Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Maureen Dowd: Another Stupid National Security Decision

New York Time's columnist and Pulitzer-Prize winner Maureen Dowd's insightful column today about the Bush Administration's nonsensical deal to cede control of major US ports to United Arab Emirates....

G.O.P. to W.: You're Nuts! by Maureen Dowd

It's enough to make you nostalgic for those gnarly union stevedores in "On the Waterfront," the ones who hung up rats on hooks and took away Marlon Brando's chance to be a contend-ah.
Maybe it's corporate racial profiling, but I don't want foreign companies, particularly ones with links to 9/11, running American ports.

What kind of empire are we if we have to outsource our coastline to a group of sheiks who don't recognize Israel, in a country where money was laundered for the 9/11 attacks? And that let A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, smuggle nuclear components through its port to Libya, North Korea and Iran?

It's mind-boggling that President Bush ever agreed to let an alliance of seven emirs be in charge of six of our ports. Although, as usual, Incurious George didn't even know about it until after the fact. (Neither did Rummy, even though he heads one of the agencies that green-lighted the deal.)
Same old pattern: a stupid and counterproductive national security decision is made in secret, blowing off checks and balances, and the president's out of the loop.

Was W. too busy not calling Dick Cheney to find out why he shot a guy to not be involved in a critical decision about U.S. security? What is he waiting for — a presidential daily brief warning, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack U.S. Ports?"

Our ports are already nearly naked in terms of security. Only about 5 percent of the containers coming into the country are checked. And when the White House assures us that the Homeland Security Department will oversee security at the ports, is that supposed to make us sleep better? Not after the chuckleheaded Chertoff-and-Brownie show on Capitol Hill.

"Our borders are wide open," said Jan Gadiel of 9/11 Families for a Secure America. "We don't know who's in our country right now, not a clue. And now they're giving away our ports." The "trust us" routine of W. and Dick Cheney is threadbare.

The more W. warned that he would veto legislation stopping this deal, the more lawmakers held press conferences to oppose it — even conservatives who had loyally supported W. on Iraq, the Patriot Act, torture and warrantless snooping.

Mr. Bush is hoist on his own petard. For four years, the White House has accused anyone in Congress or the press who defended civil liberties or questioned anything about the Iraq war of being soft on terrorism. Now, as Congress and the press turn that accusation back on the White House, Mr. Bush acts mystified by the orgy of xenophobia.

Lawmakers, many up for re-election, have learned well from Karl Rove. Playing the terror card works.

A bristly Bush said yesterday that scotching the deal would send "a terrible signal" to a worthy ally. He equated the "Great British" with the U.A.E. Well, maybe Britain in the 12th century.
Besides, the American people can be forgiven if they're confused about what it means in the Arab world to be a U.S. ally.

Is it a nation that helps us sometimes but also addicts us to oil and then jacks up the price, refuses to recognize Israel, denies women basic rights, tolerates radical anti-American clerics, looks the other way when its citizens burn down embassies and consulates over cartoons, and often turns a blind eye when it comes to hunting down terrorists in its midst?

In our past wars, America had specific countries to demonize. But now in the "global war on terror" — GWOT, as they call it — the enemy is a faceless commodity that the administration uses whenever it wants to win a political battle. When something like this happens, it's no wonder the public does its own face transplant.

One of the real problems here is that this administration has run up such huge trade and tax-cut-and-spend budget deficits that we're in hock to the Arabs and the Chinese to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. If they just converted their bonds into cash, they would own our ports and not have to merely rent them.

Just because the wealthy foreigners who own our debt can blackmail us with their economic leverage, does that mean we should expose our security assets to them as well?

As part of the lunatic White House defense, Dan Bartlett argued that "people are trying to drive wedges and make this to be a political issue." But as the New Republic editor Peter Beinart pointed out in a recent column, W. has made the war on terror "one vast wedge issue" to divide the country.

Now, however, the president has pulled us together. We all pretty much agree: mitts off our ports.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The "Trust Me" President Who Can't Be Trusted

The New York Times lead editorial today. All I can add is ..... Amen!
The Trust Gap

We can't think of a president who has gone to the American people more often than George W. Bush has to ask them to forget about things like democracy, judicial process and the balance of powers — and just trust him. We also can't think of a president who has deserved that trust less.

This has been a central flaw of Mr. Bush's presidency for a long time. But last week produced a flood of evidence that vividly drove home the point.

DOMESTIC SPYING After 9/11, Mr. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the conversations and e-mail of Americans and others in the United States without obtaining a warrant or allowing Congress or the courts to review the operation. Lawmakers from both parties have raised considerable doubt about the legality of this program, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made it clear last Monday at a Senate hearing that Mr. Bush hasn't the slightest intention of changing it.

According to Mr. Gonzales, the administration can be relied upon to police itself and hold the line between national security and civil liberties on its own. Set aside the rather huge problem that our democracy doesn't work that way. It's not clear that this administration knows where the line is, much less that it is capable of defending it.

Mr. Gonzales's own dedication to the truth is in considerable doubt. In sworn testimony at his confirmation hearing last year, he dismissed as "hypothetical" a question about whether he believed the president had the authority to conduct warrantless surveillance. In fact, Mr. Gonzales knew Mr. Bush was doing just that, and had signed off on it as White House counsel.

THE PRISON CAMPS It has been nearly two years since the Abu Ghraib scandal illuminated the violence, illegal detentions and other abuses at United States military prison camps. There have been Congressional hearings, court rulings imposing normal judicial procedures on the camps, and a law requiring prisoners to be treated humanely. Yet nothing has changed. Mr. Bush also made it clear that he intends to follow the new law on the treatment of prisoners when his internal moral compass tells him it is the right thing to do.

On Thursday, Tim Golden of The Times reported that United States military authorities had taken to tying up and force-feeding the prisoners who had gone on hunger strikes by the dozens at Guantánamo Bay to protest being held without any semblance of justice. The article said administration officials were concerned that if a prisoner died, it could renew international criticism of Gitmo. They should be concerned. This is not some minor embarrassment. It is a lingering outrage that has undermined American credibility around the world.

According to numerous news reports, the majority of the Gitmo detainees are neither members of Al Qaeda nor fighters captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The National Journal reported last week that many were handed over to the American forces for bounties by Pakistani and Afghan warlords. Others were just swept up. The military has charged only 10 prisoners with terrorism. Hearings for the rest were not held for three years and then were mostly sham proceedings.

And yet the administration continues to claim that it can be trusted to run these prisons fairly, to decide in secret and on the president's whim who is to be jailed without charges, and to insist that Gitmo is filled with dangerous terrorists.

THE WAR IN IRAQ One of Mr. Bush's biggest "trust me" moments was when he told Americans that the United States had to invade Iraq because it possessed dangerous weapons and posed an immediate threat to America. The White House has blocked a Congressional investigation into whether it exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq, and continues to insist that the decision to invade was based on the consensus of American intelligence agencies.

But the next edition of the journal Foreign Affairs includes an article by the man in charge of intelligence on Iraq until last year, Paul Pillar, who said the administration cherry-picked intelligence to support a decision to invade that had already been made. He said Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made it clear what results they wanted and heeded only the analysts who produced them. Incredibly, Mr. Pillar said, the president never asked for an assessment on the consequences of invading Iraq until a year after the invasion. He said the intelligence community did that analysis on its own and forecast a deeply divided society ripe for civil war.

When the administration did finally ask for an intelligence assessment, Mr. Pillar led the effort, which concluded in August 2004 that Iraq was on the brink of disaster. Officials then leaked his authorship to the columnist Robert Novak and to The Washington Times. The idea was that Mr. Pillar was not to be trusted because he dissented from the party line. Somehow, this sounds like a story we have heard before.

Like many other administrations before it, this one sometimes dissembles clumsily to avoid embarrassment. (We now know, for example, that the White House did not tell the truth about when it learned the levees in New Orleans had failed.)

Spin-as-usual is one thing. Striking at the civil liberties, due process and balance of powers that are the heart of American democracy is another.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fool's Bet Revealed by Tim Russert: John Boehner as Crusader Against Corruption

I couldn't believe my ears, and neither could Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, but here it is.....a portion of the transcript from today's Meet the Press on NBC.

In it, Russert is interviewing the new leader of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner, newly elected by House Republicans, in large part to clean-up Congressional corruption. Or at least to pretend to.


"MR. RUSSERT: Let’s turn to the whole issue of lobbyists, corruption, travel, congressional travel. Speaker Hastert, your boss, had a proposal on the table, which you dismissed as childish.

REP. BOEHNER: That’s not true, Tim. That’s not true. What I said were there were a lot of childish proposals out there. We’ve gotten proposals from the Democrat leadership, the House leadership, every group known to man, and that’s what I was referring to.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, here’s exactly what the article said: “‘House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s proposal to end all privately funded trips would be counterproductive,’ Boehner said. ‘Members could be required to seek pre-approval from the House Ethics Committee of any trip,’ he said. But he added ‘Members need to understand what’s happening in the world. They need to understand what’s happening with industry. That won’t happen if they’re locked up in a cubbyhole here in the Capitol.’” And you went on to say, “We shouldn’t be treated like children.”

REP. BOEHNER: That comment was made several weeks ago, all right? Denny Hastert and I are very close friends, we’ve worked together closely over the last 15 years, and we’re going to continue to work closely together. He’s the boss. And he and David Dreier have worked on a package of ethics and lobby reforms.

We’re—Mr. Dreier is now working with Democrats, trying to come together with a package. And we need to allow the members to engage in this process, to come up with a package that’s real. Not something that looks good and sounds good, but something that will, in fact, bring greater transparency to the relationship between members of Congress and those who lobby us.

MR. RUSSERT: But the speaker did want to eliminate privately funded travel for congressmen, and you...

REP. BOEHNER: I’ve got, I’ve got my doubts about that, but that doesn’t mean that he and I don’t feel strongly that we’ve got to have a lobby reform bill passed the Congress here in the next several months.

MR. RUSSERT: When you say you have your doubts, many point to your own behavior. From 535 members of Congress, John Boehner ranked number 10 according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which did analysis of this. Over the last five years they say John Boehner received trips which would equal $157,000, privately funded.

And they point out where you went, which is—and here’s, here’s a list,. Congressmen Boehner: White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia, where the Green Briar Resort is, eight times; Boca Raton, Florida, six times; Scottsdale, Arizona, four times; Monterey/Pebble Beach, California twice; Edinburgh, Scotland, home of St. Andrew’s Golf Course, twice. Foreign travel: Rome, Venice, Brussels, Paris, Barcelona. To the American people looking at that, they’re saying those aren’t exactly the global hot spots in terms of conflict. But they are places that you’d want to go and relax or play golf.

REP. BOEHNER: People want—people invite me to give speeches. And, and as you know Tim, you know, I’ve got 11 brothers and sisters, my dad owned a bar. What you see is what you get. And I’ve got a very open relationship with lobbyists in town, with my colleagues, with the press, and with my constituents. And, and as a result, you know, people invite me to go give speeches, and I go give them. And you also learn a lot about these industries. It’s easy to point out where I’ve gone around the world, but when you start to look at the people that I’ve worked with—you know, going to, to Scotland with the Transatlantic Policy Network.

Now, understanding the relationship between members of the European Union and members of Congress, and trying to build closer ties, this is something that’s very beneficial for members of Congress. And I believe that—that—that privately funded travel ought to be pre-cleared. There ought to be a good public purpose in members going on a trip, and if there isn’t, then they shouldn’t go.

MR. RUSSERT: Many voters will say, Congressman, rather than going to a plush resort, why don’t you just meet these guys in your office?

REP. BOEHNER: These industry meetings occur in nice places. And—and that’s where the—that’s where the events are, that’s where the speeches are. And if you get invited, you got to decide whether you can go or not go, or whether it’s worthwhile.

MR. RUSSERT: You said this, according to The Washington Post: “‘Yes, I’m cozy with lobbyists,’ Boehner told lowmakers—lawmakers concerned about his K Street lobbyist connections, ‘but I have never done anything unethical.’” Is that the standard?

REP. BOEHNER: Tim, everything I’ve ever done in my entire political career has been to the benefit of my constituents and the American people. They’re the ones who dictate what I do every day. I know who I am, and I know why I’m here, not because I wanted to be a Congressman, but because I wanted to do things on behalf of my constituents and the American people. And I—there’s nothing in my entire political career, no decision I’ve ever made, where they weren’t the winners.

MR. RUSSERT: So you would be against eliminating private funding of trips for Congressmen.

REP. BOEHNER: I think having pre-approval of these trips would be a more forthright way to go.

MR. RUSSERT: By whom? A board of public integrity, or your fellow Congressmen?

REP. BOEHNER: No, I think the Ethics Committee process really, in fact, is back up, it’s working. They know what the rules are, they interpret the rules. And frankly I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a trip when I didn’t ask the Ethics Committee for their advice before I went.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, why not an independent board?

REP. BOEHNER: Congress is charged, the members are charged, House and Senate, with setting up their own rules and enforcing their rules. If you bring more transparency to this relationship between those who lobby us and members, more transparency with what members are doing on trips, I think let the public decide.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the other areas that—people who are watching this would like to reform, the amount of money lobbyists spend at conventions. And they point to the vast number of parties, money spent at both political party conventions. According to your hometown paper, “One of the most famous parties at the Republican Convention simply known as the ‘Boehner party,’ thrown every night until the wee hours. It’s in John Boehner’s honor, and is organized by lobbyists.” Would you eliminate those?

REP. BOEHNER: I would—if I—it were up to me I’d, frankly, think—rethink the whole convention process. You know, back in the old...

MR. RUSSERT: Eliminate lobbyist money.

REP. BOEHNER: Well, now, I don’t even know why we have these conventions any more. You know, back in the old days, it was—it was—they were real conventions, they made real decisions. Now they’re made-for-TV events and a large number of parties. I go to bed every night at 10:00. These conventions that require me to be up much later than that are very difficult.

MR. RUSSERT: But would you eliminate lobby-sponsoring parties honoring congressmen every night at these political conventions?

REP. BOEHNER: That’d be fine with me. Then I could go to bed on time.

MR. RUSSERT: There was a big episode in your life back in 1995 when there was—Bob Herbert in The New York Times wrote a column about something you did. I want to find out what you learned from it. Here’s how Herbert wrote it. “One day last summer, 1995 Representative John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, decided to play Santa Claus.

He took it upon himself to begin handing out money from tobacco lobbyists to certain of his colleagues in the House floor. He was not deterred by the fact that the House was in session, and that he was supposed to be attending to the nation’s business. He was not constrained by any sense that passing money around the floor of the House of Representatives was a sacrilege.”

REP. BOEHNER: It was a big mistake, and I regret it. I shouldn’t have done it. It was an old practice that had gone on in the House for a long time, and I do regret it. But I also worked with Speaker Gingrich at the time to change the rules of the House to prohibit the practice. And now if you look, when we pass the new rules in the next Congress, handing out a PAC check on or near the House floor is prohibited.

MR. RUSSERT: You gave $5,000 from your PAC—leadership PAC to Tom DeLay’s defense fund.


MR. RUSSERT: You think Tom DeLay’s innocent?

REP. BOEHNER: I do think he’s innocent.

MR. RUSSERT: If he is acquitted and chooses to come back to Washington and wants to become majority leader again, would you step aside?

REP. BOEHNER: I’m sure we’ll talk about it. Tom and I have a different approach.

MR. RUSSERT: You would talk about it?

REP. BOEHNER: Well, Tom and I have—have different approaches. But I think what’s going on in Texas with Tom DeLay is unfortunate, unfair and highly partisan. And that’s why I gave him that money out of my PAC, to help him pay for his tremendous legal costs.

MR. RUSSERT: But if he’s acquitted and decided to come back to Washington and reclaim the majority leader position, you would consider...

REP. BOEHNER: Under—he stepped down as majority leader. He vacated his seat. We had an election, and I won. But I like Tom DeLay. He’s been a great leader for our party. He’s a friend of mine, and we’re going to continue to work closely together.

MR. RUSSERT: But would you step aside for him?

REP. BOEHNER: I said we would talk about it.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to talk about Jack Abramoff, because his name, lobbyist, “The Shadow,” hangs over Congress. According again to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “John Boehner’s Freedom Project PAC got $27,500 from the Chippewa tribe, Choctaw Indians and other tribes in California, Louisiana” that Jack Abramoff represented.

Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, also Republican, had received some $18,000 from clients of Jack Abramoff. He gave the money back because he was concerned about the perception. Will you give the money back?

REP. BOEHNER: No. Those tribes gave money to my political action committee. It had nothing to do with Jack Abramoff. I didn’t know Jack Abramoff. I may have met him once. I had no relationship to him, and the money that I raised from those tribes had nothing to do with him. I worked with those Indian tribes and others on education issues, on labor issues, and he had nothing to do with it, so why would I—why would I give the money back?

MR. RUSSERT: But had you ever received a nickel from those tribes before they were represented by Jack Abramoff?

REP. BOEHNER: I have no idea.

MR. RUSSERT: The answer’s no.

REP. BOEHNER: I—well, no. Other people represented those tribes as well. Understand, Jack Abramoff, knowing that I...

MR. RUSSERT: But they didn’t give you—they didn’t give you money until they were represented by Abramoff.

REP. BOEHNER: No. I became chairman of the Educational Workforce Committee in 2001, where I began to work closely with them on their issues. I had nothing—Jack Abramoff didn’t like me. I didn’t do earmarks, the things that he exploited for his own political and financial gain.

MR. RUSSERT: According to his records, however, there were 17 contacts between his lobbying team and your staff and—and a meeting with you also.

REP. BOEHNER: Some of his under—underlings worked with some low-level employees in my office. I’m telling you, I never met the man. The money didn’t come through him. And, frankly, I think four out of the five tribes have written us a letter at our request saying that the money they gave had nothing to do with Jack Abramoff.

MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned Newt Gingrich, the former speaker. This is what Newt Gingrich has said. He “cautioned Republicans that they risk losing control of Congress majorities—congressional majorities if they try to put all the blame on lobbyists. ‘You can’t have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have corrupt member of Congress or a corrupt staff. This was a team effort,’ Gingrich said. ‘If Republicans intend to retain a majority, then they need to take the lead in saying to the country we need to clean this mess up. But any effort to push this under the rug, to say this is just one bad apple: That’s baloney.’”

REP. BOEHNER: That’s correct. What we need to do, and I agree with Newt’s approach here. Because it all starts with the member and the staff. And what we need to do is to make sure our members understand what the rules are, understand what’s ethical behavior. Because if we don’t begin the process ourselves, we’ll never restore the trust between the American people and their Congress.

MR. RUSSERT: So you don’t want to eliminate private funded trips. You do not want to have an independent office of public integrity. What do you want other than immediate disclosure?

REP. BOEHNER: Tim, all of the violations that we’ve read about and the corruption we’ve read about, were people who violated the laws of the United States of America and/or the rules of the House. All of—all of this. And so, as we begin to look at how do we best clean this up and how do we begin the process of restoring trust, I think sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

In the Middle East, Oil & Democracy Do Not Mix

An extraordinarily perceptive New York Times op-ed today by columnist Thomas Friedman, author of mega-bestseller The World Is Flat....

Addicted to Oil by THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

So far the democracy wave the Bush team has helped to unleash in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11 has brought to power hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Palestine and Iran, and paved the way for a record showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If we keep this up, in a few years Muslim clerics will be in power from Morocco to the border of India. God bless America.

But is this all America's doing? Not really. It's actually the product of 50 years of petrolism — or petroleum-based politics — in the Arab-Muslim world. The Bush team's fault was believing that it could change that — that it could break the Middle East's addiction to authoritarianism without also breaking America's addiction to oil. That's the illusion here. In the Arab world, oil and authoritarianism are inextricably linked.

How so? Let's start with Iron Rule No. 1 of Arab-Muslim political life today: You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini — without going through a phase of mosque-led politics.

Why? Because once you sweep away the dictator or king at the top of any Middle East state, you go into free fall until you hit the mosque — as the U.S. discovered in Iraq. There is nothing between the ruling palace and the mosque. The secular autocratic regimes, like those in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq, never allowed anything to grow under their feet. They never allowed the emergence of any truly independent judiciary, media, progressive secular parties or civil society groups — from women's organizations to trade associations.

The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government's iron fist could not fully penetrate. As such, it became a place where people were able to associate freely, incubate local leaders and generate a shared opposition ideology.

That is why the minute any of these Arab countries hold free and fair elections, the Islamists burst ahead. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats; Hamas went from nowhere to a governing majority. In both societies the ruling secular parties — the N.D.P. in the case of Egypt and Fatah in the case of Palestine — were spurned as corrupt appendages of the authoritarian state, which they were.

Why are there not more independent, secular, progressive opposition parties running in these places? Because the Arab leaders won't allow them to sprout. They prefer that the only choice their people have is between the state parties and religious extremists, so as to always make the authoritarian state look indispensable. When Ayman Nour, a liberal independent in Egypt, ran against President Hosni Mubarak, he was thrown in prison as soon as the election was over. Thanks for playing "Democracy" — now go to jail.

It is not this way everywhere. In East Asia, when the military regimes in countries like Taiwan and South Korea broke up, these countries quickly moved toward civilian democracies. Why? Because they had vibrant free markets, with independent economic centers of power, and no oil.
Whoever ruled had to nurture a society that would empower its men and women to get educated and start companies to compete globally, because that was the only way they could thrive.

In the Arab-Muslim world, however, the mullah dictators in Iran and the secular dictators elsewhere have been able to sustain themselves in power much longer, without ever empowering their people, without ever allowing progressive parties to emerge, because they had oil or its equivalent — massive foreign aid.

Hence Iron Rule No. 2: Removing authoritarian leaders in the Arab-Muslim world, either by revolution, invasion or election, is necessary for the emergence of stable democracies there — but it is not sufficient. The only way the new leaders will allow for real political parties, institutions, free press, competitive free markets and proper education — a civil society — is if we also bring down the price of oil and make internal reform the only way for these societies to sustain themselves. People change when they have to, not when we tell them to.

If you just remove the dictators, and don't also bring down the price of oil, you end up with Iran — with mullah dictators replacing military dictators and using the same oil wealth to keep their people quiet and themselves in power. Only when oil is back down to $20 a barrel will the transition from Saddam to Jefferson not get stuck in "Khomeini Land."

In the Middle East, oil and democracy do not mix. It's not an accident that the Arab world's first and only true democracy — Lebanon — never had a drop of oil.