Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“We do not torture”

President Bush meanders through the landscape of international affairs displaying an astonishing disregard for history. This week, President Bush traveled through America’s backyard, imploring leaders there to join in the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, but in his travels faced resistance both on the street and in the official meetings.

At a news conference in Panama, President Bush looked down from the lectern in response to a journalist’s question, and asserted to his Latin American hosts, with no sense of irony, “Any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.”

Speaking in Brazilia, he challenged Latin American nations to choose “between two competing visions” of their future, an American “vision of hope” and a darker vision––embodied by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez––that “seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades.”

“Only a generation ago, this was a continent plagued by military dictatorship and civil war, yet the people of this continent defied the dictators, and they claimed their liberty."

Bush’s words rang with sincerity and conviction. But like a visitor from Brigadoon, awake after a 100-year slumber, he gave no hint of recognition of America’s history in Latin America. For the people of Latin America, that plague was an American plague. Those dictators, those were our dictators. The U.S. Army School of the Americas based at Fort Benning, Georgia, trained the armies and police of the Latin American nations that crushed indigenous resistance. With his disregard for that history, Bush’s words, intended perhaps to inspire, came across instead as hectoring and self-righteous.

In a similar vein, President Bush launched us into war in Iraq, casting us as liberators bringing liberty to a repressed people. We entered the Moslem world as if it was a tabula rasa, as if we did not have a history there; as if their borders were not crafted in the back rooms of Western colonial powers; as if the autocratic families in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq did not draw their support from us; as if the Donald Rumsfeld who led the armies of America to depose Saddam was not the self-same man who sat by Saddam’s side and offered aid in his war with Iran, and looked the other way as he killed his own people; as if it was not our CIA that led the coup that deposed Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran, after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and installed in his place the Shah and trained his Savak secret police.

For the peoples of Latin America, as for the peoples of the Middle East, America did not just arrive on the scene but is part of a history of involvement by world powers in the affairs of their nations. Bush’s Neoconservative rhetoric of liberty and democracy was preceded by decades of policies of American administrations who in the shadow of the Cold War and in the name of Realpolitik installed and supported Latin American autocrats, squashed democracy and supported the policies of the iron fist.

As we seek to create a better world, a world of democracy and popular sovereignty and free trade, we must support national self-determination and recognize the struggles each nation will face along the way. There will be electoral outcomes that we may not like––Hugo Chavez is a case in point––but if we are to go down this road with integrity, we must hold true to our commitment to democracy itself, as shaped by local culture and values. If we fail to do this, our words will ring hollow and America’s credibility and strength in the world will be diminished.

One hundred years ago, the Islamic reformer and Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abdu wrote of the disenchantment of the nations of the Middle East with their English overlords who were tutoring them in the ways of the modern world, yet whose enlightened words belied the harsh realities of their actions on the ground. His words resonate with the resistance Bush encountered last week.

We Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.

When Bush looked down from the lectern, he failed to consider the context of his words. He was in Latin America, meeting with leaders of nations that have worked for decades to find their own path toward economic security and democracy. Along the way, they will look to us for support even as they struggle against the legacy of our shared past. As he considered his remarks, it would have been worthwhile for him to recall his own words from when he was running for President while Governor of Texas.

“If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we've got to be humble… I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you.”

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Harry Reid’s hindsight

Harry Reid can shut down the Senate, demanding that the Senate pursue the investigation that it began in the summer of 2003 into the quality and use of pre-war intelligence, but he cannot absolve the Democrats in the Senate for their responsibility for their votes for war. A Senator’s job, along with its six-year tenure and great perks, sometimes demands votes of courage. Not often, but sometimes, a Senator has to make tough votes, and for those they should be held accountable.

Reid’s action suggests that the wool was pulled over his eyes when he voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002. However, a cursory look at the history suggests that it is not that simple. There have been many times in our history as a nation when Senators have become swept up in the events of the day and failed to stand up, times when they would look back and see actions that they took that they would change if they could. While the Iraq intelligence on WMD turned out to be wrong, the WMD intelligence failure can neither explain nor condone his vote that day.

The Bush administration came into office with the desire to remove Saddam Hussein from power. No credible observer can suggest otherwise, and Republicans are quick to point out that regime change was the policy of the Clinton administration and of the Senate itself which in 1998 approved the Iraq Liberation Act by unanimous consent.

Within the Bush administration, two factions had differing agendas with respect to Iraq, but they both wanted to finish the job left undone by Bush’s father. For the old school hawks, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it was unacceptable to let Saddam control the second largest oil reserves in the world. More to the point, the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and they believed that a good ass-kicking would put everyone on notice that the Clinton years were over, that America was back.

The neocons, on the other hand, were driven by grander notions of building a new, democratic order in the Middle East. As Paul Wolfowitz suggested in Vanity Fair magazine, their central concern was Saddam’s criminal treatment of the Iraqi people and the instability that he created in the region. However, he recognized that the American people would not condone sacrificing American lives without a more urgent threat to the homeland.

The 9/11 provided the rationale for going to war for both camps. President Bush has repeatedly articulated his view that even with 20-20 hindsight, he would have pursued the same war policy for the simple reason that leaving Saddam in power in the post-9/11 world was unacceptable. Why removing Saddam in the absence of an imminent threat was an imperative, while comparably odious regimes in Syria, Libya and North Korea could be left alone is never explained.

So there it is. We know now what we knew then, that the administration was committed to a policy of regime change, by military means if necessary––or preferably in some views.

The selling of the war was artfully done. It rested on three key arguments that extended beyond WMD, which when linked together suggested a credible and imminent threat to the homeland. First, Saddam was developing nuclear weapons. Second, he was linked to al Qaeda. Third, that he was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Vice President Cheney was the principal salesman for these arguments, the first two by direct suggestion and the third by nuanced innuendo. The President and the Vice President played an elegant pas-de-deux on this subject, where the Vice President would make the positive assertion, the President would deny the direct connection––"We have had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th"––and the Vice President would reiterate his statement––Iraq was the “geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” The success of this strategy was evident in the fact that by the time the war was underway, 70% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. To this day, the administration denies that this is the case and denies that they made that argument.

But where does this leave Harry Reid? The drumbeats for war were powerful. By the time of the Senate vote, support for the war was a test of fealty to the nation, a litmus test of patriotism. As John Kerry made clear, Democratic Senators voted for the war in part to maintain their credibility on national security matters. But they did not cast that vote in ignorance.

The National Intelligence Estimate provided by the CIA in advance of the Iraq war resolution laid out a highly ambivalent view of the situation. Even as that document was the basis for the case for war, it also left significant open questions. First, while it suggested that Iraq was continuing its WMD program contrary to UN resolutions, it stated that it could not “detect” portions of this weapons program and was relying on third party intelligence. Second, its suggestions that Iraq was embarking on a nuclear weapons program was flatly contradicted by the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research in the report, who argued that the claims of a nuclear program in process were “highly dubious.” Finally, the NIE concluded that it had little confidence that Saddam would use WMD, that he would engage in attacks against the US homeland, or that he would share WMD with al Qaeda.

Did the CIA spin the intelligence? Perhaps. Did the administration cherry pick the arguments to make the case for war? Without question. Was the administration’s support of war predicated on the NIE? Absolutely not, as evidenced by the frank statements of the President and Vice President that if they had to do it again, they would. After Saddam fell, and no WMD were to be found, Condaleeza Rice continued to assert the party line––"Let us be very clear about why we went to war against Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein's regime posed a threat to the security of the United States and the world"––notwithstanding the fact that the NIE on which administration action was presumably based suggested otherwise.

But Harry Reid wants to claim that he was duped, that he was sold on the war due to manipulated intelligence. That may be a way of getting Democrats in the Senate off the hook, but it is not a fair assessment of the history. The decision to go to war was a judgment made by the administration. They believed in unilateralism and had no interest in UN concurrence. In the face of a powerful and emotionally charged sales job, Harry Reid and the Democrats failed put the facts as they were known on the table and cast their vote based upon those facts.

Was there evidence that Saddam was a conspirator in attacking the United States? No.

Did American intelligence believe he had the capacity or intention of attacking the United States homeland? No.

Did American allies in the region––Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey––support an invasion of Iraq? No.

Did Iraq constitute a clear and present danger that could be confronted in no other way? This was the crux of the argument.

For the hawks, a war was necessary to restore American credibility. For the neocons, it was an opportunity to undermine a dictator and promote democracy.

On the other hand, for the conservative realists, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Bush’s father, a discretionary war was utter folly, but they had no vote.

But the question is, what was it for Harry Reid? He had a vote, and it was his decision to make. The world is a rough place, and for a US Senator to claim he was duped just won’t fly. The evidence just doesn’t support it.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Moral failings

Forget the domestic distractions of the moment. Forget the hurricanes and the housing bubble. Forget the federal prosecutors and Judy Miller, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. Forget the nominations of Harriet Miers and Bob Bernanke. Watch instead the unfolding of a moment of drama in the Middle East.

On October 20th, Detlev Mehlis presented his report to the United Nations. The long-time German prosecutor laid out the case that high-level Syrian officials conspired in the assassination of Lebanese opposition leader and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Named in the report were the brother and brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad, apparently named in a draft of the report, was not directly implicated.

Assassinations of political leaders are not new to the history of the Middle East, much less to the history of Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs. But the world is changing. Over the past thirty years, nations from Latin America to East Asia have migrated from authoritarianism to forms of popular democracy. The exception has been the Middle East, where Arab regimes installed to lead states whose borders were written principally by the British and the French in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate cling to power. 

Even as the language of democracy has crept in to the political lexicon of Jordan, Egypt and the Emirates, the Assad Bathist regime in Syria has held firm. The Assad regimea charter member of the axis-of-still-pretty-evilhas embarked on a media campaign to soften its image in the west. Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma were featured in James Bennet's New York Times Magazine cover article, The Enigma of Damascus. Not since the Soviet Union successful spun the west on Yuri Andropov’s love of Johnnie Walker and Benny Goodman has a dictator used the western press with such √©lan. Though, as the Judy Miller story suggests, the New York Times may have become an easy mark. Mr. Bennet inscribes:

President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honeycolored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J.P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.

Wow. Could this really be the same Assad whose Bathist regime has a track record of murdering opponents and destroying and burying the entire city of Hama to break the back of an opposition group? Could this really be the same man who threatened with credibility to destroy Lebanon if the Parliament there did not change the constitution to assure that President Emile Lahoud remained in power?

This will be a defining moment for the United Nations. Syria has violated the law and the essence of the United Nations charter. This will as well be a defining moment for modernity and the community of Arab nations. Assad is a minority Alawite. His regime has assassinated a Sunni leader of another nation, while supporting its long-time ally, a Maronite Christian. But more to the point, the Syrian action led to demands that Syria leave Lebanon. And while Syria has claimed compliance, old habits die hard, as Assad’s words to Hariri suggest: "Lahoud is me… If you and [French President Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.” So much for subtlety. So much for the essence of Western-Arab fusion.

But there will be no talk of actions against Assad for his crimes. And that is one great legacy of the war in Iraq, and the failure of the ambitions of the Neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The Neocons’ goal was to discard the amoral expediency of Realpolitik that has dominated American foreign policy for decades and to build in its place a foreign policy based upon principles of liberty, democracy and the imperative of confronting oppressive regimes. 

Iraq was to be their test case. Regime change in Iraq was intended to be the great moment of American redemption. For the decades that Realpolitik dominated our foreign policy, as America supported authoritarian regimes that oppressed their own people but who created regional stability and supported American interests. The Neoconservatives sought to change all of that. In the post-holocaust world, to get rid of the regime was a moral imperative. He is a committer of genocide, and he was likely to do it again. He was a starter of serial regional wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people. He was a source of instability and suffering. 

Imagine the confusion in the Arab mind. For the better part of a century the western powers worked their Realpolitik magic in the Middle East. From the wreckage of the Ottoman Caliphate, the French and British cobbled together nations of disparate tribes and clans, and Kings, Shahs and other strongmen were installed to lead them. As the new millennium dawned, the language and motivations of Washingtonnow the center of the new unipolar political worldappeared to be changing. Realpolitik was dying and the young Bush administration seemed to be in thrall of high-brow Neocon aspirations that suggested a new day might be dawning for an Arab world that had lagged behind the democratic wave that has swept East Asia, South America and much of Africa.

But it was not to be. As Paul Wolfowitz suggested in Vanity Fair magazine, the administration set aside the principled arguments for regime change that focused on Saddam’s support for terrorism in the region, on his criminal treatment of the Iraqi people and on his instigation of a number of wars with his neighbors in the region, and instead relied on the WMD argument. In their impatience to get boots on the ground, they fell prey to the Rumsfeld-Cheney arguments that the United States must act with “a little unilateralism” and eschew the views of France and Germany that in their view were compromised by commercial interests and moral weakness.

The failure to make the moral argument was theirs. The problemas Wolfowitz concedes in Vanity Fairwas that the real issues were not discussed, the fulsomeness and moral reach of the Neocon agenda was not debated, and the indigenous mechanisms for change that would become essential were not developed. Instead, the administration fell prey to the Washington disease of selling policy through the path of least resistancewith half-truths and dissembling if necessary—and in so doing lost the mandate sought by some in the Neocon movement that it is time for America to change her stance in the world. 

And the consequences of that failure will play out in Syria. We will not discuss the predations of Bashir Assad with any seriousness of purpose. Instead we will applaud his casual strength of purpose and infer an alignment with our values. And that Asma, she does look lovely in green.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The long weekend

It must be a long weekend up at Camp David.

It has been a brutal week on the home front, but not as bad as it could have been. Harriet Miers withdrew, so the bleating has ceased from that travesty of a nomination. Scooter Libby has been indicted, but Karl Rove has dodged a bullet. The Atlantic hurricane season is winding down, the price of oil and the price of gasoline have waned, and the market was up sharply to close the week.

All in all, it could have been worse.

This is a moment of truth for the President. He will shortly announce his new nomination for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and that nomination will set the tone of his administration through the mid-term elections next November.

The Miers nomination cost the President dearly with his base––who have followed him patiently through war and deficit spending in search of the promised land of a transformed high court––and there will be no messing around this time. Michael Luttig, Michael McConnell, Sam Alito, or better yet, one of the judges appointed during the nomination battle this year, Priscilla Owen or Janice Rogers Brown.

Trust is now in short supply and the President is on a very short leash. “The days of the blank check have ended,” suggested American Conservative Union Chairman David Keane. Long-time conservative leader Paul Weyrich added, “We are up for a fight. We are ready for a fight. And if we get a good nominee, all will be forgiven as far as Harriet Miers.”

All will be forgiven. Sitting in Camp David, that statement has to burn, and burn deeply. President Bush submitted a nominee that he trusted, and they chewed her up and spat her out. And now they feel entitled to lay down the law? Who the hell is Paul Weyrich, and who elected him to anything?

For George W. Bush, this weekend is about his legacy. It is about how he is going to spend the balance of his term in office, and it is about his capacity to lead the nation and the world.

Karl Rove will be there, and he will be arguing for the base as he always has. But Karl Rove is the one who almost got indicted and brought down the house of cards because of his arrogance and his recklessness. Rove may be calling the shots, or maybe Andy Card, the soon-to-depart chief of staff. Perhaps, five years into his term, it is time to call his father for counsel. This is about the legacy of the family after all.

The problem of this nomination transcends the Court. If he cedes the nomination to the demands of the right, the fight––which Weyrich and his minions are itching for––will be a millennial one. Conservative leader Senator Sam Brownback has encouraged this outcome by suggesting that it is time for the nation to engage in a “great debate” about the future of the courts and “the kind of country we want to live in." But there will be no “great debate,” it will simply be a cataclysmic clash of saturation media and anger and ads and screaming. Like the sound of one hand clapping, it will all be fury but no one will be listening.

Meanwhile, the world badly needs an America that leads. In the uni-polar world that has emerged since the end of the Cold War, the nations of the world depend on America. Not as a military power, but more as an umpire. While nations verbally attack America for their own political purposes, they nonetheless depend on its stability as a point of reference for international conduct.

Today, America’s capacity to lead has been diminished, and that is one of the great losses of the Iraq war. Our contempt for international institutions has damaged our credibility, but the nations of the world know well that there is no alternative.

Now, as our domestic turmoil continues, nations have felt Bush’s weakness. While domestic events have dominated our news, Condi Rice is flying solo and international affairs have slowly been spinning out of control.

First there is Iran, who with soaring energy revenues and revitalized leadership is moving to assume leadership in the region. Riding a wave of growing confidence as it has resumed its nuclear development program, Iranian President Ahmadinejad this week called for the destruction of the State of Israel.

Then there is Syria, which was accused in a report to the United Nations Security Council last week of complicity in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the opposition leader and former Prime Minister of Lebanon. Recognizing America’s diminished credibility and capacity to respond, Syria eschewed its prior stance of keeling to Washington’s wind, haughtily denied the substance of the report and staged large public demonstrations in support of its leader Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein’s political cousin.

Then yesterday came the Russians. Faced with a report authored by former Fed Chairman Paul Volker––a man of impeccable credentials––on the United Nations Oil-for-Food program that accused them of paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, the Russian government denounce the report as based on fabricated documents.

Finally, in Israel, where prospects for anything positive seemed to be unraveling even more than usual, both the Israelis and Palestinians dismissed American calls for restraint, suggesting that they would look after their own interests.

And, of course, there are other matters. An Al Quaeda attack in New Dehli has opened up a new front, and there is always the back burner, with North Korea on a slow boil.

So George Bush faces hard decisions this weekend. And with him will be Harriet Miers, his lawyer and devoted friend. But while the pundits bray and the conservatives pray, there is more at stake than just the Court. This is a moment for reflection and sage advice, and the hope that those are not in short supply.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Culture of Corruption

In the six weeks since the Katrina debacle, the wheels have come off the bus of the Bush administration and the Republican Party’s iron grip on national politics would appear to be at risk.

Tom DeLay has been indicted and has stepped down as House Majority Leader. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is under investigation by the SEC. White House procurement official David Safavian has been indicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbyist-corruption probe. Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are now acknowledged by their attorneys to be in “serious legal jeopardy.”

Then there is the cronyism. First there was Michael Brown, the politically-connected but administratively-challenged FEMA director. Then came the Harriet Miers nomination, which was indefensible on any grounds other than personal affection.

For a Democratic Party firmly ensconced in the psyche of the opposition party, the wave of Republican missteps and legal problems have visions of taking back Congress in 2006. The emerging theme of running against the Culture of Corruption evokes the 1974 Watergate Class that dominated Congress for a decade.

But the Culture of Corruption theme is a trap for the Democratic Party. Consider for a moment the results of recent polls. In the wake of unrelenting bad news and bad press, the President’s job approval numbers have fallen to 40% or below across a number of polls. In a similar vein, 60-65% of those polled believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.

However, the Democratic Party has not been the beneficiary of this broad-based disaffection. An October 10th Pew Research poll placed the job approval ratings of Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders at an identical 32%, while a contemporaneous NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave favorable ratings to the Democratic and Republican Parties of 35% and 36%, respectively.

As a theme for the nationalization of the 2006 congressional races, the Culture of Corruption is a losing bet for several reasons. First, and foremost, the Democrats are no virgins at the political corruption game. Lest the Party leaders succumb to a form of collective Alzheimer’s, the Republican Revolution spearheaded by Newt Gingrich was built upon an anti-corruption platform––names such as Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowsky come to mind––and the repeated efforts at campaign finance reform reflect national disgust at a corrupt network of contributions, lobbyists and favors endemic to both parties.

Second, while the Republicans may control the levers of power nationally and are therefore the visible players in the corruption game, the political parties play at the local level as well, and there is enough graft going on within the states to taint candidates of every stripe.

A quick look at the New Jersey gubernatorial race should be enough to make the point. In a race whose political ads have sullied the airways in at least three states, Democratic Senator Jon Corzine is having no luck pinning the Culture of Corruption rap on his opponent, Doug Forrester, as Forrester is in turn tying Corzine to the cronyism and corruption of the former Democratic Governor, Jim McCreevey, who resigned after disclosing that he had appointed his gay lover to head the state office of homeland security.

While Corzine remains the odds on favorite––a 90-10 bet at Tradesports.com––by the tenor of the ads, you would think that he was a long-time inside pol in the corrupt New Jersey Democratic machine, rather than a former leader of the heady intergalactic investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs.

And New Jersey is not an aberration. A quick look at a few other states suggests how unlikely the Culture of Corruption gambit is to work for the Democrats. Across the river in Pennsylvania, State Senator Vincent Fumo (D), minority chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, is under federal investigation for a novel influence peddling scheme wherein he allegedly solicited and received a $17 million gift to a tax-exempt organization that he controlled in exchange for supporting a utility merger.

Across the country in New Mexico, the state Democratic Party is struggling with the recent indictments of the current and prior State Treasurers, both elected Democrats, who are accused of the more conventional charges of taking kickbacks in exchange for state contracts, both in the form of large wire transfers and small bills in white envelopes.

The problem is simple. Since the founding of the nation, politicians with power have sold favors for funds. Not all of them, and not most of them, but many of them nonetheless. Corruption in Washington, DC, did not start five years ago, and neither did political favoritism in high-level appointments. Just ask Bobby Kennedy, Abe Fortas, Bert Lance and Mack McLarty. Oh, yes, and Hillary Clinton.

The American people understand the American political system. Politicians across the political spectrum appoint their friends for two reasons: first, because they trust them, and second, because they can. And quite often the appointees are qualified for the job. If the voters are disgusted, they are going to stay home, not vote for the other party. After all, they have long memories, and despite what people in DC might think, they are not stupid

No, if the Democrats want to win, they would do well to have a better candidate, a better organization, and a better message. Forget the Culture of Corruption. How about dealing with the steady erosion in the middle class at home, and American credibility and leadership abroad. Someone who could fix those problems might be worth voting for.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Questions for Michael Chertoff

Thanksgiving Day, 2005.

A terrorist group announces that it has placed a nuclear device in downtown Philadelphia and that they will detonate it in seven days.

They have no demands. Their goal is simply to create mayhem. And terror.

How would we respond? Who would take charge of the situation? Who would speak for the government? How would individuals and families know how to respond? Whose directions should we listen to? If we should evacuate, where should we go?

Would a threat of an emergency would be sufficient to destabilize a region and undermine our economy? Katrina was an emergency. Rita was just a threat. They both laid bare problems in our preparedness and our response. And the responsibility for addressing these problems lies squarely at Michael Chertoff’s feet as he heads to Capitol Hill.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow for the first time to testify about the performance of FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Without doubt the questioning will focus on the myriad mistakes that were made in the run-up to and in the wake of that storm. Buses that were or were not there. Hospitals that were not evacuated. Food and water. Looting. Ice trucks wandering the countryside. The Blame Game. Enough for some good television, but none of it touches on the important questions.

What has the Department of Homeland Security been doing? Three years and $100 billion later, the most basic aspects of dealing with a significant disaster do not appear to have been addressed.

First, the federal-state-local relationship. FEMA Director Michael Brown, whom Chertoff demoted and then fired in the wake of the Katrina debacle, hung his hat on issues of jurisdiction in defense of his agency’s performance. Who was responsible and for what in the wake of an emergency situation seemed not to have been considered in advance of the storm.

In the pre-9/11 world, one could chalk this up to just one more example of inter-governmental, bureaucratic failure, but no longer. The first duty of the Department of Homeland Security was to coordinate the agencies involved in homeland protection and response. Clearly, this has not been attended to, and that responsibility falls at the DHS level, not the FEMA level.

Second, evacuation planning. How many Americans have received instructions as to the evacuation route that they should take in the wake of an emergency situation? OK, if they haven’t received actual instructions, have they been told where to go to get instructions in the event of an emergency? No? OK, how about where to go for gasoline in an emergency in the event that something happens when their tank is empty?

Forty years ago, during the height of the Cold War, my mother kept cans of baked beans in the basement. We did not have enough to live on for more than a day or two, and we did not have a fallout shelter, but she had been instructed to store some food and to keep it in the safest place in the event of a nuclear attack.

And in school, there were duck-and-cover drills––and of course in true 1960s fashion there were the t-shirts that told you what to do: In the event of attack, place your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.

I am not advocating for duck-and-cover drills. But watching the traffic fleeing Houston in anticipation of Rita brought home the fact the two visible contributions to date from the Department of Homeland Security are Tom Ridge's color-coded threat alerts, and the suggestion that Americans buy duct tape.

I have no doubt that more is being done, and I imagine that deep in the bowels of the National Security Agency cyber-attacks are simulated and responses implemented, but the evidence from Katrina and Rita is that the more basic aspects of planning have not been attended to, and should be.

Issues of inter-governmental co-operation and evacuation planning are not sexy issues, like the security of our ports, transportation networks or the Internet. But in the wake of the hurricanes, it would appear that to wreck havoc on our nation, our psyche and our economy, one would not actually have to implement a plan attack, but just implement a well-conceived threat.

Michael Chertoff fired Michael Brown for not doing his job. Is he doing his?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Slow down and take a deep breath

There is a rush to rebuild.

Senators and contractors, Mayors and Presidents. Faced with the enormity of the challenge of rebuilding a destroyed city, the urge is to rebuild it now. $10 billion. $52 billion. $200 billion. $250 billion. Three brazillion. The numbers just keep on going up.

Insurance money. Federal spending. Give tax breaks for machinery. No, eliminate federal taxes. No, reduce wage taxes on low income people.

The utility system. The levees. The hospitals. Homes, buildings, casinos. $2,500 per house to put blue tarps on the roofs of damaged homes.

Bring the people home. No, wait, there are no services. Don’t let them back in.

Stop.

Hurricane Katrina has wrecked devastation on a region and destroyed parts of a major American city. We need to take a deep breath. It happened. People fled. People died––though fortunately in far smaller numbers than originally feared.

Cities take years to build, and that growth evolves as communities evolve. Decisions are made through the rough and tumble process of local democracy. Planning and self-interest collide. Money is spent and money is made, and, over time, a city grows up as the heart of a community and of a region.

Look around the nation. Cities define so much of who we are, and the character of a city reflects the communities and politics and culture of a region and of a people. Even those cities whose great days have passed and are struggling remain central to the identity of a region. Detroit. St. Louis. Baltimore. Philadelphia. Surrounded by thriving suburbs that are increasingly independent of the urban core, these cities remain central to the identity of a region and its far flung communities.

New Orleans epitomized that centrality. The Cajun city. The Big Easy. Like the earth itself, it was not created in seven days or seven years, though seven decades can bring one closer to the scale. The urge to rebuild and rebuild now seems to hint at the modern real estate process of building gated communities. Make all of the decisions up front, raise the money, bring in the earth moving equipment. Bingo. Pleasant Acres South. Four hundred homes in the mid-300 range.

But cities are not gated communities and the process needs to slow down. We are watching the ultimate reality show. In the ring are the city, the state and the feds, each trying to take control, to win the hearts, make-up for the errors that were made, channel the money. Be the hero in a story that whose days of heroes are past.

Everyone needs to slow down. Most of the land is privately owned, and private owners need to make decisions. What to rebuild, when to rebuild. The urge to make decisions quickly, and even to throw money and tax credits at the problem, should be resisted. It is just going to take time, and it should take time.

The people who have been displaced need services to rebuild their livelihoods. Those who can return, can get jobs, will and should return. Many will find opportunities elsewhere, and should if it suits their inclination. The size of the city will be smaller, and that is how it should be. There are years of work to be done and decisions to be made. Communities need to be rebuilt, and many of those decisions cannot be made until there is a local decision-making infrastructure. Politics and planning serve the interest of communities, and it will take several election cycles for the will of the people––yes, the will of the people of New Orleans––to find its balance once again, and for long-term decisions to be made.

So, everyone, just slow down. Yes, there is money to be made. Yes, there are votes to be garnered. But this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and long after New Orleans leaves the news cycle, it will need attention and money and care.

Take a deep breath, and slow down.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

New Orleans truths

Richard grew up in Pontchartrain Park, where his grandmother’s house was flooded by Hurricane Betsy years ago and again by Katrina. Richard moved away, first to Howard University and then to Harvard Law School. After a stint in corporate law, he arrived at one of the great Wall Street banking houses where he achieved great success in trading and investment banking. When we worked together some twenty years ago––on a project in New Orleans ironically––he commented that he was living a life that was unimaginable to his grandmother, whose great fortune had been to marry a Pullman car conductor back in another era.

Richard does not believe that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately destroyed to flood black neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina. But he would not be surprised. I raised the question in response to reading David Remnick’s article this week in The New Yorker High Water which cited a history of suspicion in the New Orleans African American community that the levees had been intentionally breeched at times in the past to drive out portions of the black community and to create real estate opportunities.

Richard acknowledged that the black community was prone to conspiracy theories, but he was quick to note that one man’s conspiracy was another man’s revealed wisdom. After all, many of the injustices that were inflicted on black people in the past might have sounded like wild rumors before proven to be true. Brutal medical experiments. Officially sanctioned lynchings. Bank redlining.

The battles to come in the aftermath of Katrina will be the stuff of great works of history and journalism over the decades to come. Richard may not have bought the notion that the levees were breeched intentionally, but in terms of the outcomes that he envisions, they might as well have been. “Just watch the money, David, watch the money.” Richard insisted. “A lot of money will be made, and it will not be made by the people who have left and whose homes have been destroyed.”

The smart money will as surely come into the Crescent City in the coming months as it did into New York in the wake of 9/11, for as Richard noted in an offhand manner, “We both know that for the really smart investors, there are no disasters, just value opportunities.”

Within the political universe there is opportunity as well. The post-Katrina diaspora may enable the Republican Party to finally achieve the lock on the Louisiana Electoral College votes that has heretofore eluded it. Louisiana, alone among the states of the deep south, has resisted the efforts of the Republican Party––begun by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and perfected in the neo-racialist code of Lee Atwater––and has to date been in play in the quadrennial presidential battles.

With memories of the Kingfish still resonant in the political DNA, and its unique cultural heritage, Louisiana continues to have a Democratic Governor and Senator. However, the local political establishment is keenly aware that the patterns of migration in the wake of the hurricane may well affect the state’s political future. After all, Senator Mary Landrieu won her last Senate race by just 40,000 votes, far fewer votes than there are seats in the Superdome. So it is not just money that is at stake in the reconstruction of Pontchartrain Park. If the people do not return, it may spell the doom of the statewide Democratic Party as well.

Richard is one of the smartest guys I ever worked with. Period. And he believes that the AIDs virus was created in a laboratory in North Carolina for the purpose of destroying the black race. While he acknowledges the black community susceptibility to rumors and conspiracy theories, he is more interested in understanding what people believe and how they are influenced by these beliefs than in arguments about what the truth might or might not be.

Richard’s career and fortune have been built on a sophisticated understanding of how markets work. He attributes a measure of his success to his ability to hear rumor and conjecture and not judge their veracity out of hand. “I have learned that it matters less what the truth is that what people believe the truth to be. After all, their behavior is ultimately based on belief, not truth. I really don’t care what the truth is, and in a lot of these things we are never going to know. I prefer to focus on what people believe. If I do that and can anticipate how they are going to act, I am going to make money.”

And as Richard learned from years on Wall Street, money and power are what motivate people. And power flows from money.

“Just watch the money,” He reiterated. “Watch the money.”

Friday, September 30, 2005

Lili's story

Lili and her husband Hajat live in Meulabot, Indonesia. Located on the west coast of the island of Sumatra, in Aceh province, Meulabot was devastated by the tsunami last December. They lived on a peninsula that jutted out into the Indian Ocean in a community of open, two story homes built with the angular tiled roofs characteristic of Achenese architecture.

The village in which they lived was totally destroyed by the waves of the tsunami that followed the massive undersea earthquake that Sunday morning. Two thousand of the three thousand residents in their community were killed. As we walked through the debris, Hajat pointed out where his house had been, and then where they found the bodies of his parents.

Lili and Hajat live in temporary housing with their daughter Liasya Putri. Putri’s life is a gift. In the tsunami, she was trapped in their home beneath a fallen timber, and they thought that she was dead when they finally pulled her out of the water. She has some damage to her lungs, and still has a fear of water, which they hope she will get over in time.

I stayed in their home for three nights, sleeping on a mat on the floor and waking early each morning as the call to prayer rang out from the mosque next door. They shared their lives with me, telling me their stories and showing me their pictures of the tsunami and the aftermath.

Lili described the bookstore that she had started a few years earlier, the only bookstore in Meulabot. It was a children’s bookstore, where she lent books to the 800 children who were members of her store. As Lili described her bookstore, it occurred to me that what she had actually created for the children of her town was a lending library. The store had more than 5,000 books, most of which Hajat bought at a used bookstore in Jakarta from time to time. The store lay in the path of the tsunami and they had only three books left from the collection.

I asked Lili if she would start the store over if money could be found. Yes, she said softly, but the problem was not so much that they had lost the books, but that they had lost the children.

The tsunami was an event of biblical proportions, evident particularly in the descriptions that residents give of that morning: The ground shook. The ocean disappeared. The fish lay on the sand. The children ran out to collect the fish. The wave came and took the children.

Across the province of Aceh, people still hope to find their children who were lost that day. Across the province of four million people, 200,000 or so are listed as dead, and another 40,000 as missing, many of them children. Months later, people still cling to the hope that their children have been found and taken in elsewhere.

Hope is the currency of the survivors. The newspaper carries stories periodically of children that have been found. One story in the Jakarta Post told of a crippled girl left alone as the waves hit who rose from her wheelchair, survived, and has recovered the use of her legs. Iqbal, a man that I worked closely with, continues to publish notices in a newspaper in search of the child of a friend. He is from Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) and working on a relief project for the year in Aceh. He hopes that they will find the child before he returns home.

We will raise the money and Lili will start her store again. The parents of the 200 or so surviving children keep calling her. Their children want to read. New habits die hard. Hajat plans to begin to rebuild their collection the next time he travels to Jakarta.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Tom DeLay bows out

Who is happier here, Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats whose aspirations were thwarted at every turn by an adversary who defined the term Hardball or a broad swath of House Republicans whose saw their own reputations and careers being sucked into the vortex of controversy surrounding their Leader?

Or perhaps Jack Danforth, the former Missouri Senator, patrician and scion of the Ralston Purina fortune who has railed on op-ed pages against the rightward march of the Republican Party and who along with a whole wing of the Party longs for the days of a softer, less partisan polity.

Or perhaps Jim Baker, the Bush family consigliere and wily Republican partisan who oversaw the Republican strategy during the Florida 2000 recount, but who despises DeLay’s street fighting style, his utter lack of class and his aspirations to top-dog status in Texas. Jim Baker’s status, that is.

Or perhaps Newt Gingrich––the visionary architect of the Republican Party as the party of ideas who saw power as a means to implement change––whose demise as Speaker was crafted by his long-time rival DeLay, a man of no civic virtue whose aspirations for power were in the interest of no vision other than the spoils of victory.

Or perhaps President Bush who emerged from his summer vacation reeling from a public backlash that is gaining strength on all fronts. Whether it be what we are doing in Iraq, what we are failing to do in Afghanistan, what we have been unable to do with Osama, what we did not do after Katrina, what the prosecutors are suggesting Jack Abramoff did, what the right wing of his party is demanding he do with the seat of Sandra Day O’Connor, what the left wing of his party is demanding he do with the seat of Sandra Day O’Connor, and now, the pesky problem of how to pay for war, peace, reconstruction and prescription drugs all at once, President Bush needs Tom DeLay and his relentless partisanship like another confrontation with a nuclear state. Oh, that’s right, there is Iran.

The irony is that the crime for which Tom DeLay has been indicted would appear to be fairly common in the world of political fundraising: He directed corporate contributions that could not under Texas law be given to a local political race to the Republican National Committee. He then worked to have the RNC fund targeted local political races. The net effect, the indictment suggests, was to circumvent the State laws prohibiting corporate contributions to local political races.

That is the essence of the DeLay indictment. From a practical standpoint, it is all a form of money laundering to avoid local fundraising limitations. However, in concept it is a common practice. Local fundraisers will often steer contributions that are not legal locally to a national party where they are permitted. And in turn, local political races often receive money from the national party committees.

Now, it may be that DeLay and his friends crossed the line into illegal territory by linking the two sides of the transaction too closely, and it may be that this will turn out to be just the beginning of a crackdown on wider abuses, but as one political consultant mused, “If people are going to go down for this, they better get a fleet of 747s and get ready to fly the lawyers out to a lot of state capitols and begin handing out the indictments.”

And this may just be the beginning for DeLay. The pending FBI investigation of DeLay’s links to the influence peddler Jack Abramoff may well be one that takes him down.

But whether DeLay is convicted in Texas, in DC or nowhere, his days in the House leadership are over. At his news conference, DeLay announced that once this mess is cleared up, he will reassume his position as Majority Leader, but he is mistaken. As Newt Gingrich can attest, people have short memories and little loyalty to the person that brought them to the promised land. For all of the success that DeLay brought to the Republicans over the past several years, he made a lot of enemies and stepped on a lot of toes. The seat of power that was once his has been passed on, and once it is gone, it is very hard to get back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Michael Bilandic moment

Michael Brown came back to town this week, in the hope of rescuing his good name from the dustbin of history. Just weeks after his resignation in disgrace as Director of FEMA, Brownie appeared before a congressional panel to defend his record and his honor: "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional… I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it." He proceeded to trample on the Governor, the Mayor and a gaggle of other local officials in his game pursuit of higher ground.

But Brown, and to a great extent the members of the largely Republican panel, missed the point. Brown’s failure was not about whether food and water was or was not delivered to the Superdome or the Convention Center, it was about whether he recognized that the problem existed. Michael Brown sat on television and denied that he was aware that people were trapped without food or water.

It was a moment of Michael Bilandic proportions, and will not be erased by throwing local officials under the bus.

Michael who, you ask?

Every politician knows the story of Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, Richard Daley’s successor whose career in the Windy City came to an ignominious end when he failed to meet the challenges of a snowstorm. When Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis donned a sweatshirt and grabbed a shovel for the cameras a few storms hence, it was Michael Bilandic whose image haunted him. Every mayor and governor since has made a point of rolling up their sleeves, throwing on the sweatshirt and getting to work––preferably in front of the cameras––when nature strikes. One can even argue that when Rudy Guiliani rose from the ashes of his own dying mayoral career to walk the streets of lower Manhattan in the days following 9/11, his inspirations were both heroic and Bilandic.

Michael Bilandic’s failure, however, was not that he failed to plow the streets, it was that he went on television and told the people that the streets were plowed when everyone knew that they were not. He denied what everyone else knew to be true. Michael Bilandic, presumed to be the Mayor who would hold down the fort for years between the reigns of Richard Daley the father and Richard Daley the son could have survived if either he had made sure the streets were plowed the streets, or if he had not insulted the public by saying they were plowed when they were not. His sins were both of omission and commission. He omitted plowing and he committed insult.

Bilandic’s career died that day, leading to the long years when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, David Orr and Gene Sawyer all got their shot at running Massa Daley’s Plantation before the current Mayor Richard Daley arrived to bring Chicago back from the political wilderness.

Michael Brown seems to think that he is being blamed for leaving thousands of (mostly poor and mostly black) American citizens without food or water for four days. But he is not. It has become quite clear that there is a lot of blame to go around there. The State and the City both failed to plan and failed to execute. And any hurricane watcher from Hugo to Andrew, from St. Croix to Homestead, knows that FEMA dropping the ball is not a firing offense. Rather, Brownie’s offense was Bilandic. He sat on television with Brian Williams––who was on location in the Superdome––and expressed surprise that there were people in the Superdome or in the Convention Center at all. It was not that he failed deliver the goods, but rather that he failed to take note of what viewers around the world already knew––that there was a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Prime Time.

But Michael Bilandic is sleeping easier these days. The curriculum for Politics 101 is being rewritten, and his story may finally take a back seat. Michael Brown’s story will now be passed down from generation to generation as the archetype of obtuse disengagement. Michael Brown’s problem is that even if he was doing his job––hold on there, I did say if––it is his performance on the public stage, like that of Michael Bilandic before him, that will be preserved for posterity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Parsing blame

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, President Bush took responsibility for the failure of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Kind of.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

I don’t mean to quibble, but do we have to parse words here? Is it all really going to come down to what the meaning of the word "its" is?

Over the past week, administration officials have taken great pains to explain how our Constitution delegates power to the states, and how federal intervention required a request in writing. While cable networks broadcasted images to the world of people without food or water in downtown New Orleans, federal troops lay idly by at military bases a helicopter flight away. All this, it would seem, because federalist rules requiring a written request had not been followed properly.

The problem for President Bush is that the singular message of his presidency has been that the world has changed since 9/11 and we have to change the ways that we do things, at home as well as in the world. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The passage of the Patriot Act. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. All of these suggested the imperative of changing our preparedness for emergency situations. Central to improving our preparedness has been addressing the coordination of local, state and federal resources.

We may have done OK in the much ballyhooed emergency preparedness exercises that have been held around the country over the past year, such as the simulated dirty nuclear bomb attacks in Seattle and Chicago which purported to demonstrate a seamless coordination of resources through secure video lines. However, when Hurricane Katrina arrived––even with several days of advanced warning––we learned that four years of working to improve our emergency response systems has produced nothing.

Tomorrow, President Bush is scheduled to deliver a major address in Louisiana on all of this. By then, it may have occurred to his advisors that parsing the meaning of the word "its" will not constitute an adequate response. The fact is that from the day he stood on the pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center and spoke to the world through a megaphone, President Bush took on the challenge of improving our nation's preparedness for the next emergency situation. And five years later, we are not prepared.

Leading the Global War on Terrorism is not all about talking tough and invoking patriotic slogans, it is about intelligence and preparation. The President’s supporters are quick to cite the fact that the United States has not been attacked over the past four years as evidence of success. So too, then, the President must be prepared to recognize the quality of governmental response in the wake of Katrina as evidence of failure. It is that simple. The federal government did not do its job right, and in the realm of emergency preparedness since 9/11, "its" job is to make sure that the entire system is working. "Its" job is leadership.

Which also happens to be the President’s job, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

America’s dangerous game

The Iranians are playing a dangerous game. But they have taken a long look at the playing field and come to the accurate conclusion that there is no time like the present to seize the advantage.

The United States military is stretched thin. The war in Afghanistan continues on as the Taliban forces have regrouped. In Iraq, more than two years after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, the hostilities continue unabated. With an active duty Army of only 500,000 soldiers, we have begun to rely heavily on the 700,000 or so in National Guard and Reserves to play an active operational role––certainly not what many of those serving anticipated when they signed up.

At home, the President’s credibility has been shaken by the fail response to Hurricane Katrina, and the public's realization that their compatriots abandoned to their fate in the Superdome and the Convention Center paid the price for the continuing political wars and the politicization of the federal bureaucracy. For an American public consumed with the hurricane aftermath, the war in Iraq, the John Roberts confirmation hearings, the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame saga, and the removal of Martha Stewart’s electronic bracelet can barely compete for cable time.

In the midst of all of this, Iran has accurately perceived that the time is right to push its agenda forward. The clerics that sit on the Council of Guardians have pushed back the moderate challenge with the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative former mayor of Teheran, in recent elections. Now Ahmadinejad, who will speak at the United Nations this week, is leading the Iranian challenge to the international community with its determination to move its nuclear program forward.

The United States holds few cards in the confrontation with Iran. The Bush administration has been bold in brandishing the sword against countries who defy its dictates, and much was made of “Iran or Syria next” in the early days following the end of major combat operations in Iraq. But Iran is not Iraq. It is a large, mountainous country that would be hard to march through in short order. Furthermore, while the Iranian street has large pro-American sentiments, it is also a proud nation whose nationalist sentiments are galvanized by attacks on its nuclear program, and certainly would be even more so by an American invasion.

The simple fact is that in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Katrina, our resources are stretched and our guard is down. With Bush’s popularity at its nadir, he would be hard pressed to call the American people once more into the breech––or “once more into the Jeep” as a Canadian colleague mocked. Our call for Europe and Russia to take the lead in confronting Iran––a difficult charge in the best of times––has been undermined by the continuing resentments over our treatment of European opinion and the United Nations in the run up to Iraq.

But Iran alone is not the problem. Under the auspices of the “muscular” foreign policy doctrine of the Bush administration, we have disdained traditional alliances and multi-polar leadership in the world, and assumed unto ourselves the role of enforcer of international norms of conduct. With righteous conviction and faith in our military, we have sought to dictate terms to regimes around the world. We will be at great risk if we are shown by Iran to be––even momentarily––a paper tiger.

It is the what-ifs that loom large. Yes, Iran may be on its way to developing nuclear weapons. As a regional power surrounded by nuclear states––Pakistan, Israel, India, Russia, Ukraine––it would be unrealistic to give much credence to its denials. But the end game in Iran will be left to Europe and Russia, as continued admonishments by Condi Rice only seem to make matters worse, particularly as everyone knows the military option is now off the table.

The what-ifs are Asian. What if North Korea decides that our moment of weakness is offering a final chance to finish the war with the South? What if China decides that we are in no condition to defend Taiwan?

China aspirations on Taiwan and North Korea’s hostility to South Korea are historic and doctrinal, and have largely been held in abeyance by our presence and our commitment to the joint defense of Taiwan and South Korea. Would we fulfill our commitments? Perhaps, but the Taiwan Strait is barely over 100 miles across, and Seoul is less than 50 miles from North Korea. It all could be over quickly, and there just might not be much we could do about it.

One cannot help but imagine, on the eve of President Ahmadinejad’s speech in New York, that the distractions of West Asia, our diminished military numbers––if not capacity––and Bush’s domestic weakness might call out to Beijing and Pyongyang that There Is No Time Like the Present.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A word about gasoline prices

Gasoline prices are high, and have remained high since the spike upward in the futures market price for unleaded gas that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Faced with the prospect that Gulf of Mexico refineries would go off line, the anticipated pricing of refined gas products jumped. For unleaded gasoline, the price for deliveries of gasoline jumped by almost $1.00 from the $1.90 range to $2.80 in intraday trading.

In the wake of this increase, prices at the pump increased, within a day or two, to by almost the same amount to their current levels.

Then, a funny thing happened. As is often the case, the brief panic ended, traders calmed down, and the futures price receded to its current level of approximately $2.00, just a bit higher than the pre-Katrina levels. However, prices at the pump have not budged, so the question is why?

It is not really surprising, and it does not reflect a conspiracy on the part of the oil companies, though they could fix it if they wanted to. It is a function of normal retail pricing behavior.

As long as the underlying cost of gasoline at the wholesale level is stable, prices at the pump fall to a level where retailers are making a reasonable profit. There is no incentive for one station owner to drop prices to steal market share from others, as their profit margin would drop below acceptable levels. There is also no incentive to increase prices, as station owners fear the loss of market share to others.

When the cost jumped, all owners pushed their price up to sustain their level of profitability relative to the new anticipated wholesale price. They did not keep their price steady, as they had no way of knowing how long the price spike would last. In this case, even as prices rose, demand increased rather than declining, as drivers kept their tanks topped off going into the Labor Day weekend, fearing being caught without being able to find gas if shortages occurred.

As things settled down, the futures market price receded, demand moderated, but prices remained high. Why?

Retail pricing for gasoline is not that different than for other products, except that vendors tend to only sell one product, and therefore their pricing actions are highly cost sensitive. As costs rise, prices are pushed up to cover the cost and sustain profit margins. As costs fall, however, and profit margins increase, prices will remain high until competitive pressures force each retailer to reduce prices to protect their market share.

Simply stated, costs drive prices up, competition drives them down. No different from airline tickets, or cars for that matter.

What are the policy implications of all of this? Several governors are considering cutting state gas taxes to reduce the burden on consumers, however this is unlikely to achieve the desired result of lower retail prices. Gas taxes are just one part of the price at the pump, and if lower wholesale prices won't bring down prices, neither will lower gas taxes. In fact, a reduced gas tax will likely just increase the retailer profit.

No, if you want to bring down prices, help stimulate competition: start a price war. Prices will come down as retailers feel the need to reduce prices to protect their market share and their revenues. Convince one company to reduce prices and the rest will follow suit. How? Sue them for price gouging. Shame them through public disclosure. Appeal to their sense of patriotism and shared sacrifice.

In the absence of any action, prices will come back down. Sooner or later. Markets will work. They almost always do.

For further reading, the General Accounting Office prepared a report on California Gasoline Pricing at the request of Diane Feinstein in April, 2000.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Everett Dirkson's memory

Why is it that Alan Greenspan has been continuing to push short-term interest rates upward? Last June, the Federal Funds rate was 1.00%. In the intervening fourteen months the Fed has increased rates ten times to the current level of 3.50% on the way to an apparent target of 4.00%.

Why, faced with little evidence of inflation on the horizon, modest economic growth and anemic job creation, has the Fed Chairman and the most powerful central banker in the world felt the need to apply the monetary screws.

The reason is quite simple, and quite instructive. Monetary policy––the manipulation of interest rates and the money supply in order to balance the rate of economic growth and inflation––requires that the Fed have the latitude to raise interest rates when the economy is overheating and inflation is increasing, and to lower rates when recession threatens.

Over the course of 2001, with a recession looming, the Fed reduced the Fed Funds rate from 6.50% to 1.75%. Three years later, with the economy stable but shaky, Greenspan feared that if the economy were to head south, the Fed would have no tools at its disposal if it did not raise rates. That is to say, the Fed embarked on a steady program of rate increases not to head off inflation, not to cool the economy, but to have the ability to lower rates again if need be.

Discipline matters, Greenspan is telling us, because you need to plan for the worst.

Why is this instructive? Well, today, President Bush asked Congress for $51.8 billion for hurricane recovery, on top of $10.5 billion requested last week. Estimates of the ultimate federal cost range as high as $150 billion.

Back in the day, an appropriation of $50 billion would have required that some choices be made. Taxes would be raised. Spending would be cut elsewhere. Bonds would be issued for the specified purpose. There would be explicit choices and explicit tradeoffs.

And there would be political repercussions. Republicans would rail against deficit spending or borrowing. Democrats would appeal to the public weal and the justification of tax increases for an urgent need, for shared sacrifice.

Where is the Katrina money going to come from? No one asks anymore because we know where it is going to come from. We have no reserves. We have no flexibility. We are going to borrow it. Like the money to pay for our war in Iraq, it is going to come from the Chinese central bank, and when my children, and their children, are in their peak earning years, perhaps they will pay the Chinese back with their hard earned dollars.

Hurricane Katrina is a reminder of why fiscal discipline matters. Today, our combined federal deficit and trade deficits are massive. These deficits are pushing down the value of the dollar, and ultimately will depress the standard of living of Americans in the future as funds are siphoned out of the US economy to repay that borrowing. Our lack of discipline, our unwillingness to make choices simply puts the burden on our children.

There was a time, just a few years ago, when the budget was balanced and the national debt was stable. Everett Dirksen––the Republican Senator from Illinois who coined the famous aphorism “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money”––would have been pleased. But in five short years, a federal government in the firm control of the GOP has thrown away the rulebook and dispensed with any pretense of fiscal discipline. Wars have been declared and no funds raised to pay for them. Taxes have been cut with no offsetting cuts in expenditures. The unholy marriage of tax-cutting suppy-siders and big spenders within the Republican party that Pete Peterson decried in Running on Empty has been revealed in its full glory.

Now, in the face of a national disaster that demands funding outside of the normal budget process, we have no latitude. We have no savings. We have no contingency funds.

But thank God we still have the Chinese.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Inflection point

Will the political waters come to a head, even as the hurricane waters subside?

The Sunday headline in the Washington Post White House Shifts Blame frames the problem. President Bush had almost weathered a rough August respite of fundraising, clearing debris and cycling with Lance Armstrong, while Camp Casey remained front and center in the news.

Now, just as Labor Day arrives, the promised return to normalcy is nowhere in site. Now, as the waters and turmoil in New Orleans subside, a real storm is gathering over the nation’s capital.

The fall loomed as a time of acquiescence to the Roberts nomination and the inevitability of a continued struggle in Iraq. There would be no filibuster of a nominee whose conservatism is clear but not egregious. There would be no clamoring for withdrawal in the Senate chambers filled with erstwhile leaders who know that having conspired in getting us into war, there is no easy exit now.

Oh, how a week has changed things. The breach of the levees in New Orleans has pierced the veil and laid before the nation a failure of government, a failure of execution and a failure of leadership. The urge to shift the blame will not help salve the political wounds because people died, at home, on TV. Ethel Freeman died for no reason other than the failure of the government to send in the troops.

The troops arrived halfway around the world in Aceh in three days and saved lives. In New Orleans, a few hundred miles from Maxwell Air Force Base, Fort Hood, Barksdale Air Force Base, Meridian Naval Air Station and Pensacola Naval Air Station––to name a few––anarchy reigned for the better part of a week, people suffered, and people died. How our response could have been quicker when we had to traverse the Indian Ocean by ship than a few hundred miles by chopper will raise fundamental demands for accountability for which there will not be a good answer.

As a weakened President arrives home to lead an administration in turmoil, Chief Justice William Rehnquist succumbed to cancer. Pat Robertson had publicly prayed to God for another vacancy on the Supreme Court, and God, it would appear, has nothing if not a sense of timing. The creation of a second vacancy before the Roberts confirmation hearings have been gaveled to order will change the tenor of those hearings, and place great pressure on the President to name his second nominee prior to the vote on the first, such that the conservative credentials of Judge Roberts can be considered in the broader context of the President’s larger strategy for the direction of the court, the name and judicial profile of the proposed second justice, and the nomination of a new Chief Justice.

New Orleans, the Court. Oh, yes, Iraq. The story that has been off the front pages for a week now will reemerge, as that country moves closer to a non-constitutional crisis. The success of the Kurds in carving out their own nation within a nation will leave Arab Iraq facing the fundamental question that has lingered for a millennia: how can the Sunni and the Shia coexist when each views the other as the source of the greatest sin in Islam––Apostacy. For the first time in Iraq’s history, the underclass Shia have pulled a fast one on their traditional Sunni overlords. Working within a democratic framework of our making, they have seized the reigns of the constitutional process, and the question is whether they will respond to the––quite ironic––pleas of the Bush administration that they operate in a bipartisan manner, notwithstanding having the votes to ram it to the Sunnis.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the money. A $2 increase in the price of gas for a typical car owner costs $1,200 per year. For a two-car family, that is $2,400, or over $3,000 pre-tax. Sure, less than a week in Nantucket, but from another perspective almost 8% of the median family income. Even the scions of the dismal science have begun to admit that economic growth is going to slow.

At the same time, the reconstruction demands will necessitate further federal borrowing. A Republican administration that has insisted on borrowing first to finance tax cuts and then to fund a $200 billion war will have to add additional billions to rebuild a city that is a national icon and that will be perceived to have suffered at the failed federal response. If Pat Robertson is still in a praying kind of mood, I would suggest that he ask God’s intervention to make sure that the godless Chinese keep buying our bonds, because nothing will upset the current applecart more than the long-awaited upward move in long-term interest rates, and concurrent piercing of the real estate bubble that has been forestalled by the Chinese central bank.

So there it is. The peace and quiet of Crawford is in the past and the confluence of events is about to shatter the dominance of Karl Rove’s superior strategic vision. The events that are on the agenda now are real, not symbolic, and the Bush team has lost the upper hand. The rubber is about to meet the road, and at the end of a long summer the road is very hot and the driving will be more difficult than in recent memory.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina's wake

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, offers of aid have come in from other countries. Europe. Japan. Venezuela. Sri Lanka.

Someone in the State Department responded, essentially, thanks but no thanks. We can take care of ourselves. Then, the official response was more equivocating. The administration is considering the offers.

Venezuela and Sri Lanka?

In July, as I finished lunch in a food stall in Banda Aceh, I went to pay. Rice, dried fish, curry. A Coke. 10,000 rupiah. One dollar. Half for the lunch, half for the Coke.

The young man takes my money and asks me with his few words of English, Where from? IOM, I respond, giving the name of the relief organization I am working with. No, he tries to clarify, where from? The United States. He looks at me quizzically. America.

The young man smiles and extends his hand. My name Hassan. Abraham Lincoln. Thank you.

Banda Aceh was devastated by a tsunami last December. Approximately 40% of the 325,000 residents were killed, and like the residents of New Orleans, the survivors were left isolated without food or water.

Then, on the third day, the Americans arrived. First came the helicopters, arriving low over the horizon like Robert Duvall’s cavalry in Apocalypse Now. Then came the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Navy hospital ship Mercy and thousands of Marines and Navy seaman. Thousands of lives were saved. More important, however, there was hope.

The province of Aceh is governed under Islamic law. Under the Sharia’ rules, women wear veils in public, and the call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day. Abraham Lincoln. Mercy. These two names are the blessing given to Americans by Moslem strangers on the street. The Abraham Lincoln, the carrier where George Bush landed a year earlier to declare the end of the war in Iraq. But there is no irony in the voices of the Achenese. The Abraham Lincoln left the Persian Gulf and steamed across the Indian Ocean under full throttle to bring food and water and hope to a desperate people in their time of greatest need.

America today is the world’s hyperpower, to borrow the phrase from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In the wake of the tsunami, only the U.S. military had the logistical capacity to respond to the needs of tsunami victims from Sri Lanka to Indonesia in those critical first days. But our actions there was not the reason why Hassan responded to the word America, they were a confirmation of what he already knew.

America exists on many levels in the world. America is how we conduct ourselves as a nation within the community of nations. America is how we act as individuals. But most important is what America means, and has meant for a century or more in the minds eye of individuals across the world. For Hassan in the food stall or for Evi, a veiled woman in my office whose eyes glowed as she lingered through a picture book of Philadelphia and murmured gently ‘oh, I wish I were there,’ America remains the City on the Hill, the vision less of what is than of what might be.

For Venezuela, the political rift between the Bush administration and Hugo Chavez is a transient matter––important perhaps, but transient––compared with the deep meaning of America to the generations of Venezuelans and others across Latin America who have sent their children here to school, who have migrated here and whose hopes for their own future will be measured against the notions of justice, freedom and opportunity that are America. For Venezuela Katrina is an occasion to say thank you.

For Sri Lanka, a small nation on the other side of the globe with few resources that can make a material impact on the reconstruction of New Orleans or the gulf coast, this is an opportunity to say thank you, in whatever small way they can, for what America has done for them in their time of tragedy. More important, it is a gesture of thanks for what America means. Hope, and the belief that the future can be better than the present.

Katrina has presented a rare moment of vulnerability in the face of nature’s wrath when others can reach out. And we must accept what they offer. It is not a matter of what we need, or what we can do without them. It is because we know, as demonstrated by the outpouring of private donations this week, as in the wake of the tsunami, that the power is in the giving.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

We broke it, we own it

The debate between the Cindy Sheehan camp and President Bush has reframed the questions around Iraq in a way that could be devastating for the Democrats.

Over the past week, the President has taken his show on the road to contest the central premise that is being argued on the streets of Crawford. With the willing complicity of the Sheehan camp and Move-on.org, he has framed the issue as whether the United States should withdraw immediately from Iraq. He says no, they say yes.

Like any good strategist, the President has defined the terms of the debate and chosen a field for battle on which he as substantial advantage.

Or one advantage really. He is right.

The Move-on legions that are braced for battle in Crawford are fueled by anger and frustration at the existence of a war that is a sideshow in the war on terrorism and their failure to escalate the debate over the war beyond syllogistic platitudes. They seek in Crawford to score points in the political battle and inflict damage on a President in his vacation bunker.

Meanwhile, Bush has escalated the argument, and has gleaned substantial strategic advantage, as shall become clear over time. Rather than pursuing what seemed to be the logical course of action: meeting with Sheehan, feeling her pain, asserting the overriding national interest and honoring her son, Bush has used the opportunity to move away from difficult questions of how and why we got into Iraq to a more simple debate and countered Sheehan’s emotional appeal by drawing on the wellspring of other mothers who have sacrificed for their nation and who continue to support Bush’s war.

The issue, Bush has asserted, is not Cindy Sheehan’s pain, but whether immediate withdrawal is the right thing to do. Should the United States, having entered Iraq and unleashed the simmering tribal and ethnic hostilities long held in check by Saddam now simply leave Iraqis to clean up their own mess. Or rather our mess.

As Colin Powell suggested in advising against the war early on: you break it, you own it. We, as a nation, now own it. We may disagree on how we got there, but that is a problem of our politics, our national character, our capacity to lead in the world. Whatever the origins of that war, it is now our problem.

Bush and Karl Rove, to say nothing of Democratic leaders, know well that to leave now would leave the Iraqi people vulnerable to civil war and anarchy. The time to leave Iraq will be when a duly constituted and legitimate Iraqi government asks us to leave. Not sooner and not later.

We have broken their politics, and until it is fixed we, as a nation, own it.

The problem that we face, and that is manifest on the streets of Crawford, is that our politics is also broken. We argue war through syllogisms and bumper stickers. Support the troops. Fight them in Baghdad. Bring them home. We are collectively responsible for our presence in Iraq. The Senate voted for regime change and ultimately war in Iraq several times and with no meaningful dissent outside of West Virginia.

But for Bush the politics are working just fine. Once again, the Democrats have walked into the trap. They have walked onto a battlefield of Bush’s choosing and still don’t understand why the President is still smiling.

The Democratic Party is at grave risk in this debate. In the absence of articulate national leadership, the legions of Move-on are now framing the foreign policy of the Party. Leave Iraq now.

Just wait. In 2006 and 2008 part of the debate will focus on the readiness of the Democrats to lead in a world of terror where hard decisions have to be made. Somewhere in the bowels of the vast right wing conspiracy, or in an office in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, they are already laying out the central themes of the debate:

They were ready to abandon the Iraqi people to the predations of terrorists and to civil war.

That was wrong, it was immoral, it reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of our role in the world.

They are not ready to lead.

Not now, perhaps when the war on terror is over…

Friday, August 26, 2005

Democracy is a bitch

Hugo Chavez is not Pat Robertson’s cup of tea. I get that.

Watching the evening talk show circuit, evangelicals of the right and the left argued the consequences of one of their own, and a prominent political figure at that, calling for the United States to “take out” the duly elected leader of Venezuela. The argument from the left was that Robertson’s call was clear and convincing evidence that it was time for him to step down from his position of leadership within the Christian evangelical community, and that his call for assassination was inexcusable and unacceptable.

Clerics of the right were more forgiving. What Robertson had said was wrong, they asserted, but his words were spoken as a political leader, not as an evangelical. And furthermore, we need to look at Chavez, and consider whether or not it would have been moral to assassinate Hitler early on if we had the chance.

And so it begins, the moral equivalence theory. Hugo Chavez is the new aspiring Hitler, a threat to his people, a threat to regional stability, or more succinctly a threat to our interests. Better to kill him now than let things get out of hand.

The problem is that Chavez was elected. Yes, I know, so was Hitler. But please, get a grip. Hugo Chavez is a populist, socialist political leader in a country that despite oil wealth has failed to achieve the development strides that have been expected over the years. In Chavez, the electorate of Venezuela chose a leader committed to the redistribution of wealth and to the poor of that nation.

The bitch of Democracy is that sometimes people vote their own interests––or what they believe to be their own interests––in the face of the objections of the economic and political elites who argue that free trade, historical property rights and other shibboleths of the modern economy should not, can not, may not be breached.

The simple fact is that Hugo Chavez was elected in Venezuela, that he represents a platform and a point of view that was well articulated, and that in the face of protests he won reelection. If the poor of that nation have been had, it will be they who suffer for it. And if Chavez serves their interests, leaving behind the interests of the middle class and the business community? Well, so goes democracy.

We are heading down the path of democratization in the world. The Neo-Conservative theory is that democracies do not fight each other, that democracies do not foment internal conflicts, that democracies are morally transcendent. Good. But that still does not mean that we are going to like the outcome.

Venezuela may elect a socialist. Iraq may elect a theocrat. Russia may elect a spook. The real question is whether in the wake of such elections, the process continues and a new election follows two, four or six years later. One fear is that of Algeria, where the Islamists were elected and once in power dismantled the nascent democratic institutions. The other fear is that the person duly elected acts against the perceived interests of the United States. That is a bitch. So do we suck it up or take them out? Such is the question that Pat Robertson has laid before us.

And it is no idle threat. Like any good superpower, we have a history of manipulating other nations in pursuit of our national interests, and the fact of democracy has not been a deterrent. In 1953, the CIA led a coup to oust Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran, after he nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Twenty years later, the duly elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and reportedly murdered following his nationalization of U.S. owned copper companies. The Vietnam war, which like the Civil War continues to define national policies, politics and attitudes, emerged from the ashes of the cancellation of national elections in 1956 and the subsequent assassination of the elected Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

As Americans, we tend to look toward the future and pay less attention to the past than those in other nations. President Bush pronounces that our motives are benevolent and that we have no interest in empire. By all accounts he cannot understand foreign distrust of our motives. And for an electorate that believes in the best of our national creed, his words resonate.

Other nations, however, are deeply rooted in their history. The very map of the world is defined by the colonial ambitions of the western powers and the politics of nascent democracies like Iraq grow directly out of the residue of a colonial history that brought diverse peoples together into a single nation state without any defining common identity or institutions.

We should not wonder that Pat Robertson’s words are taken seriously. They strike close to home, and the electorate in nations far from our shores still watch anxiously to see what we will do if their democratic choices run contrary to our own national interests.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Rights of the minority

As Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice landed in Baghdad last week, there was much at stake. The neoconservative Jihad that the Bush administration launched in the wake of 9/11 has not been going well. Gone are the dreams of a Shock and Awe campaign that would stun the combatants into submission. Gone are the visions of Iraqis greeting our GIs with garlands of flowers and working speedily to embrace their democratic future. Despite the protestations of the administration and its minions, the media has declined to show the positive stories of reconstruction at anything near the rate of the stories about the insurrection, car bombings and steadily increasing American deaths.

Condi Rice’s mission in Iraq was clear, to induce the Shia and Kurdish leaders to take bold steps to be inclusive of the Sunni minority in the government and in the drafting of a new constitution. The Sunni Iraqis in large measure boycotted the much-heralded national elections, but even if they were represented in the national assembly at a level commensurate with their 20% share of the population, under any traditional democratic rubric their power would be severely limited. But Rice was making a more fundamental point: to create a successful democratic state, inclusion of minority voices and provision for minority rights was essential.

One Shia leader––who like the rest of the world can watch U.S. democracy on TV––resisted the notion that they should show grace in victory and suggested that they were treating the Sunnis with more deference than the Bush administration was treating the Democrats, who received almost half of the vote. And despite the continuing protestations by conservative Christians of their victimization at the hands of the collective tyrannies of the judiciary, the media and Hollywood, the Shia can make a fair case that they suffered even greater depredation at the hands of the Sunni leadership during the 35-year rule of Saddam Hussein.

Democracy is a frustrating institution, and all the more so it seems for majority parties who are forced to accommodate the demands of a pesky minority. This week in Washington, we watched as an eleventh-hour deal was orchestrated in the Senate by a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats that provided for up-or-down votes on the Senate floor for some, but not all, of the administration’s blocked judicial nominees. Reacting to the news of a resolution of the stand-off, the White House disavowed any embrace of compromise as Press Secretary Scott McClelland announced that they “will continue working to push for an up-or-down vote on all our nominees.”

Later, however, it became apparent that the White House was complicit in the deal. It appears that when it became clear that the Republicans lacked the votes to pull the nuclear trigger, the White House dispatched Senators Lindsay Graham and Mike DeWine to negotiate a deal. McClelland, it seemed, was grandstanding to the Party base, and the White House was quite willing to pull the rug out from under the senators that were doing its bidding and leave them twisting slowly in the wind in the face of right wing cries of cowardice and duplicity.

How now does Condi Rice convince the Shia and their Kurdish allies to give voice––and power––to the Sunni when they have the votes, as it were, to prevail? Up-or-down votes and majority rule are all the rage back home, as Thursday night’s successful Democratic filibuster of the John Bolton confirmation as U.N. Secretary reignited Republican anger at their own impotence in the face of a Constitutionally-empowered minority. McClelland––yes, the same partisan who declined to embrace the compromise on judges a few days earlier––decried the loss of the good feelings from earlier in the week, noting that “Just 72 hours after all the good will and bipartisanship, it's disappointing to see the Democratic leadership resort back to such a partisan approach.”

To add some needed nuance to the debate, the rip tide of support on the right for simple majority votes may ebb somewhat in the coming weeks. After the House this week passed a stem cell research bill against White House objections, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, one of many 2008 aspirants––a 100-1 shot today at Tradesports.com for those wagering the race––announced his intention to filibuster the companion stem bill if it reaches the floor of the Senate. Perhaps the use of the filibuster by a senator in the name of appeasing the right wing will make the hypocrisy of the up-or-down vote rhetoric just a bit too obvious.

What the Shia understand all too well is that building democratic institutions is not about good will or being graceful in victory, it is about giving power to a minority that they deeply distrust and at whose hands they have suffered. As they meet with the Secretary of State, they must ask how if the Bush administration cannot abide minority rights at home, it can in good faith demand their embrace abroad.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Qur'an in the toilet wasn't the story

Those who have a habit of sleeping during the late night hours may have missed Michael Isikoff on Charlie Rose on Monday night. It was a fascinating interview.

Michael Isikoff is the Newsweek reporter who, along with Defense Department reporter John Barry, wrote a two-paragraph Periscope story in the May 9th issue that started a firestorm domestically, to say nothing of riots in northern Afganistan. The topic of the story was the pending release of the results of a probe of “interrogation abuses” of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Newsweek sources suggested that “interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.” Other abuses included “one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee’s hair and sat on the detainee’s lap” and another instance in which “a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee’s face, telling him it was menstrual blood.”

[I am going to set aside for the moment how fundamentally bizarre all of this is. I mean, torture has been an area of human subject research for millennia, and this is what we have come to? Dog leashes, lap dancing and menstrual blood? Do they have data that suggests that any of this interrogation technique works? Is the point here to gin up material for Jon Steward, or what?]

The story of the Qur’an in the toilet was the offending line, and apparently was not in the probe report. The administration spokesmen moved swiftly to deny the incident and demand a retraction from Newsweek––which complied and acknowledged having failed to confirm its second source––while their Praetorian Guard took to the airways to rain holy hell on the magazine.

Following Rathergate, the opportunity to expose once again the America-hating agenda of the liberal media was too much to let pass, and during the past few days while driving the high mesa of New Mexico I have been regaled by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and Praeger each dancing the Macarena on Newsweek’s corpse. It was notable, however, that until I saw Charlie Rose, I was not aware that Isikoff was the offending scribe. I attributed the preference to jump on Newsweek rather than the reporters by name to the deep sense of obligation that Rush and his running buddies owe to Michael Isikoff, as he, if memory serves, was involved in breaking the story of the semen on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress that brought Bill Clinton to justice and Rush to the top of the charts.

The fascinating aspect of the Isikoff’s conversation with Charlie Rose is that the Qur’an incident was the last item in the story that Isikoff and Barry thought would raise the administration’s hackles. Rather, it was the second paragraph that led them to seek Pentagon confirmation of the story. The first line of the second paragraph notes that the findings of the pending report “could put former Gitmo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller on the hot seat.”

General Miller was the commander in charge of interrogations at Gitmo, and was subsequently sent to Iraq to lead the effort at Abu Gra’ib. The report allegedly cites FBI e-mails quarreling with Miller over the aggressive interrogation techniques being used at Gitmo, but conceding that Miller had his “marching orders from the Secretary of Defense.” Isikoff was surprised at the Qur’an uproar because he and his colleague expected that the offending aspect of the story was the direct link that the probe report suggested between interrogation abuse in Iraq, the famous memo from then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez exempting the prisoners from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and the concurrence of the President in the investigation techniques.