats would have been better off treamlining existing aid or focusing their efforts on Pell grants.

Energy policies: A–. Democrats have voted to reduce some of the government’s oil and gas subsidies and shift them toward renewable energy. As Jerry Taylor wrote in The National Review recently, the case for the existing oil subsidies is “laughably thin.” In fact, it’s too bad Congress didn’t take an even bigger slice out of corporate pork.

Sept. 11 commission recommendations: C–. This is another case of governing being a lot harder than complaining. Democrats vowed to enact all the recommendations, but immediately backtracked on the one the commission said was “among the most difficult and important”: strengthening Congressional oversight. No guts, no glory.

Stem cell research. B. The House voted 253 to 174 to reverse the Bush restrictions on embryonic stem cell research funding (not enough to overturn a veto). A good move, for most of us. But it’s hard to judge the practical consequences, given how distant the benefits of this research are, and the fact that recent innovations like amniotic stem cells might alter the whole debate.

In conclusion, if a wonky Mr. Chips were to step back and render a judgment on the new Congress so far, he’d note that it’s not a terribly ambitious student. It hasn’t tried anything big. It has a weakness for showy symbolism and middle-class subsidies. Still, at least it hasn’t humiliated the nation the way the last Congress did, and it looks set to do some modest good.

God above, but he’s tiresome… Here’s Nicholas Kristof on W’s adventures vis-à-vis Iran:

One of the most worrying parts of President Bush’s Iraq strategy doesn’t have anything to do with Iraq. It’s the way he’s ramping up a confrontation with Iran.

Across a broad spectrum of policy levers, Mr. Bush is raising the pressure on Iran, increasing the risk that he will drag the U.S. into a third war in an Islamic country in six years. Instead of disengaging from war, he could end up starting another.

We could have taken another route. In 2003, Iran sent the U.S. a detailed message offering to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions and warming up to Iran.

Some diplomats liked the idea, but administration hawks rejected it at once. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says that the State Department sent a cable to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who looks after U.S. interests in Iran, scolding him for even forwarding the package to Washington.

Obviously, Iran’s offer might have led nowhere. But it’s plain where rejection of the offer has taken us: more Americans are dying in Iraq, and some experts worry about clashes with Iran itself.

The Iraq Study Group proposed engagement with Iran, but instead Mr. Bush has been escalating the rhetoric and military pressure.

“When you have such a buildup and have zero communications, and you have an arena like Iraq where you may step on each other’s toes, you could have rapid escalation,” warns Vali Nasr, an expert on the region at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It doesn’t appear that Mr. Bush wants a war with Iran. His aim seems to be a show of force to deter Iran and reassure our allies in the region. But he is on a path that may easily lead to escalation.

It’s unfortunate that we are ratcheting up the military pressure, because the administration has quietly taken one very useful step against Iran: squeezing its access to international banking transactions. That has caused real economic pain and has added to the unpopularity of Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those banking sanctions, not military moves, are a reason Mr. Ahmadinejad has been rebuked by the country’s supreme leader.

Unfortunately, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad benefit from confrontation.
Both are unpopular domestically but can use a crisis to distract from their policy failures.

“The current strategy benefits Ahmadinejad,” says Professor Nasr. “It’s going to divert attention at the popular level from democracy.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad is facing growing criticism: he has been heckled by university students and scolded in the press, and his candidates did poorly in recent elections. Ordinary Iranians love the U.S. — it’s the most pro-American country in the Middle East I’ve visited — and a civil society is struggling to be born.

“If there is any military strike on Iran, all this movement will end,” said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Even some Republicans opposed to a “grand bargain” favor some kind of engagement. Mitchell Reiss, a former senior State Department official under Mr. Bush, proposes technical talks with Iran about drug trafficking and maritime security. “Even if they are a nonstarter for Tehran, I think we score points in the region for trying,” Ambassador Reiss said.

Granted, Mr. Bush is right to be frustrated by Iran and the way it’s defying the international community with its nuclear program.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush’s military pressure may end up making Iraq bloodier than ever. Instead of being cowed, Iran may use its proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere to kill more American officials and troops.

Or even ordinary Americans here at home. “It’s a pretty good assumption that they have, if not operatives, at least sympathetic actors and affiliated groups” in the U.S., said Henry Crumpton, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism.

Mr. Bush is absolutely right to denounce Iran’s leaders for stealing elections, suppressing their people and dabbling in terrorism. But we ourselves are partly to blame for the awful government in Tehran.

By instigating a coup in 1953 and seeking special legal privileges for American troops in 1964, we empowered extremists like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and allowed them to tap nationalist outrage. So it would be in keeping with tradition if Mr. Bush, by shortsightedly stoking a confrontation with Tehran, now inadvertently helped
Iranian hard-liners crush Iran’s democracy movement.

Which, unfortunately, is probably JUST the way it will play out. And now here’s Frank Rich:

Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but who could imagine we’d already be in danger of replaying that rotten year 2003?

Scooter Libby, the mastermind behind the White House’s bogus scenarios for ginning up the war in Iraq, is back at Washington’s center stage, proudly defending the indefensible in a perjury trial. Ahmad Chalabi, the peddler of flawed prewar intelligence hyped by Mr. Libby, is back in clover in Baghdad, where he purports to lead the government’s Shiite-Baathist reconciliation efforts in between visits to his pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Last but never least is Mr. Libby’s former boss and Mr. Chalabi’s former patron, Dick Cheney, who is back on Sunday-morning television floating fictions about Iraq and accusing administration critics of aiding Al Qaeda. When the vice president went on a tear like this in 2003, hawking Iraq’s nonexistent W.M.D. and nonexistent connections to Mohamed Atta, he set the stage for a war that now kills Iraqi civilians in rising numbers (34,000-plus last year) that are heading into the genocidal realms of Saddam. Mr. Cheney’s latest sales pitch is for a new plan for “victory” promising an even bigger bloodbath.

Mr. Cheney was honest, at least, when he said that the White House’s Iraq policy would remain “full speed ahead!” no matter what happened on Nov. 7. Now it is our patriotic duty — politicians, the press and the public alike — to apply the brakes. Our failure to check the administration when it rushed into Iraq in 2003 will look even more shameful to history if we roll over again for a reboot in 2007. For all the belated Washington scrutiny of the war since the election, and for all the heralded (if so far symbolic) Congressional efforts to challenge it, too much lip service is still being paid to the deceptive P.R. strategies used by the administration to sell its reckless policies. This time we must do what too few did the first time: call the White House on its lies. Lies should not be confused with euphemisms like “incompetence” and “denial.”

Mr. Cheney’s performance last week on “Fox News Sunday” illustrates the problem; his lying is nowhere near its last throes. Asked by Chris Wallace about the White House’s decision to overrule commanders who recommended against a troop escalation, the vice president said, “I don’t think we’ve overruled the commanders.” He claimed we’ve made “enormous progress” in Iraq. He said the administration is not “embattled.” (Well, maybe that one is denial.)

This White House gang is so practiced in lying with a straight face that it never thinks twice about recycling its greatest hits. Hours after Mr. Cheney’s Fox interview, President Bush was on “60 Minutes,” claiming that before the war “everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction” and that “the minute we found out” the W.M.D. didn’t exist he “was the first to say so.” Everybody, of course, was not wrong on W.M.D., starting with the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq. Nor was Mr. Bush the first to come clean once the truth became apparent after the invasion. On May 29, 2003 — two days after a secret Defense Intelligence Agency-sponsored mission found no biological weapons in trailers captured by American forces — Mr. Bush declared: “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

But that’s all W.M.D under the bridge. The most important lies to watch for now are the new ones being reiterated daily by the administration’s top brass, from Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on down. You know fiasco awaits America when everyone in the White House is reading in unison from the same fictional script, as they did back in the day when “mushroom clouds” and “uranium from Africa” were the daily drumbeat.

The latest lies are custom-made to prop up the new “way forward” that is anything but. Among the emerging examples is a rewriting of the history of Iraq’s sectarian violence. The fictional version was initially laid out by Mr. Bush in his Jan. 10 prime-time speech and has since been repeated on television by both Mr. Cheney and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, last Sunday and by Mr. Bush again on PBS’s “NewsHour” on Tuesday. It goes like this: sectarian violence didn’t start spiraling out of control until the summer of 2006, after Sunni terrorists bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra and forced the Shiites to take revenge.

But as Mark Seibel of McClatchy Newspapers noted last week, “the president’s account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics.” They were visible in embryo long before that; The Times, among others, reported as far back as September 2003 that Shiite militias were becoming more radical, dangerous and anti-American. The reasons Mr. Bush pretends that Shiite killing started only last year are obvious enough. He wants to duck culpability for failing to recognize the sectarian violence from the outset — much as he failed to recognize the Sunni insurgency before it — and to underplay the intractability of the civil war to which he will now sacrifice fresh American flesh.

An equally big lie is the administration’s constant claim that it is on the same page as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as we go full speed ahead. Only last month Mr. Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wished he “could be done with” his role as Iraq’s leader “before the end of this term.” Now we are asked to believe not merely that he is a strongman capable of vanquishing the death squads of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, his political ally, but also that he can be trusted to produce the troops he failed to supply in last year’s failed Baghdad crackdown. Yet as recently as November, there still wasn’t a single Iraqi battalion capable of fighting on its own.

Hardly a day passes without Mr. Maliki mocking the White House’s professed faith in him. In the past week or so alone, he has presided over a second botched hanging (despite delaying it for more than two weeks to put in place new guidelines), charged Condi Rice with giving a “morale boost to the terrorists” because she criticized him, and overruled American objections to appoint an obscure commander from deep in
Shiite territory to run the Baghdad “surge.” His government doesn’t even try to hide its greater allegiance to Iran. Mr. Maliki’s foreign minister has asked for the release of the five Iranians detained in an American raid on an Iranian office in northern Iraq this month and, on Monday, called for setting up more Iranian “consulates” in Iraq.

The president’s pretense that Mr. Maliki and his inept, ill-equipped, militia-infiltrated security forces can advance American interests in this war is Neville Chamberlain-like in its naiveté and disingenuousness. An American military official in Baghdad read the writing on the wall to The Times last week: “We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn.” That’s why the most destructive lie of all may be the White House’s constant refrain that its doomed strategy is the only one anyone has proposed. Administration critics, Mr. Cheney said last Sunday, “have absolutely nothing to offer in its place,” as if the Iraq Study Group, John Murtha and Joseph Biden-Leslie Gelb plans, among others, didn’t predate the White House’s own.

In reality we’re learning piece by piece that it is the White House that has no plan. Ms. Rice has now downsized the surge/escalation into an “augmentation,” inadvertently divulging how the Pentagon is improvising, juggling small deployments in fits and starts. No one can plausibly explain how a parallel chain of command sending American and Iraqi troops into urban street combat side by side will work with Iraqis in the lead (it will report to a “committee” led by Mr. Maliki!). Or how $1 billion in new American reconstruction spending will accomplish what the $30 billion thrown down the drain in previous reconstruction spending did not.

All of this replays 2003, when the White House refused to consider any plan, including existing ones in the Pentagon and State Department bureaucracies, for coping with a broken post-Saddam Iraq. Then, as at every stage of the war since, the only administration plan was for a propaganda campaign to bamboozle American voters into believing “victory” was just around the corner.

The next push on the “way forward” propaganda campaign arrives Tuesday night, with the State of the Union address. The good news is that the Democrats have chosen Jim Webb, the new Virginia senator, to give their official response. Mr. Webb, a Reagan administration Navy secretary and the father of a son serving in Iraq, has already provoked a testy exchange about the war with the president at a White House reception for freshmen in Congress. He’s the kind of guy likely to keep a scorecard of the lies on Tuesday night. But whether he does or not, it’s incumbent on all those talking heads who fell for “shock and awe” and “Mission Accomplished” in 2003 to not let history repeat itself in 2007. Facing the truth is the only way forward in Iraq.


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